Do You Believe In Miracles?

©"Light in Darkness 2008" by Nachman Davies https://jewishcontemplatives.blogspot.com/2010/12/light-of-tzaddik-december-2010.html
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Zach Truboff


It has long been a pastime for Jewish academics to point out that no contemporaneous historical account of the events of Hanukkah makes any mention of the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days. They highlight how the Book of Maccabees only emphasizes the military victory over the Greeks and note that the miracle of the oil is only recorded in the Talmud centuries after the Hanukkah story took place. Some even use this as an opportunity to polemicize against those believers caught up in the fantasy of a tradition that claims to tell historical truths but only conveys fairytales. In part, academics take aim at Hanukkah because it presents itself as such an easy target, but the denial of miracles is rarely limited merely to one historical event. There may be no good historical evidence that the miracle of the oil ever happened, but in truth, no amount of historical evidence could ever prove the existence of miracles for those who follow in the tradition of the Enlightenment.

In The Star of Redemption, Franz Rosenzweig notes that miracles have long served as “the favorite child of faith.”[1] More than anything else, their existence testifies to the reality of God and God’s involvement in the world. But ever since the Enlightenment, miracles have lost much of their luster. If, as Immanuel Kant put it, the goal of the Enlightenment was to enable human beings “to use [their] own understanding without another’s guidance” to overcome “lack of courage to use one’s own mind,” then as long as people were shackled by religious tradition and the irrational claims it imposes, humanity could never be free.[2] To free oneself, it would be necessary to eliminate that which had served as tradition’s foundation: the miracle. Though initially the Enlightenment did not completely dismiss them, it became clear that few if any miracles could stand up to the scrutiny demanded of them. With ease, one could “demonstrate the non-credible character of the tradition,” and along with it, “the insufficiency of the reasons alleged till now that favor their [the miracle’s] credibility.”[3] Though some rationalists still attempted to hold on to the idea of the miracle, Rosenzweig makes the following clear:

The rationalist interpretation of miracle is the avowal that it is no longer miracle and that faith is beginning to feel ashamed of its child. It would prefer to show as little of the miraculous as possible, and no longer the maximum of the miraculous. The support of old has become a burden.[4]

The inevitable outcome of stressing the centrality of rationalism to human life is the denial of all claims that exceed reason’s capacity to understand their causes. In the Enlightenment’s wake, religion is left on very shaky grounds, for without the miracle, what possible reason can there be to believe? Is not revelation itself, the encounter between the infinite and the finite, a miracle beyond all miracles? For thinkers like Kant committed to “Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason,” faith could be preserved, but not without a cost.[5] God may exist, though we can’t prove it, and the moral law may come from God, even though it can be known from reason and not revelation. Such a faith can hardly be called real, and, in actuality, it can be difficult to distinguish from fantasy.

God is not merely the one who was. He is not merely base, supporter, of the world and of the human. For surely, this is an empty faith… if it lacks the experience of the living present, indeed if it does not directly spring from it. Without the God who takes action, powerfully working in the day of our present life… [God] becomes a fairy tale.[6]

There is no question the Enlightenment only had the best of intentions. Reason would liberate humanity by ushering in a new ethical age where the dark shadows and superstitions of religious tradition would be swept away by the light of truth. But what Rosenzweig understood is that in our desire to free ourselves from the past, something profound is lost. With the elimination of miracles, we dismiss the possibility of the impossible, something human beings should never give up on, if only because no relationship with God can be had without it. Once the impossible is banished from the world, faith is soon to follow.

Perhaps then, commemorating the miracle of Hanukkah is not as naive as some might think. The al ha-nisim prayer makes no mention of the miracle of the oil, and in his discussion of the holiday, Maharal argues that it is not the cause for celebration. An extra seven days of the menorah being lit in the Temple hardly warrants the creation of a new holiday. Rather, the miracle of the oil functions as a sign that points to the real miracle at the heart of the festival: the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks.[7] Without the revealed miracle of the oil, the Jews would have missed the miraculous nature of their victory because hidden miracles, by their very nature, are easily missed. As Rosenzweig himself explains, “Any miracle can be explained, after it has occurred—not because the miracle was no miracle, but because the explanation is an explanation.”[8] Reasons can always be generated to explain why the miraculous has occurred. It’s what experts are paid to do. Even the Torah goes out of its way to provide “a subsequent ‘natural’ explanation for the miracle of the Sea of Reeds”[9] when it states the sea was split “with a strong east wind” that “turned the sea into dry ground.”[10] If one can offer an explanation for the splitting of the Red Sea, how much easier it is to do so for the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks. They, of course, only defeated a vastly superior military power because of their guerrilla tactics or because Greek forces had been spread too thin. In truth, no miracle of the past can possibly stand up to historical scrutiny of the present, and the extent to which they are miraculous can only be testified to by those who experienced it firsthand.

Though miracles rarely appear supernatural, they do bring the unimaginable to life. This is because every historical moment is bounded by what it excludes as impossible. In fact, one might even go so far as to say that the impossible is what defines the contours of our existence. In the words of Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”[11] To believe in miracles, however, is to recognize that there are moments when the impossible becomes possible. Though modern thinking often scoffs at such a thing, the miracle finds an unlikely defender in Hannah Arendt, a younger contemporary of Franz Rosenzweig best known for her political thought. She argues that the “miraculous” is an essential feature of human existence, one we ignore at our own peril. Though human beings conceive of themselves as free, social life is often dominated by a sense of automatism. The world is full of rules, systems, and processes; being human means knowing how to conform to them. At any given time, the choices available to us appear highly constrained, and as we get older, each new day tends to look more and more like the one that preceded it. Nevertheless, Arendt argues, there are moments when the automatism of our world is interrupted, and something new occurs, and “miracle” is the term that best describes it. When this happens,

