Halachah and Aggadah

From Nigel Savage

May 4th, 2017 | 23rd day of the omer; gevurah she’b’netzach | 8th Iyyar 5777

Halachah and Aggadah

Dear All,

Let me start at the end.

Shavuot this year falls midweek. It is one of the most glorious times of the year at Isabella Freedman. The sun, we hope, will shine; the goats will parade; much Torah will be learned; and much cheesecake consumed.

We have a truly remarkable group of teachers and leaders for this year’s Shavuot Retreat, including Shir Yaakov Feit, Rabbi Dr. Jill Hammer, Rebbetzin Eve Ilsen, Rabbi David Ingber, Shoshana Jedwab, Yael Kornfeld-Mlotek, Rabbi David Evan Markus, Rabbi Avram Mlotek, Rabbi Mike Moscowitz, and Arna Poupko-Fisher. I was thinking about when JFK hosted a group of Nobel laureates for dinner and began with the famous line – “this is the most extraordinary collection of talent that has ever been gathered together at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone…”  I say that because we will miss Reb Zalman, z”l, who for so many years led the Shavuot retreat, and his spirit and his memory and his teachings will be with us. And/but this really is a quite astounding group of people. So if you are minded to – or, indeed, if you’ve never been to Freedman for a retreat, or for Shavuot – do come and join us. We hope and intend that it will be very special indeed. Click here for full bios of our teachers and for more info.

Now I want to go back to the beginning…

Chaim Nachman Bialik wrote a famous essay titled “Halachah and Aggadah”, and if you have never read it I commend it. A lovely edition was published in 2000 and you can get that here – if you want. (And here, fyi, are the Wikipedia essays for halachah andaggadah, respectively, if you’re not familiar with those terms and want some background.)

Bialik’s essay is short, readable, and beautiful. It is also not quite what you expect. One might assume that Bialik (the co-author of Sefer ha’Aggadah) must be ish aggadah – “aggadic man”, as it were. That turns out not to be the case.

“Halachah is the master-art that has shaped and trained a whole nation, and every line that it has graven on the nation’s soul, be it coarse or fine, has been inspired and guided by a superb wisdom which sees the end in the beginning.” (This many years before Eliot, by the way.)

And: “The value of Aggadah is that it issues in Halachah. Aggadah that does not bring Halachah in its train is ineffective. Useless itself, it will end by incapacitating its author for action.”

These are fighting words. Take a moment to chew them slowly. Aggadah that does not bring halachah in its train is ineffective. Useless itself, it will end by incapacitating its author for action. And the more fascinating because Bialik was not in a traditional way halachically observant.

Bialik wrote these words a century ago, give or take. But they are both prescient and timeless because the tension they engage lies at the heart of Jewish life, and of its evolution. We live in the least halachic of times; but the ultra-orthodox minority is growing sharply, in Israel, the US and the UK. Non-orthodox rabbis routinely (privately) express frustration or sadness at the inability of their congregants to open themselves to the authority of tradition; yet they – we – are exemplars of a world of antinomian choice.

So the worlds of halachah and aggadah are drifting apart. The communities that most espouse halachah don’t always seem to respect aggadah. (The chasidic world is arguably an exception, and the difference between the relationship to aggadah in the chasidicharedi communities, as opposed to the non-chasidic parts of the haredi world, is one reason that those of us who are not haredi sometimes use too broad a brush, failing to understand the significance of these differences.) And the communities whose Torah is essentially aggadic miss something core to Jewish tradition and life.

And, to be clear, “halachah” and “aggadah” go also to the heart of contemporary life. What boundaries do we have? What narratives? What are the stories we tell about ourselves? How do these elements interact?

The thing that made me go back to Bialik was thinking about the counting of the omer.

“Counting the omer” is a funny thing. Most Jews on planet earth don’t count the omer. Of those who do, I’d guess that the majority simply remember to say the bracha (blessing) and to count, each evening. They check off a mitzvah, well done, if they make it through complete to the 49th day. This is halachah without much aggadah.

But counting the omer has flourished in recent times. In the early years of Hazon we gave away more than 400 copies of Reb Simon Jacobson’s beautiful little The Counting of the Omer. That book alone has had enormous impact, and it has been followed by equivalent books by other authors, a range of art projects, and in due course I think a series of apps.

The kabbalistic overlay to counting the omer is for me a fascinating example of what I think Bialik was getting at. You can “count the omer” without giving it frankly more than a moment’s thought. You can have some awareness of the kabbalistic aspects, brought out by Rabbi Jacobson and others, and not count each day. But properly understood, counting the omer goes so deeply to the heart of Jewish tradition. It offers us a new texture in relation to time, a new way to wake up, a new sensibility when you ride your bike or walk about. The halachic count leads to a different kind of aggadic awareness, and aggadic self-commentary leads back to halachah. Thoughts spool and unwind.

As an example: what does it mean that today – for instance – is ‘gevurah she’b’netzach?’ Netzach is about endurance and gevurah is discipline and boundaries and law. So gevurah she’b’netzach is precisely the day to think about the endurance of the Jewish people through the time, the persistence of both halachah and aggadah, and the role of gevurah – halachah, and boundaries of all sorts – in enabling us to persist.

Meanwhile, the late great Jacob Milgrom z”l was once at my Shabbat table during the omer. He shared with us, in response to some of my comments along these lines, that the kabbalistic overlay to counting the omer was “nonsense, as I’m sure you know.” He had a twinkle in his eye, as he said it. But he was a bible scholar and the omer was for him the harvest, growing from Pesach to Shavuot – all the rest was commentary, and insubstantial esoteric commentary at that, in his view.

Finally, let me leave you with one more line from Bialik:

“The halachah which is sublimated into a symbol… becomes the mother of a newaggadah, which may be like it or unlike.”

The work of Hazon, and the retreats and teachings at Isabella Freedman (and elsewhere) are rooted in halacha and in the symbolism of Jewish tradition. We are sprouting new aggadah, both like and unlike that which came before us.  And my blessing is that this in due course helps us to develop a reverence for the halacha of our parents, and a new post-halachic halacha for those who come after us.

Shabbat shalom,