Aggadah and the Tragedy of “Secularism” in Religious Jewish Education
A young man approached his Rabbi and told him proudly that he “had gone through” all of the Talmud.
To which his Rabbi asked him: And how much did the Talmud go through you?
This story illustrates one of the greatest tragedies of modern religious (orthodox) education. This misfortune also effects education in the secular world. With few exceptions, orthodox Jewish education is mainly secular, even while deeply involved with Jewish law and custom. What appears to be a religious education, when we look deeper, reveals itself to be in essence secular, and thus uninspiring. Or, in the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l, quoting something heard in academia, “On the surface, he’s profound, but deep down, he’s superficial.”
In previous essays we discussed the fact that, in the absence of prophecy, Judaism has lost much of its redemptive purpose. What is left is “Pan Halacha,” which focuses only on how to behave, but is incapable of showing us the way to reach a spiritually liberated world. Judaism has also lost its prophetic notion of universality, its universal goals for all of humankind, and has become partially crippled.
As a consequence Judaism has turned inward, becoming almost a conventional religion, similar to other religions. Much of its focus is now turned toward such issues as the synagogue, fixed prayer, Shabbat, kashrut, marriage, circumcision, and the laws of mourning. Much of this was the result of the experience in Galut, which made Judaism unnatural. It could not breathe and fell victim to stagnation.
The Upcoming End to Exile and the State of Israel’s Prophetic Dimension
However, all this changed radically in our days when the Jewish people was able to liberate itself from its nearly 2,000 years of “deep freeze” during which its main goal was just to survive. The State of Israel has made it possible for the Jews to re-enter world history and to begin to play a much larger role than they have done over the past 2,000 years.
The very fact that the Jewish State was established is itself a clear indication that prophecy is not a thing of the past but is pertinent to both the present and the future. The State itself seems to be a manifestation of a prophecy by the great biblical prophets thousands of years ago. (See for example: Yechezkel: 36: 8-12.)
The Israeli State has made great contributions to the world in the fields of science, security, medicine, and technological innovations, to the point that it is called the most advanced “start-up” nation in the world. Some of the innovations produced by Israel have become so much a part of our daily lives that we wouldn’t think of doing without them. But while most of these contributions have been in secular fields, it is clear that this is the first indication that the Jewish people is slowly returning to its prophetic, redemptive mission of leadership.
Even as Israel excels in secular fields, there are indications that within certain communities and educational institutions, Judaism’s ground is shifting to a more visionary attitude, although, for the most part, in small ways.
And yet, we see that Judaism at large—regretfully even in Israel—is still seen and practiced in terms of Galut. It is still waiting to be redeemed. It is still a Judaism without the prophetic voice, in which its Heilsgeschichte (redemptive history) becomes a major player and mover.
Since it will likely be some time before we see prophets walking the streets of Israel and returning Judaism to its full redemptive capacity—its natural habit—it will be necessary to search for existing ways by which we can lay the foundations for this future reality.
Aggadah: Prophetic Literature
It is here that one specific element in (pre)Talmudic, Midrashic literature can be of enormous value— the world of Aggadah. This part of Jewish Tradition can be defined as all the material that does not determine the practical observances of Halacha, but which goes far beyond the legal reality.
The Aggadah is a profound spiritual nature with prophetic overtones. Aggadah is the prophetic voice within Judaism, where prophecy not only speaks, but allows the reader to answer.
But what exactly is Aggadah?
Aggadah has many dimensions. It is an attempt to provide insight into the quality of a given act required by Halacha; it may provide a sense of the spiritual transformative change that accompanies that act. It is the part of Judaism that deals with the sum total of human life. It prevents mechanical observance by freeing man’s inner spirit.
Whereas Halacha is the consummation, Aggadah is its aspiration. It is the refinement of Halacha. While the Halacha is a code for life—for Jews, but in many ways for gentiles as well—it can deal only with the generalities and capabilities of humankind. Aggadah, on the other hand, provides hints of a greater degree of godliness that might be applicable only to a chosen few.
Aggadah shows us the way to voluntary choices beyond the technicalities of the law. It allows us to cultivate the capacity to enter an unseen world, and gives us the ability to go beyond the realms of the definable, perceivable, or demonstrable.
It offers us religious metaphors to touch the infinite through the use of symbolism, creating a kind of spiritual camera that creates mental images of the indescribable. Through Aggadah, we can perceive that heaven and earth are one; we can experience the divine force flowing through our lives and all forms of life.
Aggadah is redemptive, for it brings history alive through the music of prophecy, revealing the threads woven into the fabric of human development, exposing elements of future events.
Aggadah speaks about genuine faith, wisdom, and ethics—sometimes through incredibly improbable tales of journeys, parables, business counsels, and medical advice. It explores the psychology of the subconscious and figurative (or real) stories of our forefathers and Sages. It discusses the messianic age and the nature of prophecy. It reveals the contradictory states of the human mind, as exemplified by the generation that witnessed the revelation at Sinai and afterwards worshipped the golden calf.
Many of the Aggadic stories cannot be taken literary; rather, they make us aware of a higher truth, which can only be alluded to—a truth that is beyond historical perspective, philological expression, or scientific observation. It is a vehicle that frees the mind from the limits of material constraints and yet keeps it within the bounds of the intelligible.
