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?
We’re used to considering the precise measurements of our world as the final arbiter of all truth. It might help to jump to an event in Mezhibuzh, Ukraine, a century or two after Maharal:
…One of the homeowners of Mezhibuzh was involved in a nasty dispute with another resident of the town. It happened that while in the Baal Shem Tov’s presence, in his shul, he yelled that he was going to rip the other guy apart like a fish.
The Baal Shem Tov told his pupils to hold one another’s hand, and to stand near him with their eyes tightly closed.
He then placed his holy hands on the shoulders of the two disciples next to him. Suddenly the disciples began shouting in great terror: They had seen how that fellow had actually ripped his disputant apart like a fish…
Now, what if I ask you, “Did a resident of Mezhibuzh tear apart his disputant like a fish?”
You might answer, “Well, not really.” Problem is, I have witnesses. Very reliable ones. And they all saw exactly the same thing.
But can the perpetrator be charged in court for bodily harm? Problem is, his disputant is still walking around without a scratch.
So, which world is real?
-Tzvi Freeman and Yehuda Shurpin
“Midrash and Reality:
Part 3 of ‘Is Midrash For Real?'” Chabad.org
This one made my head hurt. In this article, the authors and their sources tell me that I’m not supposed to take midrash, even those telling fantastic and impossible tales, as if they are mere metaphors. They are also true and while fiction can contain truths, they are also real in a mystical sense.
Rabbi Yehuda Loewe of Prague (known as the “Maharal of Prague”) was adamant: Torah is not fiction. Jews consider the words of their sages that have been recorded in the Talmud and Midrash to be Torah, no less divine than the Five Books of Moses. Once they were accepted by the general community of observant Jews as works to be studied and revered as Torah, they attain a status of G‑d’s own thoughts, arguments He has with Himself and stories He tells Himself. And if the Creator of the universe is telling it, it’s real.
On the one hand, you have to know that every story told and recorded by the rabbis of the Talmud is true. They are Torah, just as much as a verse from scripture or a halachah kept by all Jews is Torah.
This is the part that makes my head hurt. Titus destroys the Temple and God assigns a gnat to eat his brain so that seven years later, upon the death of Titus, it is discovered that the gnat with metal claws reduced the size of the man’s brain to that of a year-old pigeon’s brain.
Moses is ten cubits tall (about fifteen feet) but no where in the Torah, which I mean as the five books of Moses, is this noted nor does anyone, Pharaoh, Moshe’s wife, his father-in-law, his brother, seem to notice.
And yet these things are not only “Torah” but they are real?
Now, reading the chronicles of Roman historians, you won’t find anything about this gnat. Titus, they tell you, died of a fever. At any rate, metal claws on a big bug is a tad outrageous.
So, one scholarly Italian Jew named Azariah dei Rossi explained, “This is just aggadah.” It didn’t really happen. It’s just that the sages wanted to impress on people that G‑d can always find a way to punish the wicked, so they told this story.
So this really is a metaphorical tale to illustrate a moral point. It contains a truth but it is not objectively real.
So, Maharal tells us that the real Moses truly was fifteen feet tall. Not the one that Pharaoh saw, or that the fleeing shepherds saw. They saw only the physical shell of Moses, as he is invested in a body within our physical world—a world that for several reasons can’t manage a ten-cubit human form. But Moses is a complete person, and ten is the number of completeness. He should have been ten cubits tall—would the physical world be capable of such a thing. Certainly, writes Maharal, whatever could be reflected in the physical world was reflected, and Moses was likely taller than the average human being. But not as tall as he really was.
Am I supposed to believe that in some supernal realm, the person of Moses is really fifteen feet tall, but that he only appeared to be of a normal human height in our world because that was not the “real” Moses, and our physical world could not contain all the Moses was and is?
That’s a lot to swallow. As I keep saying, I can accept the metaphorical nature of the midrashic stories, but I have a tough time making the conceptual leap into the world the Rabbi’s suggest I accept. Maybe, harkening back to last week’s review, I am a “bigger fool.” It’s not that I don’t “get” what Freeman and Shurpin are saying, I just don’t believe in the literal reality of these “deeper meanings” as having a truth and a life of their own in an objective sense.
