Maimonides, Introduction to Pereq Heleq, Commentary on the Mishna Therefore, Maimonides recommended that aggadot not be studied in depth: All these things are legends divrei aggada , and in what pertains to legends one should not attempt a rational examination.
Each person contemplates the [scriptural] verse according to that which he sees in the verse. The content of these things, and whatever belongs to this category, defines them as legends, regardless of where they are written,v whether it is in the Talmud, or in homiletic writings, or in books of legends. Midrashic legends are not, however, identical with rabbinic biographies which Maimonides may have regarded as biographical reports. Factual accounts have a value, but the literary features and miraculous events reported are not worthy of analysis. Had these biographical narratives been considered literary fictions, the Geonim would have completely dismissed them as insignificant.
At best the rabbinic folktales could be preserved under the classification of moral fables or light literary entertainment to cheer up a persecuted Jewish community. Thus the poet and exegete Abraham Ibn Ezra Spain, d. Of course, the halakhic implications of these stories were studied carefully, even while disregarding their literary form and message. Following Plato and Arab philosophers, Maimonides believed that the higher levels of rational truths were only beneficial for the wise, while the people needed to be educated in mythic terms that were inaccurate scientifically but could be manipulated to encourage beneficial behaviors.
Thus aggada and anthropomorphic features of the Bible achieved two goals simultaneously. While read literally, they taught ethical behavior, as for example when God is described as angry at immoral behavior. He believed that Moses and all the prophets had also been philosophers whose knowledge was later conveyed to the Greek philosophers. The alliance between philosophy and aggada was mutually beneficial, for philosophic authority was accommodated to Torah and, in turn, philosophy gained traditional religious authority. Literature was not valued for its aesthetics, but for its ability to mediate truth through a veil by inviting close allegorical study.
Only the methodologically astute could penetrate the veil. Armed with the right knowledge and method in advance, scholars could glimpse the true philosophic system via the literary parable. In the medieval and early modern era, the kabbalists used allegorical and many other non-literalist readings of Bible to generate mystical truths, not otherwise detectable from the literal and contextual reading of Torah.
He categorizes them not as aesthetic literature, but rather simultaneously as actual historical events, as moral parables and as esoteric spiritual allegories. Maimonides, his father, follows the Platonic tradition in condemning the poets and the narrative mythology of the classic tradition as false, misleading and immoral. They are a waste of time, like the books Arabs read about ancient lore, the customs of kings, the genealogies of tribes, poetry and so on. Even on non-sacred days, I do not know who gave permission to read them, since it says: Do not sit in a house of party making.
Confronted by the division between aggada and pshat, on the one hand, and the dismissal of literary fiction and history, on the other, the identification of aggada as a parable or an allegory was a convenient solution. He also rehabilitates the standing of the human faculty of imagination itself. Aristotle taught the value of fictions that are neither about philosophic and theological truths nor about moral dictums.
To gain acceptance with the Church, the humanists who wished to celebrate aesthetics needed to justify these fictions by declaring that, while false in factual content and illogical in form, they have beneficial social and moral affects. The Renaissance revalidated and then revived the field of literature — through its study and through the composition of plays and musical oratoria, but this trend barely affected the Jewish community beyond Italy. The Maharal of Prague 16th C. The truth of aggada is not factual, rather each aggada captures its own aspect of the complex truth of reality and of Torah through the prism of the unique soul and perspective God granted to each individual.
If a thousand people look at it, she looks at each one. Thus, the Holy One when speaking to each and every one of the people of Israel, each one would say: With me, God is speaking. Rabbi Yossi son of Rabbi Haninah said: The Speaker [God] spoke with them according to the powers of each and every one.
Don't be incredulous about that, for when the manna descended to Israel, each one tasted it according to each one's powers: The children according to their capacity, the youths according to their capacity, and the elderly according to their capacity. For the children, it tasted like the mother's milk from the breast, as its says, its taste was like the breast, like rich oil Numbers ; for the youths according to their capacity, as it says, my bread that I gave you with oil and honey I fed you Ezekiel ; and for the elderly according to their capacity, as it says, its taste was like honeycombs Exodus God appeared to them with an angry face, with a sober face, with a persuasive face and with a laughing face.
