- The World of Talmudic Aggada
- What is Aggada? Part II:
to undergo a series of radical transformations in the centuries following the
final editing of the Babylonian Talmud (the Bavli) in approximately 500
CE. The Bavli gradually became recognized as the central authority on
Halakha, and the central text among students of Torah. The Bavli’s privileged status
first emerged in Babylonia, which remained the
center of Jewish life into the Middle Ages. From there, it spread to much of the
Diaspora and finally to the Land of Israel.
purposes, the focus on the Bavli text meant that now, when people spoke
of “Aggada” they referred primarily not to a discipline or area of study, but to
aggadic sections of the Bavli.
Aggada was no longer a living tradition, but a set of ancient texts to be
This shift to
Aggada as text is part of a wider phenomenon which I describe as the alienation
of Jewish culture from traditional Aggada.
Regarding Halakha, there was an unbroken tradition of practice and study. As a result, medieval scholars
approached the Talmud as insiders.
They did not find the rulings and intricate disputes of the Talmud foreign to
themselves or their sensibilities.
Of course, they found many passages difficult or obscure, and they may in fact
have produced readings and rulings that would have confounded or enraged the
Talmudic rabbis. All of this,
however, occurred in the context of an unbroken living tradition.
When it came
to aggadic passages, there was not always such a sense of continuity. In many instances, rabbis found
aggadic passages in the Talmud strange, bizarre, and even scandalous. It was not always obvious to them how
to interpret these passages or integrate them into their own world-view. This gap between medieval scholars
and their Talmudic predecessors was caused in part by the intellectual and
religious challenges that emerged during this period. Starting in the 8th
century, Karaites challenged the legitimacy of the Talmud and the tradition of
Oral Law that it represented. For
the first time, rabbis were forced to become self-conscious about the nature and
meaning of aggada in order to defend it from these attacks. At the same time, rabbis came face to
face with the tradition of rational philosophy which was first developed by the
Greeks and then embraced by early Muslims.
Many important rabbis saw great value in this approach to theology. They had to figure out how to
reconcile this systematic rationalism with the apparently ad hoc and highly
figurative approach to theology found in the Aggada. Finally, as the Middle Ages
progressed, the mystical tradition of Judaism, whose roots go back to at least
times, became increasingly prominent in Jewish life and thought. It too was transformed into a more
systematic body of texts and ideas known as Kabbalah. Once again, Kabbalists saw a need to
reconcile their views with the classical aggadic texts.
In light of
these changes, scholars began to ask a new set of questions, implicitly or
explicitly: What exactly is Aggada? Is the Aggada of the Bavli
authoritative in the way in which Bavli Halakha is normative? How can we bridge the gap between us
and the world of the Talmudic rabbis? How is Aggada properly interpreted?
schools of thought came up with different answers to these questions and
different methods for reading Aggada.
They each drew on different aspects of Aggada that we saw discussed in
the Talmudic and Midrashic sources themselves.
Some medieval thinkers made sharp distinctions between Halakha and
Aggada, while others blurred the boundaries.
Some saw Aggada as a “low” form meant for the masses, while others saw it
as a “high” form which communicates divine secrets to a select few. We will now quickly survey a few of
the most important medieval approaches to Aggada.
were the leaders of Sura and Pumbedita, the great Yeshivot of Babylonia, from
the 7th to 11th century.
Through much of this period, the Geonim were widely recognized as
the leading rabbinic scholars of their time.
