Monday, December 29, 2008

them bones, them bones

Aggadah #3 in today's reading reveals the rabbis engaged in a debate about the nature of the narrative of the Tanach. The question at hand is how we should read the mass resurrection that occurs in the famous story of Ezekiel and the Valley of the Dry Bones: is it to be taken literally as a historical account, or figuratively as a parable meant to teach the reader that God will eventually restore the Israelites from their exile? While there are other examples in Torah of individual, recently-deceased people being restored to life (like the son of the Shunnamite woman in the story of Elisha) and of miraculous rescues, if the Valley of the Dry Bones is to be read as a historical event, it is surely one of the most fantastical events in Tanach, a dramatic reversal of the natural order. The account also occurs-- in both the book of Ezekiel and here in Sefer haAggadah-- in the context of other prophecies that are clearly framed as dreams, visions, or parables. Thus it is not surprising that this story engenders a certain amount of angst among the rabbis who have a stake in the Tanach as a literal/historical account.
In our aggadah, three opinions are presented, and each represents a different approach to the text. R. Eliezer and R. Joshua both imply that the people were brought back to life simply as a kind of rhetorical strategy for God-- a way for God to dramatically illustrate a point-- because they are revived, sing, and then die again. The quote R. Eliezer selects to put into the mouths of the resurrected emphasizes God’s role as judge and redeemer, while the quote R. Joshua selects emphasizes God’s power. According to this interpretation, all of the events in the Tanach are to be read as an exposition of God’s nature, will, and relationship to the world.
On the other hand, R. Eliezer son of R. Yose claims that the resurrected people lived out full lives, went back to Israel, married, and had children, and R. Judah ben Betera asserts that he is the descendant of one of these people and brings an artifact to prove it. This is the most literalist reading, a statement that everything in Tanach is a historical account that relates to us and to our physical being in the world.
The final option presented is that of R. Judah, who says that the story is a “true event that served as a parable.” R. Judah refuses to let the historicity go, but tells us that the story’s status as a parable is just as important a function. Here R. Judah acknowledges the power of a story as story, the strength of narrative.
The option not explored in this aggadah is perhaps the one that makes the most sense to us—that the story is (only) a parable, and is meant to be read as a prophetic vision in which God reveals to Ezekiel that despite the fact that the people of Israel are currently lifeless and abandoned, they will one day be returned to their full vitality. This story is one that has repeated itself throughout Jewish history. As one of my friends said this weekend, “Every generation thinks that Judaism is about to die out, and lo and behold, there are still Jews.”
If our tendency is to read Tanach as Myth, as powerful story that informs our understandings of the human search for relationship to God, then how do we relate to aggadot that, at most, are willing to acknowledge that a story might also be a parable in addition to being a historical account? Are we inheritors of the same interpretive tradition we are reading?


BZ said...

The final option presented is that of R. Judah, who says that the story is a “true event that served as a parable.”

Fascinating. I had understood "Be'emet, mashal hayah" as "For real, it was a parable." I guess I'm reading my own biases into it, and the English translator is reading his.

The literalist readings remind me of "There was a ben soreir umoreh [rebellious son], and I sat on his grave."

General Anna said...

Aha-- the one time I don't read the Hebrew before I blog... BZ, I would also have interpreted "be'emet, mashal hayah" as R. Judah saying that it was definitely a parable. Interesting that the translator chose to read it the other way.

Richard Friedman said...

Sorry for the late comment. When I read the passage (in Hebrew only), I read both R' Yehuda and R' Nehemia in the way BZ sets out -- "Truly, it was [only] a parable." This seems to be how Rashi reads R' Nehemia's statement in the source (Sanh. 92b): on "b'emet," Rashi says "b'berur" -- "as a clarification."

I initially assumed that R' Nehemia was simply clarifying what R' Yehuda meant. On reading the translation quoted by GA, I think that the two may be disagreeing: R' Yehuda may be saying what the translation says -- it was factual and it also served as an archetype for the national renaissance, but R' Nehemia may be saying that, "In truth, it was [only] a parable."