Who Tells Your Story? Who Tells Ours?

Narrative and Identity

How do you tell your story? Can you tell it in under five sentences? Take a few moments and jot it down.

What did you include? What salient moments punctuated your narrative? Which of your core values did you highlight? Did your story integrate the moments of your life into one synchronic narrative? When did it begin? Does your story have its roots in the generations before you?

How we tell our own story connects the dots to make one big picture; it helps us make sense of our lives.  The picture reveals our beliefs, aspirations, our roles in family, community, and society, and as such, is an expression of our personal identity. Through our stories, our identities are revealed.

In “Personal Narratives and the Life Story,” Dan P. McAdams writes that our personal stories, “entertain, educate, inspire, motivate, conceal and reveal, organize and disrupt… [and] often bring together into an understandable frame disparate ideas, characters, happenings, and other elements of life that were previously set apart.”[1]  We follow the same process in telling the story of the Jewish people:

A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And God brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deuteronomy 26:5-10).

This short passage, recited at the ritual of the first fruits, is the Tanach’s version of our five-sentence narrative for the Jewish people. Consider what details are included. What is left out of the story? How are the disparate dots of a number of moments of history connected into an integrated narrative? What is this story trying to tell us about who we are, what we’ve been through, and the role we are to play in the world?

Articulating the narrative of the Jewish people is different from telling the personal story of an individual Jew.  A personal story is just that – personal. The national story gets complicated when it has to incorporate those who are now part of the collective “we” but, who, earlier, were “other.” We must always be sensitive to whether listeners or readers do, or do not, feel part of stories we tell. We must embrace, not avoid, the challenges that these texts raise and ask ourselves what they teach and how we should relate to those who join us or reside with us but have not crossed the boundary of membership?

The effect on the convert of the collective Jewish narrative—the Torah and the Mishna— is a perfect teaching model for many situations; tension and sensitivity thread through rabbinic discourse with respect to whether a convert feels part of the Jewish narrative. For instance, the succinct Jewish five liner is recounted at the Passover Seder and, in Bikkurim, the Mishna says, “The convert brings (the first fruit), but does not recite, for he cannot say ‘that the Lord of our God swore to our ancestors to assign to us” (1:4).  A convert cannot claim lineage back to Abraham and Sarah, to whom the Land of Israel was promised, and so the Mishna lets a convert participate but not recite what is not factual. However, the voice of Rabbi Yehuda takes an opposite view and becomes the accepted legal decision; he broadens Jewish history to encompass the lineage of the convert. Rabbi Yehuda says, “A convert himself brings the first fruits and recites the passage. What is the basis? ‘For I make you the father of a multitude of nations’ (Gen. 17:5). Previously you were the father of Aram, and from now on you are a father of all nations” (Talmud Yerushalmi Bikkurim 1:4).

Maimonides is also responsive to feelings of marginalization. His impulse is to welcome and embrace, while recognizing how hard it is for someone to step wholly into the narrative. In his Responsa #293, he presents a model for how to relate to those who feel marginalized. He says,

… you should say “our God and the God of our fathers”, for Abraham, may he rest in peace, is your father.… but “that you delivered us from Egypt”, or “that you have done miracles for our ancestors” —– if you wanted to change and to say “that you delivered Israel from Egypt”, and “that you have done miracles for Israel,” you can say. But if you did not change, you have lost nothing, for, since you have entered under the wings of the Presence and you joined God, there is no difference here between us and you.

Maimonides reminds of triggers that heighten and choices that assuage feelings of marginalization; the resonance of a sweeping narrative of the Jewish people is different from the contained retelling of specific historical events. Sometimes one is important, sometimes the other is.

This inclination – to differentiate between the particular moments of history and the overarching narrative – was well developed by Rabbinic Judaism. David Roskies, in his article “Memory” in Contemporary Jewish Thought, relates that as Rabbinic Judaism developed, “What was remembered and recorded was not the factual data, but the meaning [of events]. This meaning was shaped and expressed by analogies with earlier archetypes – such as Kiddush ha-Shem… the Akeidah, and the Temple sacrifice.”[2]

By developing an archetypal retelling of Jewish history, we tell our story with a broader brush while identifying and relating core values of our communities. Examples appear throughout rabbinic literature –even in the Tanach – and the motivation is the same: relate a history of the Jewish people that beckons listeners into the narrative, while conveying lessons and moral principals essential to Jewish life.

As usual, we are left with questions to consider – and much to think about. How do we relate to those who join our communities? As Jewish communal leaders and educators, we play an essential role when we are sensitive to how people do, or do not, feel part of the stories we tell. Even when we genuinely seek to be inclusive and embracing, are we sensitive to how we tell our stories and who might not feel included in the narrative? Who tells our story – or more importantly – how do you tell our story?

[1] Dan McAdams, “Personal Narratives and the Life Story,” in O. John, R. Robins, and L.A. Pervin, eds., Handbook of Personality:  Theory and Research (New York:  Guilford Press, 2008), p. 244.  Available at http://www.sesp.northwestern.edu/docs/publications/1698511162490a0d856d825.pdf

[2] David Roskies, “Memory,” in A.A. Cohen and P. Mendes-Flohr, eds., Contemporary Religious Jewish Thought (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987), n.p.

At the time of publication, Rabbi Marc Wolf was the Vice President, East Coast, of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America where he was also a Senior Rabbinic Fellow. He received his MA and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is a board member of the Play Group Theatre, in White Plains, NY, where he lives with his wife, Rebecca Boim Wolf, and their children.

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