Sunday, August 31, 2008

1:2:32 - Plants and Trees With Attitude!

Genesis 1:11-12 covers the creation of plants. God says make some plants, and the earth makes some plants. The story is three sentences long. One might think this is all pretty simple and straightforward.

Not even close.

Our midrash here picks up on one seemingly minor textual inconsistency, and a comment from Rashi picks up on a different textual inconsistency. Juxtaposing these two gives us some pretty interesting conclusions. Let's start with the Torah text, and then discuss our midrash, Rashi's comment, and what we can make of all this.

Here's the Torah:
And God said: 'Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth.' And it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit, wherein is the seed thereof, after its kind; and God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:11-12)

Our midrash notes one subtle textual discrepancy in this story. God said to produce "herb yielding seed" but the earth actually brought forth "herb yielding seed after its kind". (That is, the seeds from these plants would themselves grow the same kind of plant.) Here's most of our Midrash:

[T]he grasses applied to themselves an a fortiori argument, saying: If God enjoined "after its kind" upon trees, which by nature do not grow up in promiscuous miscellany, how much more does it apply to us! Immediately each grass sprouted forth after its kind . . . . Then the angel of the universe declared, "The glory of the Lords endures forever; the Lord rightly rejoices in His works!"

Grass with attitude. God says do it one way, and the grass thinks it has a better idea and does it differently.

But things gets better. Here's another textual inconsistency. God said to create "fruit-tree bearing fruit" (עֵץ פְּרִי עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי), but the earth instead brought forth "tree bearing fruit" (וְעֵץ עֹשֶׂה-פְּרִי). Our midrash skips this problem, but Rashi picks up on it. "This implies that the taste of the tree should be the same as the taste of the fruit. However, it [the earth] did not do this, but rather: 'The earth sprouted forth... a tree producing a fruit,' but the tree itself was not a fruit."

Now the earth has attitude. God's original plan called for the entire tree --- branches, leaves, bark, everything --- to be edible. It would literally be a "fruit tree" that also bore fruit. But the earth decided it had a better idea and made regular trees instead. Rashi notes the consequences for the earth's disobedience. "Therefore, when Adam was cursed for his sin, it, [the earth] too, was punished for its sin and was [also] cursed."

This is remarkable. God issued a simple command to the earth: make some plants and trees. The grass --- after comparing itself to the trees, carefully thinking through the problem, and applying Talmudic reasoning --- decided to improve on God's plan. And then did! (And did so before it was even created. Talk about an over-achiever.) The earth on the other hand made the opposite move. God wanted super-trees, but the earth just created regular old ordinary trees.

But the most puzzling verse of all is the transition between God's commands and the much modified implementations of these commands: "And it was so." It most certainly was not so. God got very different grass and trees than he had commanded.

So what do we make of all this?

Here's my explanation. The divine plan for creation is not static. It is dynamic, and it includes creation's modifications of the divine plan for creation. We have a very important role in completing and continuing God's creation.

As many people have noted, we see this idea reflected in our shabbos blessings. We bless God for bringing forth bread from the earth. But God does not create bread. He only brings grain from the earth. People improve the grain and make the bread. And then we bless God for creating the fruit of the vine. Well, God may do that, but we are not eating grapes. We are drinking wine. And people improved the grapes to make the wine. Our blessings make no difference between the the products people make (bread, wine) and the raw materials God makes (grain, grapes), and in fact seems to confuse the two categories.

The reason for all of this, as I see it, is that the divine plan includes the potential to modify the divine plan. Grapes includes wine, wine includes grapes, bread includes grain, and grain includes bread. God and people work together, and we get some pretty good stuff.

The Torah notes that we are created in the image of God. And one important idea in Judaism (and other religions; hence the Latin) is imitatio dei: imitating God. God creates and modifies, and so should we.

This process is not limited to the physical world. It applies to halacha as well. God creates law. As I have argued elsewhere, God also modifies law. And so should we. Halacha cannot be a static and unchanging set of legal rules. Instead, it is up to us to create new rules and modify the old ones as changed conditions require changes in the rule. We should not do so out of convenience or laziness, but only to promote the highest ideals of Judaism.