Their rulings, enactments and interpretations of the Talmud were all
considered authoritative, especially by Jews in the Islamic world, which then
extended from central Asia to northwest Africa and
sought to create a clear division between Halakha and Aggada, elevating halakhic
texts to the status of divine law while demoting Aggada to informed opinion at
best. The following are two classic
formulations of the Geonic position on this matter:
Aggada is any
interpretation brought in the Talmud that does not explain a commandment. This
is Aggada, and one should only rely on it within reason. You should know that
all laws that the rabbis [of the Talmud] enacted on the basis of a commandment
come directly from Moshe our Teacher, may he rest in peace, who received them
from the Almighty. One may neither
add nor detract from them. But when [the
rabbis] interpreted [non-legal] verses, they were expressing their own opinions
and what happened to occur to them. We rely on these interpretations only when
they are reasonable. (R. Shmuel b. Hofni Gaon)
and Aggada which we derive from verses are mere approximations… They represent
the opinions of individuals. But for
us, “a man is praised according to his reason” (Mishlei 18:12). So, too, the Aggada transmitted by
the (students of) students, like R. Tanchuma and R. Oshiah and others, are
mostly not reasonable, so we do not rely on words of Aggada. (R. Sherira
position laid the groundwork for all rational and empirical study of Aggada from
the Middle Ages until today.
According to this view, the pious student need not be concerned if aggadic
statements seem to contradict current scientific or historical knowledge, or if
interpretations of non-legal biblical verses seem to stray far from the simple
meaning of the text. Even troubling
theological statements found in the Talmud need not be a cause of distress. In all of these cases, the rabbis had
no divine authority or tradition.
Ashkenazic Approach: Rashi and the Ba’alei Ha-Tosafot
different approach to the relationship between Halakha and Aggada has been
attributed to Rashi and the Ba’alei Ha-Tosafot, the leading rabbinic figures of
medieval Ashkenaz, the geographic area roughly equivalent to modern
and Germany. In their commentaries on the Talmud,
Rashi and Ba’alei Ha-Tosafot do not appear to make any qualitative or
methodological distinctions between halakhic and aggadic passages. They go straight through the Talmudic
text, seeking to clarify its meaning and reconcile it with other rabbinic
sources. Thus they seem to recognize
the aggadic sections of the Talmud as no less authoritative than the halakhic
ones. Indeed, many scholars believe
that at least some medieval French authorities, including perhaps Rashi himself,
accepted at face value even those aggadot that describe God as having a
of this approach is that it meets the Talmudic text on its own terms. It does not seek to impose an
artificial or overly rigid distinction between halakhic and aggadic passages
that are right next to each other on a page of Talmud. Neither does it seek to interpret
Aggada through the prism of a systematic rational theology that would have been
quite foreign to the authors of the Talmud.
On the other
hand, Rashi and the Ba’alei Ha-Tosafot appear to demand that we accept every
aggadic statement, at least from the Talmud, as true and normative, just like
the halakhic statements of the Talmud.
This is indeed a tall order.
In its most radical formulation, such an approach would demand that we check our
rational faculties at the door of the beit midrash before endeavoring to
study Aggada. All we can do is read
the Aggada and accept its simple meaning as the truth, regardless of the
challenges that might be raised against it.
question of the authority of Aggada, the Ashkenazic rabbis’ position is the
opposite of the Geonim. While
the Geonim rejected the Aggada’s authority, the Ashkenazic rabbis upheld
its authority. Nevertheless, the
Geonim and the Ashkenazim actually share a common hermeneutic
approach. They both insist on a
literal reading of Aggada. It does
not occur to either group that the true meaning of Aggada differs radically from
the simple meaning of its words.
There is no room for maneuvering, reinterpretation or equivocation. According to both schools, one either
accepts or rejects the simple meaning of Aggada.
writings of Maimonides, the Rambam, we find a sophisticated attempt to move
beyond the simple literal meaning of Aggada.
In a famous passage in his Introduction to Helek (the final
chapter of Mishna Sanhedrin), Rambam contrasts three different approaches
You must know
that the words of the Sages are interpreted differently by three groups of
group is the largest one. I have
watched them, read their books, and heard about them. They accept the teachings of the
Sages in their simple literal sense and do not think that these teachings
contain any hidden meaning at all.
