Books: Talmudic tales

Tackling the esoteric rabbinical stories as only a novelist can.

Talmud (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Many of us are familiar with the talmudic story about Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his son hiding from the Romans for 12 years in a cave, subsisting on carob fruit and spring water, studying all day while sitting up to their necks in sand. They emerge only long enough to consume their surroundings with the fire of their intense gazes, before being ordered by a heavenly voice to return underground for another year, until they’re ready to rejoin civilization without destroying it.
And then there’s the famous story about a disagreement among three sages – Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Rabbi Gamliel II and Rabbi Joshua ben Hanania – about the ritual purity of an oven, which leads to the excommunication of Eliezer because – although his minority opinion is deemed correct on high – his colleagues insist that the law is not in heaven and one must follow the majority.
The Prophet Elijah puts in an appearance to say that this, too, was deemed correct on high.
In fact, the Babylonian Talmud’s 517 chapters combining mishnaic laws with a multigenerational meta-commentary written between 190 and 475 CE are replete with “allegories, anecdotes, fables, legends and tall tales,” writes Skibell.
Because those often cryptic aggadic stories are scattered throughout the 5,000-plus pages of legal and philosophical discussions, it’s difficult to get a cohesive, let alone chronological, picture of each character depicted.
Approaching the Talmud from a novelist’s perspective (“Stories are the doorway into meaning for me”), Skibell consulted a volume called Ein Ya’acov in which all the aggadic material is culled from the massive work. From there, he began his own “imaginative and personal response to this sacred literature.”
“Literature, after all, is meant to transform us, sacred literature even more, and so why not analyze and interpret these stories as a novelist would?” he writes.
The title is a play on the 1988 book Six Memos for the Next Millennium, based on a series of lectures written by Italian novelist Italo Calvino to deliver at Harvard, except he died before delivering them and finished only five of the six. In deference to Calvino’s unintentional precedent, Skibell includes five talmudic stories from which he mines six “memos” from the aggadic writers.
“The Talmudic view of life, it seems to me, can be boiled down to six areas of concern,” he writes, and these are heaven, earth, ancestors, descendants, self and others. “A perfect action, a holy action, a righteous action, successfully addresses all six.... As we see from the stories in this book, when any one of these six reference points is out of balance, all six are.”
For example, we have the collection of odd tales about the extraordinarily good-looking sage Rabbi Yohanan and the master thief Resh Lakish, who begin their unlikely friendship in the Jordan River where Yohanan is bathing and Resh Lakish jumps in, apparently mistaking Yohanan’s lovely face for a woman’s.
Yohanan, somehow recognizing the brigand’s potential, marries off Resh Lakish to his sister and transforms him into a master scholar. Shockingly, a legalistic dispute between the two causes both to die from the impact of the mutual insult.
Skibell suggests that Yohanan placed the state of Resh Lakish’s soul (heaven) above his physical existence (earth) and allowed his concern for Resh Lakish (others) to overwhelm his concern for self.
Yohanan’s consequent death causes him to lose his connection to descendants and to his obligation to carry on ancestral values.
The author’s analysis of each story collection is insightful and intriguing.
He untangles many disparate strands of Aggada, endeavors to interpret difficult wording, explain talmudic shorthand, find meaning in bizarre plotlines and fill in mysterious lacunae with educated guesses.
He keeps his study from getting too intense by bringing in pop-culture similes from the works of artists and authors ranging from Edward Hopper and Orson Welles to Jackson Browne and George Harrison. He anticipates that some readers will tire of this device (“These things are difficult to measure, but I imagine I’ve spoken enough about rock ’n’ roll in a book about the tales of the Talmud”) and yet this reader found the modern references humorous and instructive.
Skibell is not conceited enough to claim that his in-depth and thought-provoking analyses are anything but one man’s “wildly subjective, idiosyncratic and far from definitive” attempt “to shine some light on this brilliant, beautiful and strange body of literature, and to contribute whatever I can to the discovery and recovery of the beauty and depth they offer us as meaningful fictions.”
And in this, I think, he has succeeded.
Six Memos from the Last Millennium could be described, in the words of Rabbi Meir (himself the subject of several juicy talmudic legends), as “a new vessel filled with old wine.”