Reviewing the Meaning of Midrash, Part 1

Torah, like any wisdom, has departments. That’s important to know. You can’t study literature the same way you study biology, and you can’t critique poetry as you would journalism. So too, you can’t study one department of Torah the same as you study another.

There’s more than one way of dividing up those departments. One way is to talk about approaches to the text.

Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Ari, constructs an acronym from these four departments, disciplines, or levels of peshat, remez, derush and sod: pardes, meaning “an orchard.” He taught that every soul must delve into all four layers of the Torah, and must continue to return to this world until having done so.

-Tzvi Freeman and Yehuda Shurpin
Is Midrash for Real?
Part 1 in a series on the truth behind Talmudic tales

I have been promising to write a review on this series for a few weeks now, but as I read part one, I already feel like I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I’m not Jewish and certainly not an Orthodox Jew, nor am I a mystic, which is what seems to be required to understand what Freeman and Shurpin are saying.

True, I’ve been critical of Christian devotion to Sola Scriptura more than once, but investigating Midrash on the road to Kabbalah could be a bit much for me.

I’m not throwing in the towel. I just want you to know how different this is.

First things first. How does this article define Midrash?

Finding deeper meaning and lessons in life is yet another department, which we call derush or midrash—and our basic commentators will again be found in these halls as well. Midrash often includes stories, called aggadah, some allegorical, some anecdotal, some reaching far beyond what we understand to be possible in our world. Midrash can be found strewn throughout the Talmud, and in many anthologies compiled contemporaneously with the Talmud or later. The largest, best-known collection is called Midrash Rabbah.

Many of the juiciest midrashim are collected in the classic commentary of Rashi. This despite Rashi’s repeated insistence that “I come only to explain the simple meaning of the text.” Because the text bubbles with meaning, frequently defying the steamroller of the strict literalist, demanding deeper interpretation at every turn.

What I’m taking from this is that Midrash isn’t necessarily intended to be literal fact. Certainly Christianity has its own rich tradition of religious allegory, so how can we criticize Judaism for employing the same tools. Midrash is in the “Derush” department, that which reveals the deeper meanings of the Torah.

AggadahBut are these “deeper meanings” actually encoded in the Torah or are they what various authorities including the esteemed Rashi have taken out of Torah and formed into morality tales, fables, or colorful metaphors to communicate principles that can be derived from scripture? How many Christian Pastors take a verse or two of scripture and develop a homily to be delivered from the pulpit on Sunday? I can accept Midrash at that level of understanding and meaning, even though in Orthodox Jewish thought, it may be intended to represent so much more.

But according to the article and the sages it cites, a steady diet of all four “departments” of Torah understanding is necessary for the “spiritual health” of every Jewish person.

The Ari’s message is not as esoteric as it may seem: Just as our bodies do not live by carbs alone, so our souls require a mixed diet. To be a complete Jew embracing a complete, wholesome Torah, you can’t satisfy your requirements studying in one department alone. You need a well-rounded curriculum at all four levels.

But the focus on this series as well as my review is of only one of the four “departments” or “food groups” in this diet.

And the midrashic tales and the secrets of the Torah are just as vital. Why? Because as much as Torah is about what you know and what you do, it’s also about how you think and what you feel. As magnificent a structure as you may have built for yourself, without light and warmth nobody is going to live there too long. That’s the way life goes: without the sparks firing, the engine just stops turning.

Midrash is your gateway to connect with the Author of the Torah. “If you want to know the One who formed the universe,” the Talmudic sages advise, “learn aggadah.” Aggadah, the midrashic tales scattered throughout Torah literature, are said to contain “most of the secrets of the Torah.”

That’s probably a lot farther than most Christians would be willing to go, and understandably so. Outside of Orthodox Judaism and especially the mystic context of the Chabad, it’s also much farther than many Jewish people would want to go. Let’s not kid ourselves. What I’m investigating is a relatively narrow perspective within the panoramic landscape of overarching Judaism. Nevertheless, for those of us who “intersect” with religious Judaism at some level, encountering Midrash is inevitable. So why fight it? Let’s have a look.

But the secrets are veiled, as Maimonides writes (we’ll get to that soon), so that only those who are fit to receive them will discover them there. The Zohar provides a parable to explain why the Torah must speak in parables…

I’m pausing here to remind everyone that Jesus spoke in parables. Christians tend to take the parables of Jesus for granted, largely because those parables have all been explained in the text of the Gospels, and even if we don’t always understand the explanations, we usually receive some satisfactory interpretation from our Pastors or some Christian book writer.