This enterprise, like all such enterprises, must be undertaken with seriousness and careful thought. Note the two endings to our two stories. God rejoiced when the grasses made themselves better, but he punished the earth when it made trees that were worse. We should change things when we need to, but we need to try very hard to get it right.

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 2

Chodesh tov (happy new month), and congratulations to everyone on a great first week! This week we'll continue our extremely close reading of the creation story (Genesis 1), and at the end of the week, we'll move on to the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2-3). (Apologies for the inaccurately androcentric section title for Tuesday and Wednesday; I'm just taking it from the published English translation.) It seems appropriate that we'll be marking Rosh Chodesh with the creation of the moon, and entering the season of repentance with "original sin".

  • Monday - 1:2:36-43 (The Moon; The Variety of Creatures)
  • Tuesday - 1:2:44-53 (Man)
  • Wednesday - 1:2:54-64 (Man)
  • Thursday - 1:2:65-69 (The Upper Worlds and the Lower Worlds; Things Created at Twilight on Sabbath Eve; The Order of, and Changes in, the Work of Creation)
  • Friday - 1:2:70-74 (The Handiwork of the Holy One; In the World's Praise)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:2:75-89 (Eve; The Serpent and Sin)

Friday, August 29, 2008

Introduction of Friday blogger: Thing 1

I'm KRG and I'm one of two friday bloggers. I'm a rabbi, writer, and educator, and I've dedicated much of my life to social justice work. I don't fall neatly into the package of movements, but officially I'm Conservative.

MIdrash is the life blood of the halakhic system. I don't think that midrash was made by the sages in order to re-enliven Judaism, I think it was part of the great body of work and was never a separate thing. Today we think of midrash as good post-modernists do, busily locating ourselves here and there in relation to our matrices of self, but the rabbis had no such self-consciousness about that. For the sages, midrash was all of a piece with Torah (in the larger sense of the word). It was true in the finest sense of truth, which is why modern midrash is often so bad - it's written as if it were a novel or a story, when it's really more like a fairy tale, written through archetypes and the power of a lack of details that comes with stories told and retold for generations with plenty of room left for us to fill in ourselves - and to fill ourselves in. Midrash is meant to tell us about values, as opposed to rules. Rules are secondary in the sense that they come afterwards. The rules express the stories told in midrash.
The midrash tells us about our relationship with God, Halakha only tells us the recipe - it's as different as remembering the smell of my mother's wheatbread baking, and baking the bread from the recipe she gave me. One is my bones remembering love, and the other is how to make that love live for my son.

Bruce - Introduction and some thoughts on aggadah and midrash

Hi All. My name is Bruce, and I will be blogging on Sundays. I'm married and have two great kids (who seem to like midrash). I blog (along with my co-bloggers Diane and Steve, who will also be blogging here on Sundays) at Three Jews, Four Opinions. When not blogging, I work as an appellate lawyer.

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.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

1:2:13-14 “Heaven and Earth” or “Earth and Heaven”

1:2:14 R. Eleazar b. R. Simeon observed:  Why does Scripture at times put earth before heaven, and at other times put heaven before earth?  To teach that the two are of equal value.

This aggada is taken from Breishis Rabba I:15.  According to that midrash (which is quoted at length in Aggada 1:2:13, Beis Shammai hold that heaven was created first, while Beis Hillel hold that the earth was created first.  Beis Shammai bring as a prooftext Yeshayahu 66:1

The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool

and analogize to a king who first made his throne and then is footstool.

Beis Hillel bring as a prooftext Breishis 2:4

When the Lord God made earth and heaven

and analogize to a king who builds a palace, first building the first floor and then the higher floors on top of it.

R. Judah b. R. Ilai brings Tehillim 102:26 as a prooftext supporting Beis Hillel:

Of old You established the earth; the heavens are the work of Your hands

R. Hanin says that Breishis 1:1-2, which one might think support Beis Shammai,

When God began to create heaven and earth

actually supports Beis Hillel, translating the היתה as the pluperfect (“having been”)

the earth having been unformed and void

R. Yohanan quotes the Tannaim claiming that heaven was created first but earth was completed first.  R. Tanhuma brings as prooftexts Breishis 1:1 and 2:4:

When God began to create heaven and earth . . . . When the Lord God made earth and heaven

R. Simeon expresses amazement over the controversy, claiming they were simultaneously created like a pot and its lid, bringing as a prooftext Yeshayahu 48:13:

My own hand founded the earth, My right hand spread out the skies. I call unto them, let them stand up

As quoted in our aggada, R. Simeon’s son R. Eleazar argues that they are equal (in a passage that some interpret as supporting his father’s opinion and others as contradicting his father’s opinion.)

