Legends are necessary for nation building and community cohesiveness. Legends of holy and pious people and legends about villains and the wicked are often subject to fabrication and gross exaggeration, but they leave no doubt in the minds of later generations as to who was the holy and pious person and who was the villain.
Midrash is probably the main conveyor of legend to Jews as far as the biblical and Talmudic periods are concerned. However, there is a plethora of legends about great Jews throughout the centuries that exists in an oral and sometimes written fashion. The great rebbe of Kotzk, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern (Halperin), said the definitive word about all of these legends and stories: “He who believes all of these tales is a fool and yet he who states that they could not have occurred is a non-believer.”
Many times there are legends that contradict one another. This should not faze us, for again, each legend comes to emphasize a particular insight into an event or a personality trait of a great person and does not declare the statement it makes as fact.
Midrash is full of contradictory statements and opinions about the very same incident or person – but this in no way compromises the value of Midrash to us as a conduit of Jewish values and insights. It is only when Midrashand legends are taught as facts that these problems of contradictions and obvious exaggerations arise.
The Jewish people as a whole possess a strong collective memory. We remember leaving Egypt on a Thursday and standing at Mount Sinai and receiving the Torah on Shabbat. We remember all of the glories of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem as we do the Babylonian exile and the story of Purim. Ezra and the Second Temple, the Hasmoneans and Herod as well are all stored in our genetic memory cells.
The events of the long exile and of our longing to return home to Zion and Jerusalem are a significant part of our memory bank. This memory bank has been fed by stories about great people, significant events and terrible tragedies that have occurred over the millennia of Jewish life. These legends, whether completely accurate or not, help us recall the core event about which they revolve and, in so doing, keep our memory of the past alive enabling us to deal so much better with our present situations and challenges. A people cannot survive for long having lost its memory.
Most of the secular Jewish world today suffers from this type of amnesia regarding its past. There was a Jewish people before 1897 and the Zionist movement, before the Holocaust and before 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel. Ignoring and ridiculing Jewish legend, even when one is seemingly historically or empirically correct in so doing, helps destroy accurate Jewish memory as well.
One must be careful to remove and differentiate legend from fact. But legend should nevertheless be retained, for it casts light and shadow, nuance and insight on the facts that we do know and have at hand. Facts are knowledge while legend often is pure inspiration. It is legend and Midrash that create sermons, dreams, goals and action in the Jewish world. It is legend that has contributed to the revival of Jewish life in individuals and communities over the past decades. Legend is to be treasured.
Nevertheless, the main problem with legend is that it is often translated into reality and fact and replaces the simple understanding of words and events that appear in the Torah. The Talmud was well aware of this tendency and therefore stated: “A verse in the Torah never loses its plain simple meaning.”
Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam), the grandson of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) in eleventh-century France, chided his grandfather for wandering too far away from this principle in his immortal commentary to Torah. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra struggled mightily to separate legend from fact in his Torah commentary. So did Don Yitzchak Abrabanel and Rabbi Ovadya Sforno.
Even in the Talmud there is strong criticism of “those who continually distort the plain meaning of the verse” and substitute legend for it. But as any pulpit rabbi having to deliver a sermon every Shabbat to his long-suffering congregation will tell you, it is the stuff of legend that piques the interest of an audience and captivates it.
So the quest for the perfect balance in this matter still continues in the pulpit, the classroom and in the works of commentary to Torah and Judaism. The Talmud has been eminently successful in achieving such a balance when discussing the past of Israel and its biblical heroes and leaders. It records everything, hides nothing and yet preserves legend as the essential understanding of the person and the situation.
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There is an admonition in Judaism not to speak ill of the dead. There are also halachic restraints on what can be said about the living. Slander has a very broad definition in Judaism and thus even the “truth” is often prohibited from being said or printed in many circumstances.
All of this naturally creates somewhat of a vacuum regarding the true events and behavior patterns of the lives of famous people and then, inexorably, legend rushes in to fill that vacuum. Thus most biography in the religious world of Judaism is fanciful, hagiographic and laden with anecdotes and stories, some of which are too fantastic and incredible for even to the most na?ve to believe. Yet it is clear that the very existence of a legend can tell us something about the person. Two men once exchanged stories about a great sage for whom fantastic claims of spirituality and piety were being made. One asked, “Do you really believe that story?” The other replied, “No, I do not. But no one tells such stories about the two of us.”
Thus legend does in fact tend to be valuable in assessing the character and achievements of great figures of the Jewish past and present. Again, the caveat in all of this remains the ability to remember it is legend and not necessarily reality one is dealing with in such matters. And the Jewish penchant for legend is so strong that when books of true biography, warts and all, are written about great Jewish figures, these works usually face withering criticism if not outright bans in religious circles.
Many times legend becomes myth. Myth is a sense of human recognition that the story being told is not factual but it nevertheless changes legend from history or biography into literature and philosophy – sometimes sacred holy literature and philosophy.
For instance, there is an opinion in the Talmud that Job as a person never existed, and that the entire book of Job is an allegory introduced into the holy canon of the Bible to teach us the philosophy and worldview of Judaism on the subjects of reward and punishment, man’s travails on earth and the inscrutability of the divine will as reflected in our lives.
Myth is therefore much more philosophical than mere legend. It transcends this “real” world to discuss and teach values and insights that are eternal and almost never changing in the human existence. It provides the background lighting for our brief appearance on the stage of life.