Aaron Eby

Last fall I reviewed an episode of the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) television series called Speaking in Parables which sought to explain the purpose of the Master’s parables in terms of Messianic Judaism.

FFOZ Teachers and Toby Janicki and Aaron Eby are the hosts for these episodes and present each one as a “mystery” that requires three “clues” to solve. In these clues and their solutions, they use the Bible and Jewish literature to teach their audience that “Parables were a common teaching device used to simplify complex concepts.” The question then is whether or not Midrashim also take complex concepts and simplify them for their audience. Most Christians encountering a Midrash would probably say “no.” Sometimes a midrashic tale can make what we think of as the plain meaning of the text seem all too mysterious.

Apparently, the stories and mysterious words are more than packaging. After all, as the parable of the Zohar tells, from within the cloak of these parables the inner soul of the Torah speaks. Perhaps we should think of these stories as haute couture for G‑d’s wisdom. They are the fine clothing and jewelry that allow expression for Torah’s most inner wisdom, as a tasteful wardrobe betrays beauty that would otherwise elude the senses.

I invite you to read Part 1 in a series on the truth behind Talmudic tales (I also put the link at the top) for the full article, including the various parables it contains, to gain the full context of what I’m discussing. The sense I get from this text, and I’ve read similar material before, is that the Torah almost has a life of its own and is deeply encoded with meaning that extends well beyond what we can perceive, even if we could read the oldest available Torah documents in their original ancient Hebrew.

So fitting, so magnificent is this wardrobe that it carries the secrets of Torah even to the small child. In a way, it transmits to the simple child much more than to the sophisticated adult. To the adult, the clothing is distinct from the meaning it contains; the analogy and its analogue live in two different worlds. The child, when he grasps the clothing, grasps the warm body and soul breathing within. They are all one and the same. In his simple understanding of the tale, he touches G‑d.

To better understand how that is so, we’ll have to examine midrash a little deeper. We need to ask, are the stories of the Midrash truth or fiction? If they are truth, how is it that they so often conflict with one another? And how do we know when the Talmud is telling us a historical anecdote and when it is speaking in parables?

MidrashJust a reminder. There’s a difference between facts and truth. Or as Indiana Jones once said, “Archaeology is the search for fact… not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”

Midrash, like any metaphor or morality tale, can contain truth and still be fiction. We’ll see what more Freeman and Shurpin have to say in next week’s review.

4 thoughts on “Reviewing the Meaning of Midrash, Part 1”

  1. What is a Midrash?

    To understand what a Midrash is, it is important to understand what Pshat is. Pshat refers to the straightforward explanation of a text, while Drash (from where we get Midrash) refers to the rabbinical commentary which serves as a vehicle for transmission of lessons, ideas and concepts which go beyond the literal narrative of the text. A Midrash in the Talmud Chullin gives a dispute between the moon and God about the sun:

    R. Simeon b. Pazzi pointed out a contradiction [between verses]. One verse says: And God made the two great lights, and immediately the verse continues: The greater light . . . and the lesser light. The moon said unto the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Is it possible for two kings to wear one crown’? He answered: ‘Go then and make thyself smaller’. ‘Sovereign of the Universe’! cried the moon, ‘Because I have suggested that which is proper must I then make myself smaller’? He replied: ‘Go and thou wilt rule by day and by night’. ‘But what is the value of this’? cried the moon; ‘Of what use is a lamp in broad daylight’? He replied: ‘Go. Israel shall reckon by thee the days and the years’. ‘But it is impossible’, said the moon, ‘to do without the sun for the reckoning of the seasons, as it is written: And let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years’. ‘Go. The righteous shall be named after thee as we find, Jacob the Small, Samuel the Small, David the Small’. On seeing that it would not be consoled the Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘Bring an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller’. This is what was meant by R. Simeon b. Lakish when he declared: Why is it that the he-goat offered on the new moon is distinguished in that there is written concerning it unto the Lord? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let this he-goat be an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller. (Talmud Chullin 60b)

    A moon talking to God cannot obviously be taken literally, rather the rabbis are asking, amongst other things, to consider symbolically, the dangers of jealousy. So what is the literal Peshat meaning of the verse found in Gen 1:16 and how may the contradiction, highlighted in the Talmud be resolved in verse 16? And God made the two great lights;… a possible answer to the contradiction is that from our earthly perspective, the sun and the moon are exactly the same size. Sun and moon being the same size is evidenced during a solar eclipse for example. God therefore has placed two spheres of dramatically different size, so precisely, that an observer on earth views them to be equal in size. Once this miraculous physical reality is given in the text, verse 16 goes onto explain, in terms of illumination, one sphere being greater than the other, hence the apparent contradiction is resolved!

