Life of Pi

Reviewing the Meaning of Midrash: Part 3

We’re used to considering the precise measurements of our world as the final arbiter of all truth. It might help to jump to an event in Mezhibuzh, Ukraine, a century or two after Maharal:

…One of the homeowners of Mezhibuzh was involved in a nasty dispute with another resident of the town. It happened that while in the Baal Shem Tov’s presence, in his shul, he yelled that he was going to rip the other guy apart like a fish.

The Baal Shem Tov told his pupils to hold one another’s hand, and to stand near him with their eyes tightly closed.

He then placed his holy hands on the shoulders of the two disciples next to him. Suddenly the disciples began shouting in great terror: They had seen how that fellow had actually ripped his disputant apart like a fish…

Now, what if I ask you, “Did a resident of Mezhibuzh tear apart his disputant like a fish?”

You might answer, “Well, not really.” Problem is, I have witnesses. Very reliable ones. And they all saw exactly the same thing.

But can the perpetrator be charged in court for bodily harm? Problem is, his disputant is still walking around without a scratch.

So, which world is real?

-Tzvi Freeman and Yehuda Shurpin
“Midrash and Reality:
Part 3 of ‘Is Midrash For Real?'”
Chabad.org

This one made my head hurt. In this article, the authors and their sources tell me that I’m not supposed to take midrash, even those telling fantastic and impossible tales, as if they are mere metaphors. They are also true and while fiction can contain truths, they are also real in a mystical sense.

Rabbi Yehuda Loewe of Prague (known as the “Maharal of Prague”) was adamant: Torah is not fiction. Jews consider the words of their sages that have been recorded in the Talmud and Midrash to be Torah, no less divine than the Five Books of Moses. Once they were accepted by the general community of observant Jews as works to be studied and revered as Torah, they attain a status of G‑d’s own thoughts, arguments He has with Himself and stories He tells Himself. And if the Creator of the universe is telling it, it’s real.

And further:

On the one hand, you have to know that every story told and recorded by the rabbis of the Talmud is true. They are Torah, just as much as a verse from scripture or a halachah kept by all Jews is Torah.

MidrashThis is the part that makes my head hurt. Titus destroys the Temple and God assigns a gnat to eat his brain so that seven years later, upon the death of Titus, it is discovered that the gnat with metal claws reduced the size of the man’s brain to that of a year-old pigeon’s brain.

Moses is ten cubits tall (about fifteen feet) but no where in the Torah, which I mean as the five books of Moses, is this noted nor does anyone, Pharaoh,  Moshe’s wife, his father-in-law, his brother, seem to notice.

And yet these things are not only “Torah” but they are real?

Now, reading the chronicles of Roman historians, you won’t find anything about this gnat. Titus, they tell you, died of a fever. At any rate, metal claws on a big bug is a tad outrageous.

So, one scholarly Italian Jew named Azariah dei Rossi explained, “This is just aggadah.” It didn’t really happen. It’s just that the sages wanted to impress on people that G‑d can always find a way to punish the wicked, so they told this story.

So this really is a metaphorical tale to illustrate a moral point. It contains a truth but it is not objectively real.

So, Maharal tells us that the real Moses truly was fifteen feet tall. Not the one that Pharaoh saw, or that the fleeing shepherds saw. They saw only the physical shell of Moses, as he is invested in a body within our physical world—a world that for several reasons can’t manage a ten-cubit human form. But Moses is a complete person, and ten is the number of completeness. He should have been ten cubits tall—would the physical world be capable of such a thing. Certainly, writes Maharal, whatever could be reflected in the physical world was reflected, and Moses was likely taller than the average human being. But not as tall as he really was.

Am I supposed to believe that in some supernal realm, the person of Moses is really fifteen feet tall, but that he only appeared to be of a normal human height in our world because that was not the “real” Moses, and our physical world could not contain all the Moses was and is?

That’s a lot to swallow. As I keep saying, I can accept the metaphorical nature of the midrashic stories, but I have a tough time making the conceptual leap into the world the Rabbi’s suggest I accept. Maybe, harkening back to last week’s review, I am a “bigger fool.” It’s not that I don’t “get” what Freeman and Shurpin are saying, I just don’t believe in the literal reality of these “deeper meanings” as having a truth and a life of their own in an objective sense.

Maharal takes the same approach to the gnat in Titus’ brain. The sages are not concerned with telling us a story for the medical annals. Their concern is to present to us the real Titus and his true destiny. Did a physical gnat enter his brain? Perhaps not, writes the Maharal. But the story is still true, because the gnat got in there anyways. Every living creature has its essential quality that makes it uniquely what it is—and the essential quality of the gnat made its way in. This essential quality, if it could be seen, would appear in its most intense state with a mouth of bronze and iron claws.

hidden-keeperUnless evidence to the contrary appears, I’m not inclined to believe on any level, essential or otherwise,  that a gnat with bronze or iron claws was involved in the death of Titus. I can believe that God metes out justice upon the wicked, though not always in this life.

But the view of midrash I’m asked to accept isn’t one in which the Rabbis parse out words of wisdom in mythical or fanciful form to illustrate a “truth” alluded to by the plain text of a story, either in the Bible our outside of it.

Maharal sums up his approach in one simple line: “The sages do not speak of the physical at all; they speak of a world stripped of physicality.” Every midrashic teaching is a peek behind the veil, dressing deep truths in language that is meant to reveal an inner world. If that language seems foolish to us, it is only because we have not yet cracked the code. We are grabbing the clothes, the words, as though they themselves were their own meaning.

