In “Did Rabbi Hillel really exist? Not only is the Talmud divine revelation, but all history as well,” I discussed some Hebrew scholarship that stated that the evidence for the existence of the early sages such a Rabban Hillel (the Elder) was very thin. This absence of historical fact, however, does not deter Talmudists from insisting that there exists an unbroken tradition – and therefore a solid historical record – from the divine revelation at Sinai to the present day. What is more,they argue, this unbroken tradition is preserved by the Holy One of Israel, and is, therefore, divinely approved and preserved.
I ended the article with, “In Talmudism, not only is the Talmud divine revelation, but history as well.” After reading a passage from the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent to me by Chabad France, I need to rethink my notion of the Talmudic “divine inspiration” of history, specifically Jewish history. Before I do so, here is the Lubavitcher Rebbe (my English translation):
“Life does not tell stories. It is people who tell them. Life gives us only the raw materials. Raw enough for us to look back and develop two versions of our own biography: the first describing our existence as a prison, the second as a palace. Therein lies the immense goodness that the Master of Life grants to us: He placed his own pen in our hand, so that we can enjoy the honor of a palace designed and built by ourselves.”
Here is the French of “Life does not tell stories”: La vie ne raconte pas d’histoires. In French, histoire can mean both “story” and “history.” What the Rebbe is clearly saying is that God provides the brute facts of history, while man moulds this gross material into a history. Man on this view, therefore, is the creator of history – history is his story, not His story.
Where have I heard this before? In Reconstructionist Judaism.
Reconstructionist Judaism (and Reform Judaism, by and large) would say that it doesn’t matter whether the Babel story is a myth, or (to use a reconstructionist term) folklore; what is important is that it is a shared myth, and it is the sharing of a common heritage that binds a community together. What matters, in reconstructionism, is the binding, not the Book.
Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, a a reliable spokesperson for Reconstructionist Judaism, believes that the Torah stories, even if not true in the historical sense, are central to Jewish life. The Torah, she says, is one of the “noblest employments of the mind and soul aiming at knowledge and wisdom.” Fuchs-Kreimer continues:
“Perhaps religious experiences provide no new information about the universe. Rather, they give us the emotional impetus to tell certain kinds of stories. We may indeed be nothing but a pack of neurons and our religious experiences may be neurological phenomena; nevertheless, the stories we tell ourselves about those experiences come from our higher cognitive functions. When we choose to link ourselves to a religious civilization, we opt for a narrative tradition that will shape raw experience in particular ways.” (See my The Torah: shared myths and other stories in Reconstructionist Judaism).
What is all the above but Reconstructionist Judaism and Talmudism dressed up in old postmodern garble. In the light of this new revelation, I need to reformat – recreate? – my original conclusion to “Did Rabbi Hillel really exist? Not only is the Talmud divine revelation, but all history as well,” which reads: “In Talmudism, not only is the Talmud divine revelation, but history as well.”
Here is the reconconstructed version (no brute, fictional or factual, must mess with my histoire): In Talmudism, the Talmud, though a human construction, is divinely approved and preserved.
Original French of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s excerpt above
La vie ne raconte pas d’histoires. Ce sont les gens qui les racontent.
La vie nous procure seulement des matériaux bruts. Suffisamment bruts pour que nous puissions regarder en arrière et élaborer deux versions de notre propre biographie : la première décrivant notre existence comme une prison, la seconde comme un palais.
Là est l’immense bonté du Maître de la Vie envers nous : Il a placé Sa propre plume dans notre main, de sorte que nous puissions jouir de l’honneur d’un palais conçu et construit par nous-mêmes.
Adapté des enseignements
du Rabbi de Loubavitch