They hold these opinions because they do not understand science and are far from
having acquired any knowledge. They
posses no perfection which would give them their own insights, nor have they
found anyone else who would provide them with a similar understanding. Therefore, they believe that the
Sages intended no more with their deliberate and straightforward utterances than
what they understand based on their own inadequate knowledge. They understand the teachings of the
Sages only in the literal sense, even though some of these teachings, when taken
literally, would make even the uneducated (let alone sophisticated scholars) ask
how anyone in the world could believe such things are true, let alone edifying.
of this group are ignorant, and one can only regret their folly. Their very effort to honor and exalt
the Sages using their own meager understanding actually humiliates them…
group is also large. When the people
in this group read or hear the words of the Sages, they too understand them
according to their simple literal sense and believe that the Sages intended
nothing other than what may be learned from their literal interpretation. Inevitably, they ultimately declare
the Sages to be fools, hold them in contempt, and slander that which does not
deserve to be slandered. They
imagine that they are more intelligent than the Sages, that the Sages were
simpletons who suffered from inferior intelligence. The members of this group are so
pretentious and stupid that they can never attain genuine wisdom. Most of those who have stumbled into
this error are involved with medicine or astrology. How remote they are from true
philosophy compared to real philosophers! They are more stupid than the first
group; many of them are simply fools.
of these first two groups roughly correspond to the positions we have described
of the Ashkenazic sages and the Geonim, respectively. Clearly Rambam presents gross
caricatures of these positions, turning them into straw men for his own
position. Rambam does not seek to
directly attack these great rabbis, but rather the simplistic approaches common
in his own day. Nevertheless,
Rambam’s basic critiques of the two schools, removed of their venom, indeed also
apply to these great rabbis’ positions.
The Geonim’s readiness to dismiss the words of the Sages as
irrational does indeed seem to denigrate the Sages and make them inferior to the
reader. In contrast, the Ba’alei
Ha-Tosafot’s insistence on accepting the literal reading of Aggada leaves us
with many aggadic passages that seem thoroughly inexplicable.
then goes on to present the third group, to which he belongs:
There is a
third group. Its members are so few
in number that it is hardly appropriate to call them a group, except in the
sense that one speaks of the sun as a group (or species) of which it is the only
member. This group consists of men
to whom the greatness of the Sages is clear.
They recognize the superiority of their intelligence from their words,
which point to exceedingly profound truths.
Even though this third group is few and scattered, their books teach the
perfection which was achieved by the authors and the high level of truth which
they had attained. The members of
this group understand that the Sages knew as clearly as we do that difference
between the impossibility of the impossible and the existence of that which must
exist. They know that the Sages did
not speak nonsense, and it is clear to them that the words of the Sages contain
both an obvious and hidden meaning.
Thus, whenever the Sages spoke of things that seem impossible, they were
employing the style of riddle and parable, which is the method of truly great
thinkers. For example the greatest
of our wise men (Shlomo) began his book by saying, “To understand an analogy and
a metaphor, the words of the wise and their riddles” (Mishlei 1:6).
of rhetoric know the real concern of a riddle is with its hidden meaning, and
not with its obvious meaning, as: “Let me now put forth a riddle to you” (Shoftim
14:12). Since the words of the Sages all
deal with supernatural matters which are ultimate, they must be expressed in
riddles and analogies.
based on I. Twersky, A Maimonides Reader, pp. 407-409)
that at least some aggadic texts must be read with careful attention to the
poetic methods used by the rabbis.
In a parallel passage in his Guide of the Perplexed (3:43), Rambam
explains this idea using terms that are familiar to any modern student of
literature. Poets often write using
indirect methods, such as metaphor.
One needs to learn how to read poetry in order to understand this indirect
method. For example, Aristotle gives
as his standard case of metaphor, “Achilles is a lion.” An uneducated reader may understand
that “Achilles” is the name of an actual animal, a member of the family of great
cats known as Panthera leo. A
reader with more background in Greek literature, however, will know that
Achilles is a human being, the legendary warrior who stars in Homer’s epic poem,
the Iliad. Why then is he
called “a lion?” The reader must understand that this metaphor is meant to tell
us about something that Achilles has in common with the lion. Once again, the unskilled reader may
come to the conclusion that Achilles had a mane of yellow hair and a long tail. Of course, the proper reading of this
phrase is that Achilles is as mighty and bold as a lion. Along similar lines, the reader of
Aggada must learn to recognize and interpret the rabbis’ use of metaphors and
figures of speech to communicate their teachings.
