Tangled up in the crowns on the letters

The author's most recent book is a collection of essays on core issues of Jewish thought as they are expressed in the midrashic and aggadic sections of the Talmud.

Bob Dylan performs at The Hop Festival in Paddock Wood, Kent on June 30, 2012 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Bob Dylan performs at The Hop Festival in Paddock Wood, Kent on June 30, 2012
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Mysterious magical characters; non-linear time; enchantment: To some readers, these concepts may seem to have been taken off the jacket of a Bob Dylan album. For others, these hard-to-pin-down phrases describe the elements of midrash and aggadah that form a literary-philosophical world which, for me – and, I suspect, for many others – is a source of fascination, meaning and holiness.
I have been exploring, teaching and attempting to illuminate the world of Talmudic narrative for some 40 years. My most recent book, The Crowns on the Letters, is a collection of essays on core issues of Jewish thought as they are expressed and distilled in the midrashic and aggadic sections of the Talmud. The process of translating oral lectures into chapters of text has been enlightening, as the methods for engaging a live audience are only distantly related to the skills needed for clear and engaging writing.
Often, listeners get caught up in the improbability of the “stories” we study; they become sidetracked by the lack of feasibility that is inevitably the result of a purely literal reading, and risk missing the message our sages hoped to convey.
A case in point is a delightful teaching, found in Talmud Bavli Menahot 29b, in which a confused Moses finds himself in the classroom of a later scholar named Akiva. The entire story is a non-starter for rational listeners and readers: time travel is too much for them, and they dismiss the entire story, missing out on one of the most daring Talmudic passages I know. This “story” contends with some of the most serious philosophical questions and major tenets of Jewish thought: the authenticity of the Torah, and the question of theodicy. Sadly, the deeper message is often eclipsed by a simplistic, literal approach to the text, by failure to “suspend disbelief” and think symbolically, by focusing on the medium rather than the message. My goal, in the lecture hall and as a writer, is to teach the language of midrashic and aggadic allegory that will enable others to access the deep ideas they convey.
This past year, in one particular lecture on the Moses-Akiva story, I encouraged my students to suspend their disbelief, and illustrated the concept by quoting Nobel Laureate in literature Shabsi Zisel, aka Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan. In an in-depth interview Dylan credited his art teacher, the acclaimed artist Norman Raeben, with enabling him to create, among other works of art, his magnum opus “Blood on the Tracks.” On the jacket notes to Biograph, Dylan alludes to the visual arts he learned from his teacher:
I was just trying to make it like a painting where you can see the different parts but then you also see the whole of it. With that particular song, that’s what I was trying to do... with the concept of time, and the way the characters change from the first person to the third person, and you’re never quite sure if the third person is talking or the first person is talking. But as you look at the whole thing, it really doesn’t matter.
On another occasion Dylan coyly tells of his teacher:
It has to do with an illusion of time. I mean, what the songs are necessarily about is the illusion of time. It was an old man who knew about that, and I picked up what I could...
Certain that most of the people in the room had never heard Raeben’s name before, I gave my students some biographical details on the man who had this tremendous impact on Bob Dylan. Norman Raeben’s father was Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, better known by his nom de plume Sholem Aleichem – one of the great Jewish storytellers of modern times, creator of Tevya the Milkman, the protagonist of Fiddler on the Roof, and many other unforgettable stories that have transcended borders and cultures due to their allegorical power.
Who would ever have imagined that the spiritual grandfather of “Tangled up in Blue” was the famous milkman Tevya?
I then urged my students to approach the text before us, the story of Moses visiting the study hall of Rabbi Akiva, as we would a work of art – a canvas can transcend time. It can easily show us a middle-aged man, depicted in one section of a painting in his youth and in another section, in old age.  By learning to look at art we learn to suspend judgment; that is what makes it art. The same, I explained, is true of aggadah and midrash.
