Monday, August 25, 2008

1:1:1-12 (The Meaning of Aggadah and the Parable) -- Why Do Aggadah?

Bruchim ha’ba’im to Sefer Ha-Bloggadah! I am so honored to be the first poster on this wild two-year ride on which we are embarking. Before I share some thoughts on this first page of meta-aggadot, I’ll say a few words of introduction.

As we say in my adopted hometown of Jerusalem, they call me Sara Meirowitz. I am a long-time NHC participant, editor, writer, teacher and student of Jewish texts, freelance Jew worldwide. I hail from the Boston area (Cambridge specifically) and now make my home in the holy city, and I’m proud to be representing this daf yomi project on the other side of things, in partnership with my terrific havruta QueenDeb. I will be blogging on alternate Mondays (alternating with the lovely General Anna) on all topics grammatical, poetic, interconnected. I love Tanakh and aggadah and I’m thrilled to explore this treasure tome with you all!

On to today’s readings:

This first section marks an introduction to the study of aggadah and answers the unstated question: why bother? If aggadah does not give “the power to prohibit or to permit, to declare clean or to declare unclean” (1:5), what indeed is its role in our rabbinic/halakhic tradition? Several of the parables gathered in this section give their answers as to the importance of creative interpretation, and I found their juxtaposition a fascinating illumination of Bialik’s goals in gathering this collection:

* Aggadah as a key to God’s plan: as seen in the first passage of today’s reading, the nature of aggadah is intimately connected with the nature of “Him by whose word the world came into being” (1:1). The idea that God’s nature rests in homiletical stories seems theologically radical, especially when contrasted with the limitation on aggadah’s decision-making power as quoted above in para. 8. This feature of aggadot as in and of themselves holy can also be seen in their being analogized to “delights of the sons of men” (1:9) and to the fragrance of lilies (1:10). Indeed, one feature of aggadot which is praised—in contrast to halakhot—is their accessibility to all (1:11), something which I hope we’ll see in this daf yomi project.

* Aggadah as a key to understanding Torah: this seems to be one of the most common understandings of what aggadah can do—explicate a difficult passage, fill in the gap in a narrative. The superlative parables about King Solomon in the third passage epitomize the ways in which aggadah can be seen metaphorically as a goad, a path, a handle for a pot of boiling water, a bucket for a well of cold water. These explanations pair well with the understanding that aggadah’s strength lies in its comprehensibility; while it may not hold literal truth, it can lead the reader through potential obfuscations towards Torah’s truths.

* Aggadah as whetting the appetite: what one might call the “amuse-bouche” purpose of aggadah, it makes you want to read more Torah. We see this in the analogy to manna, which “draws a man’s heart [to Torah] even as water [draws the heart of a thirsty man]” (1:8). I am reminded of the poem by Billy Collins, where he says that “the trouble with poetry is/that it encourages the writing of more poetry.” Whether or not aggadah itself holds divine secrets, whether or not it can show the path towards Torah, these homiletical stories can whet the appetite for learning Torah of all sorts. I especially liked the final aggadah of this section, which I quote in its entirety: “As certain as a formal covenant is the assurance that he who studies Aggadah from a book will not soon forget it” (1:12). I am confident that our interactive project here will have this effect to an even greater extent.

As a literary sort, I have my own answer as to why Aggadah is valuable: the narrative structure of a parable can compel analysis and inquiry in a way entirely different from a straight-up midrash halakhah or talmudic discussion. Humans express deep truths through narrative art, and whether or not a story really happened has very little bearing on whether it is affective or honest. The traditional project of aggadah is a way to engage in the most deeply human of projects, to insert rabbinic meaning into the canonical text and thus re-enliven it. And by our rereading of these aggadot, inventing and reenvisioning our own interpretations, may we come to engage in all these facets of the aggadic process.

Hizku V’Imtzu!

--Sara Meirowitz


NeilLitt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NeilLitt said...

One question raised here especially caught my eye: "If aggadah does not give 'the power to prohibit or to permit, to declare clean or to declare unclean' (1:5), what indeed is its role in our rabbinic/halakhic tradition?" I am not a trained reader, so my reading may be way off, but is it not possible that 1.5 is intended as a cautionary message-- i.e., that masters of aggadah should not use their rich allusions in halakhic disputes, because to do so would lead am haaretz astray?

In the same spirit, 1.11 may make a distinction between the exemplary aggadot that are "readily understood and deemed right by all men"-- i.e., it may be suggesting that only the best of the simple parables that are not subject to misunderstanding may be safely taught in the public square.

I use these readings as a foundation for musings about the current election in my own blog at Daf Am Haaretz.

Rabbi Alana said...

is it not possible that 1.5 is intended as a cautionary message-- i.e., that masters of aggadah should not use their rich allusions in halakhic disputes, because to do so would lead am haaretz astray?

