By Jonathan Huberman
The following was adapted from a D’var Torah that Jonathan taught at a recent AVODAH NYC Hanukkah party.
While the miracle of the menorah burning for eight days today receives the greatest attention during Hanukkah, the holiday celebrates the victory of Judah the Maccabee and his army over their Greek imperialist rulers. The Greeks took control of the ancient land of Israel and forced the inhabitants of the land to worship Greek gods. They defiled the ancient sanctuary in Jerusalem and transformed it into a pagan temple. With brutal punishments, they outlawed studying, worshipping, and practicing the Jewish religion.
Traditional Jewish liturgy commemorates the triumph of Judah and his compatriots. During Hanukkah, it is traditional to add a prayer for the holiday, in the Amidah and in the blessing after a meal. In the prayer, we thank God for the miracle of “delivering the strong into the hands of the weak, the mighty into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, the arrogant into the hands of those who were engaged in the study of Your Torah, and for performing a great salvation and redemption.” While the Jewish tradition treats the Maccabees as heroes, it frames the victory over the Greeks as a divine intervention, one of God’s miracles.
Tonight, I would like to talk about miracles and divine providence. What does it mean for God to perform a miracle? Is God capable of intervening to save people in distress? Why does God choose to rescue people at some times but not at others?
Every night when we light candles during Hanukkah, we proclaim, “Thank you God, King of the Universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors and who continues to perform miracles in our own time.” But where is God today? Where was God during the unimaginable human suffering of the 20th century? Why did God save the Maccabees but not the Jews of Europe? Twenty-eight million Russians died in WWII – were these people less deserving of God’s providence than the Maccabees? Weren’t they also created in the image of God? Did they not also contain inherent human dignity and deserve God’s attention?
A God that stands by silently in the face of human suffering is not a God that I want to praise. I have no interest in praying to a divine being who is capable of stopping human suffering but who chooses not to. A morally apathetic God does not even represent the God of Jewish liturgy, whom we describe as overflowing with kindness, empathy, and compassion.
The theological problem of God ignoring human suffering emerges from the idea of a perfect God. If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and ever present, then God has the capacity to intervene in the world and to prevent people from suffering. If the all-powerful King of the Universe willingly allows people to experience unfathomable anguish, then God deserves at least partial responsibility for contributing to humanity’s afflictions. An omnipotent God that abstains from assisting the poor, or victims of domestic violence, or refugees of war deserves to stand on a tribunal with the worst of human felons.
I would like to suggest that if you think of God as limited in some way, then God’s inaction in the face of suffering is less problematic. If God was powerless to halt the machines of death in Treblinka, or if God is unable today to stop Syrian parents and children from drowning in a flood of bloodshed, then we should not direct our blame towards God. We should hold responsible the people who debase their humanity by forcing others to suffer and those who say nothing when they see their neighbors fall into distress.
To me, the idea that God is not omnipotent leads to one of Judaism’s most powerful messages: God needs humanity. God requires people because God alone cannot prevent the world God created from becoming overwhelmed with iniquity, and God calls upon people to create a world that will respect the inherent dignity of all people. The idea that God calls upon humanity to act ethically is revolutionary. If we are partners with God in completing creation and overcoming the nightmares of history, then our actions will take on an added urgency. The fact that there are 16 million impoverished American youth today is not only an offense to democratic equality but also a metaphysical injustice, a divine scandal. God calls us to service those in need, and we must reply with concrete actions that improve the condition of our fellow human beings.
The Bible imagines a world where people will decry injustice wherever it may arise, and where people will stir all citizens of the world to permanently abolish such injustice. It acknowledges with deep regret that humanity may rarely rise from the valleys of injustice but that each person has a duty to lead other in ascending these ridges to a promised age free of evil. Judaism’s aspirations for justice are not vacuous clichés but profound principles with the power to guide people’s lives and to transform society.
The theological perspective that I am suggesting does not absolve God from all wrongdoing. After all, how can one affirm God’s ethics given the countless often-unnoticed injustices that pervade our world in every moment? Nonetheless, the Bible elevates the urgency of our ethical duties, and, despite our persistent theological questions, God can enhance our pursuit of justice.
Hanukkah celebrates a divine miracle, but perhaps we should learn from the holiday that God alone cannot perform miracles, God alone cannot transform the world around us into a realization of our highest ideals. God demands action from God’s people, and we have a duty to respond.
Jonathan Huberman is from Teaneck, NJ, attended Columbia University and is a AmeriCorps Paralegal at the New York Legal Assistance Group.