Following on BZ’s post on the introduction of the Sefer ha-Aggada on Sunday, here is an interesting interpretation of that same introduction that appears in an article by Andrea L. Weiss and William Cutter:
In the Hebrew introduction to Sefer ha-Aggada, Bialik and Ravnitzky use a sequence of images to articulate their motivation and methodology. First, they describe aggada as a tree with a solid trunk and savory fruit: a collection of core teachings, the finest yield of the creative spirit of the rabbis. But the tree also bears leaves that dry up and fall away, and year after year it thickens with crusty layers of bark. According to Bialik and Ravnitzky, from its beginnings the superior and the inferior aspects of aggada have been intertwined. It is from this tree that Jews nourished themselves for many generations; but in the process people introduced foreign elements, they distorted language, and they soiled the texts with repetitions and extraneous ideas.
Eventually, what had once been a magnificent palace, “the permanent dwelling place for the living spirit and soul of the nation,” turned into a museum, a lifeless building people would enter, look around, and leave. No longer a vital source of sustenance, and accessible only to a handful of Jews, aggada became an abandoned grove. Elaborating on the estrangement from classical Jewish sources they witnessed around them, Bialik and Ravnitzky wrote: “In our time not every person is familiar with ancient texts that have accumulated like mountains over several generations in order to find the gems beneath them. And certainly not everyone can assemble the tatters and patches into a complete cloth, the scattered broken pieces of stones into a building.”
Bialik and Ravnitzky resolved to remedy this situation by paving a road that would lead their fellow Jews from the abandoned grove to the palace restored to its former glory. In order to do so, they combed through volume after volume of Talmud and Midrash, filtering out what they considered familiar and distinguished aggados. . . . In the introduction to Sefer ha-Aggada, Bialik and Ravnitzky downplay the degree to which organizing and editing altered their primary texts. They cast themselves as conservatives, claiming to have made changes only when necessary to meet their goals. However, especially with longer, composite passages, we see that in many cases, preservation entailed significant adaptation.
Take, for example, their treatment of the moment in the book of Genesis when Joseph reveals in his true identity to his brothers. In the biblical account, Judah's heartfelt plea moves Joseph to tears. He quickly dismisses the Egyptians and declares: “I am Joseph, is my father still alive?” (Genesis 45:3). The midrashic sources offer two spins on this story. Some passages depict the scene as a bellicose encounter between Joseph and his brothers; others cast the reunion in a conciliatory light. In Sefer ha-Aggada, however, the episode appears as a tale of unmitigated terror and aggression. Blood oozes from Judah’s right eye as a sign of his rage. He roars with such ferocity that walls collapse and pregnant women miscarry. And finally Joseph reveals his identity, not because he is overcome with emotion, but because he fears his brothers will annihilate Egypt.
In this example, we see conservation and change on the very same page. Bialik and Ravnitzky moderately altered the wording of the original midrashim. They crafted a new version by subjectively selecting aggados from only one stream of rabbinic leaders and then weaved them together into a coherent narrative. . . .