Angry for teaching Tanakh, for a father must teaching his son Torah with awe; sober for teaching Mishna, persuasive [explaining] for teaching Talmud, and laughing for teaching Aggada. The Maharal explains that the disputes between scholars in halakha and aggada are a reflection of their blessed innate God-given differences: Human beings are divided in their intelligence and it is impossible that the minds of all human beings can follow the same path. Rather he brings out what each aggada adds to a complex picture of Divine reality. However, the Sovereign of Sovereigns, God, created each human being in the image of the first human being, yet no one is identical with any other.
In studying Torah no viewpoint should be censored and suppressed. Freedom of conscience and of speech both apply to Torah study. The Maharal cites Averroes Ibn Rushd who had argued that you should always, when presenting a philosophical argument, cite the views of your opponents.
It is not proper that we despise the words [of our adversaries], but rather we must draw them as close as we can…. Therefore, it is proper, out of love of reason and knowledge, that you should not summarily reject anything that opposes your own ideas, especially so if your adversary does not intend merely to provoke you, but rather to declare his beliefs. On the contrary, you should, at such times, say, 'Speak up as much as you want, say whatever you wish, and do not say later that had you been able to speak you would have replied further'….
This is the opposite of what some people think, namely, that when you prevent someone from speaking against religion that strengthens religion. That is not so, because curbing the words of an opponent in religious matters is nothing but the curbing and enfeebling of religion itself…. When a powerful man seeks out an opponent in order to demonstrate his own strength, he very much wants his opponent to exercise as much power as he can, so that if he defeats him, his own victory will be more pronounced.
What strength is manifested when the opponent is not permitted to fight? Hence, one should not silence those who speak against religion…for to do so is an admission of weakness. Three cultural trends of this era generate three approaches to rabbinic tales: 1 fictional popular literature as a product of the creative genius of the national soul; 2 national history of heroes inspiring a people to struggle for liberation and greatness; and 3 history and belle lettres taught by national educators to raise and reform national consciousness. Herder d. Folklore is important, because it is the creative product of a living nation.
Nationalist Jews first learned to cherish their own Talmudic stories qua folklore from the German revival of national folklore by the brothers Grimm who collected German folk tales in order to shape the revival of their national identity. For the Jewish national revival of the Romantic Age, the anonymity of the authors of rabbinic tales and their popular style made them prime representatives of the collective living spirit of the Jewish people as a whole. They opposed the idealization of rationalist philosophies of the medieval elites, like Maimonides, who was popular among modern anti-Zionist Reform and Orthodox rabbis in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Zionist poet H. Louis Ginsburg collected and rewrote rabbinic aggada in his monumental work aptly titled, not the "Legends of the Rabbis or the Talmud," but Legends of the Jews In Odessa the national Hebrew poet H. Bialik, along with Y. Rawnitzki, collected and published Sefer HaAggada , an annotated anthology of all rabbinic stories, exegesis and maxims by theme in order to preserve, make accessible and enrich the popular culture of the Jewish people.
Thus Talmud was extracted from the hands of elitist Orthodox rabbis and reworked to serve the needs of Hebrew-speaking secular nationalist adults and their children, and especially Zionist educators. Only later in the midth century at the Hebrew University, did the academic analysis of aggada as folklore develop. In that populist spirit, contemporary scholars continue to research rabbinic folklore.
Each demonstrates how aggada reflects the way of life of a people who embody human values. Aggada focuses attention on marginalized members of society and brings them to the center stage of rabbinic culture. Germany during the successful German national struggle for unification and independence, romantic nationalists wrote historical accounts of their legendary heroes to inspire their people to struggle for renaissance, for liberation and for greatness.
