In the comments section of my previous meditation, a number of people debated over their various theological beliefs and offered a number of “proofs” to support their points of view. At about the same time, I read an article called “Why is there no evidence of G-d” at Chabad.org. This inspired a few thoughts about the nature of “truth” and why (probably) no one person or religious organization has the complete corner market on truth. But in the sidebar of the aforementioned article was a series of links to related articles. I clicked the one that said What Does it Mean to “Believe in G-d”?.
The statement, “I believe there is a G‑d” is meaningless. Faith is not the ability to imagine that which does not exist. Faith is finding relevance in that which is transcendent. To believe in G‑d, then, means not that you’re of the opinion that He exists, but that you have found relevance in Him. When a person says “I believe in G‑d” what s/he really means is “G‑d is significant in my life”.
In discussing our relationship with G‑d, the question we first need to ask, is, Who cares? In what way is He relevant?
For some people, G‑d is relevant because they are concerned with the origins of existence. For others, G‑d is relevant because they are concerned with the afterlife, and faith is a prerequisite for getting to heaven. Finally, for others, G‑d is relevant because they believe that life has purpose.
Certainly Christians convince others to come to faith because of the promise of the afterlife (“If you died tonight, do you know what would happen to your soul?”). The Church convinces “sinners” to convert to Christianity based, at least initially, on the fear of going to Hell and suffering for all eternity, and that by being “saved,” they are promised they’ll avoid Hell and ascend to Heaven when they die to be with Jesus.
That seems kind of cheesy. It’s like we have faith in God because it’s all about us and our salvation. Even coming to faith so we have some “grounding” in the origins of the universe, people, and the existence of everything still seems kind of self-centered.
But what about believing because we want life to actually mean something?
In Judaism, particularly in Chassidism, the interest in G‑d comes from the conviction that life has meaning. The recurring question in Chassidic thought is: Why is a soul sent into the world to suffer in a physical body, for 80, 90 years? We know there is a purpose, that G‑d is the author of that purpose, and we want to know and understand it.
One who lives by his heart exclusively, trusts only what he feels. One who lives by his mind exclusively, trusts only what fits. But neither of these tells you the truth. The mind demands that logic be trusted, the heart demands that the emotions be trusted. Yet both can be mistaken. They do not reveal inherent truth. For that, we turn to the soul, the neshamah. Because the soul is a part of the Divine — and that is truth. When we have faith, when we find relevance in G‑d, we are trusting that instinct in the soul that tells us that G‑d is the purpose of life.
In pragmatic terms, the mind, the heart and the soul must each fulfill their function: when we know all that can be known, when we come to the edge of knowledge and logic itself tells us that we have reached its outer limits and it cannot handle what lay beyond this point, faith enters. Where the mind is no longer adequate, the soul responds to truth. This is faith.
Let’s look at the central message:
The mind demands that logic be trusted, the heart demands that the emotions be trusted. Yet both can be mistaken. They do not reveal inherent truth. For that, we turn to the soul, the neshamah.
In an ultimate sense, we can use evidence to support facts but not the truth. Being nice or being smart don’t really lead us to truth, but then we have a problem. How can you or I convince another person of “the truth” since that exists only in the purview of the soul?
This is why in Chabad-Lubavitch it is our approach to invite a Jew — even one who claims not to believe — to do a mitzvah, before we engage them in a discussion on faith. Because in consideration of the existence of the soul, we can assume that we don’t have to convince people of life’s Divine purpose. We just have to get them started, and with each mitzvah they do, their neshama asserts itself more, and questions become answered of themselves. By way of analogy, if a woman’s maternal instinct appears to be absent, you don’t argue the philosophy of motherhood with her. Just put the baby in her lap and her maternal response will emerge.
I can’t even imagine how a Christian would evangelize using this method. In Christianity, doing only matters after believing and is only a reflection of believing. Granted, the Church has a strong practice of charity and service to others, but it’s not the driving force that causes a person to convert to Christianity in the first place (could you imagine being a Christian and approaching a “sinner,” inducing them to join the Church with the promise of a lifetime of service to God and humanity?).
However, that’s more or less what Rabbi Manis Friedman is suggesting in his article. That’s why the Chabad will ask a Jew who is not at all religious to perform at least one mitzvah. Because the mitzvot are what connects a Jew to God.
To encounter God is a transcendent experience that goes beyond thought or emotion, but in order to “operationalize” that encounter, a Jewish person “does”. That is, he or she connects the soul to the author of the soul by performing mitzvot. This isn’t to say that prayer and worship don’t connect Jewish people to God, but at least from the Chabad’s perspective, it all starts with performing a single mitzvah, and then another, and then another, until they are living an increasingly Jewish life.
Christianity has the opposite approach in that reading the Bible, praying, and worshiping come first, and then eventually as the believer’s life is transformed by their faith, they come to the place where they are “doing” Christianity by helping other people.
When we argue with each other for the supposed purpose of correcting what we believe others have gotten wrong about the Bible, about God, and about Messiah, and we say we are doing so because we care about those people, we are missing a vital element. We can’t reach their soul, at least not directly, with logical arguments or by appealing to their emotions.
Whether it’s by a Christian having a person they’re evangelizing praying to be saved, or by a Chabad representative having a Jew lay tefillin, the appeal is to the soul, and although we have different actions we put people through to make this happen, it’s really God who is speaking to the neshamah. That’s why, except in very rare instances, our blog conversations will never really be able to convince someone to admit that their theology is wrong, to change their minds, and to adopt a different religious discipline.
Speaking of changing religions, I found this article and it seemed relevant.
And then last week, I found the book on my desk with a note from her suggesting I read it. Of course, it was almost due (you can only check books out of the New Releases section of the library for two weeks), but I got a chance to start reading before it had to be turned back in. I went online and put a hold on the book, so when I returned it on a Friday, it was ready for me to pick it up and check it out on my library card the following Monday.
I’m a little over a quarter way through this 640 page tome and find it utterly fascinating. Telushkin is doing a great job of portraying the exceptional abilities and humanity of the Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson) while avoiding lionizing him and making him into an unrealistically perfect person (as perhaps some Lubavitchers tend to do).
We often hear the phrase, “It’s not personal.” But often, perhaps more often than not, disagreements do become personal. For example, in theory, since differences of opinion between political liberals and conservatives, and among Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews, are over matters of policy and beliefs, they need not result in personal ill will among those holding opposing views or advocating different policies. As a Hebrew expression puts it: Halevai, if only that were true. For the Rebbe, though, it was true.
