May 19, 2024
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The Profound Secrets of Aggadah

Reviewing: “The Land of Truth: Talmud Tales, Timeless Teachings,” by Jeffrey Rubenstein. 2018. The Jewish Publication Society. Paperback. English. 328 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0827613089.

“Those who taught the TaNaKH metaphorically said, “If you wish to know the One who spoke and brought the world into existence, study Aggadah. Thus, you will come to know the Holy Blessed One and cleave to His ways” (Yalkut Shim`oni, `Ekev, #873).

Aggadah, the lore of the Talmud and the core of many of the Midrash collections, has too often been dealt with as the second-class citizen of the classical literature of the Jewish tradition. Those of us who have studied in yeshivot molded in the image of the great Lithuanian institutions of Torah learning have most likely experienced our rebbeim reaching a piece of “aggadeta” and telling us to move forward to the next halachic sugya of the masechta we were studying. Was this because the halacha was central to Jewish living and the aggadah less significant for that purpose? Was it because the halachic give-and-take of the Gemara developed intellectual sharpness more than the aggadic material? Or was it because the habit of skipping the “aggadeta,” which had become habitual in the world of the Lithuanian yeshiva, left many of our teachers bereft of a method for dealing with this material?

Whatever the reason for second-classing the Aggadah, if the Yalkut Shim’oni is to be believed, it has left us with a less direct way to know the Holy Blessed One and cleave to His ways. Fortunately for us, a new and important book restores Aggadah to its rightful place as the equal partner with halacha.

This exciting new work, “The Land of Truth: Talmud Tales, Timeless Teachings,” by Jeffrey Rubenstein, Skirball Professor of Jewish Thought and Literature at NYU, follows in the footsteps of Rambam and his view of Aggadah. In his “Commentary to the Mishnah Sanhedrin” and “Guide to the Perplexed,” Maimonides opined that there were three possible ways of approaching Aggadah. Two he rejected as not fit for intelligent people. The third, to deal with Aggadah as containing “profound secrets” and deep meaning, was the way of the wise.

Rubenstein’s treatment of Talmudic narratives is not philosophical, which was Maimonides’ understanding of the “profound secrets’’ of the Aggadah, but it is far from taking Aggadah at face value. His approach is to read aggadic passages in the Talmud and certain midrash collections as well-crafted and elegantly edited literature. Noting that a story of six to 10 lines in the Talmud can yield a treasure trove of significant symbols, puns, allusions to biblical narratives or other Talmudic passages not mentioned in the text but implied therein, Rubenstein seeks to impress the reader with HaZa”L’s genius not only as legalists but as literary authors par excellence. Consequently, using the best contemporary methods of literary criticism, Rubenstein unpacks the aggadot he deals with in order to show their magnificent artfulness but more importantly to reveal the gems of Jewish values that HaZa”L impart by means of these compact narratives.

To give one example of what Rubenstein’s approach has to offer the reader, here is a condensation of one of the Talmudic aggadot on which he comments:

The famous amora, Rava, relates a story in the name of Rabbi Tavut. Rabbi Tavut would never lie under any circumstances, even if it meant losing all his property. He once came to a town named Qushta, “truth” in Aramaic, where everyone always told the truth and no one died before his or her time. He married there, and given his honesty, thought he was in utopia.

One day a neighbor knocked on his door and asked for his wife, who at that moment was washing her hair. Thinking that it might be immodest of him to tell the neighbor his wife was washing her hair and therefore embarrassing to her, he said, “She is not here.” The end result was that his and his wife’s two children died. The people of Qushta came to him and asked him to leave the town lest he bring death upon all its residents (Sanhedrin 97a).

In Maimonidean fashion, Rubenstein does not take the story as fact but rather as a parable with a deep meaning. Indeed, internal contradictions seem to point to the fictional but meaningful nature of this aggadah. For example, Rav Tavut, “the good rabbi,” is described as someone who never lied even when he might sustain great loss. But he lies about his wife knowing full well that in Qushta that could cost one’s life.

Rava’s story is, according to Rubenstein, a cautionary tale about a utopia in which Truth is valued above all. Theoretically, such a place should be free of death and disease. But aren’t Rav Tavut’s wife’s dignity and privacy worthy of protection, and is that not a Jewish value as well?

Thus, the Rav Tavut narrative raises up an important question: If Truth is the one and only supreme Jewish value, is it possible to maintain others that seem to be just as significant, for example, kindness or peace? Indeed, is total commitment to any single value possible without doing damage to other values?

In answer to this question Rubenstein cites several other Talmudic and midrash aggadah passages. For an example of a Talmudic passage, he refers to the famous debate between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel as to how we dance before a bride. The House of Shammai says we should praise the bride as she really is. But the House of Hillel says, “A beautiful and graceful bride.” When the House of Shammai objected, quoting Shemot 23:7, “Keep distant from a false matter,” the House of Hillel retorted, “If someone made a bad purchase, should one praise it or deprecate it in his eyes? (Out of kindness) one should praise it in his eyes…” (Ketubot 16b-17a).

Clearly, there are times when Truth takes a back seat to other Jewish concerns, not the least of which are kindness and the maintenance of the sense of worth each person deserves.

Rubenstein repeats this kind of analysis for 16 Talmudic aggadot enhanced with supporting Talmudic and Midrashic material. His book is rightly named “The Land of Truth: Talmud Tales, Timeless Teachings.” By treating the Talmud’s Aggadah as he does, Rubenstein proves again what Maimonides knew: Our Sages’ seemingly farfetched narratives indeed held “profound secrets.” Once understood, these narratives open before us the vistas of insight that informed their era and continue to enlighten our own. Despite our distance in time and space from HaZa”L, we find the essence of our Jewish perspectives and faith in their sacred teachings.

By Michael Chernick

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