This simultaneous longing for and suspicion of the miraculous, of the transcendent exception that breaks through the cracks in the real, is not at all alien to the classical roots of the Jewish tradition. Indeed, this appreciation for the possibilities of the miraculous while at the same time holding it at arm’s length might be said to characterize the fundamental metaphysical attitude of rabbinic Judaism. Witness to the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans, the rabbis of the classical period must have felt themselves to be walking an exceedingly fine line. On the one hand, the Temple’s destruction must have stood before them always as an object lesson that history will exercise its harsh prerogatives even at the expense of what is most holy. And yet, to give up on the notion of G-d’s providential intervention in the historical world, to shut the door on the realm of the miraculous, would cut off the Jewish people from its own living roots, dooming Judaism to become a philosopher’s religion, filled perhaps with sound advice on matters of ethics but fundamentally closed to the the genuine, vital encounter with the divine that lies at the heart of religious experience and points the way to the possibility of future redemption. This is why the rabbis, though occasionally anxious to curb the wildest outpourings of mystical enthusiasm, were always careful never to repudiate it utterly.
Simeon ben Shatah said to him, “If you were not Honi, I should decree a ban of excommunication against you. But what am I going to do to you? For you importune before the Omniscient, so He does what you want, like a son who importunes his father, so he does what he wants.”
As presented in the story, at no point is the efficacy of Honi’s unconventional methods questioned. He claims to be able to basically whine until the Almighty gives him what he wants, and for all intents and purposes this claim seems to be accurate. And yet, far from being welcomed, Honi is sharply criticized by his fellow rabbis for his unorthodox methods and the disrespect they seem to imply. In the end, it is only the level of prestige Honi commands in the rabbinic community that saves him from the fate of excommunication. Certainly one could argue that what we are dealing with here is the suspicion that Honi is perpetrating some kind of hoax, making use of some mundane or magical trick and passing it off as a genuine miracle. I think, however, that what is actually at issue here is the miracle itself, regarded as such.
To put it bluntly, the rabbis are not displeased with the miracle itself, but with its possible social consequences. The danger here is that the people will come away with the wrong message–that the Almighty’s favor can be had for the asking, and that the mark of this favor can be easily determined by the trail of wondrous occurrences that follow the self-proclaimed prophet. But the entire rabbinic enterprise is founded on a rejection of this overly-simplistic mystical worldview. The rabbis of the classical period were, after all, the intellectual descendants of extremely pragmatic men–men resolved, in the face of tragedy and disaster to take what they could get, cut their losses and above all to preserve what they could of the dedicated core of the Jewish tradition and keep it alive for the sake of future generations. This is to be expected and praised–in the world of the early Common Era, a Jewish people that waited calmly in the expectation of a miraculous solution to the problems of the day would have ceased ultimately to exist, massacred and scattered by the might of the Roman legions.