Faith in Stories

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Stories have an unusual capacity to live within us in a way that abstract principles do not. They touch our hearts with messages our minds can only distantly grasp, and create a bridge that allows our most profound ideas to make their way into our lives. I believe this is what the Sages meant when they said that if someone wants to acquire wisdom they should learn halachah, but if they want to fear G-d, to develop the emotional and spiritual capacity to experience the divine, they need to learn aggadah (Avot deRabbi Natan, chapter 29), the parables and stories of the Oral Torah. Faith is nurtured through stories.

A focus on the narrative arc retains the sense of lived experience, the quality of process, that allows stories to touch us more deeply than abstract principles.

When we think of the classic Jewish stories we teach, what usually comes to mind are the iconic moments of the Bible and the midrashim of the Talmud. While it has become conventional to say so, I think these are undervalued and underutilized as stories in the educator’s toolbox at the high school level, where the narrative is lost as reading skills and moral lessons become the primary focus. I am not advocating simply telling more stories to students or turning those stories into moral lessons for older students. Rather, my hope is to turn much more of Jewish learning into a kind of storytelling, the active engagement with the process of a biblical or rabbinic experiences, as a way of deeply impacting the students’ growing faith.

When used thoughtfully, stories have the potential to make a profound impact on development, particularly that of faith. Soren Kierkegaard explained that some educational challenges require a roundabout approach instead of head-on explications. An educator may have to circle around an issue or idea because the intellectual concepts may be too distant or abstract, or may reside in the mind but not the believing heart. Stories are valuable in nurturing faith because they have a sense of process, a lived, as opposed to abstract quality. Faith is not an idea to be understood, but a way of being, an experience of life. Thus, stories can be vital as educators try to teach the experience of faith.

Yet even when we learn biblical or rabbinic stories, the forest is often lost as we investigate the trees, and they fail to exert their power as narratives. I think this happens because when we teach the textual narratives we tend to assume that the story exists clearly within the text. But texts are broken down into so many commentators and details that the impact of the narrative is lost. We fail to move students in this model because we confuse a text with a story, and assume that since we have taught a text, we have taught a story as well. But the text does not speak for itself; rather, it becomes a story when it is told, or at a high level of education, re-told, through those who read it.

Take the occurrence of the spies, the meraglim, as an example. Most children with some Jewish educational background know the story of the spies. That is to say, they know what the text says. But this is insufficient for a mature student. At this stage, the text must be transformed into a story once again through a deeper reading, so the text is investigated and commentators are learned. Yet how one reads this text can vary dramatically depending on how one identifies the sin of the spies. According to Rashi, what happened to the spies spells out the drama of the Jewish people’s rejection of G-d in their asking to see the land. This is a drastically different reading, and thus story, from Rambam’s, according to whom the spies made a very reasonable and conscious choice, that only went bad later in the narrative. And as one continues through the text, it is easy to lose the narrative thread laid out by Rashi or the Ramban because of other interesting ideas or problems. Thus the student is left with a lot of details and not a clear idea about what actually happened.

A teacher must be judicious about prioritizing the central narrative as the lens through which to decide what is important, and relegating other goals (like reading skills or moral development) to a back burner. The main purpose in studying commentators is to gain a greater insight into the narrative itself. This is more than just a technical point. A focus on the narrative arc retains the sense of lived experience, the quality of process, that allows stories to touch us more deeply than abstract principles. This thread is lost if we work on reading skills, addressing tangential moral lessons, or solving textual puzzle.

Stories are often seen as a childish modality designed to make illustrative points or to entertain. But to be truly effective, a story has to be retold. This may sometimes take the form of something more experiential and participatory, like having the students perform a play or tell the story in their own words. It may also be an iterative process that happens throughout the learning process, as each successive idea is learned and added to the overall story that grows from a particular text. It is this culminating experience that brings the story to life in a way that the process of learning it sometimes ignores. And it is a process that can only happen when one is loyal to the notion of a narrative thread discussed above. It is at this moment in the re-telling(s) that the “story” of the text becomes a story that means something to the student. This is where all the details of learning are brought together to tell a grander narrative than the story each individual originally knew before the learning occurred.