If I had to pick one chapter to recommended to anyone who blogs or otherwise expresses their opinion on the Internet (of the chapters I’ve read so far), I’d pick this one. I think it should be required reading before writing and particularly before clicking on the “Submit” button and spewing our thoughts, feelings, and perspectives on the web for all to see…and particularly if we’ve got an ax to grind, religious or otherwise, that involves castigating another human being.
The Rebbe had many strong opinions, so it wasn’t always like he was playing the role of meek and mild “Mr. Nice Guy.” For instance, he believed that the only valid conversion to Judaism was an Orthodox Conversion and that people who had converted to a different branch of Judaism should not be considered Jews and particularly should not be allowed to make aliyah (have the right of return to emigrate to Israel as a citizen).
The “Who is a Jew?” issue — in which the Rebbe insisted on Israel only recognizing what he regarded as fully halachic, in effect only Orthodox, conversions to Judaism as valid — was one of those issues that provoked considerable opposition to the Rebbe, and one on which he found himself in periodic opposition with the Israeli minister of the interior, Yosef Burg (who was himself an Orthodox Jew). The Rebbe felt that Burg was permitting compromises on what he felt must be a non-compromisable issue. At a meeting with Bernie Rader, the Rebbe, in an uncharacteristic manner, screamed out at one point, “Why does he allow people who are not Jewish to be written down as being Jewish?” Yet, at this very moment of great annoyance, the Rebbe drew back and then, in typical Rebbe style, he said, “But it’s also true that he is a Jew who prays three times a day.” For Rader this was vintage Rebbe: “He always finished up by saying something nice about a person.” And not just a general platitude about the person being nice, but a specific detail (“prays three times a day”) that served to remind the Rebbe (and Rader) of areas in which he and Burg were united.
If I could copy and paste the entire chapter into my blog, I probably would, or at least make a downloadable PDF of the chapter available.
As we see from Telushkin’s recording the obvious outburst of the Rebbe in the above-quoted paragraph, the Rebbe was all too human. He could lose his temper out of frustration and scream at people. But he also realized what he did and backed off, seeking to define relationships, not by where people disagreed, but by where they were alike.
According to Telushkin, the Rebbe had the ability to focus on speaking critically of a person’s opinion without attacking their motives or their personal character. That’s extremely important because it’s quite possible to disagree with someone who has good motives and a fine character, and even if they don’t (or you believe they don’t), it is still possible, and perhaps from the Rebbe’s point of view necessary, to avoid embarrassing or causing emotional pain to another person, particularly another Jew.
Much of the time in public discourse, the Rebbe would state his opinion in contradiction to another person without ever mentioning that person’s name. Again, this was to accurately represent his stand on an issue, which was sometimes critical such as the Rebbe’s belief that “trading Land for peace” in Israel would not achieve peace and simply put Jewish lives in danger, without verbally assaulting the person having a different stand, who in all likelihood believed they were doing what was best.
Even when Rabbi Tzvi Greenwald, an Israeli educator and lecturer who was often accused of being too easygoing and tolerant in his interactions with non-religious Jews, asked the Rebbe if he should rebuke secular Jews in an attempt to motivate them to become more observant, the Rebbe’s response in part was:
“You will just build a wall between you and them, an impenetrable wall.”
-ibid, p. 140
The ability to treat another person with respect in the face of disagreement, especially on highly emotionally charged issues, is rare in my experience. Most of the time, even among religious people on the web and sometimes in person, relationships can be strained, even to the breaking point. This is hardly a good reflection on our Master and desecrates the Name of God.
Telushkin wrote that it isn’t known if this ability came naturally to the Rebbe or if he acquired it over many years of experience. It is known that the Rebbe was an extraordinary person even as a young man, many years before the would assume the leadership of Chabad.
One of the qualities a person must possess in order treat another person as a valued human being created in the image of the Almighty while disagreeing with strongly held opinions of that person is being “comfortable in your own skin.” That is, you have to realize that first of all, you’re not perfect either, and secondly, that your imperfections and your being God’s cherished creation is something you and the other person have in common.
If you fail to fully grasp and embrace those two facts, you will not achieve anything close to what the Rebbe did in these situations. In other words, you’ll be like about 98% of the people commenting in the blogosphere.
There is no person on earth so righteous, who does only good and does not sin (Ecclesiastes 7:20).
Reading the suggestions for ridding oneself of character defects, someone might say, “These are all very helpful for someone who has character defects, but I do not see anything about myself that is defective.”
In the above-cited verse, Solomon states what we should all know: no one is perfect. People who cannot easily find imperfections within themselves must have a perception so grossly distorted that they may not even be aware of major defects. By analogy, if a person cannot hear anything, it is not that the whole world has become absolutely silent, but that he or she has lost all sense of hearing and may thus not be able to hear even the loudest thunder.
In his monumental work, Duties of the Heart, Rabbeinu Bachaye quotes a wise man who told his disciples, “If you do not find defects within yourself, I am afraid you have the greatest defect of all: vanity.” In other words, people who see everything from an “I am great/right” perspective will of course believe that they do no wrong.
When people can see no faults in themselves, it is generally because they feel so inadequate that the awareness of any personal defects would be devastating. Ironically, vanity is a defense against low self-esteem. If we accept ourselves as fallible human beings and also have a sense of self-worth, we can become even better than we are.
Today I shall…
…be aware that if I do not find things within myself to correct, it may be because I am threatened by such discoveries.
-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Av 25” Aish.com
As Rabbi Twerski said, most people who are disagreeable don’t think of themselves as perfect and the rest of the world as losers. In my experience, most people who are disagreeable are aware, at least deep down inside, of their imperfections and their insecurities. They attack or behave in a hostile or rude manner, not just because they think they are right, but because they have to be right. If they allow themselves to consider the possibility that they could be wrong, it would be a blow to their ego and would strike at the very heart of their vulnerabilities. They can’t afford to be wrong, to be humble, to apologize, to ask forgiveness because of the emotional distress that would result.
That’s one of the reasons I’ve greatly appreciated my interactions with Pete Rambo on his blog. We disagree about a great many things, at least in the religious arena, but have yet to attack each other or to personalize conflict. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted out of a relationship with those people who differ from me on some opinion in the blogosphere. I think it’s a quality the Rebbe employed in his dealings with everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike (more on the Rebbe and non-Jews in a minute).
