A Jew Who Does Not Believe in Miracles

Posted by Tovah Leah Nachmani on November 27, 2013
Topics: Hanukah

Do I really believe in miracles? Every so often, I admit, I ask myself a perplexing question: to what extent do I really believe in all the miracles of Divine intervention our ancestors insisted were true?

Why do I resist believing in miracles? Admitting that we believe in something we can’t prove is taking a big risk. It is a leap of faith that could land us in a mud puddle!

When I first began exploring my Judaism, I wanted it to be logical and explainable. I needed it to be reasonable and rational. Otherwise, how would I be able to justify to my wise and worldly father, an expert C.P.A., that the inexplicable draw I felt within me to the same Jewish traditions he questioned, actually made sense, if I could not prove so at the end of the day?

How would I be able to explain to my best friend and roommate my desire to practice parts of our tradition like keeping kosher or Shabbat, if I wouldn’t be able to explain them logically and cogently?

How would I rationalize to my own sensible and educated self that I was considering throwing in my lot with studying and practicing a tradition- albeit our own tradition- which sometimes defied rational explanation?

Miracles are an absurdity. Hanukah commemorates not only a military battle with the Greeks for control over Jerusalem, but also an internal culture-battle within the Jewish community over Hellenistic culture. The popular, enlightened Hellenistic philosophy of the Greeks – with which many Jews identified – valued the human mind, but to an extreme. The concept of miracle for them was an absurdity. An ideal person was a thinker – academic, rational, intellectual.

Did the Hellenists live with a constant fear of admitting their intellectual and physical limitations? That is a common fear in any advanced society. I have found myself at times working so hard to hide my vulnerabilities and cover up what I don’t know, that I ended up with my stomach tied up in a knot. When the goal is control, what happens to our authenticity? What happens to our sense of calm and well-being?

Sometimes I have felt like a raging tug of war – with the rational yet fearful voice of the Hellenists resonating inside my head, pulling against the spiritual and belief-centered voice of Jewish tradition which is reverberating inside my heart.

Don’t believe in miracles: To the logical thinking of ancient Greeks, the events of history are natural consequences of the past, and the deities are impersonal. Therefore don’t believe in miracles. Don’t look for Divine intervention. Don’t have hope for anything which is not a logical outcome. In other words, life is just one big fat Greek tragedy.

What is a miracle? Falling in love feels like a miracle. Singers and poets use the word miracle freely to describe something ‘too good to be true’. Falling in love is something extraordinary and special, but statistically it happens to people quite often. So technically is it really a miracle?

The key to understanding miracles for me is in the Hebrew word, ‘nes’. The Hanukah dreidle bears a Hebrew letter ‘nun’ for ‘nes’ (נס). ‘Nes gadol’ (נס גדול)– a great miracle – happened right here, in Jerusalem and on her adjoining hillsides. In modern Israel, we can walk where the very miracles of Hanukah took place.

But the word ‘nes’ in Hebrew is also a ‘banner’ or ‘flag’. It is an external sign hinting at something internal. It is a marketing tool, publicizing to people where we live, or who we are – and what we stand for. The blue on white stripes of the Israeli flag, for example, were chosen to represent a tallit or prayer shawl, together with a ‘magen David’, a shield worn in battle. The Israeli flag symbolically expresses the very duality of our nation’s existence: its vulnerability and dependence on God on the one hand, and its courage and need to fight for its own survival on the other.

God’s marketing tool: Miracles are God’s marketing tool as well. They are a sign that God is present, involved, and concerned about our lives. They are a denial of chance and coincidence. They, like all miracles, send a message that ‘Life is not a bag full of papers thrown open in the wind…’

We light Hanukah candles not (only) in the synagogue, but in our home, in order to invite our loved ones to weigh in on this important conversation about believing in miracles.

Are there miracles today? Lighting candles each night this week we have blessed G-d for making miracles happen for our ancestors, in those days, in this season. (ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקנו מלך העולם, שעשה נסים לאבותנו בימים ההם בזמן הזה. )

But what about today?

The Tanach is filled with instances of Divine intervention. For me, studying Torah is not an intellectual exercise alone, it is a reminder to look for signs of Divine intervention in my own generation. And even in my own life. The Amida prayer, recited three times a day, every day of the year, reminds us to look for the miracles (נסיך) that are with us every day, and wow-inspiring daily signs of goodness (נפלאותיך) are with us at every moment….perhaps to help us cultivate the ability to see them.

Miracles are the innermost dimension of reality: Imagine you had a set of magical lenses – which could reveal various dimensions of reality. Now look at your hand. Looking through the lens of art you see shades of color, graceful movement and aesthetic form. Through the more penetrating lens of science, you see ligaments and tendons, veins and blood cells. Looking through the innermost lens of the soul, you see an awe inspiring expression of the Divine. You see a miracle.

Miracles give hope: To many Jews and non-Jews, historians and philosophers alike, our national survival is nothing short of a mystery. None other than a miracle. Our tradition teaches that what is happening in the present can be determined not only by the past – but also by the future – because at any given time, in order to guide the future, G-d might choose to intervene. Believing in miracles, no matter how gradually they may unfold and to whatever extent they evolve with human participation, gives me reason to hope for a better future. Believing in miracles makes me want to stay tuned, and stay involved.

A Jew who does not believe in miracles: David Ben Gurion, the great secular Jewish visionary who had the ‘chutzpa’ to declare a State of Israel after the Holocaust, for the embattled and ever threatened Jewish people, in the heart of the Middle East – was quoted as saying, “A Jew who does not believe in miracles…is not a realist.” What do you think he meant by that?

Questions and suggestions for further reflection:

When we light the Hanukah menorah, we recite the in the blessing that we have no permission to utilize these lights, rather only to gaze at them. Therefore:

When you light your Hanukah candles, or oil lights, take your time to gaze at the flames. Don’t rush to eat or to prepare latkes, or to check your email. Set aside that time to pull up a chair, to linger, and to reflect with a friend about one of the following:

  1. According to Chasidic thought, the wick represents the human body. The luminescent flame represents the Divine presence. The pure oil represents that which connects the person to the Divine. What is that connector for you?
  2. Are there any events in ancient or modern Jewish history you believe couldn’t have happened without a miracle of Divine intervention?
  3. Do you believe in daily miracles? What do you think is an appropriate response to a daily miracle?
  4. If you are not 100% certain that miracles cannot happen, close your eyes and ask G-d for a specific miracle. Specify why you want it to happen, and what you would do if it did happen in your lifetime…
  5. On the topic of miracles by modern scholars whose wisdom inspires me in general and some of whose ideas are paraphrased in this d’var Torah:

About Tovah Leah Nachmani

Tovah Leah has been teaching Bible, Liturgy and Prayer and Relationships at Pardes for 14 years in the Summer Program and eight years as a full time faculty member. She holds a B.A. in Near Eastern Language and Literature and Religious Studies from Indiana University and a Teaching Certificate in Tanach and Jewish Thought from the Michlelet Herzog Seminary in Gush Etzion. Click here to read more.

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