Myth, Miracles and A Famous Cat

Here’s a story we’ve seen before: a charismatic preacher speaks of G-d, faith, hope and truth, and a member of the audience is healed.

And here’s a slightly different story, one I’ve already examined in an earlier post:

Martin Buber has told of a rabbi whose grandfather was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hassidism. Once upon a time, when the rabbi was asked to tell a story, he said: A story must be told in such a way that it constitutes help in itself. My grandfather was lame. Once they asked him to tell a story about his teacher. And he related how the holy Baal Shem used to hop and dance while he prayed. My grandfather rose as he spoke, and he was so swept away by his story that he himself began to hop and dance to show how the master had done. From that hour on he was cured of his lameness. That’s the way to tell a story.

I received some terrific comments to my last post, all ably describing the above story. This is a story about how stories shape us. This is a story about how to tell a story. This is a story about how to become engaged in telling a story.

While I liked all my comments, I want to call out the comments made by Roz. It’s not that I think her comments were “best” (whatever that means). It’s just that she shared a certain reluctance to talk about miracles. Me too, Roz. It’s not that I don’t believe in miracles. It’s just that I don’t trust them. They don’t show up when they’re most needed, to save us from natural disasters, or epidemics, or genocidal madmen. I don’t trust my own ability to distinguish miracle from my own (or anyone else’s) sense of wish-fulfillment.

If the meaning of miracle is that we don’t have everything figured out, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy … well then … I can understand that. But I don’t think the point of the above story is to prove the limits of human knowledge. Instead, the story says it is there to tell us how a story must be told. Do we conclude that a story must be told so that it produces a miracle? If that’s the case, precious few stories can be told. Even if we believe in miracle, how can a story-teller know in advance that a story will result in miracle? We could imagine this poor grandfather, believing that stories must produce miracles, and telling his story of the Baal Shem Tov over and over without ever producing a second miracle. The story so understood morphs from a happy tale to a tragedy of frustration.

A calm and rational reply to my aversion to miracle stories might be to point out that there are great miracles, and small ones. Perhaps it is enough if a story does some quantum of good, if it gives us hope or makes us laugh. But for me, even this scaled-down requirement seems like too much. The impact of a story depends on things outside the control of the story-teller. A hopeful story requires an audience possessing a modicum of optimism. A funny story requires an audience with a sense of humor. Moreover … the above story doesn’t talk about small good. It talks about miracle. It says the lame can dance, and once you say that the lame can dance, it’s hard to settle for giving the lame hope or something to smile about.

So … I am persuaded to try and read the story in a different way, in a way that’s more modern (or post-modern) and skeptical. I’m willing to consider that someone invented the miracle in the story. Or that the miracle wasn’t in the original story, but it crept its way in later, as the product of exaggeration and accretion as the story was told and retold.

It may be possible to retell many stories involving miracles while simultaneously denying the miracle. But this particular story, told by a rabbi about his grandfather, simply doesn’t work if the miracle was in some sense invented. This story tells us that all stories must be told in a way that provides help in itself, and ends with the statement, “That’s how to tell a story.” It would require cynicism beyond anything I can muster to conclude that stories must be told with a lie at their center.

I happen to like this particular story. But it would seem that the story presents me with two possibilities that ruin the story for me. Either I must believe in the miracle at the heart of this story, or deny it. To do the first raises answers to questions about G-d that I don’t think can be answered, and places demands on the story teller that I don’t think can be met. To deny the miracle seems tantamount to denying the story altogether.

Do I have a third option? I think I do. This is story. It doesn’t operate under the rules of ordinary experience. It doesn’t have to be true. It doesn’t have to be not true.

We have (so far) seven Star Wars movies, and I don’t even know how many Star Trek and other movies, where the characters routinely travel unfathomable distances at speeds faster than light. But this is impossible. The speed of light is the universal speed limit. (And no, I don’t want to get into the possibility of travel through wormholes or any other such conjecture of a scientific imagination run amuck; even if such a thing could be accomplished safely, it could not be accomplished routinely.) So, how do we watch Star Wars without being paralyzed by disbelief? Because we don’t care whether you can travel faster than the speed of light, any more than we wonder how Harry Potter can fly on a broom or how fairy godmothers can create carriages from pumpkins. This is just a plot device. We imagine speeds above light speeds so that Luke Skywalker can fly from one scene to another without dying of old age mid-route.