It is indeed possible, however, first, some of our sages did indeed use aggadah asa source for halakhic reasoning ( the prohibition against female homosexuality is an interesting case in point. It rests entirely on a midrash. Even Maimonides, who would really like to figure out a way to prohibit woman on woman action, has to ultimately admit that the only way to do this is for the husband or father to specifically prohibit her, and then if she does it anyway, he flogs her (he likes flogging) for disobedience... but not for the act itself.

On the other hand, let's take aggadah in general (and less provoking) the rabbis clearly sometimes used aggadah and midrash to inform their halakhic thoughts, at least indirectly. Their stories of the rabbis are clearly meant to inform us about ways of approaching the world and to illustrate (sometimes) less clear halakhic points and reasons for approaching things a particular way. A good example of this is Tanur Shel Achnai, which makes a clear case -not what most people think it's about- avoiding the tyrnny of the amjority. One actually has to read the entire sugiya to get this, from the beginning discussion about the misuse of words and language, to the end , in the wrap up about not injuring through speech. The middle is a clear illustration that they do not believe that inclining after the majority is right if it leads us to incline after the majority to do evil - the rest of the verse not being mentioned in the narrative, but is clearly sitting there unvoiced, as we see the results of expelling one rabbi from the community and undoing his life's work simply because they disagree with him. Even thought God clearly agrees with their conquering of reason over miracles, nevertheless, the destroying a a person's life to do it, is clearly also not considered positive. SO how does aggadah tell us about halakhah here? It sets the warning boundaries of what is permitted in terms of human interaction. It informs us of the proper approach, and warns us of the limitations of being right.

Richard Friedman said...

I wonder whether some more focused analysis of the King Solomon parables might be productive. Of the various analogies in that passage, the simplest is of the mashal (parable) to the handles on the basket of fruit -- just as the fruit basket can't be lifted without the handles, the Torah words can't be understood, utilized, without the mashal.

But then why the other analogies -- when different rabbis suggest different analogies, and when the text (Shir HaShirim Rabba) records all of them, are we to understand that the other analogies record slightly different understandings of the role of the mashal from the understanding suggested by the fruit basket analogy?

Specifically, what of the analogy to the handle on the boiling pot of water? The handles on the fruit basket enhance our dexterity and reach -- we'd be unable to grasp the fruit without them. Perhaps the boiling pot analogy adds something; an attempt to grasp the Torah words directly would not be merely clumsy and unsuccessful, but would even be dangerous.

Then what of the analogy to the Theseus-like string tracing the path from the labyrinth entrance, and the analogy to the cutting down of the reeds in order to blaze a path through what would otherwise be an impenetrable and bewildering thicket? Does the mashal serve not simply by making each piece of fruit in the basket (each word of Torah) graspable, but by helping us make sense of the relationships _among_ Torah words, and by enabling us to negotiate the entire Torah system?

I'm not sure these interpretations are entirely satisfying. However, the presentation by the text of several different analogies seems to call for some effort to understand how each of those analogies works and what are the possible differences of understanding that are reflected in the different analogies.

anotherqueerjubu said...

Before responding to the post, I want to comment on some of the comments.

First, about the “cautionary message” that masters of aggadah do not rule in halakhic disputes. I come at this from the point of view of a performing storyteller. And one thing I have learned from telling stories to audiences: no one wants to be told what the story means. People want to figure it out for themselves. This is in fact a reason why I dislike so many traditional Jewish stories that end with an explanation of meaning and moral. Ugh. No true master of aggadah would do that to any audience — it shows a lack of respect.

Most of these stories are from an oral tradition. It is only when they were written down that they were layered with rabbinic commentary. A lively discussion after a story is told is one thing. A moral at the end is another. Thus, I disagree with the sentiment of 1:1:12 — a story that is read from a book is less effective than one heard. Just as the spoken word brought the world into existence, so these stories must be spoken — told with all the aliveness a master brings to the occasion. Of course, that’s the POV you should expect from someone who tells in performance.

For this reason, I was very happy to see one of our number bring up the Oven of Achnai so early on. Many people don’t tell the whole story because in fact it is extremely disturbing. But without it, the audience has a meaning handed to them, as opposed to an experience of community in crisis.

Storytelling is a way to give listeners a way to experience every character in the story in their own psyche. And come to a recognition of their story in the story they hear.

Oh this is going to be a fun couple of years.

Josh said...

(Sorry to be jumping in a bit late...)

Thereafter, everybody proceeded to enter and leave by that path

Might this, too, be a cautionary note? If we all went in and out of the Torah by the same path, would we not all be blind fundamentalists?

But the passage itself works against this, since it gives us not one, but five paths through the verse (even though they are all quite similar).

The power of Agaddah, it seems to me, lies less in its ability to explain Torah, than in its ability to open it to the imagination.