Romantic nationalist writers also influenced Jewish scholars of rabbinic literature, such as Heinrich Graetz. For them, the reconstruction of a usable Jewish history and the writing of biographies of great leaders of the rabbinic era served to reinforce and reshape modern Jewish identity. Their ideologies and methodologies differed, but they shared a common quest for the historical kernel within rabbinic literature.
They hoped to reconstitute a glorious, if tragic, Jewish past composed of inspiring leaders setting the course of national, not merely religious, history. The forerunner of the nationalist tradition was Rabbi Azaria de Rossi 16th C. Italy who, as we noted above, invented the aesthetic approach to aggada. These Jewish historians believed they must recast the tales of the rabbis as historical sources by disregarding miraculous, and hence inherently false, fictional exaggerations.
They attributed these improbable aspects of aggada to the nature of Talmudic literature, in which they are embedded, since Talmud and Midrash are not critical historical genres. With modern historical tools, the popular fictional skin can be peeled away to reach the truly valuable historical kernel. Akiba ben Joseph. Only as an adult did he begin to take an interest in the study of the Torah, to which he devoted himself while making a bare living from casual labor.
He was executed in the course of the persecution of Jewish leaders after the revolt. National history studded with colorful personalities was the narrative these educators-cum-historians, like Ben-Zion Dinur, were anxious to supply their people as they emerged as an independent nation. The era of Yavneh as the new post-Jerusalem rabbinic center was viewed as a period in which the rabbis led the national effort to reclaim a measure of political autonomy, even under the hegemony of the Roman Empire.
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The great scholar Rabbi Akiba became the nationalist hero to be emulated by Zionists, because he supposedly joined the last pre-modern military revolt of the Jewish people, the Bar Kokhba Revolt CE. In the 19th century the chief educators were the liberal rabbis who identified with the Talmudic rabbis, as teachers of religion.
In the 20th century, by contrast, the chief educators of the Zionist movement were secular literati. Not the Hebrew poet, essayist or the novelist, but the modern rabbi would lead this renaissance. In HaDerashot B'Yisrael , the 19th century liberal rabbi and scholar Leopold Zunz portrayed the rabbis, in the past and in the present, as the educators of the people by means of their sermons in the synagogue.
Aggada could now be regarded as a product of the rabbinic elite promoting ideas for the people, rather than fictions invented to entertain the masses. However, aggadot did not always derive from biblical exegesis…. The word aggadah…means simply 'relating,' i. The 'telling'…is designed to touch the human heart TB Yoma 75a , 'so that one should recognize Him who created the world, and so cling to His ways' Sifrei Deut. Its purpose is 'to bring Heaven down to earth and to elevate man to Heaven' Leopold Zunz.
Midrash was to be taught in the spirit of panim sohakot, the smiling or laughing face of God, as opposed to the more serious face or tone of Bible or Mishna.
They also told stories about their own social elite of preachers who flourished in the rabbinic world of the Beit Midrash. In interpreting a Biblical text, the preacher addressed contemporary issues and promoted rabbinic values for the people for whose education they took responsibility. The audiences were the masses whose popular imagination was shaped in dialogue with the competing Greco-Roman popular culture mythology, theater, history, courtroom rhetoric, novella, and exotic stories such as those reported by Herodotus.
These darshanim preachers were heirs to an oral tradition of storytelling and popular explication that was never fully formulated in an official corpus. Aggadot, unlike halakhot, were not fully formed literarily nor were they canonized into official versions for use in the rabbinic curriculum. Even if these rabbinic tales had been equally important culturally with the legal texts, they would not have taken on a fixed wording — as we see from the many different versions we have for each story.
Aggada must maintain its vitality by reworking its fluid form to fit the changing circumstances of its delivery. This is still the case with the genre of the sermon today. Therefore, those studying aggada were less concerned with literary form or with abstract ethical, theological, legal or historical truth.
By modern standards these ancient narrative types should be classified as didactic fiction.
Stories accordingly had to be relevant to the audience and the audience's situation, values, conflicts, and struggles or they would not be transmitted or preserved. Oral narrative, in particular, is generally far more malleable than stories transmitted in writing.
