Legends are necessary for nation building and community cohesiveness. Legends of holy and pious people and legends about villains and the wicked are often subject to fabrication and gross exaggeration, but they leave no doubt in the minds of later generations as to who was the holy and pious person and who was the villain.
Midrash is probably the main conveyor of legend to Jews as far as the biblical and Talmudic periods are concerned. However, there is a plethora of legends about great Jews throughout the centuries that exists in an oral and sometimes written fashion. The great rebbe of Kotzk, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern (Halperin), said the definitive word about all of these legends and stories: “He who believes all of these tales is a fool and yet he who states that they could not have occurred is a non-believer.”
Many times there are legends that contradict one another. This should not faze us, for again, each legend comes to emphasize a particular insight into an event or a personality trait of a great person and does not declare the statement it makes as fact.
Midrash is full of contradictory statements and opinions about the very same incident or person – but this in no way compromises the value of Midrash to us as a conduit of Jewish values and insights. It is only when Midrash and legends are taught as facts that these problems of contradictions and obvious exaggerations arise.
The Jewish people as a whole possess a strong collective memory. We remember leaving Egypt on a Thursday and standing at Mount Sinai and receiving the Torah on Shabbat. We remember all of the glories of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem as we do the Babylonian exile and the story of Purim. Ezra and the Second Temple, the Hasmoneans and Herod as well are all stored in our genetic memory cells.