Here’s our problem: as modern readers, we’re highly skilled in dealing with science fiction and fantasy fiction. But we’re particularly bad at dealing with sacred stories. I don’t know exactly why this is, and perhaps this is something you all will want to address in the comments. But I think that the original Jewish audience for this story would not have fixated on the miracle. The Jews of the 18th and 19th centuries were in the midst of a thousands year old exile and persecution, where their personal stories did not typically end with pots of gold at rainbow’s end. They knew damn well that faith did not typically result in cure; if they’d counted on such things to survive, they would not have survived. If these people were superstitious in ways we find foreign, they also had an admirable, personal and gritty connection with sea and sky, with soil and stars, that we have lost. Frankly, I assume that more of my neighbors “believe” in travel beyond light speed than my Jewish ancestors believed in the likelihood of miracle.

jan0107I would argue that the key to this story of the Baal Shem Tov has no more to do with miracle than the story of Cinderella has to do with magic wands. I would argue that the original audience for this story would have able to hold the miracle in a state of suspended imagination, where the miracle neither happened nor didn’t happen. Put in more modern terms, the miracle in this story is something like a theological Schroedinger’s Cat, where the key (for both story teller and story listener) is not to rip the lid off the box in an effort to find out “what happened.”


  • Stephanie Barbé Hammer

    Thanks for this post, Larry. I’m particularly interested in what you say in your penultimate (fancy word) paragraph about our ease with sf/fantasy and our unease with sacred stories. I’m sure others have already spoken about science and secularism and so it’s no surprise for me to observe that, in order to accept the supernatural, most readers need to enter an entire other world, which both sf and fantasy promise. That entry to to “another world” releases our ability to believe in the miraculous, I think. As a magical realist/fabulist writer, I wonder if MR doesn’t speak to the kind of indeterminacy you’re gesturing towards. It would explain why Marquez’s short story “the Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” (or the film Pan’s Labyrinth, if you know that movie) can imply a sort of miracle, without directly producing one, as it were. It seems to me that the Hasidic Tales also possess this kind of indeterminacy, which would go a long way to explaining the importance of Jewish folklore on writers like Kafka and Aimee Bender — both of whom identify as Jews. We seem to be living in a moment where that kind of work possesses a special sort of power. We would like to believe in miracles, but can’t do it directly — or at least most of us can’t — so these other modes come in to help us. Thanks again. You’ve given me alot to think about.

  • Chris Eyre

    The late Terry Pratchett occasionally waxed philosophical about how we were “the story telling ape” and at one time played with the plot device that “million to one chances happen 9 times out of 10” (which meant that you sometimes needed the improbability to be a bit greater, as 999,999:1 chances NEVER happened). Narratives, to him, often demanded something exceptionally improbable, and if they demanded that, then (in the story) it had to happen. As you remark, the miracle isn’t really the point of most miracle stories (which is just as well, as I too am unable to believe that a miracle has actually happened, while preserving for the sake of intellectual consistency the position that they *might* happen).

    I wrote a spoof some while ago, which had someone opening with “Three men walked into a bar…” with the immediate question “where was the bar?”, and follow ups of “when did this happen?” and “were you there?”. Obviously, in that case, it was totally irrelevant – and the questioner never did get the joke…

  • I commented on your last post without reading this one first – I must’ve channeled your Harry Potter reference. 🙂

    That’s a very good point about how we tend to view stories, i.e. automatically distinguishing between Story-A vs. Story-B (to use my previous terminology), between fact and fiction, as opposed to pre-modern or non-Western audiences, who didn’t necessarily think like that and were better equipped to receive “sacred stories.” Two thoughts on that:

    1) My guess is that the original audience for this story was probably a mix. Some, like you say, weren’t focused on whether it “happened” – they half-knew that this was a tall tale and didn’t care because it was hopeful and inspiring. I’m quite sure though that many would’ve taken the story to mean that one should strive to be so joyful and exuberant, to express such a simple, ecstatic faith, or to be so connected to the Baal Shem Tov, the true “tzaddik” (righteous person), that they would also merit to experience miracles such as this. (Which answers the question about the paucity of such miracles – it’s a very “high level” which one can and should strive for but not necessarily expect to achieve.)

    2) In my experience, suspending disbelief, or suspending a strict dichotomy between fact and fiction, is actually quite common among religious believers today. There’s a lot of “playing along” that goes on. Not in the negative sense of a willful charade, but more subconsciously, because it allows them to be part of a faith community. Do they truly believe all the stories of the Bible are historical events, or that every bit of the dogma taught in the religion is true? If they thought about it, maybe not 100%. Maybe not “literally,” etc. But they don’t focus on that. They allow those thoughts to reside in the background and go with the flow.

    That’s as opposed to religious apologists, who don’t/won’t “play along,” who can’t abide by the idea of there being challenges to the religion’s factual integrity, and who spend their time formulating and proffering “answers.”