The Forgotten Talmud: On Teaching Aggadah in High Schools

By: David Bashevkin

Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555-1631), known as the Maharsha, presents the following regret in his introduction to his commentary on the Talmud:

I regret my initial decision to divide up my commentary into two separate works, namely, one on Aggadah and one on halachah. But it was no longer possible to synthesize both into one work because it would be a cumbersome undertaking.

This issue was later corrected in subsequent printings, whereby the commentary of the Maharsha on halachah and Aggadah were woven together as a united commentary on each page of Talmud. To this day, however, the Maharsha on Aggadah is printed in a slightly different, usually smaller, font, serving as a reminder that initially these two works were written separately. The dilemma of the Maharsha remains relevant today. Aggadah, namely the stories and nonhalachic materials found throughout the Talmud, have not been given the same attention by many of our schools as the more halachic or, to use a yeshivah phrase, “lomdishah,” aspects of Talmud study. Perhaps, like the Maharsha, this is a regret that we would be wise to correct for future generations.

When I was in high school, each school year would begin with the study of a different tractate of Talmud. In eleventh grade, we studied Tractate Gittin, which primarily deals with matters related to divorce. Aside from the crucial topics that arise in the tractate that relate to eidut (the nature of testimony in Jewish courts), shlichut (halchic status of an agent acting on one’s behalf) and several other more global legal issues, the tractate is also home to some amazing Aggadic passages, such as those dealing with exile that don’t have immediate bearing on halachah or Jewish legal principles. Those passages, however, were usually skipped.

First, why is halachah and “lomdus” given more attention than Aggadic passages in Talmud? Regarding the former, the answer is quite obvious and, frankly, quite sound. Halachah is a crucial part of the high school curriculum. Aside from allowing for standard talmud Torah, it also informs us how to live a Torah-observant life. Halachah study provides the framework and concepts for situations that arise in our everyday life as religious Jews. Can one heat up food on Shabbat? What berachah do you make on corn flakes? The quotidian implications of halachic study make it a natural bedrock of our yeshivah curriculum.

Lomdus, the conceptual methodology for Talmudic thinking, has a more nuanced purpose in yeshivah studies. Particularly, many educators and rabbis have lamented the centrality that Brisker lomdus, the approach pioneered by the eminent Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, has played in our yeshivot. As notably articulated by Rabbi Yaakov Dovid Wilovsky, the Ridvaz, Brisker style methodology was derisively seen as Talmudic chemistry, entirely foreign to the traditional more textual focus of Talmudic study.1 History, however, would seem to indicate that these concerns are misplaced. While Brisker lomdus is certainly not the only conceptual framework for Talmud study, its prevalence has ushered in a renewed interest in Talmud study and has reliably excited many classrooms. If you are looking for another essay criticizing the popularity of lomdus, Brisker or otherwise, you will surely be disappointed. Instead, I would like to suggest that we revitalize the study of Aggadah precisely by marshalling the aspects of Talmudic lomdus that make it so attractive.

“Many schools have opted instead to ignore or skip Aggadah as part of their Talmud curriculum altogether.”

Why is the focus on Aggadah so often minimized, or even ignored entirely? There are several factors, but I would like to focus on two. Aggadah is simply not seen as having the methodological rigor and conceptual constructs found in other areas of Talmud study. The bits of Aggadah we do study are often presented as springboards for pithy (however powerful) vortlach and inspirational ideas. The system of Aggadah as a whole, however, has not been given the same intricate and complex framework that makes lomdus so attractive. We don’t teach Chumash by reading through a collection of Shabbat table ideas. Our Talmudic Aggadah, at the very least, should be subject to similar methodological meticulousness.

Secondly, I think the risk of misunderstanding an Aggadic passage is perceived as being greater than misunderstanding traditional Talmudic texts. Much of our theology is derived from Aggadah and there is a rightful concern that if it is misrepresented, one’s very conception of Judaism will be warped. The concern for misunderstood theology is loudly, often distractingly so, pronounced by both those who prefer a more conceptually mystical approach like that of the Maharal and those who prefer a more rationalistic approach as reflected in much of Rambam’s writing. The real loser, unfortunately, in the fight for the rightful approach for Aggadic interpretation has been Aggadah itself. Rather than presenting the differing approaches in Aggadic interpretation, many schools have opted instead to ignore or skip Aggadah as part of their Talmud curriculum altogether.

Aggadah, however, is simply too important to be excluded from the rigor and focus we afford other portions of Talmud study. As such, and as part of my work with NCSY, I have been developing a curriculum to teach the methodology of Aggadah in our high schools. While it is now in its early stages, the curriculum aims at teaching students how to ask incisive questions that will reveal the latent meanings contained within Aggadah. Some of the themes it addresses include: How Aggadic passages should be understood in light of modern science and history; how to approach Talmudic stories and whether or not they need to be read literally and how to analyze analogies in Aggadic passages.

To give a taste of how intellectually rigorous and exciting Aggadah could be: When teaching the role of analogies in Aggadah, for example, I would ask students, “What should one ask after reading the Talmudic passage ‘Dreams are a sixtieth of prophecy’”(Berachot 57b)? Clearly, the Talmud is suggesting a relationship between dreams and prophecy, but why, a student should be trained to notice, is the measurement of a sixtieth used to impart that relationship? Similarly, to use a more well-known example, students should be sensitized to question why the Talmud chose to place the Aggadah associated with the destruction of the Temple in the Tractate Gittin, which deals with divorce.

Hopefully, over the duration of the course, a student will not just learn some of the theologically rich Aggadah in the Talmud, but will develop a conceptual framework for approaching these texts in more substantive ways. Using this methodology will help students develop a coherent and sophisticated view of Aggadah. If Aggadah is ever to have equal standing with the rest of Talmud, an equally complex and enlightening foundation must be presented.

In 1983, legal scholar Robert Cover made the famous claim that while law and narrative are distinct, they are inextricably linked together. In his renowned article in Harvard Law Review, he evoked the Talmudic interdependence of legalistic thinking and narrative form as a model for American law. He writes, “No set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning. For every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture.”2

Indeed, if we are to ensure that Talmudic living remains relevant, we would be best to avoid the regrets of the Maharsha and ensure that we avail ourselves of the texts and education that provide such living with added meaning.

1. Introduction to Rabbi Wilovsky’s Beit Ridvaz. Also see Marc Shapiro, “The Brisker Method Reconsidered,” Tradition 31:3 (1997): 78-102; The Orthodox Forum series, Rabbi Yosef Blau, ed., Lomdus: The Conceptual Approach to Jewish Learning (Jersey City, 2006); and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s brilliant essay, ibid., “The Conceptual Approach to Torah Learning: The Method and Its Prospects.”
2. Robert Cover, “The Supreme Court, 1982 Term-Foreword: Nomos and Narrative,” Harvard Law Review 97:4 (1983). See also Samuel Levine, “Halacha and Aggada: Translating Robert Cover’s Nomos and Narrative,” Utah Law Review 1998, no. 4 (1998).

Rabbi David Bashevkin is director of education for NCSY and is finishing his PhD in public policy and management at The New School in New York. Some of his thoughts on Aggadah can be found in his recently published mediocre-opus, B’Rogez Rachem Tizkor.


This article was featured in the Fall 2015 issue of Jewish Action.