Equality of heaven and earth is further justified as the midrash notes that in Scripture

  • the order is usually Abraham-Isaac-Jacob but in Vayikra 26:42 Jacob-Isaac-Abraham;
  • that the order is usually Moses-Aaron, but in Shemos 6:26 Aaron-Moses;
  • that the order is usually Joshua-Caleb, but in Bamidbar 32:12 Caleb-Joshua
  • that the order is usually father-mother, but in Vayikra 19:3 mother-father

It is interesting to note that while the prooftexts appear to discuss the equality of heaven and earth from the perspective of God, one gets a very interesting observation when one re-reads this aggada from the perspective of humans.  That re-reading suggests that we must give equal importance to actions performed for the sake of the world as we give to actions performed for the sake of heaven – that our obligation to our fellow is just as important as actions done for the sake of heaven.  Perhaps, one might suggest, that a mitzva is most glorified when it is done both for the sake of heaven and the sake of our fellow.

[Note:  This post was made early and post-dated]

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

1:2:1:1-12 (The Creation of the Universe)

First an introduction..

I'm chillul Who?. I'm just a guy with a fondness for Torah and for stories with lessons. I'm looking forward to wandering through the orchards of Sefer ha-Aggadah with all of you, tossing around whatever thoughts, questions, and insights we are inspired to.

I expect my style in these Wednesday posts of mine to fall within the genre of the moralistic intellectual stoner. I want to know what the speakers and authors of the aggadot under discussion mean to say about right and wrong and about personal responsibility. I want to know how their conceptions of the world and of Divinity are different and the same as my own. I'll be sort of random. I doubt I'll dismiss much off-hand, no matter how dated a passage from rabbinic literature may appear. I'll likely spend more time turning it upside down and poking around inside, holding it up to the light calling out "dude, the colors in gotta check this one out..."


Now for the creation of the world:

It's somewhat strange to think that beginnings by themselves could be so controversial, and yet selection #4 concludes with Rav Huna presenting a teaching of Bar Kapara:

Were it not written in plain text in the Torah, it would be impossible for us to claim that "In the beginning, God created" all -- for the story starts with the Earth already present, "chaotic and empty" as it may have been.

Big Bang say what? And yet, in today's society the concept of a created universe is so ingrained that an otherwise-imaginative associate of mine found it impossible to conceive of an un-created, eternal universe -- despite knowing the scientific reality that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Everything has to come from somewhere, and everything has to have a beginning. Do you think this awareness came from our Torah? In the Greek cultural surroundings within which Chazal/our sages lives and taught, the predominant view was the opposite one: the world had always existed. There were no beginnings. Bereshit bara was a revolutionary, counter-intuitive proposition.

And talking of the Big Bang, what of the first three and a half selections for today? When members of Chazal discourage seeking knowledge of "what came before" creation and of "what is above or below" the universe or "to its left or right", what do they mean to say? Is the study of cosmology wrong? futile? Do the sages even mean scientific research as we know it? Is "creator" one of the characteristics of God we are not meant to emulate, like "the jealous one" or "the lone judge"? I'd always gotten the message that it was Jewish to go looking for answers and to learn as much as possible, and I've gotta say, I'm pretty fond of that message.

1:2:6 - A faulty proof for God

First of all, yay for my first post of substance here at the Bloggadah.
Second of all, sorry to whoever actually has this day, but I just about flipped my lid when I was reading this and I just had to jump in. I could barely contain myself.

1:2:6 exerts:
"A heretic came to Rabbi Akiva and asked 'Who created the world?' Rabbi Akiva replied, 'The Holy One, blessed be He.' The heretic said, 'Show me clear proof.' [...] Rabbi Akiva asked him, 'What are you wearing?' The heretic replied, 'A garment.' Rabbi Akiva asked, 'Who made it?' The heretic said, 'A weaver.' 'I don't believe you,' said Rabbi Akiva. 'Show me clear proof.'"