I recently posted a blog about the value and priority of living a focused life. I have admired focused lives for at least forty years. And in recently reading Joseph Telushkin’s study on the life and work of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, I drank deeply from a remarkably focused life. Telushkin said that researching the book made a better man of him. Reading the book is doing the same for me.
-Rabbi Stuart Dauermann
“Learning From the Lubavitcher Rebbe How To Be A Mentsch and Servant of God” Interfaithfulness.org
I read this shortly after my wife recommended Telushkin’s book and it was encouraging. R. Dauermann’s parting words at the end of his short review were:
Read this book. It will make you a better human being . . . and a better servant of God.
In discussing my experience in reading the book with my wife (as far as I’ve gotten so far), I pondered whether or not the Rebbe was one of those rare persons in our world who truly was a tzaddik. I sometimes use that word to refer to people such as Abraham, Moses, and certainly Jesus (Yeshua), but no one who has lived in modern times.
And yet if a tzaddik did live among us (Rabbi Schneerson passed away in 1994) and we have a record of his teachings and lectures (which we do), perhaps it would be a good idea to take R. Dauermann’s advice and read the Telushkin book. So far I’ve found it compelling and even inspiring. It is my prayer that reading of the Rebbe’s extraordinary life will make me a better person and better servant of God too, even as a non-Jew and a disciple of Christ.
A final note on the Rebbe and his relationship with non-Jews. In “Chapter 11: Judaism’s Mission to the World,” Telushkin relates how the Rebbe had encouraged Jewish businessman and philanthropist David Chase to pray daily as Chase’s birthday present to the Rebbe. Chase agreed, and while vacationing on his yacht, he asked the Captain each morning which way was east (the yacht would periodically change course, sometimes even while Chase was praying) so he could face toward Jerusalem while davening. The Captain agreed to tell Chase which way was east each morning and not to change course while Chase was praying.
One Sunday morning, the yacht pulled into Block Island and the Captain asked to go ashore for an hour or two.
Chase answered yes and asked the captain where he was going. “I would like to go to church,” Winters answered. “You pray to your God every morning, and you’re making me feel guilty that I don’t follow my faith. So I want to go to church and say my prayers.”
At his next visit to 770, Chase told the Rebbe about this incident. The Rebbe, to quote Chase, “got a big kick out of it,” and the businessman learned that the Rebbe shortly thereafter spoke of this event at a public lecture; he wanted his Chasidim to know that their behavior could encourage non-Jews, not just Jews, to come closer to God.
“And the Almighty spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai” (Numbers 1:1).
Why does the Torah specify “the wilderness” of the Sinai desert? It would have been sufficient to say “in the Sinai desert”; everyone knows that deserts are wildernesses.
The Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah comments on this verse, “Whoever does not make himself open and free like a wilderness will not be able to acquire wisdom and Torah”. This refers to having the trait of humility which allows a person to learn from everyone and to teach everyone.
An arrogant person will only be willing to learn from someone he feels is befitting his honor. A humble person is only concerned with gaining Torah knowledge and will be grateful to learn new ideas even from one who has less overall knowledge than himself.
The Midrash teaches that the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai because Mt. Sinai was the lowest of all the mountains. This symbolizes that if a person wants to receive wisdom he must be humble. If he is full of himself there is little room for anything else.
Wow, speaking of arrogance and humility. Rabbi Pliskin’s message as presented by Rabbi Packouz came along at the right time.
As I mentioned a few days ago, I’ve been pondering my wife’s accusation of my being arrogant in my approach to attending church and presenting my particular (and from their point of view, unique) perspective on the Bible, the Messiah, Jewish people, and Judaism. How dare I walk into someone else’s house and tell them they should redecorate, what color to paint the walls, and that their taste in art is hideous?
Well, hopefully, I wasn’t that bad, but sometimes it feels like it.
As Ben Zoma said:
Who is one that is wise? One who learns from every person.
Pirkei Avot 4:1
I am inexorably drawn toward learning from Jewish sources, and yet when I try to enthusiastically share what I’ve learned with my fellow Christians, I feel like I’m the only guy in the room speaking Martian.
Interestingly enough, I have learned a lot by going to church. Not so much in the areas of theology or doctrine, although it’s been illuminating to capture the Evangelical perception of theology and doctrine, but in the areas of history, both Church history and the more generic kind, church social dynamics, and…brace yourself…kindness.
No matter how much of a pest I make of myself, people are still smiling at me, reaching out to me, offering to listen to my woes (should I ever share them in person), and to pray for me.
Who is wise? One who learns from every person, including every person at church. Yes, there is much to learn. I have to remember that church isn’t just theology and doctrine, it’s action. It’s the perpetual food drive I donate to every time I go to church, dedicated to feeding the hungry in our local community. It’s the missionary effort around the world, serving people who have never heard of the compassion of Christ, it’s visiting the sick, offering comfort to the grieving, providing care and education for little children.
“What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do.”
Ironically, most Christians are so “works-phobic” that they don’t count their own good deeds (mitzvot) as really meaning anything in the cosmic economy of God, more’s the pity, because it’s what the Church does best.
I don’t have as much to complain about as I think:
“A child, for example, cuts his finger and screams the house down. An adult cuts his finger and gets on with life. Children live in the here and now, so a child has no context for his pain. There is no meaningful future to look forward to, just the immediacy of the pain. An adult realizes that the pain will pass and life will be good again in spite it. He doesn’t suffer. And, by the way, why is it that when you hug and kiss a child the pain seems to go? It’s not the pain that goes, it’s the suffering. You have given the child a meaningful context for the pain – the context of a parent’s love. The child still feels the pain, but with a newfound context for it, he no longer suffers.
“An adult must find his own meaning in his pain. Sometimes it is obvious, as in the case of a woman in labor. Sometimes it is a little harder. But when he or she can look at the pain as a means to grow, a means to develop deeper self-understanding, then the pain remains, but the suffering will be forgotten.
“Everyone goes through pain in life. But not one of us has to suffer if we do not want to.
“Again, the choice is ours.”
R. Packouz is referring to tremendous human suffering and agonizing pain, not simply being frustrated when people around me don’t take my point of view seriously. What I am experiencing isn’t as painful as even a child’s cut finger. But I still gave in to the temptation to say, “ouch.”
