Let’s talk about a word I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: enchantment. As often happens to me, and probably to you too, a number of things going on in my life have converged to get me contemplating a particular idea that I hadn’t thought much about before. One is a game called Dungeons & Dragons, but more about that in a moment.
Another is reading Richard Dawkins’s bestselling The Greatest Show on Earth. The famous evangelizing atheist seeks to make the case for Darwinian evolution, defending it against the critiques of naïve creationists and other amateurs whom Dawkins cites and argues with contemptuously — for example, a lawyer who runs a conservative website, a lady who’s an anti-abortion activist, and a guy with an Internet ministry. He meanwhile ignores intelligent design theorists with their far more challenging objections and weighty science backgrounds. Cowardly and bullying, the book is an embarrassment.
But what struck me more is Dawkins’s oddly persistent cheerleading. He’s got a twitchy way with certain adjectives. He is constantly assuring us that his demonstrations of evolution’s wonders are “beautiful,” that discoveries are “exciting,” results are “startling,” Darwinian scientists are “excellent,” plants and animals provide “lovely” or “amazing” illustrations of his thesis, experiments supposedly proving Dawkins right are “almost too wonderful to bear,” and so on. After a while, you wonder what he is trying to compensate for. The unusually lush and expensive full-color plate illustrations that adorn the book raise the same question.
It’s not as if he writes dull prose that needs sprucing up. In fact, very few science writers can match his lucidity. But you shouldn’t have to bludgeon the reader with promises that what he is reading is “exciting.” The excitement should come across from the material directly.
What Dawkins is compensating for, I think, is the dullness, the flatness, the aridity of the evolutionary picture of how the world works. It squashes everything in life flat as a lead pancake, explaining the wonder and mystery of it all in the infinitely monotonous terms of natural selection operating on random variation. This is so different from a writer like David Berlinski, who emphasizes that the more science discovers, the more we discover we don’t understand about the deepest, most interesting questions we can ask.
This brings me to enchantment. My family and I live in a Seattle suburb. We are Orthodox Jews and so on the Sabbath, instead of driving, we walk. To get to our synagogue, we take a shortcut through a densely wooded park. In the park, there’s a tree that when I walk past it with my children, I always feel a twinge of regret.
More than forty years ago — a year after I was born — someone carved a message on that tree where a thick branch had been cut off. You can still read the message, if faintly. It says, “The Enchanted Forest,” and then the date, 8/27/66. August 27, 1966. I think of it with regret because our increasingly secularized world is one where the sense of enchantment is diminishing very rapidly.
By enchantment I mean our intuitive sense that something else, something more, lies behind and somehow all around the façade of ordinary material reality. Darwinism is not just a scientific theory, with its Tree of Life and its proposed mechanism that explains how one form of life transforms unguided into another. It is that, but more importantly it is a picture of reality. It is a whole worldview that seeks to explain all the beauty and wonder of life by reference exclusively to blind, churning, purposeless, mindless, meaningless natural forces. It excludes all enchantment.
The phrase goes back to Max Weber who taught about it dispassionately: “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.” That was in a lecture he gave, “Science as a Vocation,” in 1918. Since then, the sense that life is pervaded by secrets has retreated even further, with heartbreaking results.
As he recalls in his memoir, Carl Jung once treated a distraught young Jewish woman. Her family had lost faith in Judaism, starting with her father though her grandfather was a rabbi and a mystic whom Jung refers to as a “tzadik,” a wonderworking saint gifted with some sort of prophetic “second sight.” As Jung tells it, the girl was pretty, chic and flirtatious besides being neurotic, “a well-adapted, Westernized Jewess, enlightened down to her bones.” Her unhappiness brought her to seek help and Jung recalls that he saw the problem and cured her swiftly.
Typically, Jung followed hunches derived from dreams he had. Sensing “the presence of the numen,” he learned from her that her father as an “apostate to the Jewish faith,” so Jung himself put it, had “betrayed the secret” by “turn[ing] his back on God.” The girl’s problem? “She knew only the intellect and lived a meaningless life. In reality she was a child of God whose destiny was to fulfill His secret will. I had to awaken mythological and religious ideas in her, for she belonged to the class of human beings of whom spiritual activity is demanded.”
Don’t be put off by the word “mythological.” It only means enchantment. If Jung’s story sounds like a too easy cure — he says it took one week — that may be because as with physical diseases, the spiritual disease of disenchantment builds in its effect. Its power is cumulative as, leech-like, it sucks the mystery out of life. Liberal religious strains seek to accommodate rather than fight it, fearing it will get worse if opposed, but that only gives the leech encouragement. This is one problem with accommodationist strategies like “theistic evolution.” In the context of alcohol or drug addiction, they would be called forms of co-dependency.
Simply revealing to a pretty young Jewish girl that she needed to repair her connection with God was enough for Jung’s patient. For us today, under the gathering influence of the leech, that’s often not enough. The solution is not so easily discerned.
