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.