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What is Aggada? Part II: Aggada in Medieval Thought

Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan


Ein Yaakov - The World of Talmudic Aggada

By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan



Lecture 2 - What is Aggada? Part II:

Aggada in Medieval Thought



Judaism began 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. 


For our 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 interpreted.


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 SecondTemple 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?


Different 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.


The Geonim


The Geonim 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 Spain. 


The Geonim 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)


All Midrash 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 Gaon)


The Geonic 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. 


The Ashkenazic Approach: Rashi and the Ba’alei Ha-Tosafot


A very 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 France 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 physical body. 


The strength 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.


Regarding the 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. 




In the 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 to Aggada:


You must know that the words of the Sages are interpreted differently by three groups of people.


The first 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.


The members 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…


The second 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.


The positions 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. 


The Rambam 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).


All students 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.

(Translation based on I. Twersky, A Maimonides Reader, pp. 407-409) 


Rambam argues 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 text.


In 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. 


Rambam’s 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 hand. 


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 texts.


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. 


While Kabbala 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.


Our Approach


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 statement.


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.


Like Rambam, 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. 

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