A Story About Stories

imagesHere’s a story I’d like to share and discuss with you all, where one of the central characters is the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism. Hassidism is a Jewish movement founded in the eighteenth century that can be described (in an over-simplistic way) as spiritual, mystical and populist. The Baal Shem Tov had a legendary reputation as a miracle worker.

I found this story in a book written by Protestant scholar Franklin Littell.

Martin Buber has told of a rabbi whose grandfather was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hassidism. Once upon a time, when the rabbi was asked to tell a story, he said: A story must be told in such a way that it constitutes help in itself. My grandfather was lame. Once they asked him to tell a story about his teacher. And he related how the holy Baal Shem used to hop and dance while he prayed. My grandfather rose as he spoke, and he was so swept away by his story that he himself began to hop and dance to show how the master had done. From that hour on he was cured of his lameness. That’s the way to tell a story.

I am asking every reader to please leave a comment, especially if you’ve never commented here before. In your comment, you may (but you’re not required to) address any of the following questions:

  1. How many story tellers are there in this story?
  2. Do you find a miracle in this story, and if so, what is it? There can be more than one!
  3. Does it matter to you whether the miracle(s) really occurred?
  4. What is the point of the story? The miracle? The memory? The tradition?
  5. The story says that stories should “help”? Does this story “help”?

BTW, and I know this is asking a lot, I’d be particularly interested in getting the reaction of children to this story.

(h/t to Stephanie Hammer for helping me frame the questions)

  • Anthony Le Donne

    Larry, in my reading I see at least four story tellers. I do find a miracle here. A person without an ability is made able. Moreover, the type of ability is typical to miracle stories. It doesn’t matter to me whether this story originates in memory or invention. But it probably would matter to me if it was a story about my father or grandfather. It seem to me that the point of the story is that the way we tell stories shapes us.

    I’m not sure who or how this story is meant to help. But it probably can’t hurt.


    • Anthony, your count is the same as my initial count. But it is possible that the grandfather is not a story teller. To explain why I think so will take us beyond my initial reply to you.

      For the moment, let’s consider only two stories: (1) the story told by the Rabbi, and (2) the story contained within the Rabbi’s story, the one told by the Rabbi’s grandfather.

      There is a paradox at the heart of story (1). Story (1) tells us that a story MUST be told so that it constitutes a help in itself. This is not advice, not the statement of an ideal; it is an imperative. To illustrate this imperative, the Rabbi recounts story (2), the one told by the grandfather that resulted in his miracle cure. Arguably, story (2) satisfies the Rabbi’s rule that a story be told so that it constitutes a help in itself: the grandfather told the story, and was so swept away by it that was miraculously cured of his lameness. But there’s no indication that any miracle occurs upon the telling of story (1): when the Rabbi tells his story, there are no additional people cured (at least, we’re not told of any). So, how does the telling of story (1) provide a “help in itself” in the manner of story (2)?

      Now, we might say that story (2) is intended to provide an extreme example of how a story might provide a “help in itself,” but we can tell our own stories that each “help in itself” in a more modest and ordinary way. So, while the grandfather’s story “helped in itself” by curing the grandfather, MY story might “help in itself” by making you laugh and improving your mood, while YOUR story might “help in itself” by making me think more deeply about a particular topic. But if this is all we mean by the requirement of “help in itself,” then every halfway decent story meets this requirement, doesn’t it? If so … why bother to articulate the requirement if it’s always going to be met?

      Or … is the requirement not about the story at all, but how the story is told?

      • Bill Heroman

        Engagement matters a lot. I learned this teaching high school. One key concept could sail over all heads for sixty minutes or set down permanent roots in a single five minute tutoring session.

        Content restricts the ways a story might be told. Steve Martin’s banjo wouldn’t sound happy if the ballad was *really* about murder. But that said, on keeping within the range of options for telling a particular story, I do think the way it’s told *also* matters “the most”.