Maharal takes the same approach to the gnat in Titus’ brain. The sages are not concerned with telling us a story for the medical annals. Their concern is to present to us the real Titus and his true destiny. Did a physical gnat enter his brain? Perhaps not, writes the Maharal. But the story is still true, because the gnat got in there anyways. Every living creature has its essential quality that makes it uniquely what it is—and the essential quality of the gnat made its way in. This essential quality, if it could be seen, would appear in its most intense state with a mouth of bronze and iron claws.
Unless evidence to the contrary appears, I’m not inclined to believe on any level, essential or otherwise, that a gnat with bronze or iron claws was involved in the death of Titus. I can believe that God metes out justice upon the wicked, though not always in this life.
But the view of midrash I’m asked to accept isn’t one in which the Rabbis parse out words of wisdom in mythical or fanciful form to illustrate a “truth” alluded to by the plain text of a story, either in the Bible our outside of it.
Maharal sums up his approach in one simple line: “The sages do not speak of the physical at all; they speak of a world stripped of physicality.” Every midrashic teaching is a peek behind the veil, dressing deep truths in language that is meant to reveal an inner world. If that language seems foolish to us, it is only because we have not yet cracked the code. We are grabbing the clothes, the words, as though they themselves were their own meaning.
This is an attractive way to think about the universe, with hidden corners, metaphysical alleyways, mystical portals through which the sages are able to peer and then relate what they’ve seen to the rest of us. I wish I could believe it. I know in some manner the sages were granted the ability to issue rulings equal to what we have in the inspired Bible. I know that in Judaism, canon is never quite closed and there is always another revelation concealed in the Bible’s “code.”
But I’m not going for it. I’m not jumping headlong into believing that the sages, wise and learned though they may be, actually see into a non-physical reality beyond our mortal plane and what they relate in their teachings and writings represents a divine truth equal to the Word of God.
It is true that Ezekiel, the apostle John, and even Paul, the letter writer, each had their own mystic experiences, either physically or through visions, where they literally saw and heard things that do not exist in our own universe, but to attribute this same ability, or some shadowy version of it, to each and every sage to has told a midrashic tale ultimately recorded in Talmud is too far for me to go.
Now a systematic approach to midrash had been laid out clearly by Maimonides and Maharal. But that raises a new question, perhaps a more difficult one: If the point of midrash is not the story itself, but that which it contains, not the foreground but the background, and if anyone who understands these stories literally is a fool—then how is it that we tell these stories to children and simple folk, who certainly take them at face value? Are we to hide all of these tales from them? Have we been doing things wrong all these centuries?
I still believe it’s important for Christians to have at least a slightly passing knowledge of midrash considering that this interpretative method may well have been in use during the Apostolic era. This understanding may help us pierce the veil traditional Christian exegesis has cast over the Bible for the past nearly two-thousand years, blinding ourselves to the way the New Testament scriptures were written and intended to be read.
But that’s still a far cry from the “reality” of Midrash as opposed to the metaphorical truths midrashic tales can contain. I guess I wouldn’t make a very good mystic or even a very good Jewish person.
I did take way something quite positive from this week’s article however:
Adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan): So which story do you prefer? Writer (Rafe Spall): The one with the tiger. That’s the better story. Adult Pi Patel: Thank you. And so it goes with God. Writer: [smiles] It’s an amazing story.
I’ve never seen the film but I have read the book (which I highly recommend, by the way), and this bit of dialog is the key to understanding the author’s message. The book and the film speak of a fantastic tale of survival at sea of both a boy named Pi and an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker who share a small lifeboat together.
Toward the end of the story, after many adventures, Pi and Richard Parker, the only survivors of a shipwreck seven months before, land on the shores of Mexico. The tiger disappears into the jungle forever, and Pi is rescued and eventually tells his story. Although the story of Pi and the tiger commands most of the book, he does tell a much more believable if horrible story of murder, starvation, cannibalism, and near-insanity that could also account for Pi’s survival.
But Pi asks the writer who is chronicling his early life, “So which story do you prefer?” It’s as if the sages are asking the same question about midrash. We accept “truth” if not “fact” from the more interesting story. That’s what midrash means, at least to me.
