Magical Realism

Kevin Sloan - Tutt'Art@It’s 1976. I wake up to find myself in my dorm room. The clock says it’s 11:20 am. I have a sinking feeling. My mind finds itself and I realize my first university final exam ever, in the only first-year class I even care about, Introduction to Philosophy, starts in 10 minutes. I have overslept badly. I start yelling. “Oh shit! I’ve slept through my exam!”

The door to my room swings open. A man about 30 years old, wearing his hair in a ponytail, stands in the doorframe. “I have a solution,” he says. “Jump out the window.” One of his legs is in a cast; he leans on wooden crutches. He smiles and closes the door.

I had never seen him before and I never saw him again. But I figured he knew something about the folly of solving problems by yelling and jumping. So I shut up, threw on my clothes, and ran to the exam.

When I recall the story, it seems too fantastical to have happened. But it did. It was an example of real-life magical realism. Usually, “magical realism” refers to a literary genre, in which magical elements are a natural part of an otherwise mundane, realistic environment.

The book of Bamidbar-Numbers is filled with magical realism. Quail appear when the people want meat. Snakes slither into the camp to bite whiners and complainers. An abused donkey tells her owner off. A wooden staff sprouts almonds. What can we learn from this consistent use of magical realism?

Sforno (Italy, 1470-1550) believes Torah is teaching about miracles and thus about the unique power of God. God deliberately changes the natural order of things to accomplish a goal. Normally, the world is a set of ordered events, connected by physical causality, and governed by laws of nature. Only God, the author of nature, can suddenly engineer a disruption.

Pirkei Avot (5:6), however, explains Torah’s magical realism differently. Torah shows us that marvelous things are part of the fabric of the universe. Pirkei Avot says:

Ten things were created on the eve of the [first] Shabbat at twilight. They are:

– the mouth of the earth [that swallowed the rebels in Parshat Korach];

– the mouth of the well [that accompanied the Israelites in the wilderness during Miriam’s lifetime];

– the mouth of the donkey [that spoke to Balaam];

– the rainbow [that Noach saw];

– the manna [that fed the hungry Israelites];

– the staff of Moshe [that split the sea];

– the Shamir [worm who cut the stones for the Temple];

– the writing [on the tablets Moshe brought down from Mount Sinai];

– the writing instrument;

– and the tablets.

In other words, all kinds of magical beings exist in our world. True, they are not part of the natural order of things. They were created after the step-by-step ordered logic of the first six days was complete. Still, they are part of God’s creation, a part that stands outside of the order. We see them when the twilight region of our consciousness is activated – by heightened emotions, special events, or special seasons.

Literary critics say that magical realism helps showcase these magical elements of our everyday world. It recognizes that we live simultaneously in multiple worlds of consciousness. It offers an antidote to a rigid scientific world-view that suppresses parts of reality, in order to maintain its powerful institutions. It gives voice to marginalized aspects of reality. And it surprises readers, who then become aware of the active role they play in receiving a story, with or without questions.

From this literary perspective, Torah can be read as a subversive book. Unapologetically, it draws us into multiple worlds of consciousness, pushes us to wonder what role myth places in our lives, challenges us to claim an interpretation, and reminds us not to take for granted marginalized groups, such as non-human animals.

My husband Chas wants to make sure everyone knows that despite my academic credentials, I actually live in a world of magical realism. I travel with stuffed animals and set them up in the window of my hotel room so they can look out while I’m gone for the day. Also, I have conversations with flies. And at the beach, I ask small rocks if they would be willing to come home with me and participate in memorial ceremonies. I only take them if they say, “Yes!”

Sometimes I worry that more scientific types view this as avodah zarah, idol worship. But then I turn back to Torah, and let its frank embrace of magical realism connect me with my ancestors and with a deeper critical consciousness.

Image: Kevin Sloan

  1. Avodah Zarah? Hardly. Martin Buber had an I-Thou relationship with a tree. Kal v’chomer: if one can have such a relationship with a plant, one certainly can with an animal. Yasher koach and Shabbat Shalom!

  2. Love it, a whole new way to see BeMidbar. Although it’s not the High Holy Days I would say that this is just about perfect.

  3. Rabbi Laura, I do appreciate your blending of genres in this manner. I will attempt to follow your lead in my own writings. Following the turgid, dry listing of purity and levitical laws in Vayikra/Leviticus, I tend to be put off by “more of the same” in Bamidbar/Numbers, but you are correct: there exist certain gems of narrative, if we would only see them.

  4. So sweet.
    (Gumpy came with me to the retreat. He cuddled me to sleep each night and guarded my tent during the day.)

  5. Thanks so much, everyone, for reading and commenting. Thank you for making connections with I/Thou, with Campbell and the importance of seeing metaphorically, with personal experience, and with other books of Torah. Shavua tov!

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *