Adherents and detractors alike sometimes confuse religion with magic. The power (or powers) behind the universe may be manipulated by means of the correct execution of rituals or prayers as surely as with a propitious incantation. The rabbis encountered this view. On at least one occasion they recognized its appeal but dismissed it as sophomoric.
The stated purpose of the biblical ritual of the Red Heifer is to purify one who has been rendered impure through contact with a corpse. (Numbers 19:1-22) Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was once teaching this passage when a listener challenged him to explain how a potion comprised primarily of the ashes of a cow could possibly effect a change in a person’s condition. The rabbi satisfied his questioner by arguing that a procedure doesn’t have to be intuitive in order to work. The students, observing the exchange, were unimpressed with the implied argument for religion’s technical utility and they requested a more convincing answer. The rabbi replied, “Death does not in fact defile, nor does the Red Heifer actually cleanse, rather it is all simply a decree from God.”
The transition from “pure” to “impure” does not represent a change in reality but a change in status. It’s not as if a better microscope would detect the postulated impurity, nor that a better detergent could wash it away. The Judge of the Universe makes a ruling. As with any hearing, the case is decided because the appropriate authority ruled it so. Religion does not discover, it declares. Our categories are not eyeglasses through which we might describe more accurately, but prisms through which we might interpret and understand more deeply. The magic is not in manipulating the soul of our world, but in reclaiming the ecstatic experience of being in touch with its mystery.