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As storytellers retell stories they update them to make them comprehensible and pertinent to their audience. They tend to jettison older terms that would be poorly understood, transform anachronistic situations, and replace obsolete issues with contemporary concerns. Moreover, in an oral milieu a storyteller typically receives, memorizes, and transmits only the skeletal outline of the story. These Eastern European intellectuals were the would-be instructors of the modern Hebrew nation by facilitating the adaptation of the literature of the aggada for a secular, Hebrew-speaking age.
Bialik saw themselves as playing a crucial role as critical inheritors of the rabbinic role of nurturing the people. While the values they advanced were very different, they utilized the same rabbinic sources. They identified with the historical era of the revival of the people after the destruction of the Second Temple by means of literary and educational activity. Bialik's Sefer HaAggada, the classic anthology of edited Jewish tales culled from rabbinic sources, was created not to commemorate literature of the past, but to revive national self- expression in literature.
To what concept of our times does this text refer? Thus they will come to know that there is no great iron barrier separating the literature of improvised details to spark the audience's interest. Those enhancements typically are taken from his or her experience. There are many bridges leading from this literature to the literature that followed it. In its updated version was republished under the direction of an academic scholar of aggada and popular educator Avigdor Shinan. The History of Religious Polemic: Ephraim Urbach While students of folklore and sermons saw in the uneducated Jewish masses the primary audience of aggada, Ephraim Urbach, the Israeli historian of rabbinic literature and thought, treated aggada as a medium of theological and ethical polemic against opposing schools of elite thinkers.
In his book Hazal, The Sages and their Concepts and Beliefs , he demonstrates that rabbinic tales were not written in a historical genre to preserve facts or describe events objectively, but rather in an ideological genre to promote beliefs and educate people. Midrashic religious disputes with Christians, Sadducees and Romans became a record of ancient rabbinic thought. These quasi-biographical stories preserve historical truth, he believed, only in so far as they reveal the religious polemics of competing ideological groups.
Their literary form was secondary to the explicit religious worldviews that were promoted. The subtext of these tales was the interreligious contest for loyalty among competing schools of thought and religious sects in the late antiquity. In the midth C. Similarly, modern religious movements, like the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements, competed as alternative belief systems. Writing in this cultural milieu, Urbach addressed the need to define the dogmas of normative traditional Judaism as against Christianity, other Jewish sects and Western philosophy.
While Christianity and Kantian Western thought downgraded Judaism from a religion to a miscellany of heteronomous legal customs and superstitions, Urbach sought to upgrade Judaism, especially ancient rabbinic Judaism, to a philosophical and religious height.
In response to the competing schools of the Greco-Roman world, the Rabbis fashioned their own set of abstract worldviews. With this philosophical rubric for aggada, Urbach hoped Rabbinic Judaism would earn greater respect from the German Protestant academic professors of religion. Rabbinic Judaism could then become a worthy subject in the curriculum of Jewish Thought in the Hebrew University, rather than being marginalized when consigned to ex- yeshiva students with their philological expertise who occupied the chairs of the Talmud Department.
Urbach's ideological analysis of stories about the disputations of ancient rabbis with their cultural and religious rivals aimed to extricate Talmud from its academic ghetto as a field of philology or as an ancient law code lacking an ideology that could be expressed in abstract thought. Its audience was elite, young adult male disciples. This literature was produced to help induct new students, just as Greco-Roman schools of philosophy generated literature about their philosophic masters for their new disciples.
Stories of the founders were hagiographic and pedagogic. These holy stories sanctify and praise the great, and at the same time provide models for emulation by new recruits. For example, Hillel, portrayed as the wise and exceptionally patient teacher, was the subject of many rabbinic tales. On the other, these stories were educational resources for attracting students to his school, while denigrating the rival school of Shammai.