Or maybe midrash is God telling “the better story.” And so it goes.
I have no problem-solving thoughts. I do not intend to suggest a new method of remedying the human situation which I am about to describe; neither do I believe that it can be remedied at all. The role of the man of faith, whose religious experience is fraught with inner conflicts and incongruities, who oscillates between ecstasy in God’s companionship and despair when he feels abandoned by God, and who is torn asunder by the heightened contrast between self-appreciation and abnegation, has been a difficult one since the times of Abraham and Moses. It would be presumptuous of me to attempt to convert the passional, antinomic faith-experience into a eudaemonic, harmonious one, while the Biblical knights of faith lived heroically with this very tragic and paradoxical experience.
All I want is to follow the advice given by Elihu, the son of Berachel of old, who said, “I will speak that I may find relief”; for there is a redemptive quality for an agitated mind in the spoken word, and a tormented soul finds peace in confessing.
In many ways, reading the first part of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s book is like looking in a mirror. Well, not exactly. He was born over half a century before I was and after all, I’m not Jewish, let alone a Rabbi. Yet everything he says about his own experience and the experience of a man of faith completely reflects my own thoughts, feelings, and uneasy journey with God.
I’m not going to presume a Jewish soul, and in so many ways, I’m such a Goy (at least according to my Jewish wife), so I really don’t have an answer. But at least as far as my reading up to the end of Chapter 1 is concerned, Rabbi Soloveitchik is speaking in a language that could apply to people of many different faiths, not just to the Jew.
And he’s talking about exactly what I experience.
I have a confession to make. There were times when I thought I was going crazy. There were times when I thought I was just a bad Christian, a person with a bad or weak faith, someone who just didn’t “get” what it was to walk on a path that leads to God. And yet just look at how Rabbi Soloveitchik starts the first chapter of his book:
The nature of the dilemma can be stated in a three-word sentence. I am lonely. Let me emphasize, however, that by stating “I am lonely” I do not intend to convey to you that impression that I am alone. I, thank God, do enjoy the love and friendship of many. I meet people, talk, preach, argue, reason; I am surrounded by comrades and acquaintances. And yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly. I am lonely because at times I feel rejected and thrust away by everybody, not excluding my own intimate friends, and the words of the Psalmist, “My father and my mother have forsaken me,” ring quite often in my ears like the plaintive cooing of the turtledove. It is a strange, alas, absurd experience engendering sharp, enervating pain as well as stimulating, cathartic feeling. I despair because I am lonely and, hence feel frustrated. On the other hand, I also feel invigorated because this very experience of loneliness presses everything in me into the service of God.
While Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writing style is very different from mine, what he’s actually saying is just what I’ve been trying to say for a long as I have been blogging. Actually, it’s been a lot longer than that, but blogging has provided me with a unique outlet for my frustration and my need to “follow the advice given by Elihu, the son of Berachel of old” and to “speak that I may find relief.”
Joseph Ber Soloeitchik was born over a century ago, was an American Orthodox rabbi, Talmudist and modern Jewish philosopher, and a descendant of the Lithuanian Jewish Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty. The words of his book first appeared in print over fifty years ago, when I was still in elementary school. He died at the age of 90 nearly twenty years ago and a continent away from where I was living at the moment his soul ascended to God. I don’t imagine that we would have had a lot in common had we ever met.
Except for how we experience our faith.
Maybe I’m not crazy after all. Maybe faith is designed to be lonely, inconsistent, and chaotic, like riding a roller coaster that alternately travels through a beautiful and serene Japanese garden and the fresh hell of a radioactive Chernobyl.
If I can take the beginning words of the Rav’s book at face value, I guess my journey of faith will never get any easier, and my only solace is in “confessing” my “tortured soul” (in my case, as a blogger on the web). And yet, it’s nice to find out that I’m not alone in feeling alone in my faith.
I’ll let you know how the rest of the book turns out.
We’re talking about meditating – as per our last installment. About taking the reins of that gray matter and restructuring it for inspired living. Who’s going to take those reins? Who’s doing the restructuring? There must be some aspect of mind that transcends the gray meat and is able to look at it and say, “Naah—better off this way!” Otherwise, why would a brain care about restructuring itself – or even realize it requires restructuring?
