So this is an article I wrote a while ago, published in Conservative Judaism, but HT Josh Yuter has just brought to my attention another case of Reish Lakish being able to both believe and not believe in something.
In Eruvin 19a he’s describing Gehinom, but in Nedarim 8b he says it doesn’t exist.
Reish Lakish, Truth & Meaning in the Rabbinic Period
The small child knows that the sky is blue. There is someone, with a brush and pot of blue paint, daubing the canvas of the heavens.
The teenager knows that the sky is, quite categorically, NOT blue, rather the sky’s colour is a function of reflection and refraction. With equal conviction the teenager knows that those who claim blueness for the sky are perpetrating a trick, a deceit on those who know no better. There are those who never leave the world of the teenager.
Then there are those who appreciate the blueness of the sky as a truth beyond the claims of science. These less literal souls claim that, through appreciating the blueness of the sky, we can come to understand other truths about the world. They are not drawn into the nit-picking atomistic tendencies of the teenager, they accept the scientific realities of the world, but science neither deadens their soul, nor leads them to treat other truth claims with cynicism. This is what James Fowler would call the Fifth Stage of Faith, one where a reader feels a ‘post-critical desire to resubmit to the [appeal] of the symbolic.’[i] Paul Ricouer called it ‘second naïveté’[ii] a willingness to appreciate poetic truth in myth, aware of scientific pulls in other directions.
Most readers of this journal surely recognize Fowler’s Fifth Stage. The adult, self-aware approach to truth claims is one the Masorti Movement, Conservative Judaism, has made its own; whether considering claims of Biblical ‘history’ or theology Masorti Jews are drawn to this adult stage of faith. But this paper is not concerned with whether contemporary Masorti Jews accept truth claims in a non-literalist manner, but whether the rabbis of our tradition did so. If we find that the rabbis believed with the literalist approach of a child (there is someone, with a brush and pot of blue paint, daubing the canvas of the heavens), their claims must surely be rejected as facile, disproved, childish even. However if the rabbis can be shown to have believed with a post-critical awareness, with a poetic approach to truth claims, their approach can remain valid and authentic even in the modern period.
At issue is the question of whether the Masorti Movement is doing something radically new in rejecting literal truth claims, or merely making explicit what the tradition has always known – that many truth claims should be understood as a poetic or mythic truths, not a literal ones. It is, of course, an impossible question, not least since any sentence that begins, ‘The rabbis believed X’ is doomed to collapse under the weight of different rabbinic opinions in different periods and places and even within one Bet Midrash. Moreover the rabbis simply didn’t reflect on their own literary output in the manner of a contemporary literary critic. They (almost) never defined or commented on the nature of their interpretive style, they simply got on with it.
Instead of attempting the impossible this paper takes a very narrow perspective; one rabbi, and seeks to demonstrate that, at least here, there are strong grounds for seeing his truth claims as self-consciously Fifth Stage. The approach is not without danger; it would be wrong to treat every recorded rabbinic utterance as an accurate historical record of a once-heard conversation, but despite this methodological concern and the narrow range of enquiry a picture emerges that is, nonetheless, worthy of remark.
Our story begins with the verses at the end of Parasha Va’yera:
And it was after these things that Abraham was told, ‘Milcah too has borne children to your brother Nahor: Uz the first-born, and Buz his brother, and Kemuel the father of Aram and … Bethuel.’ Bethuel being the father of Rebekah.[iii]
These Biblical verses are easily skipped over. Not only do they lack narrative punch of the tales of the binding of Isaac (immediately prior) and the news of the death of Sarah (immediately subsequent), they are also ignored by a significant rabbinic tradition that joins the two tales that surround them;
The death of Sarah is placed directly after the story of the binding because, as a result of hearing the news of the binding – that her son had been due for slaughter, even if he hadn’t been slaughtered – her soul flew from her and she died. [iv]
The straightforward intent of these oft-ignored verses is clear, they provide the genealogy that heralds the birth of Rebecca, who comforts the almost-slain Isaac after the death of his mother. But the rabbis notice something else, these apparently dull verses open with the words;
And it was after these things that Abraham was told.
The last time this phrase (or one almost identical to it) opened a Biblical passage Abraham was told to take his son and offer him as a sacrifice. Last time Abraham rose to the challenge, but now, in the eyes of the rabbis, he can’t take it any more.
There was a balking [hirhurei devarim hayu sham]. Who balked? Abraham balked... He was afraid of suffering. But the Holy Blessed One said to him, ‘There’s no need to worry, the one who is going to receive the suffering of the world has already been born, [as the Bible states in the midst of the genealogy that heralds Rebecca] ‘and his first born Utz.’
