Bursting the bubble: Even the Rabbis perpetuated a "hoax!" – jewishpresspinellas

Posted By on December 11, 2020

Authors caution: if you are of the absolute belief that the teachings of the rabbis as recorded in the Talmud have the imprimatur of divine authority and cannot be questioned, please be advised that you may find what follows to be somewhat heretical!

It is almost the 25th of Kislev. We anxiously await the arrival of the years shortest days and longest nights, when we shall illumine our homes and (for some of us, our Zoom) windows with the display of hanukkiot (Hanukkah menorahs) advertising the great miracle(s) of ages past. Our children and grandchildren know the brachot and the songs. The aromas of latkes and sufganiot will soon fill the air. The dreidel will spin, and the letters on its four sides will proclaim: Nes gadol hayah sham a great miracle happened there. And when asked what was the miracle, we answer: It was the miracle of the oil. There was only enough oil for one days celebration of the rededication of the Temple, but God miraculously ensured that the menorah could burn for all eight days.

What is the source of this account? Where do we read about this miracle? Do we know if it is true? The story of Hanukkah comes to us from the Books of the Maccabees. They are part of the post-canonical biblical literature called the Apocrypha. Maccabees tells the historical account of ancient Israel governed by oppressive rulers from Syria whose policies of Hellenization threatened the survival of our unique identity as Jews. In these accounts we read of how Jew struggled with Jew because different parts of the community had different attitudes toward the assimilationist tendencies of the ruling foreign influences. The High Priesthood had been corrupted, and the High Priest was little more than a pawn in the grander political machinations between ruler and subject. But nowhere in the tale of Judah Maccabees heroic military victory over the much stronger Syrian army is there any mention of this miracle of the oil.

That miracle story appears for the first time in the Talmud in the rabbinic texts that are written between 200 and 600 years after the events of 165 BCE. The miracle of the oil is the way that the rabbis uncovered Gods role in this miraculous slice of history, emphasizing a theological lesson instead of the nationalist celebration of courage, strength and revolutionary action. Even in Zachariah, the text chosen by the rabbis for the Haftarah on the Shabbat in Hanukkah, the message resounds: Not by might, not by power, but My Spirit alone, shall we all live in peace.

The rabbis may have been motivated by any number of concerns as they dealt with interpreting the events of ages past and developing the rituals to commemorate them. Certainly, they were aware of the danger of celebrating a national uprising against a foreign ruler whilst they lived under the control of the Roman Empire. Surely, they understood the value of emphasizing the theological message rather than the military victory. There is no doubt that, for the rabbis, it must have been comforting to discover Gods true presence in the midst of these events which are so inspiring and motivational.

Notwithstanding such source-critical analyses, we all know that our children (sooner rather than later) start to ask if these things really happened. They use the power of their intellect, and the critical thinking skills we demand our schools teach them. They apply the powerful forces of rational analysis and post-modern intellectual inquiry. And they start to doubt the veracity of the legend that attributes a miracle to God as the core component of our Hanukkah celebration. How can we respond?

Here is what we ought not do.

Do not

1. Stick your head in the sand and pretend they are not asking;

2. Offer them facile explanations that ask them to put aside their questions.

What can we do? We help them grow in faith and deepen their sense of purpose by offering more adequate ways to own the Hanukkah stories and celebrations.

The Number Nine

1. The Kabbalists suggest that the words Nes Gadol (A Great Miracle), through gematria, add up to 9 (the total sum of the letters is 153, then the sum of those digits is 9).

2. Nine is also truth (emet), whose numerical equivalent is 441, the sum of the digits again being 9.

3. So where is the truth of the great miracle if it is possible that it didnt exactly happen the way the rabbis suggest in the Talmud?

We need to help our communities and our children understand that there are different kinds of truth. Historicity, verifiable fact, reality as it is lived, experienced and reported upon is only one kind of truth. There are also eternal truths, truths the heart knows best, ways of understanding our relationship to each other, our world and God that go beyond the simplistic question of Did it really happen that way?

One approach understands that the miracle of seeing the oil burning was not in itself, on any individual day, a miracle. Only the knowledge that the oil had burned the day before and the day before that makes the miracle of today become evident. It can be said that miracles happen as they continue each day to be renewed and reaffirmed.

There is truth in the miracle of the oil when we open our eyes, we can see the constant unfolding of Gods miraculous presence in our lives and in our world. We encounter the Holy in the everyday when we affirm the blessing of waking up to a new day, of seeing the sun rise again, of watching the gardens bloom, of hearing the laughter of children, of watching justice be affirmed for those who need it most, of knowing that the hungry can be fed and the naked can be clothed. The miracles of Gods presence are all around us if we but open our eyes and become Gods partner. This is the only Truth that I really know!

The Rabbinically Speaking column is provided as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis. Columns are assigned on a rotating basis by the board. The views expressed in the column are those of the rabbi and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jewish Press or the Board of Rabbis.

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Bursting the bubble: Even the Rabbis perpetuated a "hoax!" - jewishpresspinellas

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