By RABBI JOSEPH H. PROUSER
In his Reference Guide to the Talmud, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz defines “Aggadah” as all aspects of Rabbinic literature which (in contradistinction to “Halachah”) are “non-normative” – that is, not explicitly pertaining to matters of law – and “therefore not subject to any final, definitive ruling.” This includes “all the theological and philosophical discussions, stories about individuals, ethical guidance and other such subjects.” Midrash Aggadah includes often fanciful tales, lore, and legends.
The Sages highly prize Aggadah. Midrash Tehillim (on Psalms) states: “Through the study of Aggadah, our sins are absolved.” The Midrash (Sifrei, Ekev) teaches, “If you wish to attain a knowledge of the Creator of the Universe, study Aggadah!”
Clearly, Aggadah is to be viewed and valued as far more than mere fairy tales and fiction, moralizing parables and pious folklore. Steinsaltz insists that “the Halakhic and Aggadic elements in the Talmud are not contradictory, but complementary.”
The surprising role of Aggadah in illuminating a religious tradition so deeply rooted in a legal system and its practical application is given aptly lyrical expression in a statement by Rabindranath Tagore… the Bengali poet, playwright, and philosopher, and the first non-European to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature:
“Truth in her dress finds facts too tight. In fiction she moves with ease.”
Try Aggadah on for size!
(Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey and the former National Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.)