I don’t know how many of you have seen or watched the Amazon Studios cable television show “Transparent,” produced by the brilliant Jill Soloway and starring Jeffrey Tambor. The series examines the sensitive issues of gender and sexuality. Called “Transparent” because of a 70-something father who transitioned into a woman, it explores difficult issues that go with an entire family — a Jewish family. It is intriguing, complex and challenging. At times it felt meshuggah, but it raises issues that families and society are looking at.
Initially, I thought that it was called “Transparent” because of the parent who changed his identity. But I began thinking about it in light of another film, a Disney Pixar film ostensibly made for children called “Coco,” because, although these are two films that could not be more different, in essence they deal with very similar issues. Those issues are ancestry and borders.
“Transparent” introduced me to a concept that I wasn’t fully aware of. The concept is “epigenetics.” You all know what genetics is, correct? We learn from genetics how we are the inheritors of a genetic code that determines our potential for a vast variety of things: our eye color and height, as well as almost everything about us. We may inherit the gene for diabetes, and we learn that our behaviors may determine whether or not we actually become diabetic. It’s true also with intelligence and it’s true with personality. Genetics determine certain things and create the possibilities or tendencies for others.
So, what is epigenetics? This is a bit more difficult and not yet in the realm of a certain science. Epigenetics is about the way experiences of the past, even generations gone by, impact our own personalities and behaviors. Trauma that was experienced by — let’s say, your great-great-grandparent — can actually become part of your genetic code … and you carry that too. Experiences and behaviors are not just passed on through teaching and socialization; they are actually carried biologically. And that might mean they need exploration, an outlet. They need expression.
In “Transparent” there is an underlying story of a family in prewar Nazi Germany. Without explicitly stating it, we see scenes that may reflect behaviors that are carried through the generations.
“Coco” is as different as one might think. Yet this Pixar film is the story of a little boy’s search for a life in music. His search is rooted in disparate generations of his family that have denied music because of a great-great-grandfather who was a musician and left the family to pursue his dream. The matriarch in the family denied music for the rest of the family and that restriction carried on for generations. Transparent is what is obvious to see … and in both films, characters are exploring what is not obvious.
In “Coco,” Miquel, the sweet little boy, wants to express his musical love and talent. We see his relationship, through a fantasy scene with the generations long-gone that came before him. It seems like fantasy, but it is much more; there is a connection to the dead.
I think about this a lot. We have this connection. We connect every time we say Kaddish. We connect every time we recite the Amidah. We invoke Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. By doing so we are somehow given the opportunity, if not to give them life, then to allow them to live in us through their lives and through their experiences which we have learned about, that we have been taught and keep alive.
And this is enchantment. Most of us discard the conversation with spirits of the past as if it is a fairy tale, a myth, or superstition. Yet we keep doing it in the context of our tradition because we have learned that ancestors continue to speak and continue to teach. Some need to be given new voices.
In “Coco,” Miguel goes to the land of the living dead. The film was released in Mexico the week after Dio de las Muertas — a Mexican Yizkor. It is a fantasy. It is an enchanting film.
Why do I speak of this now? It has to do with enchantment. The parshah we read begins with a ritual that seems like hocus pocus; it reads like magic. A red heifer is burned on the sacrificial altar. Its ashes are mixed with water and the solution is used to purify those who have had contact with the dead. It makes them pure, yet those using the solution somehow become impure. The sages and thinkers of our tradition were very confused by this. The rabbis even say that the wisest man of all, King Solomon, could not explain it. And we have learned since then that the perfect red heifer is an impossible being.
It is an enchanting ritual. Without understanding what it means, it teaches us about the boundaries between the living and the dead.
So this week, and some of you have heard me speak about this, I began to research “enchantment.” (Research today is “googling.”)
I came to a history of Marie Curie. She, as you know, was a great doctor and scientist, an extraordinary thinker. She identified radium and was responsible for x-rays. She was the first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize. She was part of a generation of thinkers, scientists, psychologists, philosophers and academics who were very concerned about the devastating impact of superstitions, cultic practices and mysterious beliefs that were playing havoc on the development and well-being of the world — particularly Europe — at the time. They debunked myths in the face of objective realities and science. It led to a period known as the time of disenchantment. Yet the story of Madame Curie is interesting, because later in her life she became interested in the paranormal and enchanting ways of looking at the world.
A great many theorists have argued that precisely what makes the modern world “modern” is that people no longer believe in spirits, myths, or magic. Even theorists who have challenged grand narratives of secularization often assume that modernity produces a disenchanted world. The age of myth is allegedly over; the spirits have vanished, and vibrant nature has been subjugated.
A philosopher named Jason Josephson-Storm argues in his book The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences, that as broad cultural history goes, this narrative is wrong. Our era is far from mythless. Belief in spirits continues to be widespread. Vitalized nature has been a persistent philosophical counter-current, and even attempts to suppress magic have failed more often than they have succeeded.
Josephson-Storm also makes the case that the philosophers and thinkers engaged in the break of modernity from the premodern past actually used enchantment to promote disenchantment. Hence, I contend that the whole notion of “modernity” as a rupture that undergirds a host of disciplines is itself a myth.
And this intellectual thinker, Josephson-Storm, makes the claim that philosophy, and sciences such as anthropology, sociology, and psychoanalysis have root in enchantment.
Sometimes, after the gathering of data through critical research, the claims of the mythic and mysterious and even superstitious are born out, and sometimes not. Magic and superstition can actually be dangerous when we ignore reality. But sometimes they are rooted in intention which leads to greater knowledge.
They can also inspire, be enchanting, be enriching, and lead to more depth of understanding.
The socialist Max Weber wrote: “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.”
Bruno Bettelheim was one of the great child psychologists of the twentieth century and perhaps none of his books has been more influential than his revelatory study of fairy tales and their universal importance in understanding childhood development.
Analyzing a wide range of traditional stories, from the tales of Sindbad to “The Three Little Pigs,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “The Sleeping Beauty,” Bettelheim showed how the fantastical, sometimes cruel, but always deeply significant narrative strands of the classic fairy tales can aid in our greatest human task — that of finding meaning for one’s life.
This gets me back to Torah and the Red Heifer … this enchanting ritual. It really may be a myth. It may even be bogus.
So what is necessary is our ability to read literature and tell the stories of generations past and be able to see them, not as history or science but as metaphor.
What do our stories teach us? Where are the commanding voices from those no longer here? How do we allow those who have gone before us to continue to teach?
We have a text, this parshah, and it tells us a lot even though the narrative is an enchantment. It teaches us about the profound chasm between life and death, and the need to understand the distinction. It teaches us about perfection and its impossibility in the realm of our lives or all creation.
We need to find faith in enchanting narratives and stories … and we need to know truth and not lose sight of scientific realities. We need to assimilate those to create meaning and instill values.
This is a wonderful challenge to being human: having a mind that can think, wonder, understand, learn, dream and fantasize … to create a world that reaches to the future in a way that gets better and better.