To develop this innovative approach to rabbinic tales, Jaffee draws on the sociology of knowledge. The producers of knowledge must have the leisure to create texts and they must nurture students to imbibe these texts and to emulate their protagonists in houses of study. Only thus can tradition be transmitted to the next generation. Rabbinic tales must be analyzed not only for their beliefs about the world but for their didactic and social functions in the Beit Midrash.
Both elite oral cultures have the same view of education, rabbinic Torah or Greek paideia. In both schools, education is accomplished through personal cultivation of an ideal character, through learning a literary and an oral tradition, and through embodying its values in lived practices.
The primary mechanism of enculturation is the teacher-student bond of discipline and service. The student imitates and tries to embody the same values embodied in the life of the teacher. One learns not only from the statements made by the teacher as in Pirkei Avot , but also from exempla of his behavior that demonstrate the internalization of these values as lived Torah. The living presence of the Sage is a source of transformative instruction.
Out of these anecdotes about a master developed the Western genre of biography. Like rabbinic tales, chreiai emerged from a scholastic context and served as pedagogic texts Progymnasmata in the rhetorical education in the Greco-Roman world. The study of Torah was also an essentially transformative activity, meant to create 'living Torah scrolls. One learns best as a disciple living with, serving the mundane needs of, and emulating the everyday embodied-wisdom of the master.
Another way of building moral character in both the Greek and rabbinic tradition is through the study of the literary tradition of wisdom learned by heart and then performed in face-to-face verbal encounters. In each rhetorical performance or derasha, the traditional materials and forms are employed creatively to express something new — a hiddush. Gnosis wisdom is a synthesis of received tradition and innovative interpretation. Nor did he think the bulk of these tales are propaganda for the hegemonic political interests of the rabbinic establishment. He argued that these stories were wholly literary fictions from which no facts can be distilled with any certainty.
These narratives are fiction, not nonfiction, and such categorical distinctions must be maintained at all costs, lest one apply an incorrect methodology. For Fraenkel, most rabbinic literature is the product of high culture addressed to other scholars, not popular culture such as folklore or sermons for the common folk. Unlike those popular genres, the lessons of these narratives are too sophisticated for the masses.
The 'implied audience' generally was not the average nonrabbinic or peripherally-rabbinic Babylonian Jew, and the purpose was not to propagandize about the virtues of rabbinic leadership and way of life. The focus, in other words, was internal, not external, and the redactors could afford to project failings and weaknesses upon earlier sages.
Because stories provided them a way of working through important cultural issues, they portrayed rabbinic characters with realistic limitations and faults. In New Criticism analysis, the first step is to extricate the literary unit from its later embedding in Talmudic tractates and anthologies of midrash aggada.
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Each individual tale must be isolated from the ancient and modern attempts to treat it as an episode in a continuous and internally consistent historical biography. Each story must be treated as an independent work of art, even if a protagonist with the same name is the subject of other narratives in the Talmudic corpus. Having reached a high level of literary sophistication in the process of composition, these narratives deserve careful analysis of the intersection of form and content. Urbach tended to compare and contrast parallel versions of a given tradition, and after philological and higher-critical analysis to posit a reconstructed original, which he then used as the basis for his analysis.
Fraenkel's insistence on the unity of form and content in each and every version of a tradition led him to reject Urbach's approach and to refrain from conflating — and even from comparing — alternative versions of a tradition, basing his exposition on a detailed and exhaustive analysis of data present in each talmudic text.
Fraenkel lays out each tale in the form of a prose poem or a mini-play, breaking sentences down into phrases, as did Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig in their German Bible translation. Tightly woven poetic structures were valued in New Criticism over looser, less "literary" genres, like the novel. The genre for rabbinic tales was, for Fraenkel, the short story narrative drama in which tensions and resolutions are its building blocks. As Aristotle taught, the story moves through time from a defined beginning, through its middle and toward its climactic end.
The beginning and ending are significant, but the turning point, the chiastic center, is the most important key for interpretation, for there the protagonist achieves some deeper understanding of life. They have none of the complexity of a character in Shakespeare or Flaubert.