Moses can travel from Sinai to the classroom of Akiva, back to Sinai, and then back to the future to see the death of Akiva. Moses can receive the Torah at Sinai, but at the same moment be unable to understand Rabbi Akiva’s lecture – which, Akiva explains, is based upon the teachings Moshe received at Sinai. Time is of no meaning; literal sequence is aside from the point. Anyone who dismisses the “improbable story” will have missed the treasure that lies beneath it.
Once the reader ‘agrees’ to set aside literalism and address the allegory’s message they are faced with the seemingly impossible paradox it presents: Moses does not understand Akiva’s teaching, yet Akiva explains that its source is none other than the legal tradition passed down through the chain of masorah, beginning with Moses at Sinai. This paradox is far more challenging than the small issue of time travel – and the answer Moses is given is even more challenging. The “story” itself provides us with the key. As readers, we must mine the story– its symbolism, its language, its references -to retrieve these tools.
Moses was not sent to Rabbi Akiva’s classroom accidentally; every element of the story is carefully crafted. Moses climbs Mount Sinai at God’s command; he stands before the Almighty awaiting the completion of the Torah and sees God affixing “crowns” - the scribal ornaments that adorn Torah script to this very day - on the letters. In his eagerness to receive the Torah, Moses wonders whether this ornamentation justifies the delay; he questions the necessity of the crowns. Rather than an explanation, he is told that in the future, one man, named Akiva the son of Josef, would “expound upon each mark heaps and heaps of Torah (law).” The language of this response may hold the key to unraveling its paradox:
The Torah that Moses hears in Rabbi Akiva’s beit midrash is neither “new” nor “different”; it has its core in the teachings Moses heard at Sinai. This was implied at the very outset ... The choice of words is far from arbitrary: The word tillim is the plural form of the word “tel,” a mound created as successive generations build upon what their predecessors leave behind, heaping layers of life upon the strata laid down by previous generations. Akiva’s methodology did not abandon the chain of transmission that began at Sinai; rather, Rabbi Akiva performed “intellectual archaeology,” mining the depths of what he had received from his own teachers, uncovering and revealing the sources of the mesorah he received, tracing them back to Moses and the principles he was given at Sinai.
Were we to imagine a graphic representation of this aggadic text, we would see that the two scholars can be joined on one canvas, despite the millenia that separated them in life, and the paradox is resolved: Moses does not understand the modern iteration of the laws, although Akiva sees clearly that their core principles were handed down at Sinai to Moses, and then to those who formed the chain that led to his own study hall. Akiva sees his role as a link in this chain, as an interpreter of the law who digs through the strata to reveal the bedrock upon which halacha is based. This approach to Torah, God explains to Moses, will be the legacy of Akiva.
That same Akiva begins his career as one of our greatest teachers and heroes, when he sees water penetrating rock. The trajectory of Akiva’s life is set in motion by his own ability to identify and interpret symbolism and allegory; he remarks that if water can shape stone, Torah – the solid bedrock of our lives – can most certainly shape our hearts and our lives (Avot d’Rabbi Natan, Ch. 6). Ironically, Moses is stripped of his role as teacher and leader when he strikes a rock rather than using words to satisfy the people’s needs for water (Numbers 20).
The separate stories of Moshe and Akiva are brought together by the symbols associated with their lives and legacies. Perhaps on a canvas their stories might be told through water and rock, rock and water – paradox and resolution, heaps of Torah law built on the scholarship of previous generations, all standing on the bedrock of what was given to Moses at Sinai. Canvas could surely tolerate the elasticity of time, place and consciousness as Moses moves back and forth, up and down, from heaven to earth, as the impossible becomes clear and the enchantment becomes reality.
The writer is an author rabbi, and teacher. He is senior lecturer in Bar Ilan University. His most recent book, The Crowns on the Letters: Essays on Aggada and the Lives of the Sages, published by OU Press/Ktav Publishing House, is available on Amazon