        • Bill, great comment. Yes, engagement matters a lot. The Rabbi’s story begins with the injunction that “A story must be told in such a way that it constitutes help in itself.” So at the very least, the Rabbi’s story is in part about how to TELL a story.

          One rule of Rabbinic exegesis is that every part of a story is there for a reason. There is no surplus. So, why does the story say that the grandfather “rose as he spoke”? That phrase must add something to the story that would not be present in the story if the phrase was omitted. What do you think it is?

          Another question for you. Thinking about the requirement that a story be told so that it constitute help in itself, what does it mean that the person identified as helped by the grandfather’s story is the grandfather? This would seem to cut against your example of how engaged teachers are more effective at teaching others. Or, does it?

          BTW, I’m not ignoring your banjo. I may end up employing the phrase “Bill Heroman’s banjo” to explain how to understand sacred texts. But I think we may need more explicating to understand the banjo.

      • BTW Anthony, I think you and I both missed a story teller. The Rabbi’s story never says that he heard the story from his grandfather.

  • Bill Heroman

    1. I count five. First, Larry has just told me the entire collection of nested stories. Second, Larry reports that Littell wrote the story to follow (which makes him a story teller in my book). Third, it begins “Martin Buber has told”. Fourth and fifth are the rabbi and his grandfather. I was surprised to realize that the Baal Shem Tov is our only named figure not telling a story!

    2. If there are two miracles, I suppose the second one is that the health lasted “from that hour”. It could have proven a one-off experience.

    3. Of course it matters. I would suspect that most anyone saying otherwise is only reporting what they decided on their own initial reading – either that the story is a fable or that they should treat it as such. My own position is always to suspend judgment. I don’t know if I think it really happened, but I submit that anyone who says “it doesn’t matter” would nonetheless react very differently if you went on to show them evidence that it did.

    4. The point is that Littell wants people to tell better stories, particularly ones that have some immediate impact in the telling itself.

    5. I don’t know whether this story helped me today. But then, That might be partly because when I read it I knew you had already asked me to analyze it.

    • Bill, good point about the Baal Shem Tov. I’m not sure he’s not telling a story in this story. We have Littel telling a story of Buber telling a story of a rabbi telling a story of his grandfather, who was asked to tell a story about the Baal Shem Tov. I think it’s a fair question, amidst all of these nested stories, whether we are supposed to understand that the Baal Shem Tov is himself telling a story in the way he prayed. I don’t have an answer to this question. But if we are to understand that a story must be told so that it constitutes help in itself, AND if we understood the Baal Shem Tov’s dancing to somehow comprise a story, THEN this is the only story we have that (within the four corners of Littel’s text) can be shown to have actually helped anyone.

      You are right: any miracle that sustains can be seen as a number of miracles: the first that changes a condition, and the remaining being a potentially infinite number of sustaining miracles. There’s a sense in that counting miracles makes no sense.

      It is not at all clear to me that the occurrence of the miracle matters. By saying this, I don’t mean to say that denial of the miracle wouldn’t matter. Somehow, the story seems to work best for me if the miracle is suspended in some cloudy shade of probability, where we don’t look too closely at whether it is or it isn’t. Something like Schrodinger’s cat. The trick is, not to lift off the lid of the box to see if the cat is alive. What would happen to the story, and the injunction in the story about how stories must be told, if you knew with 100% certainty that the miracle occurred? Or that it didn’t occur?

  • KLundstrom

    It seems to me that this is a nested story about how to tell a story, and the power of a story well told. The rabbi opens by saying that a story must be told such that it is a “help in itself.” He then gives an example of such a story. His grandfather becomes so engaged in the telling of his story that a miracle occurs, which helps him and is presumably inspiring to his hearers.

    I do see a miracle in the story. The one who was lame dances! And as for it “really” happening, what do we know of “reality” anyway? Maybe he was physically unable to walk, and the joy of telling the story inexplicably enabled him. Or maybe his lameness was caused by some deep psychological hurt. Forgetting himself for a moment, the grandfather was freed. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.