Okay. As an agnostic located just north of atheist, I get really upset about this particular proof for God's creation of the world.

Sitting on my desk as I write this is and iPod, a faily intricate and wondrous piece of technology. Do I assume that it is as naturally occuring as the trees I can see outside my window? No, I certainly do not. Why is this? Because I have seen, on the news and elsewhere, stock footage of factories full of workers in Asia and elsewhere creating just such intricate and wondrous pieces of technology.

In short, I have seen such devices being made and I have seen the people who make them.

Now, let us turn our attention to the trees I can see out my window as I sit here typing this. For the trees, there is no stock footage analagous to that which encourages me to believe that my iPod was made by human beings. Certainly, I have seen people plant trees. I have even planted trees myself, but I know that the tree is a sort of self-propelling system. Someday, the trees out my window will drop nuts and they will take root and grow new trees. I have even seen footage of scientists in laboratories, manipulating genomes and creating new types of plants. But even they cannot create the system that gave rise the trees' genetic makeup. No one can invent a way for genetics to work.

But never have I seen anyone, anything, or anygod create anything, including all of those things that we all call naturally-occuring. For the iPod, there is a pattern: I have seen similar things created by humans, thus I can assume that humans create iPods and similar devices.

For the tree (or the mountain, or the sun, or whathaveyou) there is no pattern: I have never seen one created thus i cannot assume that anyone, anything, or anygod created them. I can make no assumptions.

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.

1:1:13-27 (Aggadah and halachah): Left unsaid

Maybe I'm missing something, but amid all the comparisons between aggadah and halachah (which are fascinating, and which I'm sure we'll hear a lot about in today's regular posts; halachah = bread and aggadah = wine?!), there seems to be no suggestion that aggadah and halachah have any effect on each other; they are treated as entirely independent spheres of Torah. For me and others, the interdependence of halachah and aggadah is crucial to our understanding of both. So what's going on here? Does this represent a formalistic understanding of halachah, where halachah is treated as a closed system with no input from aggadah? Or are Bialik and Ravnitsky, through their selections of what to include, promoting a post-halachic secular Jewish culture in which aggadah can roam free without influence from halachah? Or is this simply an accurate reflection of how aggadah and halachah are treated in the classical sources, and the idea that they influence each other is a modern idea? Thoughts?

Monday, August 25, 2008

1:1:9 (Koheles 2:8)

[My regular posting day is Thursday, but out of love for this project, I’d like to post something on our kick-off day]

Sefer ha-Aggadah 1:9 “quotes” Koheles Rabba to Koheles 2:8:

“The delights of the sons of men” (Koheles 2:8).  These are the Aggados, which give delight to [the study] of Scripture.

Interestingly, my copy of Koheles Rabba quotes a different meaning here (in the Judaica press translation):  “i.e. public baths and lavatories . . . with numerous demonesses to heat them.”  The Judaica Press translation contains footnotes claiming that public baths and lavatories were “considered in those times to be great luxuries” and takes “demonesses” from the obscure שדה ושדות claiming that שד refers to demons, and asserting “evil spirits were popularly believed to haunt baths and privies; according to the Midrash he pressed even those into his service.”

I think this Midrash has many levels of meanings.  The aggados are great luxuries – but they are also viewed by many as being haunted by demons (and, perhaps in the male-centric world of the Talmud, the even more seductive and dangerous demonesses.)  Perhaps the secret to deep mystical study is not to be scared of those demons, but rather to turn them – for they are also God’s creation – into sources of warmth and power.

I wish all of you great success in your study in of the aggados.  May you even turn the demons into positive, Godly energy.

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

Sunday, August 24, 2008


Greetings all,

I'm a "veteran blogger," as I was recently labeled, of over 10 years. A bit of a wandering Jew, I'm currently residing in New York, but keeping (at least) an eye to Canada. I'm very excited to be blogging the Aggadah, having participated in the siyyum for EJ at Summer Institute. I think this is a great way to make part of our religion and culture more accessible to a great number of people and communities.

