A recently translated volume, Rabbi Binyamin Lau’s The Sages: Character, Context & Creativity (the first in a series of which three volumes have already appeared in Hebrew, to great popular success and acclaim), provides an instructive test case. This history of the Second Temple period falls short of academic standards and hearkens back to premodern efforts, attempting once more to reconstruct the biography of Simon the Just. That Lau himself holds a doctorate in Talmud and liberally cites from even recent scholarly literature about the era he discusses only seems to render his work even more disappointing. To be sure, he is anchored in and constrained by the scholarly consensus in ways that other contemporary Orthodox historiographers of the rabbinic era clearly are not. Nevertheless, his creative attempts to cast ancient disputes and movements in ways that almost inevitably correspond to some contemporary analogue give Lau’s work the feel of a speculative if not fanciful retelling.
Yet Lau, a 21st-century rabbi and leading figure in liberal Orthodox southern Jerusalem, deserves to be treated as fairly as the rabbis of 5th-century Babylonia or 3rd-century Palestine. That is to say, he should be read as a rabbi and not as a historian—an approach affirmed by the book’s origins as a Sabbath afternoon synagogue lecture series.
Approached in this way, The Sages succeeds in doing what rabbinic historiography or storytelling ought to do: digest and interpret earlier histories, memories, and traditions in a manner that allows them to speak to the current moment. Thus a discussion of Honi the circle-drawing rainmaker becomes a critique of contemporary reliance on alleged miracle-workers; the failure of the ancient rabbis to stand up to the Zealots in the last days of the Second Temple becomes a critique of the passivity of contemporary rabbinic leadership; and Hillel prefigures modern rabbis who seek to chart a course between fealty to tradition and contemporary relevance.
What’s interesting about this perspective is that it takes the world of ancient aggadah and brings it to life. Judaism is not a static religion, in which ideas presented 2000 years ago are no longer relevant. Instead, it is a way of life which can and should be adapted for modern life. Throughout the history of Judaism, sages and scholars have sought to make Jewish tradition relevant to the times they lived in and Rabbi Lau’s book is another step in this direction.