Sermon: Our stories and what they say about us

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 25 July 2015

David, you are absolutely right.
Stories are important – they shape identity.  They define us. The stories we tell about ourselves tell a huge amount about how we understand who we are and our place in the world.

And stories, as we know, are a fundamental part of Jewish tradition – the biblical narratives; the stories of the second temple period that come to be known as the pseudepigrapha; the rabbinic traditions – Aggadic midrash, the filling in of the biblical story, and Talmudic tales of the rabbis which explored their lives and values; then, later, stories of the Hasidic masters – as they saw it exemplars of the best of human behaviour.
We are not merely the people of the book, but the people of the story-book.

Many of our festivals are celebrations of stories – Pesach, Chanukah.  Only a story based people can have a whole festival commemorating the events described in a novella, a fictional short story, as we do in the commemoration of Purim.

When we read Jewish stories, they tell us about who our ancestors were and what they thought.  But also, as we read them, we mine them for insights into what we, the inheritors of the story, ought to think, about who and how we ought to be.

So, if this is true, what does this vast corpus of Jewish story communicate about us and our religious lives?

Perhaps most powerfully, what it tells us is a fundamental message about how we hold difference in our tradition.  Our stories see difference as not just legitimate but wonderful.  Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Jewish stories is how diverse they are – even when dealing with the same subject matter – that they contain multiple versions of the same events.

What we can also see in our stories is an acceptance, in fact a celebration, of development and change.  The stories of our people adapted and evolved, changed over time, with each generation building on the stories of the past, with no sense that this was a bad thing, no uncomfortable reaching for the purity of a single story.

Let me give you an example.
In fact, let’s use as the example, the book of Deuteronomy that we began reading this morning.
Devarim is the Jewish story par excellence – it is Moses telling the story.  The speech by Moses on the edge of Canaan as he prepares to leave the Israelites for the next stage in their journey.  It begins with story – the retelling of the journey from Sinai.

But that telling, that apparent re-telling, differs in a host of ways from the versions found elsewhere in Torah.  Some of these differences seem relatively minor – At the beginning of Deuteronomy, for example, God tells the Israelites to leave the mountain of Horeb. In Exodus, as we know, the mountain of revelation is Sinai.
But some are quite significant differences in the narrative: In Exodus, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law advises him to set up a system of magistrates.  The way Moses tells it in Deuteronomy 1, it was all his idea.  In our sidra, the people ask that scouts be sent into the land, while in the version in Numbers, the idea is God’s.  And in our portion, it is the reaction of the people that condemns Moses to die outside the land – guilt by association – while the Numbers version has him striking a rock at Meribah.

Even in the section that David read, there is difference – in fact, a significant difference in perception of a particular other: the descendants of Esau.  According to Deuteronomy, as we saw, when the Israelites wished to travel by their land they are to purchase water and food from them, and all passes quite smoothly.  However, in the account in Numbers, an Israelite request for food and water elicits a belligerent response from these, here called Edomites. The associated implications about Esau/Edom’s relationship with Israel is quite different.  In fact, Numbers sees the relationship of Israel with two of its core neighbours – Edom and Moab – as far more stressful than Deuteronomy does.

If we probe this difference it tells us some very important things about our text and about us.
On a basic level, it tells us that our ancestors told different stories at different times and the text reflects this: Deuteronomy is authored at a different time to the rest of the Torah, so of course it is different.  If we are willing to begin with the text, and its features, rather than beginning with theology and imposing it upon the text as our ancestors once did, then this is pretty obvious.  It is now generally accepted that the core of Deuteronomy was composed in Jerusalem in the 7th century BCE in the context of religious reforms advanced by King Josiah.  It was the reworking, and retelling of stories and laws up to that point.  And it shows – in the legal emphases it gives, and in its story.
The Jewish story is different at different times.

And, as well as being historically interesting – this also tells us something truly significant about us.  What is most interesting is not that the texts were different but that we can still see them.  That ours is a tradition in which this version can sit side by side with a different version.  Both versions, multiple traditions are in the book.

For some this is problematic – they see the differences as contradictions, that somehow undermine our relationship with our story.  There is a temptation to ask which version is true.  To which, of course, the answer is that in one sense they all are, and in another sense, probably none of them are.

We make a mistake if we think our Jewish stories are there to describe or explain what happened, rather than to express the voices of our people over time.
Our task is to celebrate the existence of multiple voices and seek to uncover what the different voices are trying to say.
Our tradition is so special because it holds together the multiple, often contradictory stories of thousands of years.  And in so doing, it tells us that it is OK to have different understandings, it is OK to tell our story in differing ways.

Devarim is just one example of how our corpus holds differing versions of the same stories – not in competition with one another but side by side, multiple voices within the same tradition.  The rabbinic exercise which formed the Judaism we all live, is characterised by this multiplicity of contradictory, and complementary, stories – often next to one another in midrashic compilations.  The rabbis did not reach for the story, but told their own.

Take the celebration of Chanukah.  The story we all tell – the miracle story – is just one story from the rich library of tales about the Maccabees and their rebellion.  In fact, it is just one story from a rich library of tales about what happened when they entered the temple and sought to re-dedicate it in 165 BCE.  In fact, the miracle story only appears in the Babylonian Talmud approximately 700 years later – not as a historical description, but as a way to emphasise the values of Chanukah that those rabbis wished to express.

Similarly, the rabbis told multiple stories about the destructions of Jerusalem and the Temples, which we will commemorate tonight and tomorrow in a delayed fast of Av.  What the stories do, as those of us who studied together this morning saw, is not to explain what happened, but to express the rabbis own values and concerns.  Stories are not mere descriptions of fact – but are vehicles for exploring ideas

Last week I spoke about rigidity in halachah, in Jewish law.  I spoke about the fact that we have lost the radical zeal of the rabbis, who changed our practice, sometimes in extraordinary ways as they sought to craft a religious life for themselves.  The loss has not just been in halachic radicalism, but also in aggadic, in narrative radicalism.  Our stories have also got stuck.  We tell the story, not our stories.
It is time for us to begin to tell our own stories once again, to build new midrash, to recount who we are in different ways – to reclaim the great storytelling tradition of our ancestors.

And, as in the legal area, we have come to view diversity as problematic, so too, we have forgotten that there is not one Jewish story, not one version of our people’s narrative, but multiple.
Stories define us. The stories that people tell about themselves tell a huge amount about how they understand who they are and their place in the world.
So what does the multiplicity of stories say about Jewish tradition and the Jewish people?

It tells us that it is ok to be different, that there is not one version of events, not one version of truth.
A tradition that holds diversity in its stories, can surely hold diversity among its people.