While others know which styles they'll be approaching this project with, I'm going to be keeping it more open. I tend to be rational in my approach to religion and texts, needing to understand the how and why both for our ancestors and for our contemporary practices, but I won't be limiting my approach to this type of exploration.

Looking forward to learning with you all,

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 1

It all begins tomorrow!

We begin with a general introduction to aggadah.

  • Monday: Book 1, Chapter 1, aggadot 1-12 (The Meaning of Aggadah and the Parable)
  • Tuesday: aggadot 13-27 (The Meaning of Aggadah and Halachah)

Then we'll go on to aggadot on the narratives in the Torah, starting at the very beginning. Recommended background reading: Genesis 1.

  • Wednesday: Book 1, Chapter 2, aggadot 1-12 (The Creation of the World)
  • Thursday: aggadot 13-20 (Heaven and Earth)
  • Friday: aggadot 21-25 (The Light)
  • Saturday/Sunday: aggadot 26-35 (The Water; Grasses and Trees)

Friday, August 22, 2008


I am excited to join my voice to the chorus and to be blogging with such learned colleagues! My name is Marisa Harford (aka General Anna, a character from the children's novel The Pushcart War) and am an educator by profession. The strengths of my background lie in literary analysis and theory; I am one of those nerdy Robert Alter devotees-- I nearly plotzed when he signed my copy of his translation of Tehilim last year. My Jewish education has been heterogeneous and informal-- Hebrew and Tanach in college, a course here, a summer of Talmud at Drisha there, a year of Mishnah chevruta there-- and I look forward to expanding my knowledge in many ways this year.

My blog posts will probably fall into one of three categories:
1. Close reading of the text in Hebrew and analysis of how the literary forms and conventions contribute to meaning
2. Commentary on the cultural dimensions of the text-- what does the text tell us about the values, culture, worldview, etc. of the authors and the translators? What is the relationship between the source texts and the aggadot they inspire and what does that tell us about the author's interpretive stance?
3. Commentary on the implications of the texts with regard to ethics, morals, and social justice

Telling stories is one of the most powerful ways in which human beings make meaning of the world-- so reading and commenting on aggadot is one of the best ways to access the tradition of Jewish textual response and creation and to take part in that grand tradition. I am so excited to be embarking on that journey of meaning-making with you all.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah begins!

We had the official kickoff of Sefer Ha-Bloggadah on Shabbat afternoon at the NHC Summer Institute.

The kickoff followed immediately on the heels of the siyyum (festive completion) on the Encyclopaedia Judaica. For 19 years, Bill Kavesh and Solomon Mowshowitz have been studying a daf (folio page) of the EJ every day, and they finally reached the end! They shared some hilarious moments as well as more serious reflections about Torah study, Jewish history, and friendship. We invoked the Bar Papas and celebrated, and then, because we never finish studying something without starting something else, we immediately launched into the beginning of Sefer Ha-Aggadah. (Thanks to Mark Frydenberg for proposing Sefer Ha-Aggadah as the next project, and for creating the Sefer Ha-Bloggadah graphic.)

Following in the tradition of the EJ team, we'll do an intermediate siyyum in 2009 on the first half of Sefer Ha-Aggadah, and then a grand siyyum in 2010 on the whole thing.

This year's Institute theme was "Baruch She-amar v'Hayah Ha-Olam / Blessed is The One Who Spoke the World into Being", and according to the Institute brochure, "invites us to spend the week of the Institute exploring the worlds we can create with our words." This is a perfect segue into the beginning of Sefer Ha-Aggadah, which begins with a line from Sifrei: "If you want to know the one who spoke the world into being, learn aggadah." Note that it doesn't simply say "if you want to know God"; Sifrei chose its words carefully and referred to a very specific aspect of God that we get to know through aggadah. As we study aggadah, we will be reading words that bring whole worlds into being, and then creating more worlds with our own words.

I look forward to creating worlds with all of you over the next two years.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Cynical, Argumentative One

I am thrilled to be part of the enterprise that we are embarking upon next week. A few years ago I taught a course at the NHC that was built on the foundation of A.J. Heschel’s Torah min Hashamayin Ba-Aspaklaria shel Hadorot (Heavenly Torah). In fact, it would be fair to say that the entire course was based on the first sentence of the first chapter: “The Torah stands on a dual foundation: on Halakhah and Aggadah.” The revolutionary importance of that sentence is that it aggressively insists that Aggadah is as important as Halakhah as a source of wisdom.