Events, no matter how well anticipated in fear or hope, strike us with a shock of surprise… The very impact of the event is never wholly explicable; its factuality transcends in principle all anticipation.[12]

For Arendt, the miracle is proven by the way in which it shocks us with its inexplicability. Even though any miracle can be explained, Arendt asks us to be sensitive to those rare moments when the explanation is not fully satisfying, when―despite our best efforts―the sheer factuality of what we have experienced exceeds whatever causes we may seek to attach to it. For Arendt, “The experience which tells us that events are miracles is neither arbitrary nor sophisticated; it is, on the contrary, most natural and, indeed, in ordinary life almost commonplace.” Though it is unlikely she would have frequently opened one, her embrace of miracles in everyday life finds similar expression in the siddur in the modim section of the shemoneh esrei where al ha-nisim is recited. Three times a day it is said, “We gratefully thank You… for Your miracles that are with us every day.”

Because of the ease with which we dismiss the reality of miracles, it is perhaps no surprise that Halakhah seeks to do all that it can to maintain a space for them. The Mishnah[13] states that a blessing must be made when one encounters a place where the Jewish people experienced a miracle. The Gemara[14] expands upon this and adds that this requirement applies not only to historical miracles, like those that occurred in the Torah, but also for any miracle a Jew might experience in their own lives. Though rationalists may not like it, the obligation to make this blessing did not stop with the advent of modernity. Even today, the experience of a miracle requires one to acknowledge it as such, leading to the rather strange phenomenon of halakhic authorities attempting to define what exactly counts as a miracle. For the medieval rabbi Abudraham, a miracle must “depart from the way of the world.”[15] It must be truly exceptional and perhaps almost supernatural, like the splitting of the Red Sea. An unusual or rare occurrence, such as being accosted by robbers but somehow surviving, would fail to qualify, for such things happen even if they are unexpected. Despite its leanings toward the supernatural, most rationalists would agree with such a definition, for they can always find reasons to show that no event ever “departs from the way of the world.” While the Shulhan Arukh[16] appears to rule like Abudraham, later authorities, such as Rabbi Abraham Danzig, the author of the Hayyei Adam, refuse to follow this approach. Instead, he rules that “in every situation where death is certain, and one is saved, this qualifies as a miracle because the natural order is such that one does not escape such situations.”[17]

Though it is unlikely that he was aware of it, Rosenzweig would have appreciated this halakhic position. In a letter that he writes to a close friend, he chastises him for his pessimism about the future. Instead of being open to what might come, his friend constantly frets that his plans will end in failure, and in doing so, he foregoes not only his future but also his present. Rosenzweig tells his friend that even though “it is impossible to pray for a miracle and one should not pray for it—in this you are absolutely correct. But it is both possible and necessary to make a space for one.” To assume the future is certain no matter what we might do is to “silence the outstretched hand of God for the act of the miracle.”[18]

Even though historians often pride themselves on discovering the hidden causal factors of history, they, along with the rest of us, never cease to be amazed when the impossible does in fact happen. Believing in miracles, or at the very least hidden miracles, forces us to hold open a space for those things which exceed our capacity to understand them. To believe in miracles is to locate oneself in the space where religion emerges and is forever renewed. It is to be oriented toward the inherent excess of life, which always points beyond the immutable rules of the historical moment in which we find ourselves. The holiday of Hanukkah comes to remind us of this, for without a belief in miracles, we are doomed to forever live in darkness.

[1] Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, trans. Barbara Galli (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), 103.

[2] Immanuel Kant, selected reading from What is Enlightenment? Translated by Mary C. Smith. http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/etscc/kant.html.

[3] Rosenzweig, 108.

[4] Ibid., 109.

[5] “Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason” is the title of Kant’s attempt to apply his critical philosophy to religion in a way that allowed for basic religious concepts to be maintained despite their rationalist reinterpretation.

[6] Barbara Ellen Galli, Franz Rosenzweig and Jehuda Halevi: Translating, Translations, and Translators (Montreal: McGill University Press, 1995), 210.

[7] Sifrei Ha-Maharal, Hiddushei Aggadot, Shabbat 21b.

[8] Franz Rosenzweig, NinetyTwo Poems and Hymns of Yehuda Halevi, ed. Richard Cohen (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2000), 71. (Note that this is a different translation of the same work referenced in fn. 6.)

[9] Ibid.

[10] Exodus 14:21.

[11] Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier,” in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (London: John Murray, 1927).

[12] Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hannah Arendt (New York: Penguin, 2000), 459.

[13] m. Berakhot 9:1.

[14] Berakhot 54a.

[15] Abudraham, Birkhat Ha-re’iyah Ha-shevah Ve-hahoda’ah.

[16] Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 218:9.

[17] Nishmat Adam 1:65, See also Responsa Shevet ha-Levi 7:28. Rabbi Danzig’s ruling takes on greater poignancy when one realizes that he and his family survived a gunpowder explosion which killed 31 people in the courtyard in which they lived. His own house nearly collapsed, but none of his family members were killed. As a result, he ruled that they must recite the blessing of seeing the place of a miracle if it had been thirty days since they last saw where the explosion occurred.

[18] Franz Rosenzweig, Mivhar Iggerot u-Keta’ei Yoman (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1987), 187. Letter to Rudi Hallo, January 14, 1920.

Zachary Truboff is the Director of Rabbinic Education for the International Beit Din and the author of "Torah Goes Forth From Zion: Essays on the Thought of Rav Kook and Rav Shagar". Before making aliyah, he served for nearly a decade as the rabbi of Cedar Sinai Synagogue in Cleveland, Ohio. Currently, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife Jen and their four children.