When was Job alive? Reish Lakish, in the name of Bar Kapara, claims in the time of Abraham, as the Bible tells us that Utz was born in the time of Abraham and the book of Job opens, ‘There was a man in the land. Utz Job was his name.’ (Job 1:1)[v]
‘Not again, God,’ one can almost hear the beleaguered patriarch, ‘haven’t I had enough suffering?’ ‘Not to worry,’ replies God, ‘you won’t have to suffer any further, rather Utz, also known as Job, will pick up the suffering that you are afraid of.’
The opening verse of the Book of Job is universally understood as ‘There was a man in the Land of Utz, Job was his name.’ This Midrash, however, flagrantly disregards such niceties. Instead Reish Lakish suggests that Job lived in The Land (i.e. Israel) and that Job was one of two names by which our protagonist was known.[vi]
Putting aside any concern as to contextual literal interpretation (pshat) – this statement of Reish Lakish launches a rabbinic game. A succession of rabbis conjure up a biblical verse and use it to locate Job in the generation of Dina, or the sons of Jacob, or Moses, or the Chaldeans or the Queen of Sheba or even the time of Esther. In a related text (TB BB 15a-b) there are yet more claims; Job lived in the time of the spies, in the time of the Judges, in the time of David …
From anything approaching a historical-critical perspective the proofs brought for these varied claims are laughable, but treating the rabbis’ literary proofs as literal or historical truth claims misses the point. The point is the literary game. This kind of midrash is a rabbinic workout, the rabbis are demonstrating their extraordinary familiarity with the Bible and are flexing exegetical muscles.[vii] Johan Huizinga coined the term homo ludens to refer to a ‘man [of ancient times who] seeks to account for the world of phenomenon by grounding it in … wild imaginings of mythology, a fanciful spirit … playing on the borderline between jest and earnest.’[viii] This, then, is rabbi as ish ludens, an investigator who pursues truth through a particular form of play.
Up to this point we have a not untypical midrash. We could perhaps make the claim, based on the playful way in which the rabbis treat finding an era for Job, that none of them considers they are dealing with a historical figure, but this midrash goes a good deal further.
Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish claimed, ‘Job never existed, he was never created’ [lo hayah v’lo nivra]
It is almost as if a curtain has been pulled back. The mythical, poetic and literary truth of Job, in the minds of this Rabbi Shimon, has been made explicit. The truth of Job becomes the truth of fiction, the truth of Hamlet or Lear, not the truth of history or biography. And most shockingly the very rabbi who pulls back the curtain and announces the mythological nature of Job is the same Reish Lakish who, moments earlier, and with a slightly different appellation, opened the game by locating Job in the time of Abraham. The rabbis certainly point out Reish Lakish’s apparent contradiction and suggest that there was indeed a historical Job only his sufferings were not historical, but this seems half-hearted. Rather, it seems clear that Reish Lakish knew what he was doing and felt no compunction in doing it openly.
In the parallel Talmudic attempt to answer the question, ‘When was Job?’ this second statement of Reish Lakish is rendered, ‘one of the rabbis sitting before Rabbi Shimon Nahmani said, “Job never existed, was never created, rather he is a parable [mashal].”’(BT BB 15a) In Bereishit Rabba the drawing back of the curtain is announced with a change in appellation (from Reish Laksih to Rabbi Shimon), in the Talmud the identity of this bold almost-heretic is excised altogether, but the statement nonetheless receives the imprimatur of inclusion in the rabbinic canon. The anonymous editorial voice of the Talmud attempts to demonstrate that Job cannot be a parable since his name and that of his town is mentioned, but, again, the rejection is hardly convincing and Reish Lakish’s claim retains its power.
Reish Lakish seems comfortable in Fowler’s ‘Fifth Stage,’ able to make playful claims about the truth of Job, without feeling constrained by historicity or notions of literal reality. And there are other moments which come close to the sort of explicit acceptance of the Fifth Stage position taken in Bereshit Rabba. He can be considered the Talmud’s archetypal ish ludens.[ix] Most noticeable is a short passage, in the continuation of the passage in Baba Batra referenced earlier.
