Jewish legends: Reading against the fur
The stories of the sages that appear in the literature known as the aggadah present the rabbis not as saints or angels, but rather as all too human. Shmuel Faust provides an introduction to the genre
Sipurei Hadrama Hatalmudit (Agadata: Stories of Talmudic Drama), by Shmuel Faust.
Dvir Publishers (Hebrew) 496 pages, NIS 94.
Jewish legends, Haim Nahman Bialik wrote, “are fragments of beautiful pebbles polished by many waves over many generations until the sea discharges them on the shore shining and smooth.” Indeed, the most prominent characteristics of the aggadot (Hebrew for “legends”) of the Talmud and midrash, also known as rabbinic literature, are their brevity, their concision and their perfect, circular design.
Aggadot, like fables, Zen koans and haikus, contain the minimum that a story requires, which is always more than it seems at first reading. They often reveal a “double bottom” − an image I first learned about from Ruth Calderon at the (secular) Alma Home for Hebrew Culture in Tel Aviv, which led me to reconsider Bialik’s pebble − or to be more precise, to consider the untrained readers who keep rolling the smooth, round pebble around in their hand, but can’t penetrate the secrets hidden within its perfect form. Such readers, and even more than them, readers who make do with only a quick glance at the aggadot, may well assume that they are vague, childish, stupid, or even just preachy and didactic.
Another daring and mischievous image comes from Calderon’s recommendation to read rabbinical literature the way one strokes a pet − first in the direction of the fur and then against it. Reading in the direction of the fur delivers the actions in the story in a way that suits the values of their time, while reading against it reveals the subversive elements, whether it be an expression of discomfort with the norms of the period in which it was written or criticism of Jewish law.
“Agadata,” by Dr. Shmuel Faust, a scholar of rabbinic literature, is a welcome addition to the growing list of books that make such stories more accessible and offer interpretations of them. Among such books already on the shelves are Calderon’s “The Market, the Home, the Heart,” “Eight Love Stories from the Talmud and the Midrash,” by David Zimmerman, and two books of talmudic readings by Emmanuel Levinas.
But Faust’s book, based on articles published originally in the culture supplement of the Hebrew paper Makor Rishon (for which he was awarded the Education Minister’s Prize for work in Jewish culture), is more than just another addition to the bookshelf. “Agadata” lays foundations; it is jam-packed with nearly 70 brilliantly interpreted stories, which are preceded by a several introductory texts, amounting to some 50 pages, that put the aggadot into context.
These introductory texts are written, like the entire book, with clarity and momentum, and serve to instruct readers about the history and characteristics of Hebrew aggadot and various scholarly approaches to them. All the aggadot in this book are about “the deeds of the sages,” to use Bialik’s term, meaning that they center around the talmudic sages − who were far from being saints, even if many laymen thought otherwise.
The stories reveal the way the sages dealt with ethical conundrums and internal struggles, as well as with the rabbis’ failures and even moral crimes. “The role of the stories is not that of the court poet who must always offer praise, but that of the preacher at the gate, an intellectual, whose aim is to move people toward improvement,” Faust writes. “These stories are meant to arouse thought, shake people up, tease the imagination and improve the discussion.” There’s nothing more heartening than the discovery that the author, who could have been satisfied with simply stating his guiding principles, is also a brilliant interpreter, fighting for the honor of the army of humanism, the possessor of a free and anti-establishment spirit.
Artless, authentic morality
In this light, another thread that runs through the book is the open criticism of organized, establishment religion and a preference for artless, authentic morality, even when it contradicts social norms or accepted beliefs. The clash between these approaches is evident in the very first story, “The Divorced” (the titles are the author’s), from Bereshit Raba, a midrashic commentary on Genesis. The opposition here is between the community leaders’ practice of showering their city’s poor with charitable donations in an attempt to break a drought, and the personal compassion of one individual who has pity on a divorced woman and gives her a few coins, an act interpreted by the townspeople as an offense and even as the reason for the drought (the suspicion being that they were given in exchange for sexual favors).
Expressions such as “fasting custom” and “fasting campaign,” which Faust uses to describe the community leaders’ response to a drought, are some of the critical tools the author employs to actualize the ancient texts. His contemporary terminology is also a prominent stylistic element of the free interpretation I found reader-friendly and entertaining to just the right degree, and that make the Talmud and midrash accessible to the reader. Many of the names of the subheadings are in a contemporary Israeli style (“Kind of Like This,” “The Foreign Ministers and the Interior Ministers,” “That’s No Way to Build a Wall”), though on the other hand, the book’s six main sections are called, in more traditional fashion, “Gate of Compassion,” “Family Gate,” “Gate of Honor” and “Gate to Another World.”
Avoiding the ‘greatest hits’
The author demonstrates originality and daring in his decision not to include the “greatest hits” from among the aggadot, but rather stories that are less familiar and have been less subject to study, but which are no less lovely and intriguing. Faust’s readings are never automatic; they contain an enormous passion for the subject and true liberalism.
And so, for example, in a legend about the destruction of the Temple that appears in Tractat Gittin, a man appears to be completely unresponsive to his wife.
Faust approaches the story cautiously, acquiring the sympathy of feminist readers and only then revealing the double bottom: the woman’s unresponsiveness, at least as great as the man’s, which makes the story many times more interesting and complex. It seems to me that more thoughtful feminists will also prefer it like this, and grant Faust an award for apportioning the blame more equitably, and also for standing by both the foreigner and the poor.
Another other, the ultimate other, is one of the two protagonists of the story that ends the book, which is less of a story and more of a theological argument between the heretic Elisha ben Abuya (who is referred to in rabbinic literature as “Aher,” which means “Other”) and his student Rabbi Meir. Again, throughout the book, here too the tendency is to ignore the relationship between man and God, and concentrate on what goes on between people. The story emphasizes not only the legitimacy of a multiplicity of voices, but also how essential they are to the fabric of human life.
“Agadata” is a wonderful, fascinating book, and instructive in a profound sense. Religious extremism is rising, giving Judaism and the believing public a bad name. In these evil times − when women are being silenced and their faces erased, when love of Israel entails hating foreigners, when social protest is becoming hoarse − we need it more than ever.
Shoham Smith, a regular contributor to Haaretz Books, is author of the recent “Ha’aggadot Shelanu” (The Book of Our Legends: A Treasury of Hebrew Stories for Children).