In fact, very little is ever said about their thoughts or feelings; usually, they have no inner life at all. What was Abraham thinking on his way to sacrifice his son? How did Cain feel after he had murdered his own brother? Such questions, for a schematic narrative, are simply irrelevant. What matters is what the people did and the results of their actions, or the conclusions to which their actions led Some of the Bible's schematic narratives may be compared to jokes or fairy tales in our own culture.
Human reality is not understood simply; it is often not understood correctly; and it is not to be understood in a limited one-sided way. Literary masterpieces require the application of sophisticated literary tools. There is a particular aesthetic pleasure in the act of deciphering details and connecting them to the literary whole.
Artful narratives serve the existential needs of a religious society, but also critical social functions such as the critique of rabbinic hierarchy. Later sages taught moral and theological lessons by highlighting the failings of even the greatest rabbinic heroes. Israel, as a new what Goldilocks had done before that fateful day; the priest, the minister, and the rabbi, if they have any traits of character at all, will turn out to be altogether stereotypical - which is just how we like it!
The point is that not every narrative…is ipso facto literature, nor is every person in a tale necessarily a "character"; some may actually be more like stereotypes, or mere ciphers. We cannot press them too hard with detailed questions that assume they are literature, religious philosophy or law. Yizhar, wrote as representatives of their generation.
By the s, however, the interest of Israeli literary elites shifted from Jewish nationalism to Western individualism, from the collective to the personal search for meaning. No longer did novels have to be monumental and perhaps pompous and ideological. Rather individual authors were free to explore the daily lives of individuals seeking significance in a world without utopian solutions and without revolutionary passions.
Yehuda Amichai's poetry represents that trend toward the private and personal, even though the echoes of national history are just below the surface. Yona Fraenkel found in these rabbinic tales the reflections of human beings facing universal existential issues — death, familial crises, clashes between masters and disciples, rabbis and their colleagues and students, physical desires and spiritual aspirations. The authors of these ancient tales, though unknown to us, were individuals who felt a gap between themselves and the collective ethos.
The tale could and often did reflect criticism or conscious deviation from the official rabbinic hegemony of values. This literature expressed the spiritual world of Torah students in the classic era, but at its best it does not display its ideological lessons on its sleeve. It portrays unique personalities who cannot be lumped into a collective. Its literary protagonists are not placeholders for heroes or exempla of rabbinic ideals. Without assuming logical consistency among all the tales about the same protagonist, they believe the writers and the historic readers often conflate these quasi-biographical tales with legal traditions attributed to the same protagonist.
Fraenkel himself often showed how, in its secondary usage, an independent narrative is embedded by the editor of a halakhic sugya in order to raise questions about the self-evidence of its halakhic conclusions. These stories often serve, not as proof texts for Talmudic commonplaces, but as destabilizing factors. Kiel, Sexuality in the Babylonian Talmud, citing B. But Faust has demonstrated in his dissertation that almost all rabbinic tales are critical of the failings of human beings, especially rabbis, and of their rabbinic institutions.
In a sense the story itself is the hero, even when the protagonist is flawed and unheroic. When the narrative rebukes rabbinic culture, it functions like a prophet crying out in the city gate. Song of Songs Rabbah The problem is that a couple may love each other without regard to offspring. Should the obligation to reproduce take precedence over conjugal love and over the duty of expressing gratitude for years of loyalty?
Must the husband divorce his wife to seek a more fertile one as the halakha clearly teaches? They came before Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai and asked to be divorced from one another. They went on his way, and made a holiday for themselves. They made a great feast, and she got him too drunk. There is nothing I desire more in the world than you! Song of Songs Rabbah Ido Hevroni offers a nuanced interpretation.
Why refuse their request for a divorce, to which they have both agreed? Why send them to feast? And why do this when, at the end of the story, it becomes clear that the rabbi has the mystical power to pray over them and give them children? After all, their goal had been to separate immediately. Indeed, their reaction might even suggest that they harbor a secret hope that this last meal together might somehow turn things around. The man who was but moments from divorce makes his wife a most generous proposal: Take anything you want from my house.