With rabbinic narratives, we face the same problem when we focus on texts to the detriment of the story, a problem exacerbated by the need we feel to find a moral message in midrashim. The following midrash arises from an attempt to understand G-d’s lekh lekha command to Avraham, that he should leave his home and travel to the land of Israel.

Rabbi Isaac said, “(The command to Avraham) is to be compared to one who traveled about from place to place, and saw a place lit up (note: another version has the palace burning). Said he, ‘Can it be that this place is without a master?’ So he was answered, ‘I am the master of the palace.’”(Genesis Rabbah 39:1)

The midrash then goes on to explain the meaning of this metaphor; Avraham questions whether the world had a master, and G-d reveals Himself as that Master. The Rambam interpreted this midrash as a teleological proof for G-d, the conclusion of Avraham’s intellectual journey in search of truth. Others explore this central metaphor of the midrash as a way of substantiating Avraham’s strong moral sense (i.e., the world is burning morally and Avraham is the only one who responds). Both these approaches see the narrative as trying to convey a specific abstract concept, in the process losing touch with its qualities as a story.

Engaging this midrash as a narrative means delving deeper into its details (Avraham’s wandering-but-directionless journey, the meaning of a conversation between him and G-d which is initiated by man and not G-d, and the lack of G-d’s response or direction after Avraham’s discovery), and then tying these pieces together around the central message to recreate the story in a more coherent and holistic fashion. This movement back to the text as a story, and not a message in the garb of a story, accesses a depth and richness in Avraham’s discovery of G-d. The midrash must be reengaged after the text has been deciphered in order to produce a deeper narrative that speaks to our lived experience, particularly here, a journey in faith. If the narrative nature of the text is embraced with the results of the textual exploration brought back to retell the story at a higher level, then Avraham’s discovery is truly meaningful because it has been explored as his story in process, his discovery of faith, and not reduced to an abstract life lesson.

For example, when a teacher goes back to re-tell Avraham’s story, each sentence in this short midrash can now be embellished because of the learning itself. Students come to identify with Avraham’s experience of searching; Avraham lacks direction and experiences the feeling of insecurity this brings, along with his motivation to move forward despite the uncertainty of where this path leads. This movement must be narrated, not merely explained, because it is this Avraham, the persistent searcher, the tireless explorer, that comes across the lit or burning mansion. Avraham is desperate to find something to orient and direct his life, give it clarity, direction and purpose. Only when the experience of searching is felt by the listener does the moment of questioning mean something. The life-story of this man who is confronted by the burning mansion is very different than either the midrash read simply, or knowing intellectually that he searched for something. His question is the culmination (and yet equally the beginning) of his directionless search, a moment of profound satisfaction and clarity. Beyond this, the teacher must re-tell the moment of coming across the mansion, his question, and subsequent encounter with G-d. I believe such a telling, following the experience of deep learning, can impact those searching for faith in a way that the moral of the story, wrung dry of the narrative, does not.

Stories have always played a role in the world of Jewish learning. Whether influenced by the abstract and textual model of Talmudic learning, or the influence of “Athens” to move education from the concrete and particular to the universal and abstract, stories and storytelling have taken a back seat in the beit midrash of conventional Jewish education. The time has come to take stories seriously once again as a genuine pedagogical tool to nurture faith, beyond their capacity to entertain or serve other educational goals. Stories bring the experience of faith to life, and create models for the students’ own growth. It is time to have faith in stories. ?

Rafael Cashman is Rabbinics Department Head at TanenbaumCHAT Wallenberg Campus in Toronto, and a Wexner/Davidson Fellow doing a PhD in Education at the University of Toronto. He can be reached at  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .




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