In Gordon Tucker’s Preface to his masterful translation of Heschel, he quotes from Heschel’s introduction to the second volume of Torah min Hashamayin: “Two have hold of a Tallit—the strict, austere one, and the cynical argumentative one. One says that doubt itself is forbidden by the Torah, and the other vows not to accept any dogma.” Tucker does a beautiful job of unpacking Heschel’s allusion to the opening of Bava Metzia, concluding, “Heschel seems to say that each side will have to yield some of its claimed certainty by swearing only to have not less than half of the truth. The remainder of religious truth will have to come out in the less certain path of Aggadah . . .”

For the next two years we trod this less certain path together. May it be for a blessing.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


Holy brothers and sisters -

How blessed we are to be part of this exciting new project - kudos to BZ for consistently liberating the hidden sparks of kedusha from the interwebs.

Following a year of ulpan and learning at Simchat Shlomo, I've spent most of my summer working at Isabella Freedman, a jewish retreat center & organic farm in northwest CT, helping to run the Elat Chayyim Center for Jewish Spirituality.  

IY"H I'll be headed back to Jerusalem in September for the first of three years learning at Pardes (where my hope is to start a little Sefer Ha-Bloggadah chabura).

Of late, I'm learning mostly chassidus - lately the Piasetzener and Noam Elimelech, with some Ishbitz, Breslov and Chabad thrown in for good measure.

I also blog occasionally on Jewschool.

Looking forward to the global conversation and elevation.

Introducing myself: Iyov

I want to thank David A. M. Wilensky for kicking off the round of introductions with his excellent remarks!   I’ve been a big admirer of his blogs for a while now.

I blog pseudonymously as Iyov.  I’m fascinated by the role of daily study, and have long participated in Daf Yomi and the Chabad Chitas and Rambam daily study programs.  I enjoy reading about mysticism  and am currently am trying to work my way through Sefer ha-Zohar (although, my understanding of it is limited).  I am also a big fan of Ramban’s commentary to the Chumash, the Likutei Moharan of R. Nachman of Breslov, and the mystical works of both the first three generations of Lubavitcher rebbes and the current rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

I also enjoy interacting with a wide variety of people, both Jews and non-Jews.  Especially through my interactions with non-Jews I have become interested in some of the problems associated with translation of religious works.  In the case of Sefer ha-Aggada, these exist at two levels:  first, the way in which Bialik and Rawnitzky translated the Aramaic sources and synthesized and organized the aggada into Hebrew, and second in the way in which the Hebrew was subsequently translated into English.

Aside from my interest in religion, I have a great interest in literature, languages, and mathematics – and I am lucky enough to be able to work with these topics in my professional work as well.

I think this project is terribly exciting.  My official posting date is Thursday, but I hope you will forgive me if my enthusiasm sometimes leads me to make posts on other days as well.  What a fantastic and diverse group we have here – I hope the discussion is lively not only in the posts, but also in the comments to the posts.

Could I be more excited?

Probably not.

At 19 years old, I'm by far the youngest member of this blogging team, but I've got plenty of adolescent hubris and blogging experience to keep me afloat here. I think.

My name is David A.M. Wilensky and I hail from Austin, TX. I'm on the verge of being a sophomore Relgious Studies major at Drew University in Madison, NJ, where I participate heavily in Chavurat Lamdeinu, another group where I'm by far the youngest member.

I grew up in the Reform movement, heavily involved in NFTY. I spent two summers as a participant at the URJ Kutz Campus, the Reform movment's high school leadership and study camp and I just completed my second summer on staff there.

I've always wanted to study Sefer Ha-Aggadah, so I'm really jazzed for the oppurtunity to join in studying it with a large, if dispersed, group. Through this blog and the Jewish propensity for dealing well with dispersals, I think we can overcome our geographic barriers and become a really great studying community.

