>The X-Files, Faith and Honi the Circle-drawer


Emily and I have been watching The X-Files together recently. Neither of us watched the show while it was originally being aired. Watching it now, this series strikes me as profoundly dated. by which I mean that it manages to beautifully encapsulate the spirit of the time in which it was created, which also happens to have been the time in which I was growing up. The central themes of the show certainly speak eloquently to anyone who grew up in the nineties: The desperate desire to believe in something bigger than yourself, set against the nagging doubt that the truth you’re looking for might turn out not to exist, or even worse, to represent merely another link in the chain of social control–the oppressive hand of history in another guise.

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.

An example of this tension in action can be found in the mishnaic tale of Honi the Circle Drawer. According to the story, a town was suffering from severe drought and appealed to Honi, well-regarded for his piety and scholarship, for help. Honi drew a circle in the dirt and stood in the middle of it, proclaiming to Heaven that he would not move from the circle until G-d saw fit to send rain. Surely enough, the rain was forthcoming. In an interesting coda to the episode, it says:

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.

And yet, much as the rabbis firmly rejected an over-anxious reliance on miracles, neither did they ultimately reject the miraculous as such when it presented itself. To reject utterly the possibility of miraculous occurrences in the present day would be to undermine the spiritual basis of Judaism. A faith so firmly grounded in the memory of divine salvation from the hands of persecution and slavery could never close itself to the possibility of the miraculous–indeed, the flame of this abiding hope, kept alive by the memories of redemptions past, was ever one of the Jewish people’s greatest sources of strength.

What lesson can we draw from the curious tension to be found in the tale of Honi the Circle Drawer? For me at least it is that the perpetual tension between faith and skepticism, far from being a symptom of a terminally conflicted mind, can actually be the most intensely productive point of view in a spiritual sense. To hold on to our sense of the truth and the firm demand of a rational world view based on our own experience, while simultaneously keeping our minds open and alive to the realm of what Agent Mulder calls “extreme possibility,” can be intensely challenging. And yet it is precisely this synthesis of faith and skepticism that can drive us forward in a way that neither can hope to achieve alone.

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