I’ve started reading Sue Fishkoff’s book The Rebbe’s Army, and in the first chapter, she relates (pg 17):
The Besht’s (the Baal Shem Tov or Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer) message was revolutionary. His followers broke with certain Jewish norms, adopting specific dress and customs and making ritual modifications, all of which horrified the Jewish establishment.
I don’t know if I’ve “horrified” anyone, but I’m certainly shaking up the establishment here and there. Fishkoff also writes of the Besht:
“I have come into this world to show man how to live by three precepts,” he said. “Love of God, love of Israel, and love of the Torah.”
If I can have a similar purpose within my own context, then it wouldn’t be just me wielding my opinion like a sword, but the will of God to teach how to love and how to focus love.
Not that my fellow Christians are ignorant about love. Many, as I’ve said above, love greatly and demonstrate that love abundantly, particularly to the Jewish people. I just want to help illustrate that there is no dissonance between loving the Jewish people, loving Israel, loving the Torah, and loving God. There is no dissonance between loving Jewish people and realizing that means accepting and approving Jewish people loving the Torah, loving Israel, and loving God, including Messianic Jewish people.
Since I frequently read material published online by Aish.com, I often come across quotes of Rabbi Pliskin’s work, such as the one I cited above. I decided it was long past due to actually purchase one of his books, so after I finish Fishkoff’s book, I’ll be consulting (since it’s a Torah commentary) Growth Through Torah.
From what I can tell about R. Pliskin from his writing, he seems to stress compassion and kindness toward others. He seems like the sort of person who desires peace in the world and peace between people, rather than always banging heads over this theological point or that.
In many ways, we are at war in the world, battling against ignorance, hostility, brutality, and indifference, but if all we do…I do is fight, then I’ve simply redoubled my efforts after forgetting my purpose (a lesson I learned from Chuck Jones when he was describing his philosophy behind creating Wile E. Coyote to a film class I once attended).
I still don’t want to be too quick in deciding what I’m going to do next, so I’m not going to hastily pursue a conclusion.
On the other hand, there is this…
Giving up is a final solution to a temporary problem.
-anonymous holocaust survivor
While most Hasidim restrict their personal dealings to Jews, and some even to Jews within their own ultra-Orthodox communities, Lubavitchers have never been insular. Their first interest is in kindling the sparks within Jewish souls, but since the early 1980s they have widened their appeal to include non-Jews, whom they urge to remain within their own religions while obeying the seven laws God gave to Noah … This is crucial because only when all God’s divine sparks are released and reunited with the Divine Oneness will God’s purpose be achieved. “Our job is to make a dwelling place for God in the lower world,” says Rabbi Sholtiel Lebovic … “We try to make the world a more and more godly place, until the coming of Moshiach [the Messiah].”
-Fishkoff, pg 22
Although many Orthodox Jews, including Chabadniks, look down their noses at Gentiles and particularly Christians, here we see a perspective that acknowledges all human beings are “sparks” thrown off by the Divine Oneness, and only by all of those sparks being united with their Source can the world be prepared for the coming (return) of the King.
I’m one of those small sparks. But so is each and every individual soul at the church I attend, and each and every individual soul in all of the churches in the world. They’re just waiting for someone to discover them, reveal them, and free them, so they can fly…so they can soar.
I should take a fresh look at the blueprints for that tent again and see if God really wants me to help build it.
We’ve explained why midrash and aggadah are so vital to our Torah diet. We’ve explained that these stories speak to us from a higher plane of reality. And we’ve also demonstrated that even if you don’t get it, you still do get it—meaning that you’ve still got truth even if you’re clueless to the meaning inside.
We’ve also provided some guidelines to determine whether a story is an anecdote or a parable. Now, let’s take a test case. Let’s look at a story of the Talmud and see what’s meant literally, what’s meant to point to something deeper, and how it could be true for everyone on their level.
-Tzvi Freeman and Yehuda Shurpin
Death by Secrets
Part 5 of “Is Midrash For Real?” Chabad.org
That’s a really nice summary of the past four articles compressed into just a couple of paragraphs. Now’s the test. Run an actual story through the matrix and see if it makes sense. This last commentary by R. Freeman and R. Shurpin is quite a bit shorter than their previous missives. I could probably copy and paste the whole thing here and then comment on it, but I don’t think I’ll do that. You have the link above to see all of the contents.
So what’s the story they want to test?
Rabbah taught, “A man is obligated to get drunk on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai.’”
Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira held their Purim feast together. They became drunk. Rabbah got up and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, Rabbah pleaded for divine mercy, and brought Rabbi Zeira back to life. A year passed, and Rabbah said to Rabbi Zeira, “Come, let us hold the Purim feast together!” Rabbi Zeira replied, “Miracles don’t happen every day.”
I’ve heard this one before. This story circulates every Purim (and as I write this, it is still before Purim). The commentary from Chabad tells us something useful right away.
In this case, I guarantee this is not meant to be taken at face value.
In other words, even if these two esteemed Ravs got drunk on Purim, it wasn’t to the degree that Rabbah murdered and then resurrected Rabbi Zeira. But then what does it mean and more importantly, how does this story ”speak to us from a higher plane of reality?”
Here’s where the title “Death by Secrets” comes in.
What we appear to be dealing with in this case is a real-life anecdote told in figurative terms. Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira were drunk, but not from the wine; and Rabbah slaughtered Rabbi Zeira, but not with a slaughtering knife. Everything was good, very good—to the point that Rabbah was ready to go it again. Just not something that us amateurs should attempt without clinical supervision.
What? OK, I was fine with ”a real-life anecdote told in figurative terms,” but what does it mean that Rabbi Zeira was “slaughtered but not with a knife” and “everything was very good and Rabbah was ready to go again?” Go at what?
”When wine enters,” the Talmud tells us, “secrets come out.” Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, in his classic Shnei Luchot ha-Brit, describes how great sages and holy men would consume much wine and celebrate—and the channels of their mind would open so that the deepest secrets of the Torah would flow out of their mouths.
Interrupting the narrative for a moment. Sounds like something Carlos Castaneda was trying to do; apprehend Yaqui Indian sorcery through the use of mind-altering drugs. But to continue…
He cites stories of the Talmud to this effect. Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, in his commentary to the Torah, Ohr ha-Chaim, describes how it was these secrets that emerged through the drinking of wine that carried Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron, to death as their souls departed from their bodies in ecstatic divine love.
