Exploring Talmudic Narratives

An Odyssey Into Aggadata with Rabbi Dr. Moshe Sokol

In a riveting foray into the world of Talmudic narratives, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Sokol’s recent book on Aggadata demonstrates the eternal absorbing nature of the Talmud and the Tanna’im who shaped the halachos and hashkafos we live by today.

The Snake at the Mouth of the Cave, published by Maggid Books, is Rabbi Dr. Sokol’s scholarly presentation of eight aggadic stories, centering on towering Tanna’im such as Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, Rabi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Reish Lakish and Akavya ben Mahalalel. In erudite fashion, Rabbi Dr. Sokol delves into the text of the Gemara and weaves together pshat, meforshim and his own analysis, to bring the stories alive. His commentary draws in the reader, allowing him to discover the spiritual and moral lessons of Torah giants.

Rabbi Dr. Sokol, the Dean of Lander College for Men, a division of Touro College, and Rabbi of the Yavneh Minyan of Flatbush, learned for many years in the Talmudical Yeshiva in Philadelphia; in the Israel Torah Research Institute (ITRI) where he received semichah; and in Yeshivas Torah Vodaath. He also holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania, has taught on the undergraduate and graduate levels and has written many books and articles.

In conversation with Rabbi Dr. Sokol, the author shares his views on the subject of his book, the Torah luminaries whom we cannot fathom on a personal level, but whose principled lives and grandeur in the sphere of Torah inspire us. Along the way, Rabbi Dr. Sokol’s palpable excitement for his subject is truly infectious.

Rabbi Dr. Moshe Sokol’s
The Snake at the Mouth of the Cave.

With so many Talmudic topics to write about, how did you come to choose the topic of Aggadata?

How I chose the topic is a consequence of how I got interested in Aggadata, which comes from a confluence of sources. At the backbone would be my love of learning, my love of Gemara, which goes back a very long time. When I was in yeshivah, learning Gemara was the woof and warp of my life — I loved it and still love it. Secondary to that is that I always liked literature and have been a voracious reader since I was a child. My love of learning and wide array of interests found their expression in Aggadata.

When you’re learning in yeshivah and you come to an Aggadata, you go through it quickly and don’t really focus on it. I didn’t start to study Aggadata seriously until I began to give shiurim on Gemara in my shul. When we got to Aggadata I invested the same energy into whatever else we were learning. Subsequent to that I began to give classes at Lander called Aggadata b’iyun. There was such wisdom, depth and intricacy to the way Aggadata was written that really attracted me.

There are sefarim on Aggadata, like the Ein Yaakov and classics like the Maharsha, but relative to other areas of Gemara it’s understudied and underwritten about. So, I began to develop ideas and approaches, always with learning the classic meforshim. I try to apply the same derech I use in learning regular Gemara to Aggadata.

Over my many, many years in yeshivah, especially in Philadelphia where I got my hadrachah, my Rebbeim taught us to interrogate every word. I try to read every word in Aggadata very carefully and all of a sudden it comes alive. Every word becomes invested with the chochmah of the Baalei Aggadata. It’s estimated that about 30 percent of Shas is Aggadata. That’s a lot. That means that Chazal, whose lives are our lives and whose teachings are our lives, thought it was really important.

In your introduction, you write about wishing to impart “the wisdom the Talmudic Rabbis themselves sought to convey.” Is it your intent to communicate lessons of the Tanna’im and Amora’im?

What I try to do is figure out the Gemara to the best of my ability. It’s very much, in classic yeshivah terms, like writing a chaburah — you take a sugya, learn it very carefully, ask a whole series of questions and then come up with a theory. This is my attempt to do the same thing with similar methods but drawing on different sources. But I don’t use the Aggadata for pedantic purposes. To me it speaks for itself — its riches, depths and insights.

