Halakhah and Aggadah

Advice comes in two forms: rules to live by and personal narratives. As a recovering academic, I still see the appeal of rules. The acquisition, digestion, and reformation of the world around us grants power. Rules are created as a result of this process, rules derived from the manner in which we have broken down and rebuilt our worldview. Every rule is a law of gravity for our existence, created in our head but no less binding on us than thermodynamics or quantum mechanics. In point of fact, it seems our world is created in our head, a construct of the physical and the other that we bump into and our internal struggles to make sense of it all. So rule-making tends to be an act of control, a map of the known, a guide for traversing a world half obscured in darkness.

Halakhah is a Jewish notion. It names the great collection of legal material in and derived from the Bible. Rules of behavior offered as a means of salvation, a solace, an explanation for the good and bad in the world. Clarity and concision are the most important elements of the halakhic. If each rule can have only one application or one meaning, then the rule is well written. Ambiguity is the devil of little minds and rulemakers (no overlap necessarily implied).

For Halakhah, the tool of choice is a scalpel. Things that can be taken apart should be so that we can seek their beating heart and thereby gain understanding. We break down everything to its atoms; we make it as small as we can, perhaps so that we won’t be intimidated. Breaking something down to its one-word causes (patriarchy, racism, grace, compassion) gives the illusion of comprehension. Small ideas, though powerful, are manageable.

I am being too hard on the academic. The alternative is Aggadah, described by wikipedia (as good a source as any) as all non-legal material of Jewish or Biblical influence. It is a bit more than just that. Aggadah is intended to be just as binding on the average Jew as Halakhah, it just doesn’t consist of rules. It consists of stories. Aggadah is a vast collection of tales regarding Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Akiva, Judah Ha-Levi, and a thousand other rabbis, scholars, peasants, prophets, and fools. It is a great grab bag of stuff; unruly, unruled, and uninterested in linear meaning.

The Halakhic impulse is to approach the Aggadah and derive rules from it. Certainly, that is what the rabbis often do. However, if the purpose of the Halakhah is to explain the world around us, it seems to me that the purpose of the Aggadah is to approximate it. Both approaches build worlds inside your head: Halakhah gives you schematics; Aggadah gives you impressionist vistas. Halakhah tells you why you love the painting, but Aggadah is the feeling that you get when you look at it and understand.

The academic impulse is to look at the Aggadah with disdain. Either it is incomplete (without a clear meaing) or it is incompetent (unable to explain itself). Nonetheless, I am deeply jealous of those with skill in Aggadah. President’s Monson’s Octopus trap did more to explain addiction to me than the thousands of morality talks I’ve heard before and since. Elder Holland’s Father in White, looking for his son, taught me more of the Father’s love for me, for us all, than any intense study of 1 Corinthians 13 has thus far. Christ taught in parables, why do I fail to give them the respect they are due?

I cannot speak for others, but I live in stories. I have stories about my childhood, my schooling, my family, my wife. Each story is actually about me, my understanding, my worldview. Every story takes place in my head, much more than it ever took place in the world. And each story is a guess, an attempt to approximate what actually happened, to offer the world through my eyes. I envy Margaret, Tracy M, and Rebecca J their ability to recreate their world for others. I seek to cultivate it in myself. In the meantime, I struggle in my Halakhah, using it to make up for my lack of Aggadah, until such time as I, like my Father in Heaven before me, am capable of creating worlds without end.

Comments

  1. Great post, John. I like that we have both Halakhah and Aggadah. (I also like that I know these words now.) I enjoyed reading your explanations and insights here.

  2. This is good stuff John. In working with liturgy in Mormonism, I think that the best framework to understand ritual and worship practices is to understand that there are two partially overlapping liturgical modalities: the folk and formal. For 19th and early 20th centuries, Mormonism was essentially expressed through the folk modality; then in the 1920, there was a tremendous effort to codify and formalize the liturgy (this was anticipated by the great bureaucratic reforms the previous two decades). Still, much of what we do is govern by folk sensabilities – that we close our talks in the name of Jesus; how we pray; how we interact in the body of Christ, etc.

  3. The academic impulse is to look at the Aggadah with disdain.

    I actually think I disagree pretty strongly with this; at least in my work in American religious history, the scholars I rely on to understand the evangelical experience consistently emphasize the importance of story as a way to make sense of the world and give it meaning, particularly religious. It comes from the Bible (as explored in the the work of Hans Frei and Robert Alter), from the experience of other believers (Bruce Hindemarsh, Nancy Ammerman), and from the very history of evangelicalism itself, which reveals God’s hand in the world (Kathryn Teresa Long, Frank Lambert).

    You say that academics view story as either incomplete or incompetent, and perhaps would argue that these folks make of it a dead thing to parse and dissect and explain – but it’s a sign of respect, I think, to believe there is enough meaning in any story to seek to understand how the teller or re-teller understands, and every historian, at some level, finds the stories which they study compelling – enough to create new layers, story upon story.

    Stape – I’d caution against making too neat a distinction between the folk and the formal; where precisely does one end and the other begin? To what extent is the formal simply the folkway of a person in high office, itself continually shifting as the identities and predilections of those people change? Similarly, folkways themselves gain constant energy and inspiration from the formal; they adapt and reinterpret it. It might be more useful to think of the two in a constant and inseparable dialectic.

  4. The Right Trousers says:

    Excellent stuff.

    I’ve got another Aggadah for you: Alma’s definition of faith in Alma 32. (The whole story, not just what we think of as summary verses.) It’s valuable because it doesn’t presuppose that the listener is steeped in Greek philosophy like Paul’s definition, and the main ideas tend to overcome translation difficulties.

  5. The Right Trousers says:

    If you want to reason precisely about fuzzy things, I highly recommend studying machine learning and Bayesian inference.