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah is my third blog. I also run my own blog, The Reform Shuckle, where I tackle issues of ritual and litrugy within the Reform movement. I also blog at another large group blog,, the official blog of the Reform movment of North America. You can read an exhaustive amount of information about me here.

I'm psyched. Let's do this!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Bialik news watch

Our author Bialik gets mention in today’s New York Times in an otherwise overwrought article about the fear of that Modern Hebrew is moving away from its Biblical roots:

Authors and poets like the Nobel laureate S. Y. Agnon, Chaim Nahman Bialik and Uri Tzvi Greenberg, Hebrew revivalists from Eastern Europe, also drew on the ancient sources to create texts rich in biblical allusions yet conceptually avant-garde. “They managed to tie the ancient language with the modern world in all its depth,” said Mr. Hirschfeld, who compares them in importance to James Joyce.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Conservation and change in Sefer Ha-Aggada

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. . . .

Sunday, August 3, 2008

From Bialik and Ravnitsky's introduction

This is from Bialik and Ravnitsky's introduction to Sefer Ha-Aggadah. The introduction was not translated for the English edition, so this is my translation, which does not even attempt to emulate Bialik's linguistic virtuosity. Those who can read it in Hebrew are encouraged to do so.


Aggadah is the main literary form that dominated for centuries in the world of free expression, national and personal, of the nation of Israel.

According to its nature, aggadah is not a temporary and passing literary vision, but rather it is a classic creation of the spirit of our people, a creation that has fruits for its time and whose principal endures for the generations. At its essence and in general it is one of the great revelations of the spirit of the people and its individuals. Many generations and persons have sunk into it, knowingly or unknowingly, the power of their excellent creation and all the richness of their spirit; many generations have cared for building it and improving it until it became an entire world unto itself, an amazing and unique world, with its own grace and beauty. And a creation like this -- it is impossible for it not to have much from the eternal and the universal, which must remain existing as it is, in its image and in its likeness, as an exemplary creation for the generations of the world.

As far as its content -- aggadah includes many subjects from the views of the people and its individuals on the nation of Israel and its national holdings, on its eternal life and its temporal life, on its events and its future, on the great ones of the nation, their happenings and deeds, their ways and traits, on humanity and the world, on beliefs and faith, on the wisdom of life and on "the mystery of the world" (or "the eternal questions", in contemporary language), on "the kingdom of earth" and "the kingdom of heaven", etc. etc. -- all said, there is no field of feeling and thought, from those, of course, reached by the power of knowledge and imagination in those days -- on which aggadah does not touch in some way.

As far as its form -- almost all of the literary genres that were used in Israel in the aforementioned fields in those days made their way into aggadah: stories of deeds and conversations, real and imaginary descriptions, homilies and sayings, proverbs and clarifications, words of poetry and song, embellishments, words of [?] and words of jokes, language of wisdom and riddles, etc. etc.

And the linguistic style of aggadah has also arrived -- in selected examples, of course -- at a great fullness. This style is clear and simple, easy and flowing, comfortable and spacious, having much of the constancy and exactness of developed literary language, much -- from the pent up and faithful internal warmth of the language of the heart, much from the picturesqueness and exaggeration of the power of the popular imagination, and much from the terseness and sharpness of the language of the sages and popular proverbs. In some of the most ancient divisions of aggadah (mishnayot and baraitot) much of the essential vitality and refreshed health of the real language of the people is preserved, a language from which the "scent of the earth" has not yet faded, and whose natural connection between it and its people still stands and endures in a known measure.

One who wants, then, to get to know the nation of Israel from the aforementioned sides -- has no choice but to "go to the aggadah", this literary field that is great in quantity and quality, multifaceted and heterogeneous, which is a unique division of the people of Israel, and for many centuries after the "sealing of vision", the spirit of our people and its creative power have been clothed in it in such a unique way and in an original way with no model in subsequent generations.

Through aggadah one enters the house of the complete life of the nation of Israel and looks at its "innermost". One comes to know the sovereign of the nation and peeks into its world as it is, its customs and its character, its unique light and atmosphere, as it is built and improved in the heart of the whole nation, from its small ones to its great ones. Because aggadah in its entirety is not the inheritance of individuals, but is a shared creation of the whole nation, and all are partners in the creations of its world.