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Storytelling and Spirituality in Judaism

by Yitzhak Buxbaum

Table of Contents:

A Theology of Storytelling
Stories for Inspiration
Lessons for Behavior
A Living Picture
Listening for Divine Hints
Believing in the Story
Stories Save
God Loves Stories
Lessons for Today: The Next Steps

Through the ages, storytelling has been an important means of communicating spirituality and some of the greatest Jewish teachers were expert storytellers. Hasidism particularly emphasizes sacred storytelling and the sacred story-- especially tales about tzaddikim, the hasidic saints.

In America, the modern revivals of storytelling and religion are both reflected in the Jewish community. Jews today not only read the profound hasidic tales popularized by Martin Buber, Elie Wiesel, and others, they tell them as well. But storytelling among traditionally religious Jews exists apart from and long preceded the new storytellers. And it's my belief that there is much to learn from hasidic storytelling that can enhance and enrich the larger Jewish community.

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A Theology of Storytelling

As a maggid, a Jewish religious storyteller, I am constantly studying Hasidism and reading hasidic stories and I've learned that there are many hasidic teachings and stories about storytelling. There is even a "mini-theology" of storytelling, just as there is a theology of prayer (what prayer is, why we pray, how prayer "works"). The rebbes asked and answered such questions as: What is the place of storytelling among spiritual practices? Why do stories captivate and charm us? How should they be listened to and told? What effects do they have? That the rebbes reflected on storytelling this way undoubtedly shows its great importance in Hasidism.

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760), the founder of Hasidism, revived Eastern European Judaism, infusing it with holy joy, and he also revived storytelling. One of the ways he and the rebbes who followed him attracted people to the new movement was by storytelling.

But what made hasidic storytelling different? for Jews have always told religious stories. The answer is that only Hasidism vigorously encouraged storytelling, moving it from the periphery to the center of Judaism. Rebbes praised it as a mitzvah and a spiritual practice; they reflected on it deeply and taught about its significance. Not only did rebbes often tell stories, they instructed their hasidim to do likewise. So telling and listening to tales became popular as never before and were enthusiastically embraced by masses of hasidim.

According to hasidic teaching, storytelling is a holy activity equal to Torah study or prayer. The Baal Shem Tov, himself a master storyteller, said: "Telling stories praising the tzaddikim is equivalent to Maaseh Merkavah, the mystic study of the Divine Chariot." The Maggid of Mezritch, his successor as leader of the hasidic movement, added that praising the tzaddikim by storytelling is equivalent to praising God. But hasidic storytelling is not only about tzaddikim; there are also countless inspiring tales about the noble deeds of common people.

Various hasidic stories assert the claim of religious storytelling vis-a-vis the more established practices of Torah study and prayer. For example, the famous hasidic leader, the Seer of Lublin, told how he once passed by a synagogue from which shone a supernal light. He thought, "Certainly, there are great scholars inside, studying the Torah in holiness." But when he entered, he saw two ordinary hasidim, not studying Torah but sitting and conversing. He asked them, "Friends, what are you talking about?" The hasidim answered, "We are telling stories about the deeds of the tzaddikim." When he heard that, the Seer was very moved, for he realized that their storytelling produced the same divine light and illumination as does Torah study.

Another hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Israel of Rizhin, esteemed storytelling so highly that he sometimes told tales before the morning prayers, as a preparation and inspiration for praying. His involvement was so intense, however, that he could get carried away. One morning, surrounded by his followers, he began telling stories of the tzaddikim with such enthusiasm that he lost all track of time; he went on for so long that the hour of prayer passed. He suddenly stopped in the middle and said: "The time for prayer has already passed and I didn't pray. But, essentially, what is the difference between telling stories about tzaddikim and praying? Prayer is in the category of 'Praise the Lord!' while telling stories is in the category, 'Praise the servants of the Lord!' In the Book of Psalms, King David sometimes puts 'Praise the Lord!' before 'Praise the servants of the Lord!' but other times he puts them in the reverse order, indicating that they are equal. This teaches us," concluded the rebbe, "that telling tales of the tzaddikim is the same as praying."

Hasidic rebbes claimed that it is a mitzvah, not only to tell but to listen to religious tales, particularly since not everyone is able to tell stories in a charming and delightful way. In fact, a good storyteller is often also a good listener, who attracts stories to him, because he yearns to hear them and knows how to elicit them from others.

