Aggada and the Twenty-First century

Gemara can be broadly divided into two types of discourse – halacha and aggada – but only one gets serious treatment. Too many yeshiva students learning gemara think that passages discussing halacha (legal codes) require concentration and thought, while those covering aggada should be treated like the ancient Aramaic equivalent of story-time. Even the assistance of Artscroll, in many yeshivot considered amateurish, is considered acceptable for covering aggada. A friend of mine once asked his rebbe how he approaches aggada when he reaches it during bekiut [relatively fast learning with an eye toward covering ground]. The reply: “I skip it.”

So just what is aggada and why are we ignoring it?

Aggada can be loosely translated as “telling,” from the root הגד. It can be treated as consisting of two general types. The first consists of stories, tales, and legends about people, places, times, and miracles. In fact, it’s more or less similar to the non-legal sections of the Torah and nevi’im rishonim, minus a binding narrative structure, or, for that matter, any structure. Aggada also consists of all those non-legal – and sometimes the line between legal and non-legal gets blurred – interpretations of particular verses and characters throughout Tanach, including those placed in clearly legal sections. The connection between aggada and the narrative sections of Torah are clear, as much of aggada is simply exposition of the narratives. The content of aggada is clear, but what is it about; what does it, so to speak, do?

I’ve heard aggada characterized as the moralistic teachings of the old Rabbis for the uneducated public, or, more generously but in a similar vein, as mussar. This is a mischaracterization.  Mussar is generally seen as, and at its lowest level actually is, simple brow-beating: inspiration by fear or fervor toward nebulously conceived “goodness” generally involving coming to minyan on time. On a higher level, it’s a genuine process of introspection in which one searches for patterns of thought and behavior that are deemed destructive and resolves to change them, possibly even developing new methodologies to do so in the process. On its highest level, such as that of the Alter of Kelm’s Chochma U’Mussar, or his disciple R’ Yerucham Levovitz’s Da’as Chochma U’Mussar, it is an effort to pry open the inner workings and phenomenology of our minds, seek out the true sources of our destructive behavior – the flawed perspectives that shape what we see – and replace them with a better understanding.

While all three of these follow from aggada, not one of them is aggada. Aggada is a still-developing system of thought: a system answering questions (and thus raising further questions) both of what is, up to the most recondite questions of the Chariot, and questions of what ought, down to the appropriate level of one’s ego. The system is taught using the standard Torah method, supplying us with paradigmatic episodes and events. These events may look small (who really cares, in the grand scheme of things, whether an aging Bronze-Age shepherd kills his son on a mountaintop?), but they are basic events, events that stand in some way at various nexuses of great strands of history, thought, and evolving human personality: events of greatest consequence.

Aggada takes the events of Tanach and turns them into something, much, much more. It finds connections between people, places, and things; it finds allusions in one place to another. It binds – as indicated by its two-letter stem, גד, “bind together” – the previously disparate events and laws of Torah into a coherent picture, putting them into context of one another, allowing for the emergence of broader pattern and structure, and fuller and deeper meaning.

Make no mistake: it isn’t obvious about it. Aggada is pointillist to the extreme. It often takes a particular point and merely connects it to one or more seemingly separate points: no explanation of what the connection is, no expansiveness. Unlike halacha, it is not always expository, the thoughts often far too brief for even a surface understanding to be granted. For example, reading that the אור of לדוד ה’ אורי וישעי is ראש השנה tells us just about nothing. Yet the meaning of these obscure phrases is there, waiting to be found by continually amassing more and more statements and perspectives on the topic at hand and making the connections between them: by drawing a picture. Aggada is not a puerile bunch of nonsensical phrases meant to lull the restless masses to bed with tales of morals, nor an obscurantist production put on by a group of charlatans; it is the encoded message of generations of brilliant, honest, and supremely wise men.

Why are we ignoring aggada? A couple of reasons come to mind. Firstly, it’s too hard. It’s way too hard. Unlike halacha, aggada (especially outside of gemara) sports no authoritative commentaries. Halacha is guided by a definite hierarchy of rishonim and acharonim who clearly explicate the issue at hand. Try finding that in a Yalkut Shimoni. Aggada requires genuine originality and thought among those studying it. Even those few commentaries on aggada that have been published will typically only note connections between various aggadic anecdotes, or explain how one remark presupposes another, but they won’t tell you what it means.  Furthermore, many of the commentaries smack of irrelevance; they simply don’t speak to someone living in the twenty-first century. In order to be “brought into the twenty-first century”, aggada requires ingenuity – which, as we all know, is 99% perspiration.

I hate the phrase “brought into the twenty-first century.” It sounds ugly, after all. It sounds like we are taking an ancient and irrelevant viewpoint and trying to forcibly insert it into the vibrancy and life of the contemporary, hoping that the new and old can be somehow spliced together. Fortunately, that’s not what I mean when I use it. I mean that we need to translate the ancient language of aggada into contemporary-speak – and not just into lay terms, but into the most sophisticated terms of the well-educated and well-read. Coming from so many centuries in the future, our relationship to the specific instances and examples referred to in the aggadic literature is completely disassociated from our experiences. We didn’t grow up on an ancient Palestinian farm. We grew up in the cities, towns, and countrysides of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, post-Kant, post-Industrial Revolution, and postmodern. The rabbis of old spoke in parables and examples that explained and provided meaning for their experiences. Giving a basket of fruit to a king is simply not an experience with which I can identify as I play Angry Birds on the subway. How does it help me understand my world? Aggada requires translation to the events of our lifetimes.