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It is here, in his willingness to give her all he has, for the sake of her happiness and comfort alone, that he shows how deep and true his feelings for her really are. Our heroine takes her husband at his word. This harsh emotional demand on the couple raises questions about the inhumanity of this halakha. But the conflict between law and love is softened by three elements that lower the tension.
First, the couple voluntarily submits to the law and asks a rabbi for a divorce, even though a husband does not need a rabbi to approve or to execute a divorce.
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Bar Yohai acknowledges their emotional bonds and gives them expression by instructing them to celebrate their parting, as they celebrated their wedding. The husband shows his humanity by offering his ex-wife whatever portion of their household she prefers. Finally, Bar Yohai prays and they become fertile, so that the conflict of law and love is eliminated.
The husband makes his generous offer, and the wife responds by explaining that what she wants is him, and not the trappings of an ideal marriage in accordance with legal norms. Significantly, the husband and wife in this story both take up roles contrary to the traditional ones: Whereas it is normally the man who takes the woman, and she who gives herself to him, here it is he who is giving of himself, and she who takes him as a husband. By overturning these norms, the narrator reveals their true meaning: The goal of a marriage is not the taking of the other as a piece of property, but the desire for him as a person and not as an object.
That too was the methodology of the Hartman Institute Beit Midrash where I first studied Talmud in-depth in the s and s. These disciples also insist, contra Fraenkel, that the same story is open simultaneously to multiple strong readings of equal legitimacy. The texts of rabbinic Judaism and the construction that we put on the whole are therefore ambiguous, necessarily so. Later stages of Judaism have chosen to read the rabbinic texts in certain fashions and have closed off other options for reading.
This does not mean that their readings were wrong or inauthentic, or that I think that I have discovered the true meaning of rabbinic Judaism, but it does leave open the possibility for other understandings of the same texts. Since our cultural situation is different from that of the medieval Rabbis, it is incumbent on us, as scholars and as cultural critics, to discover other faces in the same texts-faces that can be more useful for us in re- constructing our own versions of culture and gender practices.
Such discovery would constitute an apologetic, in the degraded sense, only if it insisted on having discovered an authentic truthful interpretation that was distorted, if it hid that which is inimical to the new reading. He objected to this neo-Marxist view, both because these stories are often critical of the rabbinic establishment and because good literature cannot be treated in a reductivist, functionalist manner.
They project their monolithic prejudices on highly nuanced narratives. The most seminal opponent to the national historical school of Gedalia Alon and Shmuel Safari and the literary school of Fraenkel is Jacob Neusner. Against the historical reading of the rabbinic biographical tales, Neusner argues as follows. They tell us more about those who produced the narratives or deemed them authoritative, than about the actual personage described.
For example, the Mishna rewrites its picture of the Second Temple as an anti-historical response to its destruction. Contra Fraenkel, Boyarin rejects the distinction between high and low culture, as well as between historical and fictional biographies. Fantastic tales should be analyzed as seriously as the psychologically realistic narratives that attracted Fraenkel.
We cannot know for sure, in other words, whether this or that event happened in Akiva's life; we can only investigate the cultural meaning of preserving these stories for the future. In an alternative 19th-century Paris, a love triangle emerges between a man, a woman, and a coin-operated boy. Some of these stories are radical retellings of classic tales, some are modern-day fables, but all explore substitutions for love. Truly anarchic artistically but always true emotionally, and delivered with the skill of a virtuoso. Read it in one sitting for the thrill then read it again for the smarts.
The stories within are inventive, beautiful, and shocking by turn, and the collection is one worthy of praise and awards. It is one of those collections that I will return to and simply pick a tale at random and know I will be lost with a whole world after a few sentences. It is also a collection that has grown on me more and more since I read it. The Rental Heart takes us to a version of reality in which people fit themselves with mechanical hearts each time they fall in love — hearts that fail when that love ends.
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