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Stories for Inspiration

Hasidim praised and promoted storytelling because they appreciated its inspirational power. A person hearing a religious teaching may be impressed by its truth, but a tale about someone actually fulfilling the teaching can motivate the listener to action. That, say the hasidim, is why the Torah itself is full of stories. A contemporary hasidic storyteller, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, has said: "Stories are so real. Imagine that the Torah quoted all of our father Abraham's teachings and told us nothing about him. We wouldn't remain as his children today! We need to hear that there was a Jew, Abraham, who actually opened his door to the poor. It's making it real. A story is the most real thing in the world." The teachings explain what to do; the stories show that someone actually did it.

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Lessons for Behavior

Besides their inspirational power, religious stories also contain practical lessons. Hasidic tradition teaches that all stories have a "therefore"-- a lesson for each person's religious behavior; indeed, there are usually many "therefore's" for whatever level he or she is on. A favorite saying of a famous contemporary storytelling preacher, the Maggid of Jerusalem, is: "The most precious part of a story is its lesson!" When hearing a religious story, a listener should ask himself, "What is the 'therefore' of this story? What practical lesson does it teach that I can fulfill in my life?"

Although modern, secular storytellers seldom relate the meanings of their tales, hasidic storytellers often do. And after the telling, listeners may also share their own insights and exhortations. Hasidim believe that discussing a powerful story enables a person to relate it to his or her own life and incorporate its teachings in a practical way.

One must not only draw out a story's lessons but fulfill them in practice. Although we may love to read, hear, tell, and retell inspiring tales, we must ask ourselves if we do so because we truly want to live their teachings, or merely because we seek the sheer joy of simply telling the stories? How can we gauge our own motives? One sign of sincerity is our persistence in staying with a story, until its lesson is fully absorbed and translated into practice.

Rabbi Zev of Zhitomir said that once, when departing from the Maggid of Mezritch after a visit with a group of fellow hasidim, the Maggid told them a story of 24 words. When they were leaving immediately afterward to return home, they told their wagon-driver to travel slowly, and they would walk alongside the wagon on foot. So they walked that whole day and night, until dawn the next morning, and all their conversation and thoughts were on that story, to fathom the depths of every word they heard from their master, the Maggid.

In the morning, the wagon-driver began to yell at them and rebuke them, saying, "Is it a little thing that you didn't pray the afternoon and evening prayer services yesterday? Do you also want to omit the morning service today?" He shouted this twice, but they didn't even hear him. Only when he yelled a third time did they awaken and, seeing the sun rising in the sky, realize that a day and night had passed while they were immersed in probing the depths of their master's words.

The peculiar reference to the Maggid's story being 24 words is because they actually pondered every single word and knew the exact number. This tale contains a valuable lesson about sticking with a story until one drains from it every last ounce of spiritual nourishment.

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A Living Picture

Hasidic teaching explains that one must tell a story so it becomes alive in the telling, and the listener must also conjure up a living picture and visualize himself in the action. Elie Wiesel writes that as a boy he accompanied his hasidic grandfather to the synagogue, and he loved the storytelling there. "And when, at the conclusion of the Sabbath, I listened to the old men speak about their respective spiritual masters I closed my eyes to see what they were seeing."

A 19th century (non-hasidic) maggid, Rabbi Moshe Isaac of Kelm, could depict a scene so vividly that people listened entranced and felt they were actually witnessing the event being described. Once, shortly before the high holy days of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, when each individual is judged in heaven for the future year, he was in the town of Bialystock, where each trade had its own synagogue. There were separate synagogues for the carpenters, leatherworkers, and tailors. One night, in the Tailor's Synagogue, with great flamboyance, Rabbi Moshe Isaac depicted how the town of Bialystock appeared before God on the Day of Judgement. For over an hour he detailed the city's virtues and faults, describing the debates among members of the Heavenly Court concerning the fate of the townsfolk. Then the maggid announced, "The moment of truth has arrived for the tailors of Bialystock, the people of the Tailor's Synagogue. Listen," he thundered, "the voices of the Heavenly Court call, 'Tailors of Bialystock, stand at attention!'" Incredibly, all the tailors in the audience stood up. The scene described seemed so real that the tailors felt they were in the dock about to hear their judgment.

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Listening for Divine Hints

Hasidim say that when listening to a religious story, even if others are present, a person should assume that the story is being told "just for him," and ask himself why God intended him to hear this story at this time. The pious view is that nothing happens except by Divine Providence. If this story was "sent" to him, what hints does it contain, to encourage religious improvement?

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Believing in the Story

Religious storytelling relies on belief. However, even if a teller or listener is not sure a legend actually occurred he can still believe in the story, that it is a leaf from the Tree of Life and conveys the meaning of life. The essence of religious storytelling is not technique, but faith, for as the rabbis say: What comes from the heart, enters the heart. But both teller and listener must prepare and open their hearts to the tale's divine light and what God wants to reveal.

