I am a Conservative Jew. I am somewhere to the left of Orthodoxy and somewhere to the right of secularism and cultural Judaism. I see much of Judaism as a delicate balance between ideas in tension: contemporary thinking and tradition beliefs, individualism and communitarianism, particularism and universalism. Balancing between these opposites --- or wrestling with God --- is what Judaism is about. And aggadah fits nicely in this category.
Arnold Eisen argued that contemporary (non-Orthodox) Judaism is pluralistic and partial. I agree wholeheartedly. Different people strike the balance in different places, and (within some broad and perhaps vague limits) these are all legitimate forms of Judaism. And Judaism is not the only set of ideas and ideals that informs my beliefs and practices. Science, philosophy, and art (broadly defined) all play a role.
I had not thought much about midrash and aggadah until earlier this year when R. Bradley Artson gave a series of lectures at my synagogue on midrash. Until that point, I had thought of midrash as silly stories and simple parables. I'm a lawyer, and I tend to look at texts analytically. But that's exactly the wrong approach to take with midrash and aggadah. R. Artson's approach was to avoid all literal and historical questions. Trees talking? Fine. Joesph's bones having a discussion with Moses? No problem. Edomites employing detailed Talmudic logic in a discussion with God? Great. As soon as we ask "Did this really happen?" we are lost. Because these stories are not meant to convey literal factual information, and as soon as we start down that path, we are going the wrong way. Instead, we need to suspend all disbelief, get into the world of the story, and try to figure out --- in that crazy and bizarre worlds --- what on earth we can learn from the story.
This immediately raises the obvious question: why study such non-serious stuff?
I think Sara hit the nail on the head in the last paragraph of her post:
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.
The only thing I would add is that Jewish midrash and aggadah tend to be multilayered and quite complex. There's often not a single well-defined obvious lesson we take from the midrash. The Three Little Pigs would never have made it through the editing process. And so we different interpretations, multiple meanings, tension between these, and some deeper benefits from wrestling with all this.
Ben also asked if we think of midrash and halacha as inhabiting separate spheres. I don't, and here is at least one area of intersection. I see halacha --- like any legal or rule-based system --- as evolving as we obtain new information and as social conditions change. the change is not merely applying old rules to new situations (that certainly occurs) but we also modify the old rules in light of new situations and knowledge. The danger of this approach is that we simply turn Judaism into a Jewish flavor of contemporary mores and ideas. That trivialize Judaism as a religion in general and more specifically as a counter-cultural force, a "people who dwell apart" (Num 23:9).
R. Jacob Agus provided at least one way out of this problem. He argued that Jewish law is grounded on both traditional halachic rules and our understanding of deeper Jewish principals. Midrash helps inform the latter. As a result, modifications to halacha are not untethered from Jewish tradition, but instead are made in light of, and sometimes because of, traditional beliefs and practices. That's at least one area where midrash and halacha intersect.
Finally, midrash is simply fun. The stories are colorful and often humorous. My kids giggle at oven of Achnai midrash, imagining trees flying, water flowing backwards, walls bending, and a deep serious voice (frequently voiced by a 4-year-old) saying "Rabbi Eliezer is right!"
So lets have some fun, learn a little, and become better people.