We’ve known this for a long time. We’ve known that there is an aspect of the human being that comes wrapped with the meat and bones, while there’s another aspect that enters from beyond. That is why, writes the 14th-century commentator, Rabbeinu Bechayei, the book of Genesis tells the story of the creation of the first human being twice: once to describe the animal called homo sapiens, and then again to describe the injection of a G-dly soul into this creature — “And He blew into his nostrils the breath of life.”
So there are (at least) two persons in there: a basic human animal person, and a G-dly person. Two big roommates in a small human frame – with very different tastes in interior decorating. Which can get very ugly.
In yesterday’s morning meditation, I presented the concept of Jewish, or more specifically, Chasidic meditation as a means of preparing for entry into prayer. The idea is that, before climbing the ladder of Jacob, so to speak, in order to enter into the presence of the King, you prepare your mind and spirit through meditating on God, His wonders, His works, His meaning. You immerse yourself in God as one steps into a pool and submerges into the depths of His mystery and His identity. Then you emerge and are ready to stand before the Throne.
However, this last entry into Rabbi Freeman’s series on Jewish prayer expands and transforms the meaning of meditation to include the internal restructuring of the person. This is actually my primary goal at the moment; a personal restructuring of my understanding of myself and life and how I can choose to interpret events differently than I have in the past. From the Chasidic point of view, the restructuring involves the transaction between the purely human “meat animal” of a person, and that part of us God breathed into our bodies.
Here’s the really exciting part for me.
So, to put this all together, we are describing meditation as a form of negotiations between a non-meat-related soul that is basically G-d breathing inside, principally concerned with going back to where it came from, and a human brain that comes wrapped in gray and white meat and is principally concerned with, well, meat kinds of things – eating, sleeping, procreating, collecting toys, and getting lots of people to say what a wonderful human being he is.
A daunting task. What can the G-dly soul possibly say that might impress this human person?
Well, first off, you need some background data on your particular human animal. What impresses it? What fascinates it? What’s its language?
This is just amazing. Not only does Rabbi Freeman speak of restructuring, which is foremost on my mind and the thrust of my current desires, but he introduces “language” or metaphor as the means by which we learn how to restructure. There’s a reason why Rabbi Freeman is one of my favorite storytellers, particularly in the area of spirituality, God, and wonder.
The Rabbi goes on to explain that one of his favorite “languages” is technology and programming, so he tends to allow this theme to act as the conduit for communications between his “Godly soul” and his “Animal soul.” We all use different languages for this purpose. In a comment on yesterday’s morning meditation, my friend Joe said:
Practicing when hiking in the mountains, breathing God in and out with each step opens up an awareness of every example of Creation’s beauty I pass on the trail, because I am not off thinking about the future.
I thought of that this morning as I was working out on the Elliptical machine at the gym. I’m trying to improve my cardiac recovery after an aerobic workout and, during the five-minute cooldown, as I was slowing my pace and had the machine set to a lesser intensity, I closed my eyes and spent some time breathing God in and out as I allowed my breathing to slow and deepen. I pondered the wonders of God in ways you might not imagine. I found my thoughts centering around Joe’s recent cancer surgery and how well it went and then around his wife Heidi, who continues to undergo aggressive chemotherapy. I found myself asking where is the miracle of God in Heidi’s suffering? The answer is the wonder of God she has in Joe. Whatever Heidi faces in her battle with cancer, she is not alone. She has God and she has a husband with a Godly soul.
I opened my eyes and my heart rate was lower than I had previously achieved at the end of a workout…not by much, but it was something.
That may not be particularly impressive, but there is something important in what we talk to ourselves about before we actually talk to God. Often, I enter into the presence of God like a raw nerve with this need and that, yelling and screaming about the injustices of the world, and the worry, and the anxiety, and the tragedy of the world, including my world. I’ve heard Pastors and motivational speakers talk about “giving it all to Jesus” and “taking charge of your thoughts” and “letting go of your worries,” but no one ever says how this is to be done. Or if they describe a method, it doesn’t seem to be one that I find particularly workable.
