Here’s a story we’ve seen before: a charismatic preacher speaks of G-d, faith, hope and truth, and a member of the audience is healed.
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 received some terrific comments to my last post, all ably describing the above story. This is a story about how stories shape us. This is a story about how to tell a story. This is a story about how to become engaged in telling a story.
While I liked all my comments, I want to call out the comments made by Roz. It’s not that I think her comments were “best” (whatever that means). It’s just that she shared a certain reluctance to talk about miracles. Me too, Roz. It’s not that I don’t believe in miracles. It’s just that I don’t trust them. They don’t show up when they’re most needed, to save us from natural disasters, or epidemics, or genocidal madmen. I don’t trust my own ability to distinguish miracle from my own (or anyone else’s) sense of wish-fulfillment.
If the meaning of miracle is that we don’t have everything figured out, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy … well then … I can understand that. But I don’t think the point of the above story is to prove the limits of human knowledge. Instead, the story says it is there to tell us how a story must be told. Do we conclude that a story must be told so that it produces a miracle? If that’s the case, precious few stories can be told. Even if we believe in miracle, how can a story-teller know in advance that a story will result in miracle? We could imagine this poor grandfather, believing that stories must produce miracles, and telling his story of the Baal Shem Tov over and over without ever producing a second miracle. The story so understood morphs from a happy tale to a tragedy of frustration.
A calm and rational reply to my aversion to miracle stories might be to point out that there are great miracles, and small ones. Perhaps it is enough if a story does some quantum of good, if it gives us hope or makes us laugh. But for me, even this scaled-down requirement seems like too much. The impact of a story depends on things outside the control of the story-teller. A hopeful story requires an audience possessing a modicum of optimism. A funny story requires an audience with a sense of humor. Moreover … the above story doesn’t talk about small good. It talks about miracle. It says the lame can dance, and once you say that the lame can dance, it’s hard to settle for giving the lame hope or something to smile about.
So … I am persuaded to try and read the story in a different way, in a way that’s more modern (or post-modern) and skeptical. I’m willing to consider that someone invented the miracle in the story. Or that the miracle wasn’t in the original story, but it crept its way in later, as the product of exaggeration and accretion as the story was told and retold.
It may be possible to retell many stories involving miracles while simultaneously denying the miracle. But this particular story, told by a rabbi about his grandfather, simply doesn’t work if the miracle was in some sense invented. This story tells us that all stories must be told in a way that provides help in itself, and ends with the statement, “That’s how to tell a story.” It would require cynicism beyond anything I can muster to conclude that stories must be told with a lie at their center.
I happen to like this particular story. But it would seem that the story presents me with two possibilities that ruin the story for me. Either I must believe in the miracle at the heart of this story, or deny it. To do the first raises answers to questions about G-d that I don’t think can be answered, and places demands on the story teller that I don’t think can be met. To deny the miracle seems tantamount to denying the story altogether.
Do I have a third option? I think I do. This is story. It doesn’t operate under the rules of ordinary experience. It doesn’t have to be true. It doesn’t have to be not true.
We have (so far) seven Star Wars movies, and I don’t even know how many Star Trek and other movies, where the characters routinely travel unfathomable distances at speeds faster than light. But this is impossible. The speed of light is the universal speed limit. (And no, I don’t want to get into the possibility of travel through wormholes or any other such conjecture of a scientific imagination run amuck; even if such a thing could be accomplished safely, it could not be accomplished routinely.) So, how do we watch Star Wars without being paralyzed by disbelief? Because we don’t care whether you can travel faster than the speed of light, any more than we wonder how Harry Potter can fly on a broom or how fairy godmothers can create carriages from pumpkins. This is just a plot device. We imagine speeds above light speeds so that Luke Skywalker can fly from one scene to another without dying of old age mid-route.
Here’s our problem: as modern readers, we’re highly skilled in dealing with science fiction and fantasy fiction. But we’re particularly bad at dealing with sacred stories. I don’t know exactly why this is, and perhaps this is something you all will want to address in the comments. But I think that the original Jewish audience for this story would not have fixated on the miracle. The Jews of the 18th and 19th centuries were in the midst of a thousands year old exile and persecution, where their personal stories did not typically end with pots of gold at rainbow’s end. They knew damn well that faith did not typically result in cure; if they’d counted on such things to survive, they would not have survived. If these people were superstitious in ways we find foreign, they also had an admirable, personal and gritty connection with sea and sky, with soil and stars, that we have lost. Frankly, I assume that more of my neighbors “believe” in travel beyond light speed than my Jewish ancestors believed in the likelihood of miracle.
I would argue that the key to this story of the Baal Shem Tov has no more to do with miracle than the story of Cinderella has to do with magic wands. I would argue that the original audience for this story would have able to hold the miracle in a state of suspended imagination, where the miracle neither happened nor didn’t happen. Put in more modern terms, the miracle in this story is something like a theological Schroedinger’s Cat, where the key (for both story teller and story listener) is not to rip the lid off the box in an effort to find out “what happened.”