In this season of miracles (for Hanukah) and magic (for Christmas) I’m always inspired, and a little bit confused, about what’s possible and what’s not. I don’t think Santa is going to come down my chimney, wearing a blue suit covered in Stars of David, with a bag of presents just for me; if only because I don’t have a chimney of my own. And I don’t think my Chanukiah (a menorah with an extra candle for Chanukah) is going to stay lit for eight days; in fact, I’ve never had candles that lasted more than half an hour at a time. But there’s something in the air, and in the lights and presents and TV movies and special foods and decorations, that makes it feel like anything is possible.
I don’t really believe in magic, though I really, really, want to, but I’m intrigued by it and by all of the things we’ve called magic in the past that turned out to have understandable, if complicated, causes.
Recently, my rabbi talked about how, when the ancient Israelites first entered the Land of Canaan, the Canaanites taught them all of the latest agricultural science, including the rule that you should only make unleavened bread in the spring, so that all of the leavening (AKA fertility) could go to the land itself. As a result, we have a Jewish holiday each spring which features unleavened bread, or matzah (at some point, the holiday of unleavened bread was combined with the celebration of the Exodus from Egypt, to become the single week long holiday of Passover). Over time we gave new meaning to the ritual of eating unleavened bread in the spring, combining it with the memory of the way the Israelites had to escape from Egypt quickly and therefore had no time to let their bread rise, but the ritual is the same and its source is a belief in sympathetic magic.
Sympathetic magic is magic that derives its power from a connection between similar objects, like a voodoo doll, with a lock of the enemy’s hair on the doll to create a link, so that whatever happens to the doll happens to the enemy. You don’t have to believe that this is magic in order to understand the metaphoric value of a ritual like this: the voodoo doll creates a catharsis, so that an individual can cause harm to a lookalike doll instead of going out and physically harming their enemy, allowing the person to work through their pain, and the fantasy of killing the other, without actually hurting someone else or putting themselves in danger. Isn’t that an incredibly powerful, and even magical, thing for a ritual to be able to do?
The Jewish ritual of Tashlich, where we throw our sins into the water (in the form of bread or birdseed) on Rosh Hashanah, has power because it offers us the chance to feel unburdened, as if we’ve really released a weight from our lives. It’s similar to the therapeutic practice of having a patient who has lost a limb use a mirror to create the illusion of two healthy limbs, so that she is then able to relax the muscles and nerve endings leading to the missing limb, creating real change in the body as the result of an illusion.
Some sympathetic magic hasn’t aged quite as well, like using herbs with yellow sap to cure jaundice, or eating walnuts to strengthen the brain (because walnuts look like miniature brains), or drinking red beet juice to benefit the blood. And yet, at the time that these cures were used they must have seemed like powerful magic, or even the science of the day.
And that makes me wonder, what if the ideas we call magical thinking are simply hypotheses we’ve come up with over time to explain phenomena we don’t yet understand? When there is proof that a hypothesis is wrong then it would be delusional to continue to hold onto that theory, like eating walnuts because they look like brains rather than because of their actual nutrients, but when there is no means to prove or disprove a hypothesis then is it really so unreasonable to hold onto these magical ideas if they offer us comfort?
Another example of sympathetic magic that resonates for me is the horcruxes from Harry Potter, where part of the person has been transferred into an object, and therefore the person can’t be killed until the object is destroyed. J.K. Rowling made this concrete in her books, to prolong the life of Voldemort and make him that much more dangerous, but don’t we often use works of art, or clothing, or photographs, to represent our connection to the person who owned them, allowing us to feel their presence even when they are gone?
There’s a reason why the Harry Potter books were so successful with adults, as well as with children: because the magical logic resonates. Magic is a powerful metaphor for the things we struggle to give full weight in our emotional lives. It is often used in fantasy stories and superhero movies to bring hard-to-explain feelings to the surface, like the Dementors in Harry Potter who represent the unbearable feelings of grief in physical form, so that they can be seen and fought off. Or like Superman’s one weakness being kryptonite, because it is the raw material of his home planet; this is powerful sympathetic magic and deep psychological truth all at once.
In Harry Potter, Voldemort’s name was replaced with he-who-must-not-be-named, because they believed that saying his name would make him appear, and we have this in Judaism too. We are never supposed to say the “true” name of God, the unpronounceable four letter name in the Torah – the Tetragrammaton – that some pronounce as Yahweh, and we are supposed to save the other names of God only for prayers and blessings, because we’re not supposed to say God’s name in vain, or for no meaningful purpose. All of this is because we recognize that words have power: to create, to shame, to guide, to honor, to express love.
There are lots of things that I don’t believe in literally that bring me comfort and allow me to keep going, even when reality is deeply disappointing, and I think that’s often the purpose of magic, and religion too. And sometimes, inexplicably, the magic works: a call comes just when you prayed for it, you wish on a star and the wish comes true, or you get a feeling about someone you love far away, and it turns out to be true. Maybe it’s a coincidence, or an educated guess based on deep knowledge of the other person, but it feels magical, as in, unexplained and powerful. And who’s to say it’s not? Especially at this time of year.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?