This is an attractive way to think about the universe, with hidden corners, metaphysical alleyways, mystical portals through which the sages are able to peer and then relate what they’ve seen to the rest of us. I wish I could believe it. I know in some manner the sages were granted the ability to issue rulings equal to what we have in the inspired Bible. I know that in Judaism, canon is never quite closed and there is always another revelation concealed in the Bible’s “code.”

But I’m not going for it. I’m not jumping headlong into believing that the sages, wise and learned though they may be, actually see into a non-physical reality beyond our mortal plane and what they relate in their teachings and writings represents a divine truth equal to the Word of God.

It is true that Ezekiel, the apostle John, and even Paul, the letter writer, each had their own mystic experiences, either physically or through visions, where they literally saw and heard things that do not exist in our own universe, but to attribute this same ability, or some shadowy version of it, to each and every sage to has told a midrashic tale ultimately recorded in Talmud is too far for me to go.

Now a systematic approach to midrash had been laid out clearly by Maimonides and Maharal. But that raises a new question, perhaps a more difficult one: If the point of midrash is not the story itself, but that which it contains, not the foreground but the background, and if anyone who understands these stories literally is a fool—then how is it that we tell these stories to children and simple folk, who certainly take them at face value? Are we to hide all of these tales from them? Have we been doing things wrong all these centuries?

I still believe it’s important for Christians to have at least a slightly passing knowledge of midrash considering that this interpretative method may well have been in use during the Apostolic era. This understanding may help us pierce the veil traditional Christian exegesis has cast over the Bible for the past nearly two-thousand years, blinding ourselves to the way the New Testament scriptures were written and intended to be read.

But that’s still a far cry from the “reality” of Midrash as opposed to the metaphorical truths midrashic tales can contain. I guess I wouldn’t make a very good mystic or even a very good Jewish person.

I did take way something quite positive from this week’s article however:

Adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan): So which story do you prefer?
Writer (Rafe Spall): The one with the tiger. That’s the better story.
Adult Pi Patel: Thank you. And so it goes with God.
Writer: [smiles] It’s an amazing story.

-from the film Life of Pi (2012)

dimuI’ve never seen the film but I have read the book (which I highly recommend, by the way), and this bit of dialog is the key to understanding the author’s message. The book and the film speak of a fantastic tale of survival at sea of both a boy named Pi and an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker who share a small lifeboat together.

Toward the end of the story, after many adventures, Pi and Richard Parker, the only survivors of a shipwreck seven months before, land on the shores of Mexico. The tiger disappears into the jungle forever, and Pi is rescued and eventually tells his story. Although the story of Pi and the tiger commands most of the book, he does tell a much more believable if horrible story of murder, starvation, cannibalism, and near-insanity that could also account for Pi’s survival.

But Pi asks the writer who is chronicling his early life, “So which story do you prefer?” It’s as if the sages are asking the same question about midrash. We accept “truth” if not “fact” from the more interesting story. That’s what midrash means, at least to me.

Or maybe midrash is God telling “the better story.” And so it goes.

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9 thoughts on “Reviewing the Meaning of Midrash: Part 3”

  1. How long is the video?

    As I read Hebrews 9 and 10, it seems to be a Kal va-chomer argument, comparing the lighter and the heavier. We know there was an earthly temple made by human beings and we also know that there is a heavenly tabernacle which no person made. If the temple is something holy, how much more holy is the tabernacle.

    But, as a person of faith, I know that the earthy temple once existed and I know that there is a heavenly court, but the mystic midrashim of the Chassidim appear to be more metaphorical folk tales than prophetic words about heaven, unless you believe the Rabbis all had visions and were capable of great, supernatural feats.

  2. The video is long, but the first 20-25 minutes or so describe this idea of “So, Maharal tells us that the real Moses truly was fifteen feet tall. Not the one that Pharaoh saw, or that the fleeing shepherds saw. They saw only the physical shell of Moses, as he is invested in a body within our physical world—a world that for several reasons can’t manage a ten-cubit human form.” which by the way is also described in Hebrews 9-10 when the writer is telling us about something that is real (the Heavenly Temple) and something that exists in this world but is a shadow of what the real thing is, or in other words, the physical world Holy Temple cannot handle the completeness of the Heavenly Temple.

  3. The video is longer than a hour and a half. I listened to the first half-hour, long enough to hear two things: one, that his NDE included some experiences and perceptions similar to my own close encounter with HaShem — though I did not need almost to die from substance abuse — and, two, his experience contained material that clearly addressed matters for which he personally needed some internal adjustment. This second element is one that creates much difficulty with interpreting such experiences: they are subjective rather than objective, hence they are not so much revealing of what is “out there” than they reveal what is inside the individual visionary, including the concept frames that limit him and sometimes distort his vision. However, alfredo is not wrong in recognizing some similarity with the visionary nature of midrashic material.

  4. Writing these sorts of blog posts always feels risky to me, because I don’t have any real context by which to evaluate midrash except of course for my own opinions. I’m not seeking to be unfair, just to try and understand where the underlying concepts regarding midrash are coming from. I love midrash as metaphor and cultural folk tales, but as I’ve said above (and as I say in next week’s review, which I’ve already written), I believe there can be a difference between truth and fact. Also, while midrash can relate certain moral and ethical truths, I don’t know that these tales represent an independent reality that exists on the actual spiritual plane of Hashem and the angelic beings.

  5. I think that all “religious experiences” that people have, cannot be used to convince others, nor explain the truth in a complete sense, since there are always subjective matters as PL mentions, and thus, cannot be established as objective teachings. In other words, all religious or spiritual experiences are of most value for the person who experience them, and can only serve as references to others. This is also true on the matter of speaking tongues. Paul clearly says “Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church.” 1 Corinthians 14:4 So I think is the same with these kind of supernatural, midrashic, religious, spirituals or name them as you wish experiences.

  6. By the way, Paul also says “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22

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