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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

TELLING CHILDREN THE TRUTH ABOUT THE MIRACLE (OIL) OF CHANUKAH

Last Sunday in our Spinoza Family Education Program we learned about Chanukah.


As I do every year, I recounted the traditional legend about the heroic Maccabees and their uprising against religious oppression. Happy as I always am to embellish a legend, I finished with a flourish as I described how the victorious Maccabees went about re-purifying their Holy Jerusalem Temple only to discover that there was but one cruse of oil pure enough for the Temple's lamp and how, as the legend goes, "Behold! The oil lasted for eight nights!" Thus do we celebrate for eight nights each year.


Following this, I did the Humanistic thing that I've done both here and in similar settings for well over fifteen years. I told everyone the true story about how the battle was less about gaining "religious freedom" from evil oppressors and more about an uprising by a bunch of fanatics trying to impose their zealous piety on others. I concluded by mentioning that the story of the miraculous cruse of oil did not circulate until around five centuries later.


I explained to everyone that what seems to have motivated the Talmudic rabbis who added the oil to the story was that some Jews still saw the Maccabees as military role models, even after at least two subsequent military disasters, these against the Romans. I described how very much these rabbis feared that the outnumbered Jewish people would make the same mistake again and that this is why they miraculized and infantilized the story, attributing all that the Maccabees had accomplished to God, rather than to their own military skill.


Later in the morning, one of the adults asked me why I felt it necessary to reveal this to the children rather than to just let them hold onto the legend of the magical oil. After all, she asked, don't they deserve to believe in magic? Isn't that an important part of childhood?


A few years ago, Dr. Richard Dawkins, renowned evolutionary biologist and atheist, was quoted saying, "I think it's rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism - we get enough of that anyway." He received so much blowback that he issued a strong clarification. He was not condemning fairy tales, he said. In fact, he felt that they were a wonderful way to encourage children's imagination.


As the leader of a congregation that largely rejects supernaturalism, I navigate a delicate balance in presenting the myriad of legends associated with our Jewish holidays and literature to children. In most cases, I lean toward telling children the truth. I don't think it harms a child to know that God and Moses never divided a sea any more than it matters whether they believe that Peter Pan was a real flying boy or that a fairy godmother made Cinderella's gown. Children are capable of enjoying fictional flights of fancy without believing that the events described are real.


There are absolutely exceptions. For many young children Santa Claus is one of those. Because he wasn't part of our cultural background, I didn't deal with the jolly old guy. But for a brief few years, my children believed in the Tooth Fairy. And when they lost their first teeth I went along with the whole thing. I recently did so again when my grandson lost his.


So why did I spare the Tooth Fairy even as I have consistently debunked Chanukah's magical oil?


I think there is a big difference between - on the one hand - indulging the obvious enchantments of childhood that we know our young ones will quickly outgrow and - on the other hand - misleading credulous people with supernatural religious stories. Unlike the vast majority of adults who grow out of belief in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus, there are large numbers of full-grown adults who will go to the mats over the idea that their deity made some oil last longer than expected.


Some argue that allowing children to believe in the Tooth Fairy or Santa merely paves the way for more harmful adult superstitions. I don't think anyone knows whether that's true or not. In the meantime, when it comes to the stories that I know most children will outgrow, I'll remain mum. Most children will inevitably wind up revealing the truth to each other anyway.


But when it comes to those religious tales that are intended to prove the existence and power of God, I will tell children the truth. Because uncovering the facts about the Tooth Fairy teaches us that if we want a quarter we should probably find a better way than to pull a tooth from our head. While discovering the truth about magic oil teaches us that decisions about war and peace are in our hands, not God's.


The rabbis who made up the tale may have had good intentions, but all they really accomplished was telling ancient Jews just how powerless they were.

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