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Stories Save

Hasidim believe that stories can save. Religious stories describe and lift a person's mind to a higher plane of reality. Because mishaps, such as accidents or arguments, often occur due to a lack of awareness, the mental elevation imparted by holy storytelling protects a person from them, and, if a mishap does occur, he will understand it in a deeper way, perceiving its underlying divine purpose. Sacred storytelling can also mystically effect miracles of salvation, although the rebbes say that in order to save, a story must be told with faith and fervor.

A rebbe once said: "A person has to tell a tale in a way that the telling itself saves. My grandfather, who was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, was lame. When asked once to tell a story of his master, he began to tell them how the holy Baal Shem Tov leaped and danced when he prayed, and as he recounted what he had seen, he stood up. And the story so aroused his fervor, that he began to show them by his own leaping and dancing how his master did it. That moment he was cured of his lameness and became a healthy man."

It is said that telling stories of former miracles can cause similar miracles to occur. Thus, a sick person can be cured by a tale of a miraculous cure, which acts as a prayer.

A hasidic story tells that once, to save the life of a sick boy, the Baal Shem Tov went into the forest, attached a candle to a tree and performed other mystical actions and meditations, and he saved the boy, with the help of God. After the Baal Shem Tov's passing, there was a similar matter with his disciple and successor, the Maggid of Mezritch. He said, "I don't know the mystical meditations the Baal Shem Tov used, but I'll simply act, and God will help." So he lit the candle in the forest and performed the other mystical actions, and his deeds were acceptable on high and had the desired effect. In the next generation, there was a similar matter with Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch. He said, 'I don't even know how to do what is necessary, but I'll just tell the story of what the Baal Shem Tov did, and God will help.' And so it was, with God's help.

The repeated "with God's help" in this tale indicates why storytelling by itself can be effective. Because what ultimately causes a miracle is not esoteric, mystical knowledge of Kabbalah (such as the candle and other mystical actions and meditations), but simple-- though total-- faith and trust in God's help. Storytelling that saves is like a prayer saying: "God, I know that You've performed this miracle before in the past and I believe, with perfect faith, that You can perform it again now!"

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God Loves Stories

Hasidim say that when pious people sit and tell holy stories, God, so to speak, comes and listens, as is stated in Malachi 3:16-- "Then they that feared the Lord spake one with the other, and the Lord hearkened and heard." God, say hasidim, also loves to tell stories. Did He not come down on Mount Sinai and tell Moses all the Torah's stories?

Why did the Baal Shem Tov and other hasidic rebbes praise, glorify, and extol storytelling, saying that telling stories about tzaddikim was equal to mystic study and to praise of God? Undoubtedly because they knew its profound spiritual value and wanted to encourage hasidim to engage in storytelling. And the hasidim complied heartily. Indeed, they gave storytelling that final compliment of piety: While the Torah says in the creation story in the Book of Genesis that God (who rested on the seventh day) keeps the Sabbath, and the rabbis of the Talmud added that He studies Torah and prays, the hasidim claimed that-- He loves storytelling about the tzaddikim.

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Lessons for Today: The Next Steps

Hasidism gave sacred storytelling the special status of a mitzvah. And it encouraged not only religious specialists-- preachers and teachers-- but ordinary people, to tell stories, so that storytelling became a natural and integral part of a person's religious life. There is not much remarkable when preachers tell stories, but there is when a whole community begins telling and knows why they are doing it.

There is a lesson in this for today. Storytelling once played a major role in reinvigorating Judaism-- in Hasidism-- and can do so again. The modern Jewish storytelling revival has, until now, involved relatively few tellers and many passive listeners. It has also been largely secular in nature, although religious tales are often told. Now we can take the next steps of making storytelling truly popular and fully integrating it into our religious lives. One of the reasons telling tales achieved such great popularity in hasidic life is that almost everyone could participate. The same can be true today. Veteran storytellers can encourage new people to tell tales to their friends and family, even if they are not "experts." Storytelling can become an activity for everyone. A person does not have to be a Torah scholar to appreciate and relate a deep religious tale. Sharing the profound spiritual wisdom of stories can become a regular part of our religious practice.

Once people realize that sacred storytelling is as much a mitzvah and as integral to Judaism as Torah study or prayer, they will be spurred to a greater involvement, particularly if appropriate settings and occasions are provided by synagogues and other religious institutions. If the model of widespread hasidic storytelling is followed in the larger Jewish community, many people can become involved in a new and exciting type of Jewish religious activity-- spiritual storytelling.

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