    • Kim, thanks for this! I very much like the summary you provided in the first paragraph. You go to the place I go: when we’re told that a story must be told such that it is a “help in itself,” you and I immediately think about how a story might help the people listening to the story. But here, we don’t know any such thing. We can be reasonably sure that the grandfather was helped by the telling of the story. We can’t be sure about his audience. Maybe they thought the miracle was a trick, a magician’s illusion. Maybe they thought it was black magic. We’re not told how the audience reacted. We’re not told how they were helped.

      And if we have a series of story-tellers here, we ALSO have a series of audiences, each one further removed from the reported miracle. By the time the story reaches us, how are we helped by the hearing of this miracle?

      This is one reason why I tend to discount the miracle in this story. Not saying it happened, or that it didn’t happen. But if we have four nested stories here, only one can be said to have “helped” in the sense that it may have produced a miracle. The story as told by the Rabbi, Buber and Littel produced no reported miracle, yet each of these stories must have helped “in itself” in order to have been a story told in the required way. Don’t we already have hundreds of stories at our fingertips, containing tales of miracle? So, how does adding yet another such tale provide us with “help in itself”?

      • KLundstrom

        Well, I’m not sure that the rabbi meant that ONLY the audience should be helped Clearly the teller is helped by the telling. And I think the rabbi’s audience is helped by the story, or at least that’s his intention. I think that the rabbi uses the telling to give advice on storytelling, and that he intends his audience to “go and do likewise,” thus helping them to tell better stories.

        • Still Kim, our type-story is that the preacher preaches, and the listener is healed. It has to be significant, I think, that here the preacher is healed. I can’t think of a single other religious story that works in this way.

  • Roz Ray

    1. This is like one of those logic puzzles. 🙂 I’d say there’s the person whose words we’re reading verbatim (1), Martin (2), the rabbi (3), and the rabbi’s grandfather (4).

    2. I would call the grandfather getting up and dancing a miracle, although this gets into tricky territory. What does it mean when an atheist talks about miracles? Not the fingerprints of the divine, certainly, but something that *looks* like it. Something that approaches the unexplained, that reminds us that we don’t yet know everything about everything. 🙂

    3. No, but having said that, the story has more impact because it reminds me of a youtube clip I saw of an elderly man in a rest home. He was suffering from dementia, had very little awareness, no verbal skills, until someone put headphones on him and played songs from his youth. You could see consciousness returning. It was like the music pulled him back into himself for a while. So whether or not the above story is true, it fits into a category of stories I know to be true.

    4. For me personally I think the point is the power of memory, and the brain/body connection.

    5. Yes. This story “helps.” It makes the world a kinder place for a bit.

    • Roz, nice set of comments! You’re like me, you see this story as a puzzle.

      I’m not an atheist, but for reasons I haven’t explained yet, I’m sort of allergic to the miracle in this story. I’m fine with the idea that not everything that happens has to have an explanation. But this story seems to provide an explanation: if we tell stories in the way we “must,” then a “help” results, and one example of this “help” is a miracle. We should perhaps consider this more broadly: we might say that unexplainable things come out of stories told the right way, with this particular unexplainable thing being an extreme example. But the two of us have listened to a lot of stories (many of them together!). I remember hearing one particular story where a mutual friend of ours in the audience exploded in the most unexpected form of laughter … but it WAS a funny story. How many times have we witnessed a story that produced something as public and unexpected as a miracle cure?

      For certain, I want to continue telling my stories even if they don’t result in miracles. But we’re being told here, something must result from our stories … some kind of “help.” If it doesn’t always have to be a miracle … but if (presumably) it’s not something that comes out of a story just because it is a story … what kind of help will suffice?

      • Roz Ray

        Oh, I can totally see where you’re coming from. The idea that “help” will come from telling a story the “right” way consequently means that there is a “wrong” way to tell it, which I bristle at.

  • A bit late but thought I’d chime in anyway.