Why am I assuming that aggada can be translated? Why am I assuming that it can be made relevant at all? We live in a really different world, with fundamentally different experiences and problems, don’t we? Besides, our viewpoints in every field have advanced in leaps and bounds.

My response to both of these complaints is the same: No. They are wrong.

The plain truth of the matter is that the questions that really matter to us all are the same now as they were then. Friends, family, boy meets girl, children; creativity, accomplishment; money, power, survival, greed; the individual and the collective; the rat race versus what really matters; immortality, ethics, the meaning of life; how to live – these issues are present in every generation. They are human issues, and while some are particularly emphasized at particular times – witness the epic twentieth century wars over the individual versus the collective (both World Wars can be interpreted in this light, but certainly the Cold War) – all are dealt with to some extent at all times. The authors of our aggadic texts, though they may have weighted their discussions differently than we do, were addressing the very same issues we face today.

Nevertheless – one might ask – surely we approach these problems today with a wealth of new information? Look at the societal, technological, and, above all, scientific advancements that we’ve made since those days. Of what use could ancient quill-wielding, scroll-mulling scholars be next to the contemporary discourse, even if we are discussing the same issues? To this I reply that we, in fact, have access to little to no new information to inform our discussion.

I will demonstrate my point by analyzing the following question: is it ethical to steal to feed one’s family? That is a completely relevant question in contemporary society (fortunately most of us needn’t face it), and it certainly was relevant two and even four thousand years ago. I ask you: what new information have we learned that can shed light on this fundamental question? What relevant information was not available to the most reflective, creative, and analytic minds of the ancient world? For all our technology, physics, Darwinism, and post-modernism, we are as muddled as someone contemplating the issue while he uses the local outhouse. What is one’s obligation to one’s family? What is one’s relationship to another’s property? To one’s own property? What is the nature of obligation in the first place?

The definitive advancements in human society have arisen through the development of greater methodology for understanding (and consequently greater understanding of) the empirical world and nature. The issues of nature, however, are beside the point. The dealings with the types of questions indicated above (and more metaphysical questions – questions of what is) have largely been in the highly speculative and notoriously unreliable field of philosophy, where we don’t even agree on what it means to make progress, or what our destination is supposed to be, or what we are doing. Almost anybody could have thought of the new ideas of the past few thousand years; in fact, most of those ideas were already sketched out by the Greeks. As A. N. Whitehead famously put it, “All of philosophy is but a series of footnotes on Plato.” A dorm-room philosophizer with decent skill can design Kant’s Categorical Imperative on his own. Certainly, true geniuses of old devised major ideas that withstood the test of time. Look at Buddhism and Hinduism.

The questions that concern us today are the very questions being debated in the ancient texts, and we come at them with little new save, for some of us, arrogance. Anyone with reflective capacity can arrive at these questions, and indeed, people have arrived at them for thousands of years. The only difference today is that we as a civilization have grown so intelligent and prosperous that instead of only an occasional shepherd having something worthwhile to say, a very real portion of society at large today has the intellectual capability and the time to think about the big questions. However, we’ve got to realize that with all our busloads of people, we’re still latecomers to the party. A lot of ground has already been broken by very serious people not engaging in dorm-room philosophizing (or worse, armchair philosophizing). Aggada is already a vast and powerful system.

Most of us are completely unaware of that fact. To most of us, aggada is story-time, and a d’var Torah is a quirky play on words; don’t get me started on gematria. As such we perceive Torah as – at best – our occasionally beloved but tragically doddering grandpa: completely out-of-touch, unable to understand what’s going on around him, always making obvious, sunny observations about little nothings, and quite tiring as we listen to him talk yet again. We, the men and women of the twenty-first century, have better things to do with our time than listen to him.

This is a big issue, since the fact that the material is not compelling is the biggest soluble problem in Modern Orthodox Judaism today. Gone are the days when physical force or even social ostracization could keep religion going. These days, we invest in things because they make sense. Nothing is more compelling than properly interpreted aggada, and nothing less so than poorly interpreted aggada, sent forth by those who haven’t the time, interest, or ability to master the material (which includes any number of prominent halachists). It never ceases to amaze that the average yeshiva student is concerned with finding the drash in halacha (otherwise known as lamdus) and the pshat in Chumash, instead of looking to the aggada. Halacha is complex enough without the drash. Chumash is deeply simplistic at the level of pshat; that’s why it’s taught to five-year-olds. We should focus on pshat in halacha and drash in Chumash.

Aggada is virgin territory. Even seasoned, successful yeshiva students have seen very little of it, and have understood even less. The Brisk style of learning focuses on kodshim because the relative lack of earlier commentary permits greater originality and influence over the future discourse. Today, every dunam of the fields of halacha is being plowed, sown, and reaped by specialists publishing enormous treatises on the odd, obscure corners of shas. Through all this development, though, aggada remains without an essential commentary or exposition within a truly broad and unified system that can form the basis for meaningful discourse among the intellectually advanced Jews of today. It remains without common touchstones of meaning; every yeshiva bochur knows what קם ליה בדרבה מיניה means, but no one knows what shechina means, or who Yosef was, or of what significance Noach’s connections to farming, chein, and nechama are. The public perception on these issues is a blank canvas waiting for an impressive enough painting.

Anyone can be the painter.