The sugya approach to aggadata

by | Feb 11, 2019 | Blog, Discussions | 1 comment

I have been thinking about the study of aggadata and was wondering if a sugya approach is methodologically sound. For the halachic parts of the gemara, it is a given to look at the various times a topic arises and compare and contrast. Readers of Lookjed will remember that I have been advocating a similar approach to the study of tanach for years now. I’m unclear, however, if such an approach is appropriate for the study of aggadata on 2 levels. Let me use an example to illustrate:

The story of Rabbi Elazar Ben Aruch leaving for a new town (the name varies by account) and his leaving having a negative impact on his torah learning, appears in various forms in Shabbat 147b, Avot D’Rav Natan 14:6 and Kohelet Rabba 7:15. If one combined all the accounts, one can construct a rather compelling narrative that he chose to go out on his own rather than go with his colleagues and, as a result, he forgot his learning and then needed those same colleagues to aid him in getting his knowledge

While that narrative could be a springboard for rich discussion, I wonder if it’s sound to combine the accounts, given that none of the 3 versions contain all those elements. The second question is, should different aggadot be read together ?(I’m assuming that aggadot aren’t necessarily telling us historical fact, following the approach of the Rambam, Rashba etc). In this case, since Perkei Avot 2:8 describes Rabbi Elazar Ben Aruch as being an ever flowing spring, which presumably means that he was extremely creative, one could add that element to the story. Perhaps it explains why he thought he could “go it alone” or is a lesson that creative people especially need colleagues to help keep that creativity grounded. However, I wonder if that is a valid approach or is each aggadata meant to be understood by itself even if discussing the same person?

Now, I’m not advocating trying to reconcile contradictions between aggadot, as Tosfot occasionally does, because that approach assumes that they are meant to be taken literally. I’m also not suggesting the academic methodology of using the character traits described in aggadot to understand those rabbis’ halachic opinions; that  is an entirely different discussion. I’m wondering about using various aggadot internally to understand each other.


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Yehuda Rapoport
3 years ago

It’s worth looking at some of what the “academy” has proposed in connection with this question. Whereas the older “academic” approach might have sought to psychologize the Chakahmim, or try to fit their opinions into some kind of class-struggle schema (a la Finkelstein), more recent academics (for example, Jeffrey Rubenstein) take a more modest approach. I would start by looking at Rubenstein’s The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud. His main approach is that the aggada presented in the Bavli shows a greater development than similar aggadot one might find in earlier sources such as the Yerushalmi. He undertakes a careful… Read more »

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