Reish Lakish said; ‘Satan, the Evil Inclination and the Angel of Death are one and the same.’[x]
It is as if our protagonist is trying to arrest a charge towards some kind of childish theological pilpul – sophistry. The reader is not supposed to distil the various chaotic forces active in this world into different quasi-historical characters, rather these bogeymen are to be considered symbols, each pointing at the same darker force within the Universe. According to Reish Lakish the existence of Satan and his colleagues is real, but only in a symbolic sense, they have no literal intrinsic reality. By acknowledging this poesy, the reader is urged to channel their energies into combating the deeper reality Satan and company represent. We are drawn away from worrying whether any literal foe might be hiding under the bed ready, like a cartoon character, to pounce on an unsuspecting fool. It is fashionable to dismiss poetic truths as somehow weaker, less powerful, than literal ones. But, in this instance, Reish Lakish’s explicit disavowal of a literal Satan, as distinct to a literal Angel of Death, feels more powerful than the theological pilpul he seeks to arrest. The poetic understanding is more truthful than the literal one.
An awareness of Reish Lakish’s sense of poesy also helps unlock a potentially confusing moment of Halachic discourse in, perhaps, his most famous Talmudic appearance. Our hero is a brigand, a man of violence. According to Talmud Bavli Gittin 47a he ‘sold his soul to the Ludai’ (some scholars suggest that the use of the root LUD, refers to the Latin, ludo suggesting not that his masters came from Lydia but rather they hired and trained gladiators),[xi] only to subsequently kill his captors with a makeshift brass knuckles and make good his escape. He is turned towards a world of Torah study by Rabbi Yohanan in a dramatic encounter in the Jordan River. Time passes and Reish Lakish becomes a great rabbi. The Talmudic narrative, however, continues immediately with the following exchange;
One day [Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan] were arguing in the Study Hall.
‘When do swords, knives, daggers, spears, hand-saws and sickles become susceptible to receiving ritual impurity?’
‘Once their manufacture is completed.’
‘And when is their manufacture completed?’
Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘when they come out of the furnace used for smelting.’
Reish Lakish said, ‘when they come out of the water used for polishing.’[xii]
The shift to Halachah feels sudden, coming, as it does, directly after the high drama of Reish Lakish’s epiphany in the waters. Moreover it is redundant; both parties seeming to miss the authoritative Mishnah (Kelim 14:5) which gives a different answer to either rabbi.[xiii] It is surely fair to ask what could lead Reish Lakish to feel that a sword is only ‘completed’ if it emerges from the water as a weapon of violence? With our understanding of his poetic sensibility it is clear that Reish Lakish sees himself as the violent weapon, but not one that was ever ‘completed in its work.’ In other words Reish Lakish believes that individuals with dark pasts, violent weapons, are always capable of being redeemed by water. He is arguing about his own life journey. Again, understanding the poetic nature of Reish Lakish’s truth claims strengthens the power of his contributions. Rejecting the notion that this is literally an argument about metalwork, at least for Reish Lakish, helps us understand why he is so mortified by Rabbi Yochanan’s response to his claim.
‘Trust a brigand to know the ways of a brigand’
Rabbi Yochanan has missed the point. He thinks Reish Lakish is arguing from a position of expertise about literal swords, knives and daggers. Rabbi Yochanan can’t understand Reish Lakish’s sense of poetics and in doing so he drags our hero’s sense of self out of the Bet Midrash and back into the company of thieves. Reish Lakish’s entire rabbinic identity crumbles away, he ‘is weakened’ the Talmud tells us, and shortly thereafter ‘his soul passes away.’ Poetic truth claims have tremendous power; they cannot be disregarded as the playthings of a wordsmith.
Finally we come to Reish Lakish’s understanding of the moment of Sinai. Was revelation, for Reish Lakish, a literal or a poetic moment? In the context of what has come before the answer seems obvious.
Reish Lakish said that at the time Moses wrote the Torah he received a facial radiance [lit. ziv hapanim, see Exodus 34:29]. How did this happen? Reish Lakish said that Torah was given to Moses on a scroll of white fire and was carved with black fire, and the Torah was fire enwrapped with fire. While writing [Moses, at a certain point,] dried the reed on his hair, and from this he received a radiance.[xiv]
This text, about Sinaitic revelation,[xv] has to be poesy, indeed even to say so courts redundancy. Did Reish Lakish believe in revelation as a moment of
divine dictation? Yes, but equally clearly the way he believed was as a poet, not as a journalist or historian. There is nothing in this captivating and provocative text that suggests it should be understood as a literal truth claim. Indeed given what we know about Reish Lakish’s relationship to poesy one might even argue that to understand this midrash as a literal truth claim betrays a certain childishness. After all when an adult takes a poetic claim as a literal truth they demonstrate not piety, but foolery.
According to Reish Lakish Moses did indeed take dictation from the Holy Blessed One, but only as a matter of poetry, not history. But that doesn’t make the claim nonsense, rather it functions as a challenge; the reader is asked, ‘what is the deeper truth the symbol of Moses’ penmanship points towards?’
