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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2005
Number 62
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Tales to Engage

Rabbinic Stories, translated and introduced by Jeffrey L. Rubenstein.
Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press

A Review Essay By Earle J. Coleman

Jeffrey L. Rubenstein introduces didactic stories that have the power to enlist the heart, mind, and will, thereby demonstrating that no learning surpasses that in which all of these faculties participate. Beginning with the miracle story of Hanukah, from the Talmud, and concluding with the top of sin and repentance in the stories of Elisha ben Abuya, Rubenstein clarifies texts that are possessed of a brevity and subtlety which sometimes render them challenging. He observes that the point of these stories was not to convey authentic history; rather, they were intended to convey ethical lessons for future generations. In terms of genre, it is preferable to think of rabbinic stories as revelatory fiction. Aristotle would, however, remind one that poetry is more philosophical than history, because the latter is limited to what particular events have happened, but poetry is more speculative, considers universals, and addresses what might occur. As with unsigned paintings, the genesis of rabbinic stories is obscure, for they derive from schools rather than individual authors. There is, however, little ambiguity about the message of a typical anecdote: the thought and actions of the rabbi who animates the story, illumine how others should live their lives. After all, such rabbis are sages and who knows better how to live his life than a sage?

As in the Confucian tradition, rabbinic morality involved emulation of an ideal figure; again, as in Confucianism, the exemplary person presented a capsule "sermon," rather than a lengthy exposition. Regrettably, in recent times, the notion that we should model our actions on ideal moral agents — an idea which was also supported by Aristotle — all too often gives way to various versions of relativism. Filial piety is a cardinal virtue in Confucianism as it is in rabbinic thought. Confucians point out that no other humans can be more important than one’s mother and father, since they are the source of his being. A person may have five spouses, but she can only have two parents. In Judaism, respect for one’s parents naturally follows from the commandment to honor one’s father and mother. In one rabbinic story, a man loses a large sum of money, because to gain it he would have to disturb his sleeping father. Rabbinic thought stipulates, however, that honoring one’s master is loftier than honoring one’s father, for one’s father brought him into this world, but the master leads him into the world to come (Mishnah Bava Metsia 2.11). By contrast, Confucians are emphatically this-worldly. When Confucius was asked about the life to come, he told his disciples not to be concerned about it, adding that if one leads a good life in the here and now, the afterlife will take care of itself.

Rabbis presented the golden rule as follows: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah." Interestingly enough, Confucius also formulated the rule negatively: "Do not do to others what you would not like yourself." He was later criticized by Christians who regarded his version as inferior; i.e., as less direct than "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you." Of course, the negative and positive formulations are logically identical. Moreover, the writings of Confucius contain both. Finally, the import of ritual is affirmed in both traditions. Confucius greatly respected the treasure of ritual, as when a youth bows before his master. If the youth fails to bow, he is being disrespectful and the relationship between the two is weakened. Apart from its moral significance, a ritual is also a work of art, since it is a means by which one expresses his emotions. Indeed, a ritual is often the vehicle by which one conveys her most profound emotions. Thus the bowing ritual is not a trifle any more than the rituals of Judaism are dispensable. Of course, a ritual may disappear, change or be suspended by another ritual, but rituals themselves are indispensable because they perform the essential task of allowing humans to commune and to communicate their emotions in an aesthetic way. At weddings, it was customary to present a cock and a hen before the bride and groom in order to promote reproduction. Once when a Roman troop took the birds, the Jews attacked the Romans ferociously, demonstrating that to violate a ritual is a serious offense against a culture.