The Mechabrei Hagemara wanted us to learn from Aggadatas. One of the great interpreters of Aggadata was Harav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zt”l. In his Sichos Mussar, he used the Aggadata for mussar purposes. I’m not trying to use the Aggadata for any purposes other than to explain what it says. But what it says has magnificent implications for our lives as Jews and as human beings.

Rabbi Sokol and students.

Whom do you see as your target audience?

I tried writing this book to appeal to as broad an array of readership as possible. I had in mind people in kollel, the yeshivah world, Modern Orthodox Jews, and even non-Orthodox Jews who at least have some Jewish background. I have this deep passion and belief in the wisdom of Chazal, and I think everybody can appreciate it no matter what their background is.

You write that, “I cannot stress enough that the inner lives of such extraordinary men are outside the reach of the limited reader living in the 21st century, so far removed from Talmudic culture, times, Torah knowledge, and religious heights.” How challenging is it to write about some of the foremost Tanna’im and Amora’im and their superhuman dedication to Torah study while bearing in mind your own directive?

I make no claims whatsoever to get into the minds of Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish. Who am I to even begin to probe their greatness? These Tanna’im are Gedolei Olam. I don’t believe in psycho-biography. I think it’s a problematic enterprise to begin with. The Mesadrei Hagemara wanted to teach us something about Rabi Eliezer. What Rabi Eliezer was really like I have no idea. I only try to attempt to understand them as they are portrayed by the text but not who they truly are. There’s a very big difference.

The Mesadrei Hagemara may have lived 500-600 years after Rabi Eliezer so they may have a certain mesorah. They themselves were baalei mussar and baalei hashkafah and used these stories to teach people what they thought was important. They weren’t historians, psychologists or biographers. At the end of the day, we must be totally ignorant about what Rabi Eliezer was truly like and I am very conscious of that. It is ridiculous for me to understand what Reish Lakish was like. It’s hard enough for me to even begin to understand Harav Moshe Feinstein, who lived in the 20th century.

This is really about interpreting text and the Gemara. Anything beyond that is arrogant, both because I think it’s wrong hashkafically and because it’s impossible. They were Talmidei chachamim, the likes of which we can’t even imagine, who lived over 2,000 years ago in a totally different world. We can never bridge that gap.

There are certain themes in the book that seem relevant today, for example, the role of leadership. As someone who serves in a leadership position, as Rav of a shul and a dean of Lander College, are you able to apply lessons to yourself or to today’s Jewish leaders?

That’s an interesting question as far as leadership specifically is concerned. I guess the lesson I would take for myself and many other leaders is that one needs to be extremely sensitive to the human cost of living according to principles that you believe are objectively true.

How would you bring those stories down to today? Any Rav or dean or Menahel or Rosh Yeshivah who makes decisions needs also to be extremely sensitive and attuned to the human implications of those decisions, even if those decisions are right. There is a certain humanity that needs to be cultivated. That’s a significant lesson for me and for anyone in a position of leadership — to do the right thing but be fully cognizant of the human implications of that choice.

Another major theme that plays out again and again in descriptions of the various Tanna’im is the relationship between Rav and talmid. What kind of pedagogic lessons can today’s mechanchim learn?

On one level I would say that the story about Rabi Eliezer and Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai is a profoundly moving and revealing one. The Aggadata describes Rabi Eliezer’s thirst for learning and how the relationship evolved over time with his Rebbi, Rabban Yochanan, to the point where Rabban Yochanan asks Rabi Eliezer to give a shiur. But Rabi Eliezer doesn’t want to give it in front of the Rebbi so the Rebbi has to step back.

The relationship between a Rebbi and a talmid is such that the Rebbi “makes” the talmid, to a certain extent. But the Rebbi needs to know when to step back and let the talmid be his own person because everyone has a different talent or gift. Sometimes Rebbeim can be overbearing and that can inhibit a person’s creativity from flourishing. To me, the image of Rabban Yochanan kissing Rabi Eliezer from the back is burned in my imagination — he loves him but he’s not in front of him so he’s letting him be the person he can be. It’s a powerful model and a lesson for how a Rebbi should shape a talmid.