But then, we all respond differently to different languages. I don’t “understand” a lot of the languages being spoken in the religious and spiritual worlds and thus, they mean little or nothing to me. And then there’s the language that’s required to conduct the internal dialog between that which is animal and that which is spiritual within me.
Everyone else’s “good advice” doesn’t work if they’re talking in the wrong language and if the metaphors don’t make a connection (which is why motivational football or fishing stories fall flat with me). Restructuring requires that you have active control over selecting your own language and metaphors, even if they don’t mean anything to anyone else. Find your own storytellers who speak that language and let them speak to you. Take all that and let it be your own voice as you speak to yourself. Then you will have a voice in which you can better speak to God. Not a voice of panic and desperation, but one that, after still and quiet contemplation upon God’s wonders, can speak in small stillness, in praise, in glory, in humility, in a thousand colors and shades that describe who you are, who you are becoming, and who you are perfectly within Him.
There are better days and there are worse days. But on the better days, I can reach that place in the antechamber that exists between the world and God’s Throne and still myself. Then, in a supernatural moment of peace, I reach out for the first rung of the ladder which sits at the bottom of the abyss, and the surroundings begin to brighten. I take the first step in my climb, breathing in God and breathing Him out. The door to the Heavenly court begins to open, I find my mouth, and I must speak.
“Our Father Who is in Heaven…”
“Faith believes that which it is told, because it wants to believe.
Intellect believes that which it understands, because it wants to attain understanding.
Wisdom believes that which is true, because it is true.
It doesn’t have to fit that which faith wishes to believe. It doesn’t await the approval of intellect to say, “This can be understood.”
Wisdom is clear vision, the power to see “that which is” without attempting to fit it into any mold. Wisdom, therefore, is the only channel by which an Infinite G-d may enter.”
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Faith, Intellect, Wisdom”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson Chabad.org
This isn’t the end. It’s only the beginning.
“When you make a world tolerable for yourself, you make a world tolerable for others.”
Blind yourself to the shell of mud. Dig deeply and deeper yet, sift through the darkened embers, search for a spark that still shines. Fan that spark until a flame appears, fall in love with the flame and despise the evil that encrusts it. Until all is consumed in the warmth of that flame.
For empathy is the redeemer of love and the liberator of deeds that shine.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson Chabad.org
This is part of my Finding My Metaphor project which I guess started when I wrote Learning Acceptance. I didn’t realize how difficult this would all be or rather, I didn’t realize when I started this line of questioning, that it would lead in such a difficult direction. Certainly starting to openly question whether or not I trust God is a difficult direction. So where do you go from the bottom of the well?
Actually, even before writing Acceptance, I wrote Waiting in a Minefield, which presents an image of trying to proceed on a spiritual journey but being afraid to move. Then I wrote Waiting for Hope in the Abyss, which is where I return to when I get stuck. If I just sit down at the bottom of the well, I can’t fall any further, can I?
So what now? I can just sit here and hope nothing falls on me, or hope that the bottom of the well doesn’t give way. Or I can try to get up and risk the walls of the well collapsing on top of me, burying me even deeper…or maybe actually getting out of here, but that’s a long shot. Actually, I kind of like it here in the dark. It’s quiet and peaceful and it’s easy on the eyes and nerves. I can just take deep, slow breaths and watch the dust swirling around in the air, caught in the beam of light filtering down from the top of the well.
A mitzvah is an opportunity to act out your inner soul. A thought of Torah is an opportunity to hear it speaking. But when do you have an opportunity to experience that soul? When, other than at prayer?
To pray comes as naturally to the human being as breathing—where there is an openness to something greater, something beyond, naturally we cry out to it from within. Nevertheless, there is a ladder, a set of skills and techniques that can be learned. With knowledge, with practice and with persistence, we can all learn to excel at the art of dialogue between that breath of the divine within us and her Beloved Above.
So I’m sitting at the bottom of my well, and then I realize there is a ladder down here with me that leads to the “art of dialogue between that breath of the divine within us and her Beloved Above.” What have I got to lose?
Anybody who has watched the standard morning minyan knows that Jewish prayer is not normal. It is not normal to wrap yourself in a white woolen sheet, strap leather boxes containing ancient scrolls on your arm and head, sway back and forth with your cohorts chanting Hebrew incantations and reading from a parchment scroll. It is not normal to stand before a wall and appear to be speaking to it. It is not normal in this day and age and may never have been normal in any era.
