While reading the film reviews of the last several years, I keep asking myself why the most successful movies all seem to be fantasies of disaster or conquests by aliens either from Middle Earth or other galaxies?
“There’s no denying that “The Green Knight” is strange. This is a movie full of naked giantesses and talking foxes, beautiful women who insist their heads have gone missing from their bodies, and, oh yes, a massive, axe-wielding combatant made of animated wood and vines. Those arresting images and enigmatic sequences are part of why “The Green Knight” is wonderful. It’s a film that will invite multiple, careful viewings.” *1
And then I recall the course I took with my Shiviti Yeshiva teacher, Yehudis Golshevsky *2, on “Aggadata” in the Talmud. Aggadata presents as a fantastical narrative, and the closest word in English would be “allegory.” Below is an example of the genre. *3
Talmud Readers by Adolf Behrman
Struggling with these stories with my class was weird and wonderful. Although these tales are difficult to digest, they are not escapist entertainment. Countless Rabbis have written books of commentaries explaining what these tall tales have to teach us.
In the first session of his zoom course, The Really Big Questions About Judaism *4, Prof. Hazony laments that in our present intellectual climate, the Hebrew Bible is too often disparaged as antiquated and even perhaps geared to children and the unsophisticated. However, many ancient and contemporary scholars have found the Torah to be a marvellous source of ideas on all aspects of human striving.
Anyone who has ever attended a Jewish mainstream synagogue service knows that a significant portion of any service is the ceremony of taking the Torah out of the ark, unscrolling it, and chanting the Torah portion – the Parsha – for that week in the original Hebrew.
Over the course of the year, the complete Torah is recited every year. Rabbi Jonathon Sacks*5 discusses the value of reading and rereading Torah in his essay on Parsha Ki Tavo,
The great questions – “Who are we?” “Why are we here?” “what is out task” – are best answered by telling a story. This is fundamental to understanding why Torah is the kind of book it is; not a theological treatise, or a metaphysical system, but a series of interlinked stories extended over time, from Abraham and Sarah’s journey from Mesopotamia to Moses’ and the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert. Judaism is less about ‘truth as system’ than about ‘truth as story.
These stories are retold annually at our festivals at home and at the synagogue.
Throughout Deuteronomy, Moses warns the people – no less than fourteen times – ‘not to forget’. If they forget the past they will lose their identity and sense of direction and disaster will follow. Moreover, not only are the people commanded to remember, they are also commanded to pass that memory down to their children. It is not the leader alone, or some elite, who are trained to recall the past, but everyone of us.
Rabbi Sacks further notes the difference between history and memory:
History is ‘his story,’ an account of events that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is ‘my story.’ It is the past internalised and made part of my identity. *5
This too is an aspect of devolution and democratization of leadership that we find throughout Judaism as a way of life.
The great leaders tell the story of the group, but the greatest of leaders, Moses, taught the group to become a nation of storytellers.
Below is a holy storyteller of the Yiddish World who brings it to life through theatre. Here he retells the Sholem Aleichem story of the death and funeral of Meylekh, the Chazan of Kasrilevke, while in prayer at the synagogue on Yom Kippur. (12:56 min)
We are fortunate in our time to have ready access to Torah texts, commentaries, brilliant teachers, as well as movies, television, and the internet.
How does one choose from this embarrassment of riches? I will address that in a coming piece!
- Here is one comment from the Washington Post*2 regarding these movies: Washington Post: Opinion: Go Ahead Take a Chance, See a weird Looking Movie LIke The Green Knight or Pig https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/08/06/go-ahead-take-chance-see-weird-looking-movie-like-green-knight-or-pig/
- Shiviti Yeshiva: An international online intermediate and advanced Torah learning community for women-centred in Jerusalem, Israel https://www.shiviti.org.il/
- The Legends of Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah with the Commentary of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook Introduction, P.9
- Prof. Yoram Hazony, The Really Big Questions About Judaism https://tikvahfund.org/tikvah-online/the-really-big-questions-about-judaism/
- Ki Tavo, Lessons in leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, P. 276 -278