Now, Rabbah was able to imbibe these secrets and remain alive, as his name implies: rab means “great.” But Rabbi Zeira could not contain such intense light: ze’ir means “small.” So Rabbah’s sharing of mystical secrets created such a great thirst for divine union in Rabbi Zeira’s soul that it departed, and his body was left dead. The next day is no longer Purim—no longer a day for escaping all bounds and limitations, but a day for fulfilling your purpose down here on earth inside a physical body—so Rabbah dutifully resurrects his colleague.
The next year, Rabbah had no regrets, and was ready to perform the same clinical procedure on Rabbi Zeira once again—take him for a ride up to heaven and back again the next morning. Or perhaps he figured Rabbi Zeira had enough time to also attain a higher level, and would be able to hang in there.
So we aren’t to believe that Rabbah literally murdered Rabbi Zeira but we are expected to believe that under the influence of alcohol, Rabbah’s “secrets” were spilled out, and he took Rabbi Zeira on an unexpected ride to heaven and then back to earth the next day.
Rabbi Zeira decided he didn’t want a second trip to heaven the following year, not because it would drive him to the point of insanity and even kill him, but because of his great humility.
But then Freeman and Shurpin give a more down-to-earth answer:
Whatever the case, the lesson remains the same: Don’t get carried away with your wine, no matter its substance. Keep your feet on the ground. If you know you’re the type to be easily carried away when drinking, avoid it altogether.
So it all depends on what kind of person you become when you get drunk. That’s the moral of the story and it seems to be the most useful lesson being taught, especially when imbibing at a celebration where others are present.
To be honest, I’m a little disappointed. That’s quite a build up to a conclusion that seems so pedestrian. I mentioned in last week’s review that based on Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, it’s not the more believable story that’s “real” but the most interesting tale.
Here we have three selections:
The literal meaning: Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira got drunk on Purim to the degree that Rabbah murdered Rabbi Zeira and, when he sobered up the next day, begged for divine mercy and resurrected Rabbi Zeira. The next year, Rabbi Zeira turned down Rabbah’s invitation to celebrate again because he couldn’t count on a second miracle should he die again.
The higher or mystic meaning: Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira got drunk on Purim, and Rabbah’s mystic secrets poured forth to the degree that he escorted Rabbi Zeira on an “unscheduled” trip to the heavenly realms (which rendered such ecstatic joy it killed him) and returned him to earth the next day (bringing him back to life). The following year, Rabbi Zeira turned down Rabbah’s invitation to a second trip because of his great humility.
The underlying truth: Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira probably did get drunk together on one Purim but because of his host’s behavior or perhaps his own (some people are less pleasant or controlled when drunk), Rabbi Zeira declined a subsequent invitation, being concerned about a repeat of previous events.
The moral of all three stories is, if you know you get too excited or carried away while drunk, avoid social situations that require alcohol consumption.
As far as which story you want to apply to the moral, I guess it depends on which one you find the most interesting or, if “interesting” isn’t what you want from your morality tales, which one seems the most plausible.
What Did I Learn?
I learned what I already knew, to take mystic and midrashic tales with a grain of salt. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good metaphor and a fantastic saga. I believe they can contain great truths about the reality of our lives. I just don’t think that contained within these stories are a higher mystic reality and must be objectively real. I don’t believe Rabbi killed Rabbi Zeirg with a knife because they were exceedingly drunk and then resurrected him the next day. Nor do I believe that under the influence of wine, the two of them took a trip to heaven in massive, mind-blowing joy and then returns the next day, anymore than I believe that any of Carlos Castenada’s adventures under the influence of hallucinogens were anymore than what a person experiences in a chemically induced, mind-altering state.
I’m sorry, I just don’t. I believe that, however these tales came about, they result in lessons of ethical and moral behavior that are designed to illuminate the communities in which the revered Talmudic sages resided. I wish I could say they were more than that. I really do like reading them and I do learn from each one. I guess I make a pretty lousy Jewish mystic. However, if you’re interested in reading more examples of Chasidic Tales, go to the Chabad webpage Stories from the Midrash.
Heaven forbid we should tell a child an untruth! It is a Jewish custom, and a Jewish custom is also Torah—the Torah of truth. Everything the child is told is true: Those who throw the candies are doing it on behalf of the archangel Michael, the angel who seeks out the merits of the Jewish people. The sweetness of the candies is the sweetness of Torah as it descends and clothes itself in a physical object.
An adult won’t accept this, because he sees that he, and not an angel, is the one throwing the candies. When a child is older, we can explain to him that this is only a garb for something much higher. But when he is a three-year-old child just beginning his education, we tell him these things clothed in a story, and he has no problems with any of it. Nevertheless, when he grasps the outer clothing, the child grasps the archangel Michael, and the sweetness of Torah, and all the truth that is within that clothing!
-Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson
from talks of Shabbat Parshat Pinchas 5734 and 8th day of Chanukah 5739
(translated, combined and abridged)
If you’ve been following this series, by now you should know that when you come across a fabulous story from the Midrash, you need to peel back the covers to discover what it’s trying to tell you. The stories are all true stories—just not necessarily the way things were able to unfold in our physically limited realm. This reality is not the ultimate expression of truth.
-Tzvi Freeman and Yehuda Shurpin
Limitless Truth for the Limited Mind
Part 4 of “Is Midrash For Real?” Chabad.org
In the first quote above, the Rebbe is describing the traditional custom of celebrating a small child’s first day attending cheder (A Jewish schoolroom) by throwing candies at him from behind and then telling him it was the archangel Michael who had thrown them.
I suppose from an outsider’s point of view, it seems as innocent as the stories we tell our children about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, which of course they believe at the time, but realize are mere fictions as they grow older.
But the Rebbe declares, “Heaven forbid we should tell a child an untruth!” Anyone who has pretended with their child that there really is a Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy doesn’t think they’re lying. They think they’re upholding a family and cultural tradition, just as the Rebbe states that attributing thrown candy to the archangel Michael is a Jewish custom.
OK, so far, so good. But then he says, “It is a Jewish custom, and a Jewish custom is also Torah—the Torah of truth. Everything the child is told is true…” Most parents outside of Orthodox Judaism aren’t going to extend their customs and say they operate as truths on some other level, and yet the Rebbe calls this custom (and many other Jewish customs) “Torah…the Torah of truth.”
