Andrew Greene (530nm330hz) wrote,
Andrew Greene
530nm330hz

In which my son faces a crisis of faith

Friday night we were invited to Shabbat dinner at a friend's house. Their older son wanted to share a bit of Torah that he'd learned at school: "The Beis ha-Levi asks, Why do we celebrate eight days of Chanukah?" My daughter answered, "because they weren't able to celebrate Sukkot that year, because the Greeks were still in control of the Temple, and so when they recaptured the Temple they celebrated Sukkot late." While this is historically accurate, it was not the answer that the friend's son wanted, and he replied, "No, the bottle of oil lasted eight days, but why do we consider the first day a miracle?"

Alissa, sticking to her guns, explained: "Actually, the story about the cruse of oil was added later by the rabbis of the Talmud. The real miracle was that Hashem helped the Macabees win the war against the larger and better-equipped Syrian Greek army. But then the Chashmonaim became bad kings, and the rabbis didn't want the people giving the Chashmonaim the credit and forgetting about God's role, so they added the story about the oil to the Talmud." Again, she had her facts straight, but oh boy was this not the answer the other child wanted. (The Beis ha-Levi's answer is that on the first day the miracle was that they found the oil at all. Another answer that I've heard is that the miracle began as soon as the oil was lit, that it burned at 1/8 the normal rate of consumption. But that's not relevant to this story.)

When we got home, Tani was very upset. Although I thought we've always been clear with the kids about the facts behind our religious observances, we apparently missed this one with him. Once we told him that yes, in fact, Alissa was correct, he sat hugging his knees and not talking for ten minutes. Finally, he asked me with hurt in his eyes, How could you let me believe that?

The subtext, of course, what and what other things have you lied to me about?

We reassured him that it has always been our policy to be honest with him and his sister; that there have been times when we've left out details that they weren't old enough for (e.g., the details of Judah and Tamar) but that we've never intentionally misled them about anything except this and the Tooth Fairy --- and that I thought we'd explained this once they were old enough, but I guess we hadn't. I reassured him that I really do believe in God and that God gave us the Torah. I pointed out that when my father died, we didn't offer false assurances about Poppy "being in a better place"; that we've always been clear that the biblical account of creation is metaphor; etc.

After an hour of discussion and cuddling, he felt better.

This is why it's so important to me that my religious beliefs are based on a rational approach. There are both facts and unknowns out there; beliefs can embrace the unknowns but any belief that contradicts the facts will fail. When my son found out the truth about the story of the "little cruse that could", it shook the foundations of his world. Fortunately, with a little help, he was able to recognize that it had never been more than a delightful children's fable, and that the things he truly believes in are still viable.

There is still a God in our world. God still performed a Chanukah miracle, but it's a miracle that's harder to see. The story of the oil never appears in the Chanukah liturgy. It's not in al ha-nissim. It's not in haneirot halalu. (OK, it's alluded to obliquely in maoz tzur, but that's paraliturgical.)

The miracle that we thank God for is the miracle of supporting the few against the many, the weak against the strong, the under-equipped against the professional army, the faithful against those who would impose assimilation on us. It's the miracle of a downtrodden, despised, destitute people safeguarding our identity across two thousand years.

It's the miracle of us.

And that's a miracle that I can believe in without betraying my intellect and that I can explain to my son without hedging. It's a miracle that he can understand, that he can be proud to be a part of, and that he can be thankful for.
Tags: judaism
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