    1. Storytellers: Well, one might say it’s just the rabbi (if the rabbi witnessed his grandfather’s dance and we don’t count the grandfather’s “relating” what the Baal Shem Tov did), or the rabbi and also his grandfather (or whoever told the rabbi about it, which could itself constitute a chain of telling). But maybe we should add Littell, Buber – and heck, you! Which would make it a minimum of 4-5.

    2. Let’s first define what we mean by “miracle.” I’ll give two possibilities: A) A God-assisted “intervention” – divine magic, essentially. B) That which strikes us as surprisingly wondrous and unlikely, even though it certainly has a down-to-earth, non-supernatural explanation. Miracle-A would be the miracle-lameness-cure. Miracle-B would be spontaneous healing, which could be due to any number of factors. Miracle-B might also be the power of a story, or of certain ideas, to stir people to such a great extent that the story gets told over and over again (see #1).

    Now, let’s talk about the term “story.” A story can be understood as: A) An accurate account of an event – or at least the attempt to convey an event accurately. B) A tale that may based on an event, or not, but which is at the very least embellished – the idea being to convey an idea, a teaching, or a feeling, not an “accurate account.”

    Do “I” find a miracle in this story? I don’t know whether it’s a Story-A or Story-B. If it’s a Story-A, then undoubtedly (for me, at least) it’s a Miracle-B. If it’s a Story-B, i.e. a tale, then the tale is probably talking Miracle-A.

    I should make one more distinction. Even Miracle-A can be understood a couple of different ways here. According to Buber, and I suspect most, it’s the immersive and heartfelt storytelling (i.e. “That’s the way to tell a story”) which helped cure the rabbi’s grandfather of his lameness, the storytelling functioning as a religious act, a form of prayer. However, the grandfather and/or the rabbi may have viewed the miracle more specifically relating to the connection to the Baal Shem Tov. This is a connection which Hasidism calls “hitkashrut” (attachment), total belief in the true righteous person, their power to work miracles, and their connection to God. This is a topic worth discussing on its own, since it potentially has a crossover to Christianity.

    3. You’re asking if it matters to me whether it’s a Story-A vs. Story-B. If it’s a Story-A, Miracle-A, and if we knew for certain that a supernatural miracle actually occurred, it would matter big time – not just to me but to everyone. It would be hands down the single-most important event in recorded history, requiring us to revisit everything we thought we knew about science and the world. If it’s Story-A, Miracle-B, it certainly mattered to the grandfather, who could now walk and dance!

    But I’m perfectly happy with a nice Story-B, a good tale. Think Harry Potter! Though I prefer if the one telling it doesn’t try to pass it off as a Story-A (or leave it deliberately “ambiguous”), and if my fellow audience members take it as a Story-B, not a Story-A. You can still have a Story-B and suspend disbelief enough to immerse yourself fully in the story. Personally, I find I can immerse much better if everyone’s on the same page about it being a Story-B. Otherwise I’m too distracted/perturbed by the charlatanry and self-delusion. My enjoyment of the HP series would be seriously hampered if J.K. Rowling or HP fans claimed the stories were “true.”

    4. The “point” depends on how you define terms. See #2.

    5. What I find interesting about this story is the fact that typically we think of the audience as being the main beneficiary of the story, the ones who receive the “help.” But here, it’s the story “teller” who’s the primary recipient of that help. I like that.

    The story is understood to “have helped” the teller. Does it “help” as it’s being told over again? Well yes, but in different ways. Stories connect people together, ignite the imagination, open parts of the mind that need to be opened every so often, offer courage, hope, inspiration, etc. For a religious believer, such a story can “help” affirm their belief in God, miracles, Jesus, etc.

    Going back to #3, Story-A, Miracle-A stories unfortunately also “help” to perpetuate anti-science, pseudo-science, gullibility, lack of questioning, lack of inquisitiveness, lack of careful thought, examination and critical thinking skills, not to mention groupthink, superstitiousness, and a cult-like “belief in belief,” where belief without evidence is held as a supreme value, and doubt or questioning is held as a sin. That kind of help I think we could do without.