Failure to do so will result in misguided, literal readings of the
passage cited above, Rambam takes this idea one step further. Rambam argues that the rabbis used
purposely confusing images that conceal the deeper secrets of rabbinic thought. Only the wisest students will learn
to penetrate the text and unlock the secrets of its parables and riddles. The Aggada thus contains within it
the most profound philosophical truths.
However, they are available only to great scholars who have been
initiated into these secrets.
approach seeks a balance between blind acceptance and blatant disregard of the
aggadic teachings. His notion that
Aggada speaks in its own specialized language is particularly appealing to me. It is in line with modern ideas about
the necessity of developing a method of reading that is suited to the text at
On the other
hand, Rambam insists that Aggada be read through the lens of his own
philosophical rationalism. Anything that defies the logic of his approach must
be reinterpreted in a non-literal fashion.
An unbiased reading of the Talmudim and Midrashim does not
give one the sense that the rabbis subscribed to the sort of rationalism
advocated by Aristotle and his medieval followers, including Maimonides. This will become especially apparent
in the texts that we shall study from Massekhet Berakhot. Maimonides’ rationalist approach to
Aggada thus has the potential to seriously distort the meaning of some aggadic
Mystical/Kabbalistic approaches to Aggada
I have very
little knowledge or background regarding Kabbala or the Jewish mystical
tradition. Nevertheless, given the
importance of Kabbala to Judaism and Jewish thought, it would be remiss to
ignore its approach to Aggada entirely.
is often seen as the opposite of Maimonides’ rationalist approach, these schools
have certain key points in common, some of which shape their approaches to
Aggada. Like Rambam, the Kabbalists
see aggadic texts as potentially containing divine secrets, accessible only to
the most advanced students. The key
difference is the nature of these secrets. For Maimonides they are philosophical
truths, while for the Kabbalists they are mystical truths. My understanding is that a
kabbalistic approach is more open to anthropomorphic descriptions of God. As such, kabbalistic interpretations
may be better attuned to aggadic sensibilities than Maimonidean interpretations. One is perhaps most likely to
encounter kabbalistic interpretations of Aggada in the Ramban’s Commentary on
the Torah. Ramban frequently
presents aggadot as understood through the prism of Kabbala.
As we have
seen, the great rabbis of the Middle Ages formulated a broad range of approaches
to the study of Aggada, each with its strengths and weaknesses. I would like to propose an eclectic
approach to Aggada that draws on what I see as the most compelling and
insightful aspects of each approach.
Like the Geonim, I insist on our intellectual autonomy from the Aggada. We are free to evaluate the Aggada
using our own scientific, historical and philosophical understandings. In short, aggadic texts are not
infallible, and we do not need to believe in the absolute truth of every aggadic
On the other
hand, we cannot simply reject those aggadot that we do not like. Like the Ba’alei Ha-Tosafot, we must
endeavor to understand the Aggada on its own terms, without imposing our own
value systems. Even when we disagree
with certain aspects of an aggadic teaching, we must strive to see how it made
sense to the rabbis from their perspective and endeavor to search for more
far-reaching meaning in the text.
we must realize that simplistic literalism will only lead to misreading the
Aggada. We must appreciate the
literary qualities of the Aggada and learn to interpret it according to its
forms and conventions. Furthermore,
as both Maimonides and the Kabbalists insist, we must be open to the fact that
underlying the individual aggadic statements and passages is a broader and more
sophisticated world-view, which can only be appreciated through years of devoted
study. Some passages may baffle us,
but this does not mean they are meaningless.
It may just mean that we do not yet know enough to understand them.