Aggadic Stories Soothing the Soul

Source: H. Graetz, History of the Jews, volume II (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1893) 623.

“The reigning distress offered no scope for the profundities of the Halacha, but furthered the study of the cheerful Agada, which, diving deep into the joyful and gloomy situations of past ages, poured the balm of consolation on fretted and desperate spirits, and lulled them with the magic of hope.”

I identify with this quote because entertainment is something that has gotten me through a lot. It makes me cry. It makes me laugh. I almost feel like I’m spending time with the characters when I watch TV. I’m becoming like Lieutenant Barclay on Star Trek: The Next Generation, with his holodeck addiction. There I go again–talking like these characters are real people!

I believe it was Mark Brettler of Brandeis who argued that some of the stories in the Bible served as comic relief. As the Israelites struggled with Moabite oppression, they could laugh when they heard the story of Eglon the “cowman,” which made its way into the Book of Judges (Judges 3). Comedy helped them through some real-life difficulties. That’s why I don’t feel guilty when my mind turns to funny stuff during my daily quiet time. Laughter is the best medicine!

Does TV offer me hope? Yes and no. A lot of television characters have lives that are far better than mine is. How many girlfriends has John-Boy Walton had? How many have I had? Do you see what I mean? In terms of family life, I’d say mine is more like TV sitcom families than are a lot of families out there, for my family is supporting, loving, and sometimes annoying, but in a caring way.

So TV can be idealistic. But many characters experience some of the same problems that I do, and I can identify with them. And they somehow make it to the other side. Does that give me hope? Perhaps it shows me what’s possible. I mean, stories must have some kernel of truth in them, right, considering someone from the real world wrote them?

I can understand how Agada could be soothing. I’ve taken rabbinic classes, and there’s something cozy about a nice rabbinic story. It has the same feel as sitting around the campfire and telling stories, which is something like what I get from my AA meetings, or even at my family gatherings.

But I wonder if the hope the Jews got from their stories was the belief that they may be true, historically speaking. In their minds, maybe Hillel (or Akiba–I don’t remember) actually did sit on the roof of the rabbinic academy for decades, before he was finally let inside and went on to become one of the most respected sages of all time. Historians would probably dismiss this story as legend, designed to teach a moral lesson. But did the ancients who heard it see it that way? Maybe they got hope because they thought something good indeed happened to a humble person in the past, and so it could happen to them in the present, provided they imitated such humility.

(Note: See Izgad’s comment.)

I don’t know.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Bible, Daily Quiet Time, Judges, Rabbinics, Religion, School, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Television, Waltons. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Aggadic Stories Soothing the Soul

  1. Izgad says:

    “In their minds, maybe Hillel (or Akiba–I don’t remember) actually did sit on the roof of the rabbinic academy for decades”

    The story is about Hillel. He went up on the roof to listen because he could not pay the fee and he got snowed in. Rabbi Akiba has his own story; he, according to legend, did not start learning until he was forty.


  2. James Pate says:

    Thanks for the info, Izgad. Do you have any thoughts on whether the rabbinic stories were considered historical in antiquity? I know your field is medieval, but I’m interested in any thoughts you have.


  3. Izgad says:

    The issue of whether the Talmud literally or not has a long history to it. In a sense it plays the role in Judaism that biblical literalness plays for Christians. As I am sure you have come to understand, but would strike most Protestants as odd, the real holy book in rabbinic Judaism is the Talmud. The bible is there, but the real authority is the Talmud. If you wish to understand rabbinic Judaism forget about the bible read the Talmud. Catholics might be able to understand this a little because for them there is also not just the bible but Church tradition.


  4. James Pate says:

    Yeah, I read that in Moshe Halbertal’s People of the Book, which I will probably be rereading soon. It seems that Reform Judaism is more Bible-focused, though HUC has its share of Talmud classes.


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