Metaphorically Speaking (Ideas #14)

I remember a joke that made the rounds several years back about a hassidic rebbe who once proclaimed to his hassidim that life is like a pretzel. This piece of wisdom generated much excitement among the hassidim, who immediately started to dissect the idea, expand on it and generally bask in the enlightenment brought about by this metaphor. There remained one hassid that was too dull to get it - he spent hours trying to crack through this mystery, asking higher and higher level of hassidim until he had no choice but to ask the rebbe himself. Trembling and uncertain, the hassid explained to the rebbe that he simply did not understand what the rebbe meant. To which the rebbe replied, so maybe it's not like a pretzel.

One of the basic tasks of education is making a difficult idea accessible at the earliest appropriate age. This is done by using terms and concepts already familiar to the target group.


Any mass religion or philosophy, and Judaism in particular, must take necessarily sophisticated concepts and translate them into intellectually digestible material. In fact, Onkelos (Shemot 7:1) seems to indicate that this is the central role of the prophet.

One method used with great historic success in Judaism has been the metaphor. To use one of the most common examples, G-d is referred to as a father and a king. Both of the latter terms were well known to people and were thus useful in understanding various Divine attributes. With the passage of time, however, both the concepts used and the cultural context of metaphor in general has changed.


Living in an era still greatly influenced by scientific thought and method, understanding *how* things work is central to our ability to relate to something. If only for this reason, we need to find more precise metaphors. Beyond this, however, we are living in times where much of realia once assumed to be basic has undergone revolutionary change. While it is obvious that kings (and dictators) do not carry the power they once did, it may require a little more insight to see that fathers are not what they used to be either. Paternal authority, protection, concern and guidance are not things that can be assumed in a growing number of families. As we require more precision, and as classical metaphors become less relevant, our relationship with G-d becomes more strained. Beyond not understanding who or what it is we are working for, the nature of the work itself becomes unclear.


Once the machine had replaced the craftsman, we started becoming more attuned to precision, perfection and unity of outcome. Indeed, the layman is now in a better position to relate to the more sublime attributes of G-d. While this can be developed to augment the idea of G-d as king and to enhance our service through fear, it automatically creates problems in other areas. The nature of prayer is one such area. While Jewish philosophers have long recognized the paradoxical nature of prayer, this realization has crept into the mass cultural subconscious. Simply put, why would a perfect G-d change His plans based on even our most noble desires. Philosophers have the tools to overcome such a paradox - laymen generally do not.


Adding to the problem is the growing confusion between the metaphor and the actual message (the mashal and the nemshal). The artificial contemporary preference for the technical (e.g. halacha, science) over the cultural (e.g. agadata, the arts and humanities) encourages us to focus on what was always meant as an educational device and nothing more. Since we feel comfortable in areas that are concrete and masterable, we often learn midrash and classical machshava without understanding. Worse still, once metaphor gets mistaken for essential truth, we enter into very dangerous theological waters. I believe this is precisely the motivation for the halachic limitations placed on the teaching of esoteric knowledge (i.e.kabbala).


The popular spread of kabbala is, likewise, a double-edged sword. Rav Kuk predicted the need to teach kabbala on a mass scale in order to feed the modern need for an explanatory system. While it fills the need to see how things work, it is written in a heavily metaphorical style. As with similar literature, improperly understood, it can obscure our relationship with G-d rather than enlighten it.


I believe that a major key in making classical Judaism consonant with the intellectual needs of modernity is breaking through the metaphor gap. We still need the hassidim's devotion to metaphor, but we also need the lone hassid's quest to understand it, and, not least, the rebbe's frank willingness to admit that life is no longer like a pretzel.