Rejecting poetic truth claims as if they are childish errors is an erroneous and ultimately sad contemporary response to a proud and ancient religious tradition. A person who rejects self-consciously poetic truth claims on the mistaken basis that they were meant to be literal claims risks losing the vibrancy and texture of their spiritual inheritance. Without poetic truth claims the sky can seem very drab indeed.
Rabbi Jeremy Gordon was ordained and received a Masters in Midrash at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is rabbi of St. Albans Masorti Synagogue, England, and teaches Midrash at Leo Baeck College in London.
[i] James Fowler, Stages of Faith (San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1981), p.187.
[ii] See inter alia, The Symbolism of Evil, (New York, Buchanan Beacon Press, 1969), pp. 351-352.
[iii] Genesis 22:20-23. Based on the NJPS translation, all other translations are author’s own.
[iv] Rashi, Gen 23.2
[v] Bereishit Rabba 57:4. The latter part of this translation is non-literal, to aid comprehension.
[vi] I am grateful to Yuval Keren of Leo Baeck College for this insight.
[vii] The flexing of exegetical muscles was not just a regular practice of the rabbis, but a divinely sanctioned one. For example: ‘The Rabbis accused Ben Azzai of mystical speculation and he responds, ‘I am connecting [lit. mahriz] verses from the Torah to the Prophets and from the Prophets to the Writings,’ and a flame was burning all around him.’ (Vayikra’ Rabba 16:4, Margoliot ed. p.254 and notes there).
[viii] Homo Ludens: The Sociology of Culture, (London, Routledge, 2003, first published 1949) p. 4-5.
[ix] There is something fitting in it being Reish Lakish who steps forward as the clearest example of ish ludens in the rabbinic period, after all ‘Reish Lakish sold himself to games’ players [ludai]’ (BT Gittin 47a). This last text will be given a related but slightly refocused read infra. Other possible candidates for this title of ish ludens include Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Nehemia. It is Yehudah who, in discussing the re-awakening of the dry bones (Ezekiel 37) comments, ‘It is truth and parable’ [emet mashal hayah]. Rabbi Nehemia responds, ‘If it’s a truth why call it a parable, and if it’s a parable why call it truth, rather a parable is like truth.’ [k’emet mashal hayah] (TB Sanhedrin 92b). Subsequently, however, Rabbi Yehudah ben Bateyrah attempts to reject the claim that Ezekiel is best understood as poesy, ‘I am one of their descendents,’ he claims, ‘and here are the tefilin that were left for me by … one of them.’ This pattern is reminiscent of the rejection of the historical application of the stubborn and rebellious son, the idolatrous city and the affliction of a house, and the subsequent rejection of these rejections by Rabbi Yonatan who claims to have sat on the grave of a stoned child and among the ruins of a destroyed city (TB Sanhedrin 71a).
[x] TB Baba Batra 16a
[xi] See Jastrow, Dictionary ,p. 695, see also Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p.128 f3 where Rabbi Bun's remark in Talmud Yerushalmi Kilayim 27a, ‘and here Rav Kahana spread his net over Reish Lakish and caught him’ is understood to refer to a gladiatorial fighting style.
[xii] Talmud Bavli BM 84a, the last part of the translation is non-literal to aid translation. See Jastrow, Dictionary p.1273 entry tzachtzach. The author is indebted to Boyarin, loc cit, for his insight into this well-known story.
[xiii] See however ad loc. Tosafot DHM Hasakin and Hidushei HaRitba ad loc. citing Tosefta Kelim, BM 3:10 which rescue this seeming oversight with a deft piece of rabbinics.
[xiv] Devarim Rabba 3:12, Ekev 12 DHM beit hahi. References to a Torah of fire can also be found in statements of Reish Lakish in TY Shekalim 6:1 49d, with parallels TY Sotah 8:3 22d and Shir Rabba 5:15. The image of Moses wiping the fire of Torah on his hair also appears, again in the name of Reish Lakish, in Shmot Rabba 47:6.
[xv] In TY Sotah the specification ‘to Moses’ is absent, but it is clear from context that this text, like all other parallels in the rabbinic period, refers to revelation – Sinaitic Torah. In the rabbinic period the image of black and white fire is not used to refer to the cosmological Torah – blueprint for the Universe – described in Bereshit Rabba 1:1. It is only in the Geonic period that the late collection Midrash Tanhuma applies the image to the cosmological Torah (Bereishit 1). It may be that the image is more widely encountered in the context of creation than revelation, but creation is a secondary locus for this, primarily Sinaitic, image.