Learning from our stories

Learning from our stories

Dr. Jeffrey Rubenstein’s new book examines talmudic stories as literature and as sources of great wisdom

Dr. Jeffrey Rubenstein
Dr. Jeffrey Rubenstein

Although much of the Talmud — or at any rate, the part of the Talmud that most of the people who study it think of when they think about the Talmud — is laws. Halacha.

But those laws are connected by stories, terse, often gnomic, at times phantasmagorical stories, both compelling and hard to understand.

Dr. Jeffrey Rubenstein of Englewood — and also of NYU, where he is the Skirball professor of Jewish thought and literature — wants us to think about the stories; we’ll benefit from their richness, strangeness, and surprising relevance to our lives.

He writes about those stories in his new book, “The Land of Truth: Talmud Tales, Timeless Teachings”; he’ll talk about them at Congregation Kol HaNeshamah in Englewood next month. (See box).

“There has been a new appreciation in academic circles of the stories in Talmud,” Dr. Rubenstein said. “Many people have grown up with these stories, or at least they have heard about them if they have some Jewish education, but the dominant approach is a biographical or historical one. People try to read them to reconstruct the rabbis’ biographies instead of taking a more literary approach.”

The traditional way is to use the stories as hagiography, he said; the more academic way was to try to construct them as straightforward life history. Those approaches are not the same — “the academic is more critical and historical and contextual, and the other is more exemplary, but they share a sense that the stories could be biographical,” he said.

But what if you look at them as didactic fiction? As stories rooted in their culture and expressing that culture’s values? And understanding that to some extent that culture is our culture (and of course to another extent it is not).

“Scholars have been doing this for a few decades now,” Dr. Rubenstein said. “My work has been based on it — to understand some of the literary processes. To illustrate the richness of the stories and how they work as literary text. To popularize the stories.

“I also want to make the argument that the stories are relevant, that we can learn from them, and that we can find wisdom in them.”

The traditional approach has been to read quickly through the stories in search of the law. “In the liberal Jewish world, people are a little less interested in law and more in the thought and ethics and concepts and ideas,” he said. “There is a familiarity with some of the leading stories, but not really a deep knowledge of how to approach them.

“Part of this is the scholars’ fault. We haven’t got out the message that these are rich texts that can be understood by literary analysis, that they have both aesthetic beauty and meaning.”

The stories are relevant because, Dr. Rubenstein said, “To the extent that any of us want to find meaning in Jewish tradition and have that tradition inform our lives, one way to go about it is through the prism of narrative.

“We understand ourselves in a narrative mode. Our lives have beginnings, middles, and ends. That is the framework that we use to understand ourselves — our pasts, our presents, and our futures. Narrative structures always have been critical to our self-understanding.”

So the Talmud’s stories are relevant because they look at issues with which we continue to struggle — “eternal problems of human existence — aging, suffering, dealing with political power, as well as mitzvot and prayer. Basically, the stories look at the human condition.”

Being old does not make the stories irrelevant, he said; instead, it’s weeded the collection, and honed and sanded the ones that remain. “One of the great features of ancient literature — both Jewish literature and in general — is that much of it has gone through a time-tested process,” he said. “Only the best of it was passed down. Over the course of the centuries, stories or traditions that weren’t meaningful or didn’t provide great insight into the human conditions didn’t persist. They were dropped. Only the best stories came down to us, so these are great literary texts. They’re the tradition’s greatest stories.”

The stories are spare because “the Talmud was oral, and oral texts are always formulated very economically, for mnemonic purposes,” Dr. Rubenstein continued. “That’s part of what makes them alien to the modern reader. That’s why modern readers need either some familiarity with the Talmud or some guide to understanding the stories’ idioms and conventions. The writers presupposed that you would know the significance of a work or a term or an idiom or a phrase and also that you’d been able to connect it to another text, where that phrase is used.

“That’s why it can be difficult to make sense of it,” he said. “What I was trying to do in this book was to walk the reader through ways to begin to understand the story, and how to connect it to both the wide web of other talmudic stories and of other Jewish texts, and then to see what makes it relevant to today.”

As he looks at each issue, Dr. Rubenstein examines it from a variety of views, including modern ones. He tells a story in each chapter, and then “I tried to analyze it from multiple perspectives, to read it one way and then another way,” he said. He’ll tell it from the point of view of one character, and then from the other; the story changes quite a bit that way. In a discussion about taking words absolutely literally — and the power that can come from such intentional ignorance, should it have been done intentionally — he quotes the source most obvious to anyone who’s been a parent in the last half-century, the inimitable Amelia Bedelia, Queen of the Literal (but not literal queen).

“There are many gaps in the stories,” he said. “Readers are meant to fill in the gaps. That’s part of the function of oral literature, to invite interpretation and stimulate thought.

“As modern readers, of course, we fill in the gaps differently.”

Any examples? Take the story of Rav Asi, whose widowed mother adored him, to the point where she asked him to find her a husband as beautiful as her son. “She was very annoying,” Dr. Rubenstein said. “He eventually runs away to the land of Israel from Babylonia to get away from her — only to hear that she is following him.” At that point, Rav Asi goes to meet his mother, but the story “has a tragic ending, in a certain sense, because she dies before he can get there, and he has remorse, although it’s not clear about what.

“It raises questions about taking care of aging parents, about balancing one’s obligations to oneself and self-fulfillment with taking care of family members.

“The temptation is to run away from our problems, but the understanding is that they follow us.” We can run, but we can’t hide. That was no less true then than it is now.

“The family rifts are tragic,” Dr. Rubenstein said. “I mention ‘30 Lessons for Living,’” — a fairly recent American self-help book by Karl Pillemer — “and one of the main lessons there is about how much regret the elderly feel when they have rifts in their families. If they could live their lives over to change one thing, they say, it would be not to have that fight, not to not speak to their sister or brother or parent.

“This story brings that forth very economically, in a half comic, half tragic way.”

There is also an emphasis on physical beauty in the Talmud’s stories, Dr. Rubenstein said; it’s treated in a sophisticated way, with an understanding of both people’s genuine pull toward the aesthetically pleasing and the dangers of ascribing deep meaning to something that is surface-level by definition.

One area where the Talmud’s wisdom is not necessarily useful is in its understanding of women. “I don’t think that you can totally whitewash the unimportant role that women play in the Talmud without being false to the text,” Dr. Rubenstein said. “All premodern societies in the West were patriarchal, and we still are dealing with that today. We have made tremendously rapid progress, but this is one of the struggles that you have when you are the heir of an ancient tradition. It does change, but change often comes slowly, and with a push and pull.

“This was literature produced by men, and from a male, patriarchal point of view. But there are women’s voices that come through. You can see aspects of their resistance, of their pushing back to the best of their ability.” As in, for example, the wife whose husband’s requests for chickpeas are taken literally and met with just two and then an un-eatable ton of them. (That’s where Amelia Bedelia comes in.)

That and similar caveats, along with the reminder that the culture in which the stories were formed is very old, does not detract from the stories, Dr. Rubenstein said.

“There is great beauty there, and sophisticated narrative artistry,” he said. “They are not necessarily the easiest texts to study and appreciate and make sense of, but I believe they are well worth the effort.”

Who: Dr. Jeffrey Rubenstein

What: Will talk about “The Land of Truth: Talmud Tales, Timeless Teaching” at a Lunch and Learn session

When: On Saturday, February 2, after services that begin at 9:45 a.m.

Where: At Congregation Kol HaNeshamah, 133 Engle Street, Englewood

For information or reservations: Email rsvp@khnj.org.

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