Obama, Aggadatahs and History

In 1995, President Obama published his memoir Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. This autobiography went to number 1 on the NY Times Bestseller List, has been translated into scores of languages, won a British Book Award (2009) and even a Grammy (2006). Recently, however, the president has received a lot of flack for some of the literary techniques he employed in the memoir, even though he freely admitted to doing so in the book’s introduction. For example, he writes that he changed people’s names and sometimes even altered the chronology of events when it led to a smoother read. In fact, there’s a section in the memoir’s Wikipedia page called “Basis for Characters” in which the “Real Life Person” in Obama’s life is identified that corresponds to the character that is “Referred in the Book as.” In other words, Obama strayed somewhat from the classic type of autobiography that tries to detail events as they occurred, without purposely altering any details. Obama, apparently, meshed several literary genres to produce a work that transcends the bounds of a normal autobiography or biography; and, in doing so, he has won much acclaim for that decision. So, even though the book, in 2011, was placed on Time Magazine’s top 100 non-fiction books written in English since 1923, it is not strictly speaking a non-fiction work.

Last month, Washington Post editor and Pulitzer prize winner David Maraniss published his new work, Barak Obama: The Story. Maraniss was able to identify over thirty historical inaccuracies in Obama’s own autobiography. Explaining the phenomenon, Maraniss says “[s]ome of what he (Obama) did was the result of mythologies that were passed along from his family, and some were for the purposes of advancing themes in his book which had more to do with finding his racial identity.”1  In other words, the memoir had an expressed agenda outside of simply telling what happened. In an interview, Maraniss tells Howard Kurtz, the Washington Bureau Chief of The Daily Beast, that: “He (Obama) was writing a memoir about race and its eternal, invaluable insight, but don’t trust it as [a] rigorous, factual account. 2 For the modern historian, this method of writing history is problematic; it appears the president simply lied in order to paint a picture of his past that never actually happened, or at least did not happen the way in which he says it happened. But, when we turn to the history of Judaism, we see that the President was following a strong Jewish precedent.

Probably the least popular book(s) in the Bible is Chronicles (Divrei Ha-Yamim). Most religious practitioners have never opened the book, and those who do, usually wish they had not. It’s boring, it’s weird, and it seems superfluous. It appears to simply retell that which was already stated in the books of Samuel and Kings. But the astute reader will note a world of difference between the two holy texts. Even a cursory read of Chronicles would make the reader appreciate that this holy book is much more concerned than the book of Kings with the Davidic dynasty, the Temple, as well as religious truths in general. 3 It is clear that the Chronicler is coming from a different perspective and agenda that the authors of Samuel and Kings. Accordingly, the same events might be described differently or contain information that contradicts the earlier works.

Outside the Bible, this phenomenon is very common. The famed 1st century historian, Josephus Flavius HaKohen, fought in the First Roman-Jewish War (66-73) and lived for many years after it. Nonetheless, in his first work Jewish War, he started detailing Jewish history from 175 BCE until the end of the War. About a decade later he wrote the much longer Jewish Antiquities, which actually starts with the creation of the world and continues until the beginning of the War. So, he penned two versions of the events that occurred between 175 BCE and 66 CE. Of course, the overlap between the two books is not as interesting as those countless details that are different or even contradictory in the two accounts. 4 As one individual wrote the two books, there are not many good reasons that one can arrive at to justify two different versions of the same events. But, dozens of scholars have made a good living out of comparing these two versions to arrive at his prejudices, theology, and and his translucent desire to protect the honor of the Jewish people and his Roman patrons. When Josephus wrote history, his concern was never focused on the past, but how the past could be used in his future.

One could not talk about 1st century contradictory material without mentioning the New Testament. Arguably, the most famous contradiction that appears in the New Testament is that of the two different genealogies that is provided for Jesus found in Matthew 1:2-17 and Luke 3:23-38. But, when we take a look at the big picture: the fact that Early Christianity had no problem with allowing four gospels to exist side by side, displaying scores of contradictions, omissions and elaborations, proudly,  for the world to imbibe only further hones in on our main point.  In fact, we can even talk about the Matthean community or Matthean hermeneutics as it is clear that the Gospel According to Matthew presents a well-defined theology somewhat apart from that of the other synoptics. This is not surprising as religious sects in Antiquity were satisfied with a diverse (and sometimes erroneous) etiology that buttressed their beliefs, practices, taboos and general worldview.

