New Book Explores Talmudic Narratives

Rabbi Dr. Moshe Sokol, Dean of Touro’s Lander College for Men, Sheds New Light On Ancient Texts with Timeless Messages

May 24, 2021
cover of Dr. Sokol's new book "he Snake at the Mouth of the Cave" on the left (Hebrew text imposed on desert rock so it looks like flames), headshot of Dr. Moshe Sokol on the right.
Rabbi Dr. Moshe Sokol and his new book, The Snake at the Mouth of the Cave.

What made you decide to write this book?

The Talmudic stories I analyze are so dramatic, impactful and powerful that I was captivated by them. I spent many years studying in yeshiva and love learning gemara. I also profoundly enjoy literature, in which I minored in college. Examining these stories with great care married these two interests. The more I thought about and analyzed them, the more I came to see ever-unfolding layers of deeper meaning.

Why has aggada been overlooked over the years?

Aggada, in this case Talmudic narratives, of course has been studied with care, and numerous classical commentaries were composed over the centuries. However, aggada has not merited the same attention as the halachic content of the Talmud. This is perfectly understandable; Jewish law is central to the way Jews have lived for millenia, so there has been a natural tendency to focus on the more halachic elements of the Talmud, the “bread and meat” of the Talmud, as Maimonides calls it. 

If you take all the books written about the Talmud and place them in two piles — one of those relating to halachic or legal aspects and another containing those books that relate to aggada, or stories and Jewish thought — the first pile will definitely be much higher. That said, by some estimates some 30 percent of the Talmud is aggada, and the eminent rabbis who compiled the Talmud obviously attached great importance to it. The stories are rich with drama and artistry in the way they were written.

The rabbis and teachers with whom I personally studied taught me how to analyze the halachic portions of the Talmud and were very careful about methodology — how to ask and answer questions inherent in the text. This was not done with aggada, but I sought in my own way to apply the methodology I was taught to these powerful stories. I drew upon my own background in learning, as well as my study of literature, philosophy, history and psychology, to attempt to unpack some of the depth of these remarkable stories.

How are these stories relevant today?

William Faulkner said  “the past is never dead, it’s not even past…” which means that elements of our pasts, individually and collectively, always continue to shape our present and our future. I believe the Jewish historical past continues to live with us and these stories express eternal dilemmas that are part of the human condition.

One of the central motifs of the book is an examination of the costs of living a principled life. People with deep principles often must make sacrifices for those principles and sometimes, those sacrifices come at great personal cost. The sage Rabbi Eliezer maintained that halachic truth is best achieved through the perfect preservation of tradition, rather than the independent use of human reason. In a debate over the halachic status of a particular oven, all the rabbis of his generation took one position, he another, and he refused to accept their decision, although halacha generally follows majority rule. The rabbis excommunicated him — even though a heavenly voice confirmed R. Eliezer’s position. As a result, this towering Torah personality could no longer engage with his colleagues or teach his students the Torah that he loved so dearly, and for which he had sacrificed so much. He lived in isolation until his death, the tragic cost of his principled conviction about the nature of Torah truth. In another story, his colleagues and students approached him on his deathbed in a final attempt at reconciliation. This in turn raises another timeless question — is reconciliation after such a devastating parting of the ways ever possible?

All human beings possess convictions, but how far will we go to sacrifice for them, and how far should we go?

There is another dimension to the eternal relevance of these narratives as well. Great Torah sages, or talmidei chachamim, are still human beings. To what extent does their past personal history or their personalities play a role in the formation of their convictions, and the tenacity with which they hold them? These aggadot provide a rich portrait of some the greatest Jews who ever lived, whose Torah teachings are treasured to this day. We have much to learn about the complex interplay of past, personality, character and history in their lives. Jews of every generation did and will struggle in their own ways and at their own levels with the challenges these extraordinary men faced in the past.

One key point I wish to stress. My goal in the book is to do no more than interpret as best I can the text of the Talmud, and what its author may seek to teach us through these stories. However, I make no claims about the subject of these stories themselves. No contemporary person can ever have access to the greatness of the Talmudic personalities or their true character, living as they did millenia ago in a world very different from our own. How can we ever come to know what R. Eliezer or R. Yochanan were really like themselves? However, the Talmud chose to include these stories to teach us something, and it is that lesson that I wish to unpack. We must in the end remain ignorant about the Talmudic masters themselves.

Can you share an example of an aggadic story and some lessons you learned from it?

Rav Yochanan and Resh Lakish were two of the greatest sages of the Talmud, and they are portrayed as consistently arguing with one another. According to one crucial text in the Talmud, Resh Lakish was initially a bandit and Rav Yochanan reached out to him and brought him close to Torah. Resh Lakish becomes great scholar himself, brother-in-law and junior colleague of his mentor Rav Yochanan. At one point they debate; a misunderstanding between them arises, and a tragic falling out ensues. Reish Lakish dies, and Rav Yochanan becomes paralyzed with grief. His colleagues eventually pray for his death, and their prayers are answered. This story raises numerous important questions, amongst them the nature of the relationship between mentor and mentee, between lifelong teacher and student. Who is most responsible for the student’s growth? Is it the dedication of the teacher or the labor of the student who put in so much effort?

Teachers see themselves as responsible for what they create (think Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady”). One way to understand the tragic breakdown of their relationship revolves around this question: who is most responsible for the emergence of Resh Lakish as a brilliant scholar? Is it Rav Yochanan the mentor, or Resh Lakish himself, who invested countless days and nights to ascend to the heights he did? Who should take the lion’s share of the credit? There can always be some tension between a longstanding teacher/mentor and student/mentee. This is part of the human condition and might sometimes extend to parents and children as well. Who takes credit when children turn out well? Parents or children? And how do the parents or teaches feel if their role is not properly acknowledged? And how does the student feel if his or her role is not properly acknowledged?

Who will most appreciate reading this book?

I hope this book will be appreciated by a range of people — those who are Jewishly literate but not necessarily Orthodox as well as those who have spent many years studying the Talmud, those with academic backgrounds and those without. I believe these stories are universal and powerful and everyone can relate to them. My hope is that each person will engage with the stories and the book in his or her own way.

What have you learned through writing this book?

This process reaffirmed my conviction about the depth, nuance and subtlety of Talmudic stories. I likewise grew in my appreciation of the extraordinary people who are their central characters, as portrayed in these stories. If the book is successful, I will have learned that one can convey their magic to a broad audience who I hope will become as enchanted by their power and depth as I am.

To buy the book visit The Snake at the Mouth of the Cave – Koren Publishers.