“Normal” is whatever you’re used to in your day-to-day life and, not being Jewish and certainly having never prayed in a minyan, the type of prayer Rabbi Freeman describes above is not “normal” for me. But I did say a few days ago that I would have to restructure the metaphors I feel closest to in order to derive a meaning that makes sense to me.
Even Rabbi Freeman admits that prayer is somewhat “absurd” in acknowledging that we believe God is Omniscient, Omnipotent and Beneficent. After all, God doesn’t need us to tell Him who and what He is. The classic answer to why we pray when God doesn’t need our prayers is because we need to pray. Prayer changes us, not God. God is God. He is immutable, unchangeable, eternal.
We’re not. I’m certainly not.
I mentioned previously that Freeman tells us the word “tefillah,” which we translate into English as “prayer,” “is etymologically related to the root word tofel—meaning reconnect or bond.” When Jews pray three times a day to God, they are reconnecting or “sticking” themselves back to their (our?) Original Source above. In this sense, “prayer” doesn’t mean beseeching, imploring, or appealing to God for something, but instead, it means reconnecting, reattaching, rebonding to the source of our lives and souls.
A fairly inaccurate but still apt analogy would be plugging your dead cell phone into the recharger to restore electricity to its drained battery…sort of.
But we don’t really do that when we pray, do we?
We do not suffice with standing there and acknowledging, “Yes, you are the Omnipotent King and we owe everything to you.” We continue by petitioning, pleading and begging that He change the situation. We repeat again and again, “Let it be Your will…”—directly implying that what we are requesting is not currently His will and we are out to change that.
We are quite frankly creating a revolution: Those at the bottom are dictating to the One Above. Our prayers are definitively not passive—we are taking a real nudnik, back-seat driver role.
And this is a mitzvah—He told us to do this!
The ideal is to reconnect to our source and to restore the Divine spark within us, but in any practical, real-life manner, we ask and plead and beg and implore God to help, help, help us with the mess of our lives.
And in Judaism, this is a mitzvah? Is it a “mitzvah”, an obedient act of righteousness and charity, if a Christian does this?
Judaism interprets the commandment, “You shall serve the LORD your God” (Exodus 23:25, Deuteronomy 6:13) as a positive commandment to pray daily. According to Maimonides:
…this commandment obligates each person to offer supplication and prayer every day and utter praises of the Holy One, blessed be He; then petition for all his needs with requests and supplications; and finally, give praise and thanks to God for the goodness that He has bestowed upon him; each one according to his own ability. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer, 1:1)
The Apostolic Scriptures also frame prayer as a positive commandment, making it accessible to the Christian as well as to the Jew:
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison – that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. –Colossians 4:2-4
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. –1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
That’s hardly a comprehensive list, but you get the idea. Continue praying. Pray without ceasing. Pray for others. Pray that the word declaring the “mystery of Christ” continues to be preached. Give thanks in all circumstances…even when sitting at the bottom of the well, because praying is “the will of God in Christ Jesus.”
When Paul writes, “for you” at the end of verse 18, I have to assume he’s referring to the non-Jewish believers, so that God’s will for me personally is to pray as I’ve described above.
Paul makes prayer sound so noble and selfless, but that’s hardly how most people pray. We pray asking for what we think we need and want. We pray when we’re upset or in pain. We pray with life isn’t going our way. And we have the audacity to ask God to change things around to the way we want them to be. Rabbi Freeman puts it this way:
The question returns: Why would the Ultimate Driver of the Universe want a nudnik, back seat driver?
So, when I pray, am I a pest? How is this repairing my soul? How does this help me relate to God?
Until after the final redeemer arrives, there is no person on earth without some fault. Where this person fails on one count, another fails elsewhere.
We don’t appreciate someone else prying into our faults and underlining each one with a red pencil. So we know it is not right to emphasize and magnify the faults of another.
This is the way all people should relate to one another.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson Chabad.org
“To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”
American writer, artist and philosopher
I’m far from perfect God, but I want to trust you. Should I put my foot on the first rung of the ladder?
"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