The story about Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish is also about a Rebbi and talmid and delineates the relationship of responsibility between a Rebbi and a talmid. For a healthy relationship there needs to be a respect on the part of the Rebbi for what the talmid has achieved, and the talmid always needs to acknowledge the role of the Rebbi. That can sometimes be challenging, especially in the dialectic of learning with ongoing kashah and teretz. A talmid must be mindful of his Rebbi and the Rebbi must demonstrate sensitivity and patience.

The mesorah of a Rebbi is of paramount importance. And the danger to Klal Yisrael is that there isn’t always proper respect for Rebbeim. Nowadays talmidim go from shiur to shiur and maybe they’ll have a Rebbi for two or three years. Some talmidim make a Rebbi muvhak for themselves but many don’t. It’s not like Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish who learned together for decades. That creates its own opportunities and also its own challenges.

While discussing the unfathomably great status of the Tanna’im and Amora’im, you touch upon the idea of “hiskatnu hadoros” and how diminished scholarship and spiritual leadership affect Jewish survival. You reference the impact of the Holocaust and the killing of thousands of leading scholars and the loss of great yeshivos in Europe. Where does that leave us today, with the proliferation and rebuilding of Torah?

That’s a very good and complicated question. The sheer number of people who are learning now exceeds anything that was ever imagined in the yeshivos in Europe. We’ve obviously accomplished a lot. But it’s certainly true in the United States, maybe less so in Israel, that there are more distractions nowadays than there ever were in Europe.

Do you think perhaps we have distractions of luxury whereas they had distractions of necessity, with some boys not even having enough to eat in yeshivos, that whittled out those less committed?

Yes, there were far fewer people learning. But those who were learning were very committed and had a vast range of knowledge. Knowledge was stressed much more than it is today, especially in the United States. Nowadays it’s iyun and Gemara, but in those days they really accomplished a lot. Overall, the range of knowledge that they had was certainly greater and we lost a lot of that.

Rabbi Sokol and students.

In the book, you compare and contrast the philosophies and methodologies of Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai, both entirely valid. Lehavdil, today we have so many splinter groups within Orthodoxy. Are there any parallels today and what can we learn to better build bridges between them?

According to one beraisa, the debate between Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai was really impassioned. They were very passionate about their views. Eventually Halachah coalesced around Hillel.

The approach then to Torah learning in Eretz Yisrael, according to the Gemara, was more peaceful; in Bavel it was much more contentious. I think we are heirs to Bavel. Jews today learn Talmud Bavli and they’re always arguing and debating. Maybe we can learn a little from the Talmud Yerushalmi approach. They had plenty of machlokos too, but it was characterized by the early sources as being more peaceable. It would be lovely if we could move towards that but, for better or worse, we are all talmidim of Talmud Bavli and its more aggressive style.

What do you hope to accomplish with this book and what overriding message would you like to leave readers with?

I would like people to be as passionate about Aggadata as I am. It contains so much wisdom, depth and insight into human nature and into the values that should drive us as Jews. And it’s so fascinating. I am certainly not saying that it should displace the lechem ubasar of classic learning because that keeps us going as a Jewish people. There’s only a limited amount of time during the day, but a byproduct of that is that there’s less attention paid to Aggadata. If you read this book and you find it interesting then I hope that it ignites a love of Aggadata and a desire to learn more.

Every person should have an aperture into the wisdom that Chazal are trying to teach us. Aggadatas are not frivolous. They contain important messages for how to live a spiritual and moral life, how our personal history can shape the choices we make, and how our principles can in some way inhibit the kinds of lives we lead. These are really big ideas, and in our own way we all struggle with them.

I believe from the depths of my heart that every word of the Gemara is of immeasurable value and is written with great care to teach us something. Chazal were very sophisticated. They weren’t hitting you over the head with these Aggadatas’ lessons but rather conveyed deep and often subtle and powerful insights into people, hashkafah, ideas and history.

Read it and learn.