Telling the Story and Doubting It, Too

On Shabbat afternoon I walked over to the Ramban synagogue in the Greek Colony to attend the popular weekly talk by Rabbi Binyamin Lau. This week’s topic was Daniel.

Daniel, as related in his eponymous biblical book, was a boy from a family exiled by Nebuchadnezzar from Judea to Babylonia. He is educated in the school at the royal court and achieves fame—and avoids execution—when he succeeds in solving a problem even tougher than the one Joseph faced in Egypt. Pharaoh had a dream and needed to know what it meant; Joseph interpreted it for him. Nebuchadnezzar had a dream but didn’t remember what it was; he needed someone who could both tell him what he’d dreamed and what actual events it portended.

The clean-shaven, young-looking Lau, who dresses just like everyone else in his congregation, is deeply rooted in the outlook and life of the modern Zionist Orthodoxy, but he’s also got one foot firmly in the academic world. He knows his Bible, and he knows his Biblical criticism, higher and lower. So it wasn’t surprising that as he told the story of the boy Daniel—and Lau is a natural-born storyteller—he noted here and there that the chronology presented in the book is problematic and doesn’t fit other chronological references in the Bible, or what we know from Babylonian chronicles. Also, he filled in the bare bones that Daniel’s book provides with a lot of speculation of his own about the circumstances and thoughts of the characters, placing the story in a context relevant to his audience. While he didn’t come straight out and say the story he was telling was fiction, he made it abundantly clear that the question of whether it was fiction or fact was irrelevant to its value.

This same approach is evident in Lau’s book on the Jewish sages, Hachamim (not available in English), which I’m currently reading. Lau acknowledges that he is not writing history. He does not treat his sources in the way a historian would. He gives equal weight to a Talmudic story about Hillel the Elder that the text attributes to a rabbi who lived two generations after Hillel that he does to another story attributed to a sage who lived two centuries later. He makes no attempt to analyze the source to determine whether the events in question really happened, and whether they really represent the actions and thought of Hillel himself.

To anyone educated in the Western academic tradition, this will seem odd, perhaps even unacceptable. We are taught to seek out facts and to be suspicious of fictions.

But we pay a price for the Western intellectual tradition’s very valuable skepticism and spirit of inquiry. We discount and dismiss stories. One symptom is the steady parade of ostensible memoirs get unmasked as fictions—most recently Love and Consequences, a memoir of gang life in Los Angeles. If Margaret Seltzer, the author of this work, had a good story to tell, why didn’t she write a novel? Part of the blame falls on modern readers, who generally prefer books that claim to be true accounts over novels about the same subject. Reality sells. But doesn’t Robinson Crusoe tell us a lot more about our lives than Survivor does?

We have become jaded about the stories that are the basis of our culture. That’s why Rabbi Lau’s project is an important one. As I walked home from his talk, I reflected that it has been years and years since I heard someone tell the story of Daniel as it appears in the Bible. I’ve read academic articles analyzing the book’s language and others speculating as to the date of its composition. But when was the last time I just listened to the story? When was the last time I told it? I realized that I’d never told it to my kids at all.

It’s important to tell the stories of the Bible and the Talmud as stories rather than as history because these stories are the foundation of Jewish culture and chronicle how the Jewish people has responded to the challenges with which history has presented it. We need to know the legendary Hillel because it’s the legendary Hillel, not the real one, who has shaped our history. But the fact is that, even in religious schools in Israel, the stories seldom get told simply as stories. Israeli kids who attend other schools often encounter these stories first in satirical versions on television or in books.

Then what about history? That needs to be taught, too. We need to pass on our stories to the next generation, but we also need for the next generation to know what actually happened, in both ancient and modern history, and to know the difference between story and history. But there are few teachers and few schools that are willing and able to do both. Religious schools in Israel are afraid to tell students about academic Biblical criticism out of a fear—not entirely unjustified in the modern milieu—that kids will lose all interest in traditional texts if they’re told that they do not offer literal truth. Non-religious schools are afraid to tell the stories as stories out of fear that they’ll be accused of religious indoctrination.

So how can we instill in our children both facts and stories, both the tools they need to inquire into truth and respect for traditions, whatever the historical truth status of those traditions? Rabbi Lau points the way—tell the stories as stories (and tell them well), relate them to our lives, and at the same time make sure your kids know that you are telling stories and not history. Like Nebuchadnezzar, we need to know what is happening, but we also need to know what dreamed.

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