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What’s the Dean Thinking About: The Numinous Power, and Storytelling

The RRC Board met earlier this month, and to open the session, Camp JRF director Rabbi Isaac Saposnik gave a d’var torah. He noted that this week’s Torah portion includes the first of four instructions to “tell your children” about the Exodus. Rabbi Isaac asked us to think about the key Jewish stories that we tell our children again and again. This got me thinking about the stories many of us were telling, or at least talking about, over winter break. For many of us, there was the EPIC battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness of the Star Wars saga. For many Jews, and especially for many Reconstructionists, the FORCE sounds strangely familiar. It’s a power that is all around us that can be used for powerful good; how similar is this to Mordecai Kaplan’s notion that “God is the power that makes for salvation.” The FORCE is also the source of all good and all evil, all light and all darkness—a  job description that both the prophet Isaiah (Isa 45:7) and the blessing over creation (yotzeir or) assign to God. Click here and here for more Star Wars related Torah from our students, which they created in December and posted on the college’s home page and on our Facebook page.

For novel-reading grown-ups in my circles, there was also a lot of talk about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which center on the relationship between the novels’ narrator, Elena, and her friend Lina/Lila. RRC student Nora Woods came into my office the other day to talk about this story and especially the character of Lila. Lila’s intense, magnetic, generative and sometimes destructive power had gotten Nora thinking about the theology of the priestly texts of the Torah. Our conversation then got me thinking about Elijah and Elisha, the biblical prophets who wielded supernatural power.

So that’s where I am. The Exodus, Star Wars, the Neapolitan stories . . . what do these have in common that leads us to receive them, recommend them, mull over them and talk about them with our friends?  All of these are stories about human experiences of a power outside ourselves that we sometimes feel and sometimes believe in. These are the experiences that historian of religion, Rudolph Otto, identified as experiences of the numinous: human experiences of a power that is profoundly extra-ordinary and disrupts the ordinary in terrifying and awe-inspiring ways. The numinous is a power that we experience but can’t quite define and whose reality we can’t prove through argument or analytic means.

That’s why we tell stories about it. In these stories, the power is a given. The narratives tell of how we humans interact with it and how this power shapes the experience of individuals, communities and, well, entire galaxies. We may not believe in the force, or in YHWH as described in the Bible. We may not even be convinced by the outsized character of Lila in Elena Ferrante’s novels. However, these stories attract us and compel us. They give us an opportunity to live—even if just for the length of the telling—in worlds in which that numinous power becomes concrete, identifiable and plays a starring role.