While in college my sophomore year I took an anthropology class, not because it was connected to my major (psychology) but just because I was interested in the topic. I am a bit embarrassed to admit I remember absolutely nothing about the class, except one statement made by the professor. As part of his field work he had spent a year of his life living with a primitive tribe in the jungles of Africa. One day in class he was speaking about that experience in relation to whatever we were studying, and he said, almost as an aside, that the most remarkable thing about living with that tribe was that in their culture, in their world, magic actually works.
I remember there was a bit of give and take as a couple of my classmates pushed the professor on his statement. What did he mean, exactly? What kind of magic was he referring to? In the end he said that in a culture where everyone believes in an ideal, where everyone fully buys into the system, if the system, or part of it, is magic, then in that culture, for those people, magic will work. It will bring meaning into people’s lives, at times heal them, help crops to grow, protect them against evil spirits, help them make important choices in their lives and on and on – it works!
I’ve been thinking about that idea quite a bit since returning from the Rabbinic Training Institute. In a sense the rabbis on the retreat, all gathered together, create a group like the tribe the professor lived with. We have a system, and we believe in it and buy into it. And when we are all together, all believers, all invested in the system and knowledgable about it, it creates a powerful experience where the ‘magic’ actually works. The davening is filled with spirit and power and meaning. The study has deep wisdom and a sense of the sacred. Gratitude is expressed and experienced through blessings that are recited daily. This is Jewish life as it is meant to be lived, focusing on what the Talmudic rabbis called ‘Chayei Olam,’ the life of the spirit. The ancient system actually does work.
The challenge for the rabbi, of course, is to bring some of the ‘magic’ back into the secular world that we all live and work in. A world where not everyone believes and/or buys into the system. Where the challenges and distractions of everyday life and the demands of our jobs pull us away from study and prayer, from time to think and reflect. And yet that is our task. Judaism has never been a monastic tradition. What good is the system if it remains behind a veil of secrecy, available only to the acolyte? Perhaps Moses is a model. He brought the tablets back down from the mountain, giving them to the people, leaving the space of unified communion with God for a (sometimes very difficult) life filled with the very best and worst of what people are. In many ways we are doing our best to continue to uncover the meaning of that moment, as it resonates still to this day in our own time, our world, our lives.