Jewish sages and Jewish wisdom

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Jewish sages
When people discuss the Talmud, they usually speak about its legal (halachic) aspects. However, its pages are also filled with aggadic material – stories about the ancient rabbis that were used to teach lessons or illustrate a point. In “The Snake at the Mouth of the Cave: Exploring Talmudic Narrative” (Maggid Books), Moshe Sokol, dean of the Lander College for Men at the Touro College and University System, analyzes eight of these stories. 

Sokol notes the importance of storytelling because it speaks to the human condition: “The talmudic rabbi often told stories because stories are a compelling form of human communication, dating back almost to the origin of humankind. Let us remember that the Torah itself contains more narrative than law. Well-told stories grab our interest, for we can identify with the characters whose stories are told, and grow by entering their world.” Lest one think these tales might be boring, Sokol writes that they feature “sin, redemption, success and failure, interpersonal conflicts, alienation, human pain and triumph, love, fear, anger, spiritual yearning.” They also serve as a reminder that rabbinic figures experienced the same emotions as those around them. 

However, Sokol warns readers against taking these stories, and his interpretations, as strict biography. He notes that he doesn’t presume to know what these great sages felt about the conflicts he discusses. Instead, he seeks to understand what the writer of the aggadah was trying to teach, noting that “our goal is to understand the text as it appears, in all its brilliant complexity and richness.”

Three of the eight chapters focus on Rabbi Eliezer. The author uses the different stories to inform each other. For example, readers learn that Rabbi Eliezer so wanted to study that he defied his father, leaving the family farm at age 28 to study with Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkaai. This late start did not stop Rabbi Eliezer from becoming a great scholar. Although he later reconciles with his father, he refuses any inheritance offered in order to continue his study of Torah. His method of study becomes important in one of the best known stories of the Talmud: a disagreement about the purity of an oven. All the other rabbis believe it is impure; Rabbi Eliezer declares it pure. He refuses to change his opinion and calls on supernatural forces to support him. The other rabbis refuse to accept anything but human reason and excommunicate Rabbi Eliezer for not following the will of the majority (something the text later says God supported).

Sokol notes that to truly understand the meaning of the story, readers have to know a) the history of the time and b) the two styles of Torah study that had developed. These debates took place after the destruction of the Second Temple when the rabbis were attempting to keep Judaism alive without a central place to gather. Rabbi Eliezer felt that nothing that had been previously transmitted as law could be changed. A different school of thought called for the use of reason and being open to new lines of discovery. These different methods are compared to “a sealed reservoir which never losses a drop stored within it” (Rabbi Eliezer) and a “flowing stream” that “stressed the importance of human creativity in responding to new challenges” (the rabbis who opposed Rabbi Eliezer). What becomes clear in the author’s discussion are the human results of these arguments, which include the death of another scholar and the loss of knowledge when Rabbi Eliezer was no longer able to share his learning with his colleagues and students. 

Another aggadah tells the story of Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish. Reish Lakish was the leader of a band of bandits who became the student of Rabbi Yochanan. The two were so close that Reish Lakish married Rabbi Yochanan’s sister. Unfortunately, a misunderstanding caused a split between them and each dies due to the loss of his friend. What matters for the discussion of Torah study is that their method of questioning – which encouraged students to offer objections so that a subject could be fully explored – enriched halachah. A difficulty arises when a teacher feels that the questioning has crossed the line to become disrespectful. That line is particularly difficult to determine when discussing a question for which there is no clear precedent.

“The Snake at the Mouth of the Cave” can be read by those familiar with the Talmud and those with no background in its study. Sokol’s prose and explanations are clear enough for both. The stories and discussions are interesting and well done. My one complaint is his tendency to discount the supernatural elements of the text (for example, suggesting that discussions with the dead or someone sleeping for 70 years were really dreams) since the text itself suggests that these elements were taken seriously. However, this is a minor complaint about a work that does an excellent job looking at important aggadic stories.

Jewish wisdom
Most people who met Michal Oshman would never have thought she suffered from anxiety. After all, she’d been an officer in the Israeli army, had three university degrees and was married with children. Yet, when Oshman, who is now head of company culture, diversity, and inclusion at TikTok Europe, first began working for Facebook, she was taken aback by a question hanging on a wall: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” That was the beginning of her search for a different way of living, one without anxiety. How she used her new interest in Jewish values to overcome that problem informs her book “What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid? Discover a life filled with purpose and joy through the secrets of Jewish wisdom” (DK Publishing). 

Underlying her work is an idea she discovered in a book by Viktor E. Frankl: “We should view happiness as a side effect of finding something we care about. Happiness is not the goal itself – Frankl believed that humans are not simply seeking pleasure for its own sake, but are seeking meaning.” When reaching out for help, Oshman was told to explore Judaism and found inspiration in the Jewish wisdom of hasidut, which offered her a way “to bring spirituality, joy, and meaning to everyday life.” For the first time, she discovered the spark she calls her own soul, noting that “when the soul isn’t fulfilled, it sends us signals, calling for our attention, often through feelings of fear, sadness, or anxiety.”

Oshman discusses how she uses the ideas she discovered in hasidut in her personal and professional life. For example, she used the concept of tzimtzum (literally contraction, but also used to mean the mystical process that occurred when God contracted and made space for our world). One doesn’t have to subscribe to the mystical process to understand the necessity of making space at work and at home for others to express their ideas. Sometimes parents need to let children make their own decisions, even if they make a mistake or fail. At work, allowing employees to express their ideas, even if they are different from what the company has done before, may result in better ways of doing business.

Oshman uses the concept of tzedakah (justice) to encourage readers to have the courage of their convictions, even if those convictions are not popular. She also explores the importance of Shabbat and discusses how to create a mikdash me’at (little sanctuary) in one’s home. Her discussion of teshuvah (returning to the right path) is excellent: she notes that the process “is not about feeling guilty or blaming yourself for your failings. It is about looking at where you are in life, compared to where you have the potential to be, and seeking to correct course.”
Of course, not everyone reading “What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?” will be hired by a multi-national organization or have a successful marriage. But the ideas Oshman expresses are interesting and worthwhile. Each chapter ends with questions to consider, ones that might help readers leave their fears behind. Her prose is easy to read, and the examples she offers make it easy to understand the practical application of the value being discussed. While success can’t be guaranteed, Oshman’s work was worth reading if only to see how Jewish concepts can be used to interact with the secular world.