Addressing the problem of evil, Rubenstein states a common rabbinic response: in this life, good humans suffer because even they have sinned occasionally, and bad humans flourish because even they have performed a few meritorious deeds. But in the future life, the good receive only rewards and the bad receive only suffering. According to Rubenstein, Nahum of Gamzu may have regarded suffering as a means by which to atone for one’s sins. But as popular and recurring as this theodicy has been, it can hardly account for the suffering of innocent children. And when Rabbi Yohanan declares that God delivers suffering only to those who can endure it, one wonders about those who, undergoing great anguish, take their own lives. The pain of rabbinic martyrs is sometimes explained with reference to their rewards in the next world or with the claim that God wanted to spare them from some impending and great agony in this life. Theologians and philosophers, who find no theodicy to be plausible, will appreciate the face that, in Talmud Bavli Berachot, three rabbis want nothing to do with suffering, despite the manifold benefits that some theologians associate with it. The practice of dialectics in the rabbinic tradition was of central but not supreme importance. In the academies, the art of disputation flourished, but skill in debate was invalidated when a sage made the moral mistake of offending or insulting his opponent. In short, one had to temper the presentation of logic with the ethical values of sensitivity and fellow-feeling. Accordingly, Rubenstein recognizes Rabban Gamaliel for his habit of humiliating other sages. In argumentation, not only does one risk hurting someone’s feelings, but one may also fall into sophistry. The following illustrates such fallacious reasoning: "A lame man and a blind man ate the figs they were supposed to guard. They defended themselves individually: ‘I have no eyes to see,’ said the blind man. ‘I have no legs to walk,’ said the lame man. But a sage argued that they could have combined their efforts. The moral is that body and soul, as united, will be judged together."

Talmudic storytellers raise a fascinating question when they ask of the merit acquired by the study of Torah can be nullified by sin. In the case of the sinner, Elisha ben Abuya, ultimately his former pupils, to whom he had taught Torah, intervened and supported a negative answer. And although God rejected Elisha, his pupil Rabbi Meir convinced God to allow Elisha admission to the world to come. When a rabbi declared that no mercy should be shown toward Elisha, his daughters told the rabbi not to pay attention to his deeds but to his Torah. Rabbis wrestle with another philosophical matter when they assert that although everything is foreseen, humans have free will. Here the point is that doing good deeds and following the commandments (mitzvot) can alter one’s fate. Therefore, moral acts benefit the doer as well as the receiver. Of course, this response to the problem of free will is based on faith, since there is no argument but only the assertion that if one lives righteously, he can shape his destiny. As with any philosophical issue, there are different replies to the question: Can God forgive even the worst sinner? A negative response might suggest that God is limited in his mercy. A positive response implies that the vilest sinner who repents in the last second of life will earn the same reward as someone who has had a life-long commitment to righteous living. Obviously, the latter moral agent needs no consolation if she believes that virtues is its own reward.

The diversity of topics and tones in Rubenstein’s selections can be demonstrated through several examples. Rabbinic stories sometimes deliver humor, and especially wit: "To escape from an encounter with the Romans is to be like the Egyptian stork that removed a bone from a lion’s throat and lived to tell about it."

Sometimes a rabbinic narrative is as startling as it is informative. For example, in the oft-quoted story, The Oven of Akhnai, one reads that just as the majority is authoritative over the minority, the sages are authoritative over God. To justify their claim they appeal to the Torah that God has entrusted to them. God responds with laughter and declares: "My children have defeated me." The importance of the practical is evident in a story about a rabbi who values wood over wine and oil, for to bake a loaf of bread takes "60 loads of wood." Commenting on a lesser-known aspect of the rabbinic tradition, Rubenstein explains that in the intimate atmosphere of the academy, separations between colleagues or students and their masters were as upsetting as failures of marriages or within families. Occasionally, he includes material that bears on relations between Judaism and Christianity. For example, one anecdote relates the extreme view that it was better to die than turn to a Christian for medical aid. Another story recounts the deed of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, who lived in a cave for 13 years, suggesting the optimistic point that light appears even in the darkest places. Perhaps the most valuable feature of the stories is what, through our own interpretations and evaluations, they may teach us about our own religious views.

Earle J. Coleman is Professor Emeritus of philosophy and religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and a contributing editor.

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