Halachah and Aggadah: The Interplay between Law and Narrative to Determine God’s Will for Us

Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1−24:18

D'Var Torah By: Peter S. Knobel

In Parashat Yitro, we are overwhelmed by the power of the encounter of God and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. The people respond to God's Presence saying, "All that the Eternal has spoken we will do!" (Exodus 19:8). The thunder, lightning, smoke, and horn blasts that accompany the giving of Aseret HaDib'rot, the Ten Commandments, are the most perceptible aspects of that moment. It is likely that few people who were there remembered anything but the smoking mountain and the Divine Presence. This week's parashah, Mishpatim (meaning "rules"), translates the experience into concrete legislation. In The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut divides this portion into three parts: laws on worship, serfdom, and injuries (21:1-36); laws on property and moral behavior (21:37-23:9); and cultic ordinances and affirmation of the covenant (23:10-24:18).1

This law (halachah) is embedded in the story (aggadah) that the Israelites experienced. As the modern Jewish literary figure Haim Nahman Bialik wrote in his famous essay Halachah and Aggadah, "Halachah is the crystallization the ultimate and inevitable quintessence of Aggadah; Aggadah is the content of Halachah."2 Robert Cover, a twentieth century Yale Law School professor, furthered this idea in his groundbreaking essay "Nomos and Narrative," where he wrote, "No set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning."3

Jewish law and legal institutions are embedded in the stories of the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. The Exodus establishes an ethical method for evaluating particular legislation and the Sinai experience roots this method in Divine intention. In other words, God intends the law to create a just society with special emphasis on treatment of the weak and disenfranchised, categorized by concern for the widow, orphan (Exodus 22:21), and stranger (22:20), which is followed by a reminder our having been strangers in Egypt.

It is important to recognize that the meaning of the narrative changes over time to suit current circumstances. For example, the existence of slavery is taken for granted in our Torah portion, which may seem strange to the modern reader especially at this point in the narrative, as the Israelites have just been liberated from Egyptian bondage. However, careful examination of the passages suggests that while it is impossible at this stage to eliminate slavery the goal is to make it more humane (see, for example, 21:20, 26-27). The narrative therefore provides an ethical critique of the institution, which it cannot yet eliminate. In our own day, the ethical critique can be fully applied as to argue that slavery in any form can never be justified or considered humane, and that God's intent is human freedom and liberation. This understanding is in part a result of extending the text beyond the Exodus narrative to the Creation story, where we learn that every human being is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

In Reform Judaism, the ethical critique of law dominates our interpretation of God's will. This is important because it is a major way in which we have sought to understand halachah, traditional Jewish "law." While within Jewish jurisprudence there are a number of principles that enable halachic authorities to make changes based on altered conditions or new knowledge, the very nature of Jewish law as interpreted by traditional legal experts or responsa committees tends to be conservative. Even within Reform Judaism, the CCAR Responsa Committee has sometimes been more conservative than the Reform rabbinate as whole. The Responsa Committee performs a very important function of attempting to apply Jewish law to the questions, which are asked in a way that is both faithful to the halachic method and also to the Jewish narrative as understood by contemporary Reform Judaism.

We can use the narrative, which gives meaning, to simply dismiss what we do not like by using its principles in a casual manner or we can use the narrative to influence a careful decision-making process. I highly value interpretations with which I do not agree that are rendered by the CCAR Responsa Committee or published by the Freehof Institute for Progressive Halakhah because they are carefully reasoned. They provide material to be assessed and if I disagree I must find a reasoned response based on a reading of sources.

One ongoing conversation in the interpretation of Jewish law revolves on the use of narratives, especially Talmudic narratives, to determine the outcome of controversial matters. For example, I have used the story of the martyrdom of Rabbi Chanina ben Teradionto argue for assisted suicide as a valid Jewish option in the case of terminal illness with intractable and unremitting pain. The story tells how the rabbi's executioner changed the position of the punishing flame and removed the wet wool that had been placed on the rabbi's heart to prolong his agony, so the rabbi would have a quicker, less painful death (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 18a). My position on this issue has been very controversial especially because I use aggadic texts to justify it. The interplay between halachah and aggadah, between narrative and nomos (law), serves as powerful way to think about the values by which we live our lives.

  1. W. Gunther Plaut gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Ed., (New York: URJ Press, 2005) pp. 511-512
  2. Haim Nahman Bialik, "Halachah and Aggadah," in Revealment and Concealment: Five Essays, (Jerusalem: Ibis Editions, 2000), p.46
  3. Robert M. Cover, "The Supreme Court, 1982 Term – Foreword: Nomos and Narrative" (1983). Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 2705. See  p.4

Rabbi Peter S. Knobel serves as interim rabbi at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida. He is rabbi emeritus at Beth Emet the Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois, and past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Metaphors and Margins

Daver Acher By: Nikki Lyn DeBlosi

"This would be so much easier if the Rabbis didn't speak in metaphors!" one of my students observed. The Talmud might be Judaism's code of law, but its metaphors, stories, and individual cases outnumber its simple lists of dos and don'ts.

Mishpatim lists rules for an ethical society; amidst its instructions and how-tos lies a central, driving metaphor: "You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 23:9).

As a woman, a feminist, a lesbian, and a rabbi who serves a Hillel community made up of many "marginalized" students (in their sexual or gender identities, or in their non-Orthodox Jewish identities), I am inspired by our tradition's reliance on narrative and metaphor. After all, telling stories has long been a tool for political movements seeking societal change. Feminists held consciousness-raising meetings where women identified patterns of institutionalized oppression in what might have seemed isolated, personal cases. People of color spoke "truth to power," raising their voices and bringing stories of injustice into spaces formerly filled only with silence or violence.

When we Jews are commanded to remember that "we were slaves in Egypt," we are not commanded only to concern ourselves with the plight of the enslaved. This collective narrative of our people invites us to pursue justice for other kinds of marginalized persons as well: for the widow and the orphan, for example (see Deuteronomy 24:17-18).

The Torah builds an ethical system on a metaphor: being strangers in Egypt is in some ways "like" being an orphan or a widow. A metaphor makes connections across difference: the two items being compared are similar, though they are not the same.

It is precisely in that space between similar and the same that change happens. Metaphor allows us to address injustices the Torah could not have recognized: to open rabbinic ordination to women, for example, or to sanctify the relationships of gay and lesbian couples under the chuppah.

It would be easier if our sacred texts didn't speak in metaphor. But it is metaphor that has enabled the Jewish people to be ever vigilant in loving the "strangers" in our midst.

Rabbi Nikki Lyn DeBlosi, Ph.D., currently serves as Reform Rabbinic Fellow and Scholar-in-Residence at New York University's Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life.

Reference Materials

Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 566-592; Revised Edition, pp. 511–538
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 427–450

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