Rabbinic Literature – what it means to me

This is what I wrote for December 2014’s newsletter to the community of the LJS (hence starting with Chanukkah):

We all know the story of Chanukkah…don’t we? It’s a standard teaching strategy to take apart the story we all think we know. It’s then we discover that the miracle of the oil is not actually mentioned until the time of the Talmud, perhaps centuries later than the first and second book of Maccabees in which we find accounts of the Hasmonean victory. And so we find our collective memory is not quite what we thought it was and our texts play a decisive role in shaping Jewish belief and practice.

I cannot remember the exact moment but something happened in my relationship to literature and the reading, re-reading and interpretation of texts.

I do have a strong memory of a Shaliach (an Israeli youth movement emissary) who taught an incredible session on Yehuda Amichai’s poetry of Jerusalem. Suddenly, I found myself immersed in the heritage of my people, absorbed within the tensions, hopes, dreams and frustrating realities of Jewish life. It was a curious moment, because I can remember being enthralled by the poems in a way I had never encountered with English literature before.

Later on as a young adult, I was gripped at Limmud by a famous story of four rabbis who entered an orchard – only one seems to emerge unscathed. I did not understand a word. I also experienced an equally famous and enchanting story of Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish – two sages who were companions – and their relationship. I thought I understood the text, until the session finished and promptly forgot it all.

In awe I gradually achieved some fluency with Hebrew. The magical word plays possible with a language old yet new enchanted me. I only learnt Hebrew properly as an adult. It opened my eyes to the richness of the biblical text, the poetry of our prayers and the depth of interpretation of rabbinic literature. These texts, full of both noble and deeply disturbing ideas became a world of wonder to me. They became my spiritual well-spring and intellectual challenge.

The texts, which cannot be easily classified according to genre, history, authorship or origin, are undeniably esoteric. The uninitiated is left like I was (and can still be) studying the four rabbis who entered the orchard – bemused, perplexed, at sea. The language is unfamiliar, the people are unfamiliar and, often, the theological and legal argument is unfamiliar.

In the same year as the LJS was founded, 1911, Bialik and Ravnitsky two Jews from the same town of Odessa, completed a work which was known as ‘Sefer Ha’Agaddah’ – The Book of Legends. This book turned rabbinic literature from a rather specialised field to something accessible; the materials were available more widely than ever before. This was the project of creating, or perhaps highlighting, the folk literature of the Jewish people – the fairy tales, thrillers, riddles and tragedies. The book now in Hebrew and English has become a centre piece for many first explorations of rabbinic literature.

In my early forays into learning rabbinic literature, I spent many hours flicking through pages of ‘The Book of Legends’. These texts became part of who I am. I am drawn into the drama of the Jewish people’s past and their articulation of their hopes for the future through their literary imagination.

However, it’s not all magical spirituality and wonderment. There are two breaks in Jewish thought which are prompted by the advent of modernity and the growth of scholarly approaches to Judaism.

One is that the text is no longer a normative authority for progressive Jews. Of course the Bible and Rabbinic literature continue to play important parts in how we understand what it means to be Jewish today, but we do not regard the text as Torah transmitted from God. And in any case, the locus for authority for what we do as progressive Jews rests firmly with each of us as individuals. There is not an external authority dictating our behaviour – whether tradition or text. The text no longer reigns supreme neither decisively for our norms as a community nor in the cultural impact. It is this sentiment that is pointed out by Professor Halbertal in his seminal book, ‘The People of the Book’.

At the same time, the other break in Jewish thought revolves around the undoing of Jewish collective memory. Transmitted memory only works as long as the historian does not get involved. With the advent of modern historiography we lose a touchstone of Jewish imagination – collective memory. And the historian has not been able to piece the whole back together – given that history is not an amorphous lump. In another seminal work of the 20th century, ‘Zakhor’, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi identifies that, in spite of valiant attempts, the historian has not yet offered a solution to the disintegration of collective memory.

But 21st century Judaism is not a whole. It is in the cracks of the texts and of history that we get the brilliantly creative readings like feminist readings and queering of literature. It is in the unpacking of collective memory that voices, ideas and discoveries are made about the history of our people. Of course this can be uncomfortable but it is also monumentally important and exciting. It is true to the spirit of progressive Judaism.

 

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