World of the Sages: Reading far-fetched passages

At times we read tales in the writing of our sages that hardly seem realistic: fantastic accounts of magical creatures, feats unknown to human experience, descriptions that defy rational thought. As readers of our tradition, we choose whether to accept these accounts as historical records or whether to seek a hidden message in these extraordinary tales, to dismiss these passages as fantasy. There exists a different type of challenging talmudic passage - accounts that require no belief in the occult. In these cases, we need not contend with seven-headed monsters whose heads are lopped off when a sagacious assailant bows in prayer (B. Kiddushin 29b). All we have are people - often sages - who act in ways that are not unfeasible, though they are certainly improbable. What makes such passages challenging is that these accounts require no special belief in supernatural forces or phenomena; they are presented as fact and, though unlikely, could very well be. How should we read such passages? Before we suggest a possible approach, let us look at an example. While we are generally enjoined to judge others favorably (M. Avot 1:6; Derech Eretz 1:31), the assessment of a sage's actions should be magnanimous. Thus we assume that a scholar caught transgressing at night has repented by morning (B. Berachot 19a). Our sages buttress this rule with a number of exempla (B. Shabbat 127b; Eliyahu Zuta 16); let us recount one tale. There was once a person who traveled from the Upper Galilee to find work. He found employment in the south, where he toiled for three years. At the end of his tenure, just before Yom Kippur, he turned to his employer: "Give me my wages, so that I may go and support my wife and children." The employer responded: "I have no cash." According to one version of the tale, the employee saw grain in the fields and hence asked, "Then give me produce." "I have none." Trying another tack, the worker proposed, "Give me land." "I have none." Perhaps seeing animals in their pens, the employee suggested, "Give me livestock." "I have none." "Give me pillows and bedding." "I have none." Crestfallen yet without protest, the worker picked up his belongings and, empty-handed, began the journey home. Following the Succot holiday, the employer took his employee's wages, loaded three donkeys - one with food, the other with drink and the third with delicacies - and made his way to the home of the worker. After the employer arrived and they had eaten and drunk, he handed the employee his wages, saying: "Please tell me, when you asked for your wages, seeing that I had money on hand and I said that I had no cash, of what did you suspect me?" "I said - perhaps you perchanced upon cheap merchandise and you purchased them with the cash." "And when you requested livestock, seeing animals on my property and I said that I had none, what did you think?" "I said - perhaps you have leased your animals to others." "And when you asked for land and I said that I had none, what did you think?" "I said - perhaps you have rented it to others." "And when I told you that I had no produce, what did you think? "I said - perhaps the produce has not been tithed." "And when I told you I have no pillows and bedding, what did you think? "I said - perhaps you have consecrated all your belongings to Heaven." Surprisingly, the employer responded: "Indeed this was the case - I forswore all my belongings on account of my son Hurkanus, as a ploy to urge him to study Torah. Later when I came to my colleagues in the south, they annulled my vows." Concluding with a blessing for the patient worker, the employer continued: "And as for you - just as you judged me favorably, so may the Omnipresent judge you favorably." This tale - and so many others like it - sounds unconvincing to a critical ear. A skeptic would certainly claim that many of the stories preserved in rabbinic literature are self-serving, designed to laud the bearers of our tradition, painting them in superhuman colors and granting them immunity from any misgivings about their personality, and more significantly, reservation about their authority. While such skepticism is difficult to allay since it dwells largely in the realm of personal belief, such passages can and should still be read; not for their historical value, but for their pedagogical worth. Moreover, our sages were interested in leaving a record of preferred ethical conduct rather than a historical textbook. This understanding is hinted at in the tale of the unpaid worker. While later authorities identify the protagonists as well-known sages, the passage itself provides scant information about their pedigree. According to one account, the employee had never studied the Written Law or the Oral Law. Only towards the end of the passage do we hear that the employer sought to encourage his child - who bore a Hellenistic name - to study the Tradition and later approached his peers, the sages, to rescind his vow. The actors' names remain a mystery and the storyteller does not grant any honorific; the heroes linger in anonymity, above any historical time and place. Accordingly, the historical credibility of these accounts is less significant than their thrust. Rereading the above tale with this in mind, the passage is resonant with a different timbre. The seeming lack of credibility and mysterious ambiguity may be the exact point that the sages are trying to stress: Even more distant possibilities should be taken into account, rather than assuming the worst; judge everybody favorably, no matter what the circumstances. Thus we have a model for reading passages that appear to be historically dubious and we have an impetus to preserve and cherish them while we plumb their depths: Our sages have bequeathed unconvincing tales for they wished not to convince us of their historical authenticity, they strove to provide us with guidance on our life journeys. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.