The Talmud is no different than the New Testament in this light. The legends, Aggadatahs, stories, Midrashim and fables of the Talmud had developed over centuries in order to inculcate the listener with Rabbinic values in a palpable form. These didactic fictions may have been based on historical kernels, or dealt with contemporaneous Sages, but the Rabbis felt no qualms with changing, adding or elaborating upon the original story in whatever way that would teach the lesson best, make the story more exciting or even help it to fall within a pedagogical rubric. 5

One of the best and easiest-to-read books on this topic is Rabbinic Stories by Jeffrey Rubenstein. The book treats the Rabbinic stories not as accurate history, but as didactic fictions that teach Rabbinic virtue and provide life lessons. A great example of this phenomenon, that I particularly like, is found in Chapter 8 (p. 71-9) of this work, and deals with the peculiarities of Hillel HaZakein’s promotion to the post of Nasi (president). This is one of the relatively few narratives that appear in the Tosefta (Pesahim 4:13-4), Yerushalmi Talmud (Pesahim 6:1, 33a) and the Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 66a). It is clear that the three texts are offering different models of leadership and Babylonian supremacy. While modern historians might be immensely bothered by the discrepancies between three accounts of the same event, a seasoned Rabbinic student would expect nothing less. In fact, in the introduction to Rubenstein’s work, it states:

the story tellers were not attempting to document “what actually happened” out of dispassionate interest in the objective historical record, or to transmit biographical facts in order to provide pure data for posterity. This type of detached, impartial writing of a biography is a distinctly modern approach. Nowadays we distinguish biography from fiction… In pre-modern cultures, however, the distinction between biography and fiction was blurred. (p. 12)

While we might be inclined to throw away all these aforementioned texts and simply claim that Chronicles, Josephus, the New Testament and the Talmuds are historically inaccurate and worthless, that would be to superimpose our unforgivingly modern perspective of history on these texts. Histories are not only written to retell the past. While we may never know the whole truth about President Obama’s or President Hillel’s pasts, that does not take away what we do know about Obama from his memoir and what we know about Chazal’s (Sages) perspective on leadership from their Rabbinic writings. Speaking about President Obama, Gerald Early, a professor of English literature and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, notes: “It really doesn’t matter if he (Obama) made up stuff; I mean, after all, it’s like you going to a psychiatrist and you make up stuff, and the psychiatrist can still psychoanalyze you because they’re your lies.” 1 Perhaps these works just further buttress Edward Carr’s contention in his What is history? that one should study the historian before you study the facts.

1. http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2012/07/04/obama-american-story-faces-fresh-scrutiny.

2. http://reliablesources.blogs.cnn.com/2012/07/08/probing-presidents-past/?iref=allsearch

3. Not all examples are so simple to flesh out. For example, both II Samuel (24:9) and I Chronicles (21:5) details Kings David’s census. The former writes, “in Israel there were 800,000 heroic men who drew the sword, and there were 500,000 Judeans.” The second passage says, “In all Israel there were 1,100,000 men who drew the sword, and in Judah 470,000 who drew the sword.” But, in general, one can attribute the differences between these holy texts to agenda.

4. His contradictions are not limited to this time period as his work even contradicts the Bible at times.

5. For example, as in “Goldilocks & the Three Bears” and in “the oven of Akhnai” (BT B.M. 59b),  we encounter “the rule of three.” This is a classic storyteller’s and writer’s tool. The principle suggests that matters are most effective when related in threes. It allows for a building of tension, it helps to concretize the main point for the reader/listener, and it helps to ensure that the point will definitely get across.

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1 Comment

Filed under Miscellaneous, Rationalism

One response to “Obama, Aggadatahs and History

  1. Pingback: A Lesson (Or Several) From Elijah the Prophet | ThinkJudaism

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