Legend teaches us how to view others and events; myth is meant to teach us how to view ourselves. Legend is often only storytelling. Myth is a psychological counseling session. Great empires – Greece, Rome, China, Japan, Sweden, Germany, and Britain, among others – have been built upon the mythology of the founding tribe of that empire. This strong sense of the founding mythology has remained present, unfortunately often for evil purpose, throughout the centuries of these countries’ existence.
The Torah does not deal with myth per se. Yet the Flood and Noah’s ark, the Tower of Babel, the centrality of the land of Israel, factual as they all are in the biblical narrative, nevertheless were all combined to create a basis for the holy mythology of the Jewish people. In addition, the idea that the “events of the works and decisions of our founders, the fathers of Israel, are a sure guidepost for their descendants” helped strengthen a mythology that binds the Jewish generations together and gives us insights into the values of Judaism and historical events, past and present.
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There are many types of fantasies that exist in Jewish life. There is a natural tendency among all humans to be nostalgic about the past – “the good old days.” The truth of the matter is that “the good old days” may have been old but they rarely were good. Yet this fantasy is still today a major one in the Jewish world, especially in the religiously observant Jewish society.
The portrait of Jewish life that emerges from this oft repeated and taught fantasy is that Jewish life in eastern Europe, difficult as the physical conditions might have been, was spiritually wonderful and that Jews were somehow serene and happy in that time and place. Also part of the fantasy is that in Eastern Europe Torah study was rampant, the Torah scholar was honored and treasured by the community and that almost everyone was observant of Jewish law and halachic ritual.
This fantasy is not only false, it is terribly dangerous. It allows us to currently repeat the errors of the past that led to the secularization of the majority of the Jewish people in Eastern Europe and to the breakdown of rabbinic and Torah authority.
In the nineteenth century, Jews in Eastern Europe became assimilated. They became Marxists and revolutionaries, secular and agnostic if not even atheistic. By the 1930s, seventy percent of all Jewish children in Poland no longer attended Jewish schools of any kind. Urbanization took a tremendous toll on traditional Jewish lifestyle. Terrible working conditions and onerous work hours in the city’s factories destroyed the Sabbath for many. Child labor was common and unemployment in Jewish society reached astronomical figures. Poverty, disease and malnutrition were the lot of most of the Jewish masses. The educational system, the traditional cheder, the one-size-fits-all approach to curriculum and the students, all began to collapse of its own weight.
The breakdown of the traditional Jewish world in the twentieth century, of which the Holocaust was naturally a very strong and dominant contributing factor, nevertheless began in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe. It was not a phenomenon caused by America or modern Israel, though that is where the results of this breakdown of Jewish life are currently playing out. And, therefore, portraying and perpetuating the fantasy of Eastern European Jewish life as idyllic is counterproductive to any attempts to build Torah Judaism today in America and Israel.
Other fantasies exist in the Jewish world. Superstitions abound. There are many charlatans who prey on innocent people. Selling fantasies is big business, and it is thriving. The fantasy that such pressing and dangerous problems as sexual deviancy, monetary cheating, criminal behavior, substance abuse, etc., cannot and do not exist in observant Jewish society is perpetuated, all real evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. People always prefer to whistle past the graveyard, and therefore this fantasy of perfection in our society persists.
There is a fantasy that alleged kabbalism-based healing exists and that therefore one should always pursue this type of alternative medicine. Prayer to God certainly helps and works but magical potions of holy water and other such fantasies are the stuff of the gullible and credulous, sold by the exploiters of other people’s troubles, usually for personal monetary gain.
Judaism is a very sophisticated faith. It does not lend itself to fantasies about things that are not real or beneficial. Yet superstitions exist because life itself is irrational and humans find it difficult to deal with. Therefore, fantasies are always with us and part of our psychological makeup. Some are very dangerous. Others are relatively benign. The rabbis of the Talmud always sought to dampen Jewish fantasies, even about the messianic era. But the pattern of recurring fantasies in Jewish life always reemerges in every generation and society. It is part of human nature – it may even be a necessary part – and Jews are no exception to the governing rules of human nature.
Then there exists in Jewish society outright falsifications about the past and the present. I mentioned earlier the falsification of the real situation of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Eastern European Jewry. Stories and descriptions about people and events are made up of whole cloth. The ideas and philosophies of great people of the past are twisted to make them conform to modern political correctness in sections of Jewish society. Photographs are doctored, skullcaps are added or removed, unpleasant incidents are sanitized – all in the name of advancing the true faith as it is currently understood to be.
It is this tendency that makes falsification so dangerous for, by perverting history and biography, it robs us of the ability to truly learn valuable lessons from the past and from the great people who lived then. Truth has to win out eventually; it will always find its way, and the more falsifications piled on it only makes its eventual emergence more shocking and traumatic.
So again, separating the wheat from the chaff of Jewish history and biography has been an ongoing pattern throughout Jewish history. We find it in the Talmud and in all later works of Jewish scholarship. Just as the scholars of Israel throughout the ages have labored mightily to present us with a correct text of our holy books, free of emendations and copyist errors, so, too, there should continue to be an effort to present us with a record of Jewish history and biography free from purposeful or negligent falsifications.
We have a great deal to learn from the past. One of those lessons is that a false history is as dangerous as, if not more dangerous than, no history at all.
Rabbi Berel Wein is an internationally acclaimed scholar, lecturer and writer whose audiotapes on Torah and other Jewish subjects have garnered a wide following, as have his books, which include a four-volume series on Jewish history. A pulpit rabbi for decades, he founded Yeshiva Shaarei Torah of Rockland in 1977 and moved to Israel in 1997. His latest book is “Patterns in Jewish History” (Koren Publishers), from which this essay is adapted.