This is a continuation of last week’s article and review and so far, I am no more illuminated now than I was then. Although I know there is a difference between the truth and a fact, I can’t see saying that Michael threw the candies represents an actual intent operating in the angelic realm that Michael expects this sort of action to occur. Does the tradition compel a change in angelic reality or do the Sages imagine that every tradition generated by the great Rabbis must originate from on high?
It is considered inappropriate to relate the midrashim to those who are unable to tell the difference between literal facts and an underlying or supernal truth, but here we have an example of doing so with a three-year old child who absolutely takes his elders’ word about candies and the archangel Michael as both truth and fact.
Historically, that just hasn’t been the case. Many, if not most of these midrashim are collections from sermons of popular rabbis of past generations. To whom were they sermonizing? To whoever came and listened: men, women and children—most of them simple folk.
So historically, most of the Rabbis most of the time compounded this problem by speaking the midrashim in sermons to simple folk who also, like small children, may not have been able to differentiate between the literalness of an event and an underlying truth, even on the level of metaphor. Why isn’t this a problem?
Truth doesn’t grow where falseness is planted. We must say that even as they are understood on their most basic level, each of these stories is absolute truth.
But how is that so? Either fine clothes will be growing on trees when Moshiach comes, or they will not. Can we say that for the small child they will do so literally, while for the sophisticated adult they will do so only figuratively?
The question is not on midrashic aggadah alone. The Hebrew Bible is filled with anthropomorphism—G‑d’s eyes and hands, His wrath, His disappointment and His love, G‑d as king, G‑d as father—all understood by innocent and simple people exactly as stated.
Oh no you don’t. There’s a world of difference in describing certain attributes of God by metaphor, for after all, God doesn’t really have physical qualities like a human being, and juxtaposing that with some of the fantastic tales we find in midrash. I have to cry “foul” on this example.
Nevertheless, the question remains: How could the Torah—a Torah of truth—mislead the innocent reader of simple faith?
Again, good question.
Indeed, Rabbi Abraham ben David (known as Raavad) criticized Maimonides for making this ruling. He himself agreed that G‑d has no form, physical or otherwise. What he could not bear is the condemnation, as he writes, of “many who were better than him [meaning Maimonides (!)] who believed such things due to their innocent reading of the text.”
This is something of a side topic, but as I read the two paragraphs above, I couldn’t help but think of the struggles we have in Christianity with Biblical interpretation, especially when it collides headlong with some of the alternate interpretations I find in different corners of Messianic Judaism and what has been called the new perspective on Paul.
But this speaks of differences in how to interpret the Biblical text. Midrash is something else and is understood differently, even as it is addressed to the written Torah.
“Better than him,” writes Rabbi Abraham. Even though they believe something about G‑d that he himself agrees is utterly false! What is so wonderful about people who cannot fathom a formless G‑d?
To answer that question, we need to readjust our thinking about several issues: about Torah, about reality, and about human language.
OK, buckle up and get ready for the ride.
R. Menachem Azariah was concerned with a statement of the Talmud, that the Torah sometimes exaggerates.
R. Menachem Azariah writes, “Heaven forbid that the Torah should exaggerate! Everything in the Torah is truth—even the lies the characters of the Torah tell are truth. For in a Torah of truth, there is no room for inaccuracies, never mind exaggeration.
One of the supposed exaggerations in Talmud has to do with the report of the spies who were sent into Canaan to scope out the land (Deuteronomy 1:28) stating that the cities were “fortified up to the heavens” (Talmud, Chullin 90b and Tamid 29a).
Like last week’s example explaining why it is true in midrash that Moses was fifteen feet tall and yet in the written record we have in Torah, there’s no indication that Moses was seen as unusually tall, the description of impossibly high boundaries around the great cities is rationalized as a way of saying how the external ministering angels could not enter the boundaries of the land (Rabbi Menachem Azariah of Fano, Asarah Maamarot, Maamar Chikur Din, part 3, chapter 22).
In other words, Talmud does not exaggerate (Heaven forbid), it simply reveals greater truths about the observations of the spies in Canaan than are revealed in a plain reading the written Torah text (don’t forget the four “departments” or PARDES).
I feel like I’m running around in the same circle I was while I was writing last week’s review. Nothing new to see here. Really. I’m sorry. I’m just not convinced. I’ll buy that Talmud doesn’t exaggerate, at least for the sake of exaggeration, but it can employ metaphor to describe just how daunting and impenetrable the great cities of Canaan seemed to be to the Israelite spies. That’s not an untruth, it’s a poetic description to communicate an important point to the audience. This is a perfectly legitimate literary device to use, even when describing actual events.
Unfortunately, the Rabbinic commentary completely flips things around.
To R. Menachem Azariah, that itself is the meaning of exaggeration in Torah—not an inflation of the facts, but a statement of a higher truth that cannot be expressed in our physical world. Torah, however, speaks only secondarily about our physical world—and in a world higher than our own, there is certainly some very real manifestation of this truth.
The “higher truth” of which the Torah primarily speaks is also the “higher reality,” and actual, observable, factual events are relegated to playing second fiddle in the mystic Jewish tapestry of God’s interactions with Israel, at least as understood by some of the sages.
I think I like Ramban better than Azariah.
Ramban (Nachmanides) had written that the Torah speaks about earthly matters and alludes to spiritual ones.
The great Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero presented a unique understanding…
This is a radically original way of thinking of metaphor in Torah: all that exists in our reality is nothing more than an analogy derived from the true reality to which it points. As the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, explained this view, G‑d gave us a hand and eyes and ears so that we could understand the true hand and eyes and ears as they are above. And the same with all that we find in our world. The whole world is one big parable, a crystallized analogue of the real thing.
So it is our physical, observable reality that is the parable, and the parables of midrash that represent true and higher reality. Rather than saying God has arms or eyes by way of analogy, describing and indescribable God in terms mere mortals can comprehend, the “arms” and “eyes” of God represent “divine verbs,” so to speak, indications of His activity, while we are given physical equivalent body parts as a way to “understand” something about God.
Freeman and Shurpin are right. This is “a radically original way of thinking of metaphor in Torah.” One that my western, Gentile mind doesn’t want to accept. I feel like Neo (Keanu Reeves) in the film The Matrix (1999) where everything I ever thought was real turned out to be a complex illusion and “reality” exists almost completely outside my experience.
Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne): Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.