    Logic is great for formalizing thought and making precise arguments. But every formalism rests on assumptions and definitions. Where do those come from? Experience, so-called common sense, morality tales, observing practical effects, etc. This is all squarely land-of-the-fuzzy. It has to be: it’s subjective and, if it weren’t, it’d be computationally intractable to reason about with logic.

    We do people a great disservice when we teach them logic, invalidate certain forms of fuzzy reasoning from evidence, and give them nothing to replace them with. Everyone who gets this kind of education should follow up with ML or Bayes to put them back.

    (Yes, I honestly use the Bayesian probability to reason about scripture. It lets me think about what a story *probably is intended to suggest*, grapple with my own biases, and more critically, reason about contradictions in the rules without weakening or contextualizing them too much.)

    If this interests you, check out Probability Theory: The Logic of Science, by Edwin T. Jaynes. It’s a classic.

  6. Thanks for introducing me to these ideas John.

  7. Matt B.,
    I obviously spoke too forcefully. Clearly not every academic treats religion or narrative with disdain. I think you will, however, find a liberal application of the scalpel (even if applied respectfully). I don’t know that it is better to view narratives as wholes; I do feel it gives one a different perspective.

    Stapley,
    The formal and the folk is a similar dichotomy. Generally speaking, the formal and the Halakhic seem easier to control (at least to me).

    Right Trousers,
    To be honest, I only understood about a 1/3 of your comment. Formal Logic has never been my strong suit (it was the first math at which I struggled).

    All,
    Thanks for your comments and indulgence. This is, to some degree, me working out what to do with the rest of my life. The navel is square in my view.

  8. Matt, I agree. The folk and the formal overlap and interact. More broadly, I was thinking in terms very similar to your commment.

  9. jeff Spector says:

    Good post. The concept of Aggadah is what allows almost everything in Judaism to be open to interpretation. It is also governs that famous story that if you have two Jews talking about something, you’ll have at least three opinions!

  10. “Halakhah gives you schematics; Aggadah gives you impressionist vistas. Halakhah tells you why you love the painting, but Aggadah is the feeling that you get when you look at it and understand.”

    I love this and it helps me to better understand some things that I couldn’t quite grasp before. Thank you for the clear and concise view of these teaching tools. I wish I had the time and accessibility to study these more in depth…I envy the academics that know the inner workings of Judaism.

  11. Excellent post. The writing exemplifies what it describes, starting in Halakhi prose and ending in Aggadi poetry, interleaving but not blending the two, like two frequencies superposed, harmonizing yet distinct.

    It puzzles and delights me that some academic should react defensively. It evokes the image of a man looking down into the water and enjoying the view of colorful fish, where said fish look up and see only the reflection of their peers. I guess I can’t blame the fish for being jealous.

    And thanks to Bayes, I am even more impressed. The posterior probability that you, having written this post, are Mormon is equal to the (rather high) prior probability that only Mormons post to this list, times the (quite low) conditional probability a Mormon would craft something so devoid of sentimentality, divided by the (moderate) marginal probability that such a worthy post would be written to this list. So either I need to seriously reevaluate my signal model that Mormons are sentimentalists, or else you are an imposter. Either way I am surprised.

    In short, (apart from the very last line), I wish I had written it myself.

  12. Dan,
    Thank you. That’s the absolute nicest left-handed compliment I’ve ever received. Sadly, I still don’t follow the Bayes…

  13. Few things in life give me greater joy than waking up early on a Saturday morning to the sight of a Bayesian analysis of Mormon blogging.

  14. And thanks to Bayes, I am even more impressed. The posterior probability that you, having written this post, are Mormon is equal to the (rather high) prior probability that only Mormons post to this list, times the (quite low) conditional probability a Mormon would craft something so devoid of sentimentality, divided by the (moderate) marginal probability that such a worthy post would be written to this list. So either I need to seriously reevaluate my signal model that Mormons are sentimentalists, or else you are an imposter. Either way I am surprised.

    Wow. That is all.

  15. I don’t understand all the deeply intellectual stuff, but if I ever leave the church I’g going to be a Jew for Jesus.

  16. Very nicely done John. You provided a framework for me to understand something that is difficult for me- I never knew what to call it- Halakhah. And, I also know the name of my home- Aggadah. Thank you.

  17. Dan,

    As a Bayesian, your formulation is spot on. However, as a practical matter, I would be interested to know the data gathering/analyzing process by which you came to the conclusion on the value of the conditional probability (aka the likelihood function/value). I think if anything needs updating, it would be the marginal value. I personally think it is lower than the value you give it.

  18. Once in a far away place lived a fellow named John C. He lived in a village called Cyber where he plied is wisdom to the many travelers who stopped by to rest and find refreshment. One day he wrote a post that explained why some sought rules and others stories. All who read his post realized that John C. should be made king for a day. And so he was. He ruled with wisdom and care and all that lived during his reign said it was a good day. The end.

  19. Dear Flecher,
    Don’t be a jerk.
    Love,
    John C.

  20. I haven’t read any posts on this BLOG for a while. My great loss if there were more like this one!

  21. Flecher says:

    Dear John,
    I stand by my statement, especially after the lingerie post.
    Love,
    Fletcher

  22. Dear John C.,
    Economists (Fletcher being one of us) cannot help it. Please forgive, and the Kingdom of Heaven shall be yours.

    Dear Fletcher (Flecher?),
    Please decide if your name has a t or not.

    Love,
    Scott B.

    As you were, Brethren.

  23. Fletcher (with a T) says:

    Dear Scott,

    Sorry for the typo. Forgive and the Kingdom of Heaven shall be yours.

    Love,

    Fletcher

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