Tuesday, August 26, 2008

1:1:13-27 (Aggadah and Halakha)

Thoughts indeed! This post will certainly respond to BZ’s apt point with regard to today’s texts – such a stark division between halakha and aggadah.

As though one could divide the dewfall (see Sifrei, Ha’azinu, #13 on our page). A potpourri of Torah varietals is one thing (see Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5, #15 on our page), but once one gets into the business of separating genera, of measuring out Torah in labeled quanta (Vayikra Rabbah 15, #17 on our page), then the specter of privileging one kind over another lurks not far behind. Soon aggadah is pocket change to halakha’s big bills (Yerushalmi, Horayot, source #22), and aggadah’s darshanim cheap trinket-salesmen to halakha’s jewlers. Even then, aggadah may be granted a comforting and healing role, but it is seen as the medicine of the sick and weary, the ersatz-currency of a devastated land of Torah, in the view of some of the elite (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2, source #20).

In truth, aggadah shapes what the great legal scholar Robert Cover, of revered memory, calls the “normative universe” of our lived tradition. Aggadah defines the landscape of our world as we see it through our Judaism, collectively and personallly. Law-making, according to Cover, is nothing less than world-making. The ways we shape in practice – our respective halakhot – are inextricable from the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. "Normative intelligibility," says Cover – that is, the kind of sense that actions make in any given culture – “inheres in the communal character of the narratives that provide the context of that behavior.” Or, a more famous dictum of Cover’s, “For every constitution there is an epic.” Which is why the Torah begins with narrative, with Bereshit, and not Ha-Chodesh ha-zeh yihiye lachem rosh chodashim (“This month shall be the first for you”), the first law the children of Israel receive on leaving Egypt. As the laws evolve, so do the stories, and vice-versa.

We are in trouble, Jewishly, when our aggadah and halkakha drift apart – when, for example, the ways we treat certain people in our various communities correspond more to stories generations past would tell than to the sense we make ourselves in our own time – sense that can and should be Torah, too, new flowerings nourished by the timeless dew.

So do not regard anyone as beneath or beyond engaging in a discussion or a shared exploration of aggadah (see Yerushalmi, Pesachim 5a, our #18). When we write off a person or a group as too crass or too distant to share in hearing the stories we ourselves tell ourselves, then we exclude, to the same extent, the possibility of existing together with that person or that group in true community, in a grand and lively, okay sometimes tumultuous conversation reaching toward redemption. (Bring it on!)

“Redemptive communities,” according to Cover are defined by “(1) the unredeemed character of reality as we know it, (2) the fundamentally different reality that should take its place, and (3) the replacement of the one with the other”. That 1-2-3 is the dance of aggadah hand in hand with halakha – the sacred dance of Torah – and guess who is leading.

So say that Torah has facets (e.g. Avot deRabbi Natan 28, source #16). Say that a true meal of Torah is the bread of halakha with the water of aggadah. But do not make out aggadah to be the wine of luxury to halakha’s essential grain, unless your metaphor is the Shabbat table, where the wine sanctifies the eating and gives it sense, makes it mitzvah, makes it story.

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