However in the case of midrash, everyone can be told what “the Matrix” is, the chore is understanding and accepting without seeing it for ourselves, that is, experiencing the “reality” that the midrashic Sages expect us to comprehend beyond the simple meaning of metaphor.
Can a metaphor be a truth, not just in telling of some moral or ethical principle, but can it have a life of its own, so to speak, an independent heavenly meaning that transcends the mere symbolic representation between metaphor describing an event and the event itself? How can metaphor come from “above” and why should we not understand midrash as a product of a Rabbi’s fertile imagination in attempting to communicate a complex topic in simple, easy to digest terms?
Except we have an equation that I cannot resolve. Jewish tradition is Torah and Torah is always truth.
In my past conversations with Pastor Randy at the church I attend, he has asked me repeatedly “what is Torah” and the answer has always seemed elusive. Perhaps, if anything labeled “Torah,” no matter how outrageous, must always be truth, and many, many things beyond the written text are labeled, “Torah,” then I can see the source of his confusion, and admittedly, mine.
All of this will become clearer if we examine this metaphor of the metaphor: clothing. Why do ideas need clothing?
An author wishes to communicate an idea, an ethic or a perspective on life. If he would spell it out in the raw, the point won’t come across. He needs something that will carry his audience from their perspective to his, so that they will see that which is currently imperceptible to them. He can’t pick them up and take them there, and he can’t plop his mind into their brains.
I think the Rabbis are clothing the midrash and the definition of metaphor in an unnecessarily complicated way. Something can be “truth” and “not fiction” and still not have to be fact on any plane of existence and still function as a teaching tool and a guide. I know mystics are defining a lot of these concepts and I make a lousy mystic, but in order to assign mysticism a validity, you must subscribe not only to the existence of a supernatural world, which we do as religious Christians and Jews, but that Rabbinic Sages can peel back the covering over the written word in the Bible and uncover an objective, mystical reality underneath, much as one might remove the clothing from one’s beloved to reveal her greater beauty.
It’s all very poetic and even compelling, but I recently read a commentary by an Aish Rabbi saying that Christianity is a religion of (blind) faith, while Judaism is a religion of word, documentation, and truth. I’d like to get the Aish Rabbi and Rabbis Freeman and Shurpin together and listen to them engage in a frank discussion of their viewpoints.
Actually, my metaphor of unclothing a beautiful lover to reveal even greater beauty may not be correct.
But what he can do is find clothing that fits the subject and makes it presentable, that hides whatever is distracting them and brings out the highlights he wants to point out. As good clothing brings out the natural beauty of the subject, so a good parable brings out a depth otherwise ineffable. Paradoxically, both do so through concealment—concealment for the sake of revealing a deeper beauty.
Are we removing clothing, the outer material world, to reveal a greater beauty beneath, or is the metaphor, the midrash, clothing in which we dress the material world in order to show a more majestic appearance?
Bruno Bettelheim is best known for his classic work of child psychology, “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.” He criticizes the “narrow-minded rationalists” who object to telling children fantasies, pointing out the value children receive from these stories in dealing with the emotions and turmoil of life. As for the unrealism, he writes that this is “an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales’ concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner process taking place in an individual.” In short, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue . . .”
The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, seems to be going beyond this. When a small child is told that the archangel Michael threw candies at him, that is very real to him. He imagines the angel there in the room, and the candies become very precious candies. And yet it is not a lie.
Most cultures have some sort of tradition of fables or folk tales that serve important purposes in educating their population, both children and adults. Usually the more industrially and technologically advanced a culture, the less room there is for folk tales that have any semblance of seeming “true” (Do kids even learn about “Paul Bunyan” or “Pecos Bill” in grade school anymore?). In the western world right now, many of our folk heroes are characters from 1960s comic books who are being brought to life in films such as The Avengers (2012) and Man of Steel (2013) (with Captain America: The Winter Soldier being released to theaters in less than a month).
But no one is suggesting that Superman or Captain America have a “reality” of their own that not only operates as a metaphor for our real world but that represents the best and truest form of our world. No one really believes that we are only a shadow of that higher existence of heroes, superpowers, and fantastic worlds that we see in film and television.
Midrash, even though we encounter it outside of its original, aged and ancient places of origin, meeting it here in the modern world, nevertheless demands that we accept it on its own terms.
I think the central message I’m getting here is that the very manner in which Freeman and Shurpin (and Orthodox Judaism) describe Midrash and metaphor is by way of metaphor. They rewrite how we understand the words “midrash, “Torah,” “reality,” and “language” in order to support a mystic vision of metaphor that lies in neither this world nor the next, but somewhere in-between.
In his introduction to the 1963 episodes of the Twilight Zone television series, Rod Serling said in part, “You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas…” (the text of Serling’s now-classic introduction to this series changed a bit over time). This seems to be not only where we cross over into the Twilight Zone but where we meet the realm of midrash as well.
I don’t mean to sound unkind or disrespectful in my descriptions. I’m only illustrating how I understand what is being presented in this article as I encounter it. I really do feel I’m being asked to enter into a space that sits on a fence between my world and someplace else, evaluating a “fairy tale” as fanciful metaphor and ethical principle wrapped up in the gossamer fabric of Jewish lived experience.
Some are stuck with a very pedestrian view of the Talmud and Midrash as nothing more than a repository of teachings from various teachers—teachers they imagine to be much like themselves, prone to exaggeration for the sake of making a point. Such a view is sorely insufficient at explaining Jewish practice and belief.
Unfortunately, that describes me to a “T”. I’m willing to admit that I may be at fault here and that it is my human, Goyishe limitations that prevent me from seeing midrash as it’s being presented to me, but as inadequate as the Rabbis would believe me to be, I find it difficult to cast off my tethers to the world around me and enter their’s without so much as a safety net or even a soft pillow to cushion my eventual fall.
Next week’s article is called “Death by Secrets” and the title alone is worth the price of admission. It’s the last article in the series. Will Freeman and Shurpin be able to pull off an eleventh hour save and convince me that midrash actually does exist beyond just imagination?
Or should I, like last week, believe that midrash is the Chabad’s answer to Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi and accept that the better story is also the more “real” story?
Torah, like any wisdom, has departments. That’s important to know. You can’t study literature the same way you study biology, and you can’t critique poetry as you would journalism. So too, you can’t study one department of Torah the same as you study another.
There’s more than one way of dividing up those departments. One way is to talk about approaches to the text.
Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Ari, constructs an acronym from these four departments, disciplines, or levels of peshat, remez, derush and sod: pardes, meaning “an orchard.” He taught that every soul must delve into all four layers of the Torah, and must continue to return to this world until having done so.
-Tzvi Freeman and Yehuda Shurpin
Is Midrash for Real?
Part 1 in a series on the truth behind Talmudic tales Chabad.org
I have been promising to write a review on this series for a few weeks now, but as I read part one, I already feel like I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I’m not Jewish and certainly not an Orthodox Jew, nor am I a mystic, which is what seems to be required to understand what Freeman and Shurpin are saying.
True, I’ve been critical of Christian devotion to Sola Scriptura more than once, but investigating Midrash on the road to Kabbalah could be a bit much for me.
I’m not throwing in the towel. I just want you to know how different this is.
First things first. How does this article define Midrash?
Finding deeper meaning and lessons in life is yet another department, which we call derush or midrash—and our basic commentators will again be found in these halls as well. Midrash often includes stories, called aggadah, some allegorical, some anecdotal, some reaching far beyond what we understand to be possible in our world. Midrash can be found strewn throughout the Talmud, and in many anthologies compiled contemporaneously with the Talmud or later. The largest, best-known collection is called Midrash Rabbah.
Many of the juiciest midrashim are collected in the classic commentary of Rashi. This despite Rashi’s repeated insistence that “I come only to explain the simple meaning of the text.” Because the text bubbles with meaning, frequently defying the steamroller of the strict literalist, demanding deeper interpretation at every turn.
What I’m taking from this is that Midrash isn’t necessarily intended to be literal fact. Certainly Christianity has its own rich tradition of religious allegory, so how can we criticize Judaism for employing the same tools. Midrash is in the “Derush” department, that which reveals the deeper meanings of the Torah.
But are these “deeper meanings” actually encoded in the Torah or are they what various authorities including the esteemed Rashi have taken out of Torah and formed into morality tales, fables, or colorful metaphors to communicate principles that can be derived from scripture? How many Christian Pastors take a verse or two of scripture and develop a homily to be delivered from the pulpit on Sunday? I can accept Midrash at that level of understanding and meaning, even though in Orthodox Jewish thought, it may be intended to represent so much more.
But according to the article and the sages it cites, a steady diet of all four “departments” of Torah understanding is necessary for the “spiritual health” of every Jewish person.
The Ari’s message is not as esoteric as it may seem: Just as our bodies do not live by carbs alone, so our souls require a mixed diet. To be a complete Jew embracing a complete, wholesome Torah, you can’t satisfy your requirements studying in one department alone. You need a well-rounded curriculum at all four levels.
But the focus on this series as well as my review is of only one of the four “departments” or “food groups” in this diet.
And the midrashic tales and the secrets of the Torah are just as vital. Why? Because as much as Torah is about what you know and what you do, it’s also about how you think and what you feel. As magnificent a structure as you may have built for yourself, without light and warmth nobody is going to live there too long. That’s the way life goes: without the sparks firing, the engine just stops turning.
Midrash is your gateway to connect with the Author of the Torah. “If you want to know the One who formed the universe,” the Talmudic sages advise, “learn aggadah.” Aggadah, the midrashic tales scattered throughout Torah literature, are said to contain “most of the secrets of the Torah.”
That’s probably a lot farther than most Christians would be willing to go, and understandably so. Outside of Orthodox Judaism and especially the mystic context of the Chabad, it’s also much farther than many Jewish people would want to go. Let’s not kid ourselves. What I’m investigating is a relatively narrow perspective within the panoramic landscape of overarching Judaism. Nevertheless, for those of us who “intersect” with religious Judaism at some level, encountering Midrash is inevitable. So why fight it? Let’s have a look.
But the secrets are veiled, as Maimonides writes (we’ll get to that soon), so that only those who are fit to receive them will discover them there. The Zohar provides a parable to explain why the Torah must speak in parables…
I’m pausing here to remind everyone that Jesus spoke in parables. Christians tend to take the parables of Jesus for granted, largely because those parables have all been explained in the text of the Gospels, and even if we don’t always understand the explanations, we usually receive some satisfactory interpretation from our Pastors or some Christian book writer.
FFOZ Teachers and Toby Janicki and Aaron Eby are the hosts for these episodes and present each one as a “mystery” that requires three “clues” to solve. In these clues and their solutions, they use the Bible and Jewish literature to teach their audience that “Parables were a common teaching device used to simplify complex concepts.” The question then is whether or not Midrashim also take complex concepts and simplify them for their audience. Most Christians encountering a Midrash would probably say “no.” Sometimes a midrashic tale can make what we think of as the plain meaning of the text seem all too mysterious.
Apparently, the stories and mysterious words are more than packaging. After all, as the parable of the Zohar tells, from within the cloak of these parables the inner soul of the Torah speaks. Perhaps we should think of these stories as haute couture for G‑d’s wisdom. They are the fine clothing and jewelry that allow expression for Torah’s most inner wisdom, as a tasteful wardrobe betrays beauty that would otherwise elude the senses.
I invite you to read Part 1 in a series on the truth behind Talmudic tales (I also put the link at the top) for the full article, including the various parables it contains, to gain the full context of what I’m discussing. The sense I get from this text, and I’ve read similar material before, is that the Torah almost has a life of its own and is deeply encoded with meaning that extends well beyond what we can perceive, even if we could read the oldest available Torah documents in their original ancient Hebrew.
So fitting, so magnificent is this wardrobe that it carries the secrets of Torah even to the small child. In a way, it transmits to the simple child much more than to the sophisticated adult. To the adult, the clothing is distinct from the meaning it contains; the analogy and its analogue live in two different worlds. The child, when he grasps the clothing, grasps the warm body and soul breathing within. They are all one and the same. In his simple understanding of the tale, he touches G‑d.
To better understand how that is so, we’ll have to examine midrash a little deeper. We need to ask, are the stories of the Midrash truth or fiction? If they are truth, how is it that they so often conflict with one another? And how do we know when the Talmud is telling us a historical anecdote and when it is speaking in parables?
Just a reminder. There’s a difference between facts and truth. Or as Indiana Jones once said, “Archaeology is the search for fact… not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”
Midrash, like any metaphor or morality tale, can contain truth and still be fiction. We’ll see what more Freeman and Shurpin have to say in next week’s review.
"When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and mediate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness." -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman