Tree of Life

Reviewing the Meaning of Midrash, Part 2

Midrash, in many ways, is the opposite of peshat. Midrash screams out, “I am not what I appear to be!” Midrash purposely sets the foreground fuzzy so that the wise person will focus on the background—where the secrets lie.

-Tzvi Freeman and Yehuda Shurpin
“Midrash Is For Lovers:
Part 2 of Is Midrash for Real?”

Actually, Part 2 of Freeman’s and Shurpin’s series should make a bit more sense to just about everyone, at least more than Part 1 of this review. There’s a minimum of anything mystical and a great deal of straightforward approach to what Torah and Midrash is and isn’t.

After the authors indulge in a brief review of Part 1, Part 2 starts out with “Does the Biblical Text Mean What It Says?” This is a question that should be relevant to Christians as well as Jews since Christianity has a rich history of allegory and symbolism. In fact, Christian allegory has been one of the most powerful tools of the early Church Fathers to promote supersessionism and the separation of faith in Jesus as Messiah from its Jewish origins.

The question the Freeman/Shurpin article asks is how much of the Bible can be taken literally and how much of it is symbolic. The writers present the reader with the scenario of the entire Bible being allegorical.

Historically, we’ve been there. Before Maimonides’ time and after, preachers flourished who expounded the entire written Torah exclusively as metaphor. Cain and Abel were representative of the struggle between matter and form. Moses and Pharaoh were really the good inclination versus the evil inclination. All the mitzvahs were interpreted similarly. Tefillin became passé for many, because that too was a metaphor. Jewish men saw nothing wrong with taking a non-Jewish wife, because the prohibition against such was also a metaphor.

That’s something like applying psychology to a problem in mathematics, or attempting a biopsy on quarks. You’re mixing up your departments.

You’ll recall from Part 1 that there are four levels or “departments” involved in interpreting Torah: Peshat (simplest meaning), Remez (hinted meanings), Derush (deeper meanings), and Sod (secret meanings), forming the easy-to-remember acronym pardes.

The Talmud provides us a simple principle: “A biblical text does not depart from its simple meaning.” Learn your midrash; find the secret meaning—but leave the simple meaning intact. Adam, Eve, Abraham and Sarah are all real people; Moses really did split the Sea of Reeds; and we all heard the voice of G‑d at Mount Sinai. Pork is off limits. Because that’s what it says. The first department, with any text of the Hebrew Bible, is the simple meaning.

In other words, the simple meaning of the text is its most straightforward and comprehensible meaning, but that doesn’t mean the same text can’t contain a more symbolic representation.

Outside of a Jewish context, we tend to believe that the Jewish sages assigned either a literal meaning or a symbolic meaning to the various texts of the Bible. Moreover, we tend to believe that the sages waxed more symbolic than literal, devaluing their teachings and by inference, religious Judaism as a whole. Here, we see this is not true and that (in my opinion) the early supersessionistic foundations of Christianity continue to color how we view Jewish education, philosophy, and history to this very day.

But there is one thing about the Peshat:

And yet, there’s a crucial caveat: Simple meaning is not synonymous with literal meaning.

Occam's RazorThis seems to fly in the face of Occam’s razor which loosely applied states that the simplest explanation for an observation or event which fits the facts is most likely to be the better explanation. I used to feel guilty applying Occam’s razor to Biblical interpretation, believing that it had its best home in the sciences, but then I found out “the origins of what has come to be known as Occam’s Razor are traceable to the works of earlier philosophers such as John Duns Scotus (1265–1308), Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253), Maimonides (Moses ben-Maimon, 1138–1204), and even Aristotle (384–322 BC).”

Additionally, “The Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) states that ‘it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many’. Aquinas uses this principle to construct an objection to God’s existence, an objection which he in turn answers and refutes generally (cf. quinque viae), and specifically, through an argument based on causality.”

But then, how are we to understand the above-referenced caveat?

This is true with all human language. If I tell you I’m going to take a bath, that doesn’t mean I’ll be ripping out the plumbing and carrying the tub somewhere. If I tell you, “We gave the other team a beating!” don’t expect to find them bruised and bloody in the emergency ward. A dictionary does not a language make. There are idioms of speech.

So too, “an eye for an eye” is not talking about eyeballs—that’s an idiom of speech that refers to equitable monetary compensation. G‑d is real, but His hand is not a hand like your hand.

Idiom, contextual meaning, linguistic wordplay, and a number of other factors can and should be applied to what we read in the Bible so that even when we realize we are reading of a true and factual event, we don’t interpret the words and phrases with extreme literalism. The whole “eye for an eye” bit is used often by secularists to demonstrate the cruelty of God or at least His minions and to ridicule the Bible as a serious historical record of the relationship between human beings and God.

The commentary cites Rabbi Saadia Gaon of 10th-century Baghdad as the author of four basic principles of literal Biblical interpretation. This list is a small set of exceptions to the literal interpretation of the text. A loose translation of his work in presented in the Chabad article and I’ll reproduce that list in part here (for the details, see the Freeman/Shurpin write-up):

  1. Our perceived reality dismisses it, such as calling Eve (Chavah) the “mother of all life” when it is meant she is the mother of all human life.
  2. Our sense of reason dismisses it, such as when God is called “a consuming fire,” we realize this is metaphor to describe God’s emotions or expression rather than His literal nature being of fire.
  3. Another verse explicitly negates it, which in such a case, we must provide a resolution that is not explicitly stated in the text.
  4. We have a tradition that compromises the text in some way, in such a case, we must interpret the text to fit the authentic tradition.

The first two points seem to be obvious and not much of a problem and point three is common to Christian tradition, since Biblical scholars and translators typically “smooth over” apparent inconsistencies in the text (such as how the different Gospel versions of the death of Jesus depict different days for the crucifixion).

by Leon ZernitzkyThe last point presents a problem since it appears that tradition can compromise the meaning of the text and the fix for this is to apply “the authentic tradition.” Christian Biblical literalists would argue that it is not tradition that interprets the Bible is it the plain meaning of the text within the appropriate context. I don’t think I can find a way around this one, since Judaism accepts that the Rabbinic sages had the authority from Hashem to establish binding traditional interpretations of Torah. Christianity imbues something similar to its “sages” but does so covertly, thus when confronting Christian scholars on this matter, a denial is expected.

What we have so far is that the Biblical text indeed does have a simple meaning that is most likely the true and correct meaning of the scripture, but that is not necessarily the limit of the text. Midrash, as I understand it, can be considered a morality tale or other similar lesson derived from the text that while it may not have been intended by the original author of the scripture, nevertheless, can have practical application to the lives of those receiving the midrash.

Yet midrash, too, must have its boundaries. Yes, the sages speak in riddles. But they also often speak in normal, everyday language, telling you anecdotes that mean just what they mean. To complicate matters, sometimes they do both at once—telling you an anecdote through riddles. How are we supposed to know? And once we do know, how do we unlock the code?

When it comes to code, Maimonides was the great codifier. Not only did he codify Jewish law, he provided keys to decode midrash. But not before he first categorized three groups of those who read midrashic tales: Fools, bigger fools, and a handful of intelligent people.

This next section of the article may explain a great deal both about midrash and how it is understood outside of Jewish religious and educational circles (and specifically by Christianity). Fools, bigger fools, and a handful of intelligent people.

  • Fools: The largest group of the three and made up of those who “accept the teachings of the sages in their simple literal sense, and do not think that these teachings contain any hidden meaning at all. They believe that all sorts of impossible things must be.”
  • Bigger Fools: A group almost as large as the first who also take these stories as literal truth but who are actually worse than the first group because, according to Maimonides, “they believe that the sages intended nothing else than what may be learned from their literal interpretation. Inevitably, they ultimately declare the sages to be fools, hold them up to contempt, and slander what does not deserve to be slandered. They imagine that their own intelligence is of a higher order than that of the sages, and that the sages were simpletons who suffered from inferior intelligence.”
  • A few intelligent people: The smallest group of the lot, as you probably already knew, who realize that the sages are leading their audiences into a deeper or more metaphorical meaning involved in the text.

For me, the problem with how Maimonides sees this third group is that he seems to believe that the Midrash represents some intrinsically hidden but present meaning to the text, as opposed to the sages filtering the themes in the text through their interpretive imagination and creating a metaphorical interpretation to describe a moral or ethical principle.

They realize that the sages did not speak nonsense, and it is clear to them that the words of the sages contain both an obvious and a hidden meaning. Thus, whenever the sages spoke of things that seem impossible, they were employing the style of riddle and parable, which is the method of truly great thinkers. Why do they do this? Because they are dealing with supernal matters which can be expressed only in riddles and analogies.

There’s a difference between a fable or morality tale, a story that may be fictional but is intended to teach a principle, vs. a metaphor that is describing something that is actually supposed to objectively exist within the text but is not apparent on the surface. That means the sages, rather than using the text as a springboard for teaching morals or ethics, are intending to reveal something that they may believe is actually there.

Fools.Fools believe the sages believe that the only meaning to the text is the fanciful tale they’re relating and the fools accept such tales hook, line, and sinker. Bigger fools believe the sages believe that the only meaning to the text is the fanciful tale they’re relating but the bigger fools think the sages have completely “lost it” and brand them as fools themselves for entertaining these mystical or magical interpretations of scripture as the literal meaning of what is in scripture. The bigger fools think they are superior to the sages because they can see and understand (supposedly) the plain meaning of the text and believe the plain meaning is the only meaning.

I’ll accept that a few intelligent people can see that a Midrash or parable can have both a literal or plain meaning and a metaphorical meaning, but I need to draw the line at that metaphor or parable having a life of its own in some parallel reality.

All that said (and it’s a lot), I think some Church scholars and laypeople who are aware of midrash tend to fall into the category of “bigger fools” (I really am not trying to be unkind but I don’t think Christians always give the Midrash a fair shake) because they ridicule the sages for even uttering such “Chasidic Tales” and expecting them to have an application of any kind. It’s a way, not necessarily to dismiss the Jewish people, but to dismiss Judaism as a valid expression of Jewish faith and understanding of the Bible. If we are to criticize the use of Midrash, then we in the Church also need to dispense with any use of metaphor, symbolism, parable (and I remind you that Jesus commonly used parables as a teaching tool), and even children’s stories that include fiction and fantasy to tell colorful stories to pre-schoolers in order to remain consistent with what we say are our principles.

OK, maybe I’m overstating my point, but the door swings both ways.

That said:

Maimonides even embarked on an ambitious project to explain the allegorical meanings behind all these midrashic stories. Yet he had to abandon the project, as he found himself in an irresolvable bind.

Maimonides eventually had to conclude that the method of Biblical interpretation should fit the audience — fools, bigger fools, and a few intelligent people — with midrash reserved for the smallest and presumably the most sophisticated group.

Midrash is an exceptionally complex concept, especially for those of us who exist outside a Jewish educational framework. I’ve also previously mentioned that this set of reviews is examining Midrash within the narrow confines of the Chabad, which is a subset of Orthodox Judaism, which is one branch of observant Judaism, so even once we conclude with examining the list of articles on this topic, there is obviously a lot more that could be said.

The next part of the series is called “Midrash and Reality”. It’s where my personal limitations crash headlong into the “reality” of midrash. See the collision for yourself next week. Perhaps I am a “bigger fool.”

2 thoughts on “Reviewing the Meaning of Midrash, Part 2”

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