    However, despite centuries of anti-Semitism and enforced editing of Jewish literature and even numerous burnings of Jewish literature by the Church; the Church has not stopped themisuse, misquotation and misapplication of Midrashic material in the past to support belief for Jesus. The Church is quite happy to arbitrarily quote and impose that a Midrash is literal or not literal depending on its own theological agenda. Such quoting and imposition of Midrashim as literal or not literal, whilst simultaneously burning Midrashic material, presents a highly schizophrenic and menacing attitude to rabbinic literature and the Jewish Scriptures. More recently, a renaissance in a potential (mis)use of rabbinical literature by both black supremacists, white supremacists and amongst Messianics with a book by Douglas Pyle (staff worker at chosen people ministries), entitled “What the Rabbonim say about Moshiac”. The book by Douglas Pyle is a huge resource of rabbinical texts which the user may arbitrarily quote as literal or non-literal, depending how they fit the user’s theological agenda for converting the Jew.

    One thing to always note when Messianics quote rabbinical kabbalistic or midrashic sayings to justify their beliefs in a deified Yeshua – 99.9% of their quotes are from Rabbis who post-dated Yeshua himself. 100% of these Rabbis themselves said what they said and rejected the possibility that Yeshua was the Messiah. That means, what the Rabbis said and meant by their words was COMPLETELY different to how messianics quote their words and then reinterpret them within their own Christian tradition!

    Not only are messianics abusive in this way with rabbinical quotations to justify their belief in a ‘deified’ Christ but also to justify their belief that Yeshua is the ‘Messiah.’

    Rabbinical sources always have deeper levels of meaning to a text. However, messianics fail to understand a problem with ‘messianic’ (mis)uses of rabbinic commentary. The problem is the (deliberate) rejection that each of the four levels (PARDES) of extended meaning of the text are entirely consistent within themselves and most importantly THE GENERAL RULE; that the extended meaning never contradicts the plain meaning of the text (Peshat). Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — “plain” (“simple”) or the direct meaning. In the first instance, using the famous aleph tav (את), the plain meaning is the grammatical, where the aleph tav (את), tells us that G-d created the heavens and the earth. On an allegorical level G-d created the aleph bet and then used the created aleph bet to ‘speak’ the world into existence. There is no contradiction in the argument of the Rabbis in their use of the Sages in their commentary, just a selective lack on the messianics’ part as to how Jews have always read/ wrote their literature.

  2. “You can’t study literature the same way you study biology, and you can’t critique poetry as you would journalism.” I was talking with an atheist who was quoting scripture to play the game, “Your God is a Badly Behaving God,” and used almost the same words 🙂 In addition, these two statements are mutually exclusive: 1. There is no God. 2. God is a naughty God.

    Both missionaries and anti-missionaries employ polemics to support their side, with varying degrees of honesty and/or scholarship. The confounding variable as I see it is that when you hunt through a work or body of work just to find something to prove your viewpoint: 1. You probably will find it or think you found it. 2. What does it matter? This process prevents you from truly understanding the work and its meaning. However, 3. Most people are too lazy or too stupid to do anything but accept what you say if you are in their, “camp.”

    I read an article where pseudo-historian David Barton employed quotes from the various Founding Fathers to prove they were his brand of Christians. Do you think many would realize that if you hunt through hundreds of pages of letters, documents and speeches, you couldn’t find something to back up your premise? However, if the historical figures were investigated as to the totality of their expressions, especially in light of the cultural, political and religious environment of the time, things look quite different.

  3. James, I think you have your first anti-missionary poster here. I have yet to read any poster here interested in converting Jews to Jesus. Why pick on you?

  4. No, it’s OK, Steve. Menashe Dovid has commented here before. Whether we agree with each other or not, that’s a terrific description of Midrash.

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