Parts of the Aggadah are obscure and difficult to understand, making use of hyperbole far beyond the realm of literal belief. Yet, Aggadah cannot be seen as some kind of folklore or an invention of the sages. It is clear that its wisdom is rooted in pre-Talmudic traditions. This can be seen by the fact that many of its stories and observations are mentioned in Josephus’ Wars of the Jews, such as the miracles in the Temple which Josephus must have heard from people whose ancestors actually saw them.
It is the literature of Aggadah that allows the student to come as close as possible to prophecy without the prophets being around. Its redemptive nature is a marvelous step in the right direction. It prepares the student for the moment when actual prophets stand up again among Israel and redeem all of the world.
Two important commentaries on the Talmudic Aggadot are Chiddushei Aggadot (Novellae on the Aggadot) by Rabbi Shmeul Edels, (1555-1631) known as Maharasha, and Chiddushei Aggadot by Rabbi Yehuda Loew, “the Maharal” (1520-1609). Also important are many other works by Rabbi Loew, in particular, Be’er ha-Golah.
The Unfortunate Rejection of Aggadah
And it is this literature, which despite being incorporated in the Talmud and Midrash, has been neglected and often ignored throughout Jewish history. This neglect probably started with the collapse of the former Jewish commonwealth, which necessitated so great a focus on Halacha that the legal parts of the Talmud began to dominate Jewish life far beyond its natural domain. This situation ultimately led a “Pan Halachic” world, in which even the teachings of Aggadah were slowly “halacha-ized” and dogmatized. This is now the norm in many religious communities and yeshivot.
Most likely, the Aggadic literature was seen as too esoteric—too enigmatic and allusive—and far beyond the intellectual and spiritual capacity of most students and rabbis. It was therefore disregarded, and even snubbed as an escape mechanism, so as not to have to deal with it. It was too scary and impractical for daily consumption.
It was much easier to deal with the world of Halacha—the down-to-earth details of Jewish life in the form of do’s and do-not’s, the black-and-white of life’s challenges, without the need to enter the higher spiritual world. The entrance to this world requires touching what is really untouchable. For most people, the demonstrable and the definable is more attractive and accessible than the world of Aggadah.
To a certain degree, the nature of Judaism itself is responsible for this state of affairs. Judaism has always accentuated the practical, the down-to-earth approach to life. After all, it is our deeds that count above all else, and which are able to make the world a better place. Still one should not throw out the baby with the bath water.
My Yeshiva Experience and the Absence of Aggadah
I clearly remember that in the yeshivot, where for more than 12 years I was privileged to study with some of the most outstanding Talmudists of the day, we used to skip the Aggadic material in the tractates that we were studying.
We focused mainly—or even solely—on discussions related to Halacha, “lamdanut”, and “chakirot”, conceptual inquiries concerning Talmudic concepts, along with pilpul, a highly analytic, almost mathematical, and sometimes excessively hairsplitting approach. For us, this was the Talmud; Aggadah was not on the agenda and was more or less ignored.
It was this approach that made the prophetic dimension of Judaism “persona non grata”, and turned our intensive highly sophisticated studies of the Talmud into an almost secular undertaking. Our learning lacked the religious/spiritual dimension needed to understand the spirit and nature of the Talmud. The Talmud was studied as an academic intellectual work instead of as a work of spiritual, prophetic, and even poetic dimension, in which the music of the soul was crucial.
This is still the case in many yeshivot. But and as mentioned, there are exceptions. Several yeshivot have started to give much more attention to the world of Aggadah.
The Prophetic Voice of Rav Kook
It is here that we should mention the unique works of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (1865-1935), former Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Talmudist, mystic, and profound thinker. In his many books we encounter a prophetic voice, a call for redemptive history, and an overwhelming love of all human beings. His works are studied, commented on, and have given rise to a complete literature in recent years. They have revealed to us a new and highly original perspective on Judaism.
Rav Kook’s work Ein Ayah, a commentary on Ein Yaacov, which is itself a compilation of all the Aggadic material in the Talmud, is of the greatest importance. Study groups are found throughout Israel where his thoughts are studied and developed.
His Lenevuchei HaDor (For the Perplexed of the Generation) offers us some of the most far reaching ideas on Judaism, its redemptive role, and new Halachic prophetic dimensions, in all of Jewish literature.
The growing interest in Rav Kook’s works is closely related to a new interest in “Meta Halacha”—a view “beyond” or “above” Halacha. Meta-Halacha is difficult to define, but is clearly influenced by the world of Aggadah, in which Halacha is seen through the eyes of Aggadah. This often means lifting Halacha out of its traditional “Pan Halachic” boundaries.
Rabbi Kook and some other famous thinkers have paved the way for this kind of redemptive Halacha, a new, more prophetic Judaism, in which the “secularism” of Talmudic studies is replaced by profound spiritual insights. And so a more prophetic dimension is entering Jewish Studies in Israel, a redemptive voice in modern times.
What this means for Jewish education and even for secular education remains to be discussed.
With thanks to Yael Shahar for her editorial comments.
 Jonathan Sacks, “Atheism has failed; only religion can defeat the new barbarians”, The Specator, 15 June 2013.
 See Taanit 23a.