Something I’ve realized recently is that seeking enchantment was a big part of the reason I myself sought out Orthodox Judaism. Oddly what prompted the thought was rediscovering a childhood pastime: the fantasy role-playing Dungeons & Dragons. You may have heard of it. I played it when I was 12 and 13 years old, not much beyond that. But when I was in Southern California last month helping my dad with a forthcoming move from the house where I grew up, I found the old fishing tackle box where I kept my D&D playing pieces — tiny lead figures of dwarfs, goblins, hobbits, and other creatures.
The game is one of group storytelling, played with various shapes of polyhedral dice, my set of which I also found in the old house. You roll dice to generate a character, who then represents you in the game while a referee, or “dungeon master,” creates the fantastic world in which you operate and fight monsters, also accomplished by dice rolls, that he represents and speaks for. I thought immediately that this would fascinate my 8-year-old son, and I was right. My old D&D rule books, three tall volumes personally autographed by the creator of the game himself, Gary Gygax, in 1979, had somehow got lost. So when I returned to Seattle, I bought a set of used copies of the same vintage. There have been subsequent editions of D&D, rather different, but at more than $30 a book, they seemed too expensive to justify purchasing.
My son is now obsessed with D&D and wants to play it every night when I get home. Richard Dawkins might call this an “exciting” development, or perhaps “almost too wonderful to bear.” It’s a lot of fun. However it has also reminded me of Judaism in some ways that surprised me.
As with Judaism, D&D involves much mastering of seemingly abstruse rules, without which there can be no fun and no game. Mastering the rules is part of the whole jazz of it. Some of the rules are even the same, as I noted when a passage from the D&D Players Handbook unexpectedly reminded me of one of the 13 laws of Scriptural exegesis of Rabbi Yishmael, included in the Jewish morning prayer liturgy. It’s rule 11, having to do with generalizations and specifications, in case you want to look it up.
As with Judaism, which begins with the Torah, explained by the Mishnah, in turn explained by the Talmud, the Zohar, and so on and on, D&D also began with fairly simple rules that in practice proved limiting and so generated an endless succession of more books that expand upon the early ones. This has been going on for upwards of thirty years. Counterintuitively, the multiplication of commentaries and elucidations is not confining but liberating. If it weren’t, the folks who write D&D books would have no work to do.
But most tellingly, it’s the feeling of enchantment that drew me to D&D and yes, to Judaism as well. Representatives of various religions often seem to squash their message into a pancake as flat as Darwinism. Some Jews will tell you it’s all about “doing mitzvot,” performing God’s commandments. Some Christians will say it’s all about “being saved,” as if God’s putting us into this world for either of these reasons would be remotely plausible. I can’t speak for Christianity, but Judaism surely is about infinitely more than can be squeezed into any brief clichéd phrase. The enigma of what Judaism is about constitutes one of the main fascinations of Torah.
Opening works of Jewish prayer or scholarship is very much like entering an alternative and enchanted world. I realize now what it is that I saw in Judaism, when I first encountered it in its authentic historical form, that rang a bell with me from my days of Dungeons & Dragons. I’m sure this is why many people who embrace traditional faiths in adulthood do so. It explains the persistent interest among Catholics in the Latin Mass, however hard Catholic liberals have tried to suppress the rite.
The alternative world of D&D emerged from the imaginations of the game’s creators, especially the aforementioned Gygax, inspired by earlier and classic pulp writers like H.P. Lovecraft (of Cthulhu mythos fame) and Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian). You would not confuse that world with the Middle Ages of Rashi and Nachmanides, the world of the Talmud, of 4th and 5th century rabbinic Palestine or Babylonia, or the Bronze and Iron Ages of the Bible. But for me at least, much of the charm of Judaism, the enchantment of Torah, comes from the invitation to the magical, alien world that it offers.
This is not about dusty antiquarianism but truly a different reality. The Talmud is framed as a legal text yet it deals in situations that appear surreal, always pointing to a secret, as Jung said, not immediately evident at the surface level. So too with the classical medieval commentaries on the Torah and Talmud, whether it’s Rashi with his casual references to mythological beasts or Nachmanides with his evident comfort in citing a text on black magic in an otherwise “rational” discussion on Deuteronomy. The most gifted rabbis I have personally encountered, like Daniel Lapin, would open a door, if only by a crack, on that hidden, unfamiliar world with its layers of meaning.
Am I guilty of seeing religion as escapism? I don’t think so. I know about the ways people have of finding escape from blank, mundane realities. Cocktails will do it, up to a point. I’m aware that lots of modern adults who find religion seek escape. My wife graduated from a right-wing Catholic college and keeps up with some of her classmates. They write blogs about arcane religious and philosophical topics, heavy with references to St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. They decorate their blogs with medieval-style graphic designs. Some of these people are clearly living in a fantasy role-playing universe where they get to pretend it’s still the Middle Ages. I’ve known Jews like this too, who enjoy too much the dress up and costume aspect of ultra-Ort
For me, the fantastic dimension of Judaism points to another side of reality that our dry, desiccated secular age hates and denies. It reminds me that this pancake-flat world that Richard Dawkins prefers to imagine is not all there is. At least it’s not all there may be. That gives me hope, and that is why I love it.