What is Aggadah, and How to Read It

By Elli Fischer
Thursday, July 7, 2011

Although the Talmud is best known for its discourse on Jewish religious law (halakhah), its pages contain a vast amount of non-legal material, including ethical and theological teachings, interpretations of biblical narratives (midrash), excurses on topics from magic to brain surgery to dream interpretation, and stories pertaining to post-biblical events and personalities. This assortment of material is known collectively as aggadah, and the breadth of this category shows that for Talmudists, the only useful distinction was between halakhah and everything else.

To be sure, though aggadah was marginalized in most rabbinic circles, it was never completely neglected. Various schools of thought emerged on how to read aggadah. By default, one might take these multifarious texts (however outlandish some may seem) at face value, and then either accept or dismiss them. But many have interpreted aggadah non-literally, as esoteric wisdom employing symbols to be decoded by initiates into the worlds of medieval philosophy or Kabbalah.

Much aggadic history was composed years—even centuries—after the supposed events it recounts.  But where the rabbis gave straightforward, non-fantastical accounts of periods they had themselves witnessed (such as the events around and subsequent to the destruction of the Temple), it was assumed that they could be relied upon to accurately preserve events from living memory.  And for a long time, these ostensibly firsthand narratives eluded the debate over literal vs. non-literal interpretation. 

But this changed with the rise of Jewish historiography in the 19th century. This school held that in weighing the religious significance of events over the precise reconstruction of the events themselves, the rabbis accidentally or deliberately rewrote the historical record. To take just one example, the Talmud records that 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva's students died of croup during the period between Passover and Shavuot because they did not treat each other with respect. Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891) theorized a historical nucleus within the rabbinic embellishment: Rabbi Akiva's students joined the Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome and died in battle.

A century later, Jacob Neusner, working in the United States, took developments in the field of textual criticism to their farthest conclusion and discarded the premise that talmudic stories could be of any historical value. He and his many students treated these stories as rabbinic inventions that tell us nothing of the events they represent and can only provide access to the ideals, concerns, and values of the rabbinic authors (about whom we also know nothing, except for rough approximations of where and when they lived).

And yet, the past decades have seen a return to the study of aggadah for its historical value, though in a markedly different way.  Talmudists have begun to study these legends not in order to reconstruct the historical record but for the information they can impart about the rabbinic culture that produced them and the broader culture in which the rabbis lived. Thus, for example, instead of reading talmudic stories about the high priest Simon the Just in order to find out about Simon the Just, one might study those stories in order to understand how Simon the Just was imagined, and what he represented, within the rabbinic culture of a particular temporal or geographical moment.

Moreover, by comparing conflicting accounts of the same events as recorded in different rabbinic texts (most notably the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds), it is possible to detect patterns in the development of Jewish culture across the times and places of the texts' production. This shows how the rabbis sought to rework received stories so as to make them address the issues and anxieties concerning them in the present. Differing traditions about, for example, the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek thus reflect not varying historical accounts of a single event, but various ways in which the rabbis came to terms with the loss of the Jews' uniqueness as the people of the Torah, with the difficulty of adequately translating the Torah, and with the fear of misrepresenting the word of God.

What role, then, might these ancient legends play today? This last approach, which views the rabbis as active reinterpreters and reshapers of traditional stories to reflect contemporary problems, actually—and perhaps ironically—takes the task of interpreting aggadah out of the hands of the historians and places it back in the hands of thinkers and rabbis. It is they who must continue to fashion a usable past out of these shared Jewish memories, philosophies, and traditions.

A recently translated volume, Rabbi Binyamin Lau's The Sages: Character, Context & Creativity (the first in a series of which three volumes have already appeared in Hebrew, to great popular success and acclaim), provides an instructive test case. This history of the Second Temple period falls short of academic standards and hearkens back to premodern efforts, attempting once more to reconstruct the biography of Simon the Just. That Lau himself holds a doctorate in Talmud and liberally cites from even recent scholarly literature about the era he discusses only seems to render his work even more disappointing. To be sure, he is anchored in and constrained by the scholarly consensus in ways that other contemporary Orthodox historiographers of the rabbinic era clearly are not.  Nevertheless, his creative attempts to cast ancient disputes and movements in ways that almost inevitably correspond to some contemporary analogue give Lau's work the feel of a speculative if not fanciful retelling.

Yet Lau, a 21st-century rabbi and leading figure in liberal Orthodox southern Jerusalem, deserves to be treated as fairly as the rabbis of 5th-century Babylonia or 3rd-century Palestine.  That is to say, he should be read as a rabbi and not as a historian—an approach affirmed by the book's origins as a Sabbath afternoon synagogue lecture series.

Approached in this way, The Sages succeeds in doing what rabbinic historiography or storytelling ought to do: digest and interpret earlier histories, memories, and traditions in a manner that allows them to speak to the current moment. Thus a discussion of Honi the circle-drawing rainmaker becomes a critique of contemporary reliance on alleged miracle-workers; the failure of the ancient rabbis to stand up to the Zealots in the last days of the Second Temple becomes a critique of the passivity of contemporary rabbinic leadership; and Hillel prefigures modern rabbis who seek to chart a course between fealty to tradition and contemporary relevance.

In his book Zakhor, the late historian Yosef Haim Yerushalmi suggested that Jewish historians could no longer be tasked with making meaning out of the Jewish past. It is up to other figures—perhaps rabbis—to shape the dispassionate analysis of historians into a new telling of the Jews' old stories. Lau's The Sages steps into that breach.

Elli Fischer, who lives in Israel, is a writer and translator and blogs at adderabbi.blogspot.com.

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