Heaven forbid we should tell a child an untruth! It is a Jewish custom, and a Jewish custom is also Torah—the Torah of truth. Everything the child is told is true: Those who throw the candies are doing it on behalf of the archangel Michael, the angel who seeks out the merits of the Jewish people. The sweetness of the candies is the sweetness of Torah as it descends and clothes itself in a physical object.
An adult won’t accept this, because he sees that he, and not an angel, is the one throwing the candies. When a child is older, we can explain to him that this is only a garb for something much higher. But when he is a three-year-old child just beginning his education, we tell him these things clothed in a story, and he has no problems with any of it. Nevertheless, when he grasps the outer clothing, the child grasps the archangel Michael, and the sweetness of Torah, and all the truth that is within that clothing!
-Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson
from talks of Shabbat Parshat Pinchas 5734 and 8th day of Chanukah 5739
(translated, combined and abridged)
If you’ve been following this series, by now you should know that when you come across a fabulous story from the Midrash, you need to peel back the covers to discover what it’s trying to tell you. The stories are all true stories—just not necessarily the way things were able to unfold in our physically limited realm. This reality is not the ultimate expression of truth.
-Tzvi Freeman and Yehuda Shurpin
Limitless Truth for the Limited Mind
Part 4 of “Is Midrash For Real?”
In the first quote above, the Rebbe is describing the traditional custom of celebrating a small child’s first day attending cheder (A Jewish schoolroom) by throwing candies at him from behind and then telling him it was the archangel Michael who had thrown them.
I suppose from an outsider’s point of view, it seems as innocent as the stories we tell our children about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, which of course they believe at the time, but realize are mere fictions as they grow older.
But the Rebbe declares, “Heaven forbid we should tell a child an untruth!” Anyone who has pretended with their child that there really is a Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy doesn’t think they’re lying. They think they’re upholding a family and cultural tradition, just as the Rebbe states that attributing thrown candy to the archangel Michael is a Jewish custom.
OK, so far, so good. But then he says, “It is a Jewish custom, and a Jewish custom is also Torah—the Torah of truth. Everything the child is told is true…” Most parents outside of Orthodox Judaism aren’t going to extend their customs and say they operate as truths on some other level, and yet the Rebbe calls this custom (and many other Jewish customs) “Torah…the Torah of truth.”
This is a continuation of last week’s article and review and so far, I am no more illuminated now than I was then. Although I know there is a difference between the truth and a fact, I can’t see saying that Michael threw the candies represents an actual intent operating in the angelic realm that Michael expects this sort of action to occur. Does the tradition compel a change in angelic reality or do the Sages imagine that every tradition generated by the great Rabbis must originate from on high?
It is considered inappropriate to relate the midrashim to those who are unable to tell the difference between literal facts and an underlying or supernal truth, but here we have an example of doing so with a three-year old child who absolutely takes his elders’ word about candies and the archangel Michael as both truth and fact.
Historically, that just hasn’t been the case. Many, if not most of these midrashim are collections from sermons of popular rabbis of past generations. To whom were they sermonizing? To whoever came and listened: men, women and children—most of them simple folk.
So historically, most of the Rabbis most of the time compounded this problem by speaking the midrashim in sermons to simple folk who also, like small children, may not have been able to differentiate between the literalness of an event and an underlying truth, even on the level of metaphor. Why isn’t this a problem?
Truth doesn’t grow where falseness is planted. We must say that even as they are understood on their most basic level, each of these stories is absolute truth.
But how is that so? Either fine clothes will be growing on trees when Moshiach comes, or they will not. Can we say that for the small child they will do so literally, while for the sophisticated adult they will do so only figuratively?
The question is not on midrashic aggadah alone. The Hebrew Bible is filled with anthropomorphism—G‑d’s eyes and hands, His wrath, His disappointment and His love, G‑d as king, G‑d as father—all understood by innocent and simple people exactly as stated.
Oh no you don’t. There’s a world of difference in describing certain attributes of God by metaphor, for after all, God doesn’t really have physical qualities like a human being, and juxtaposing that with some of the fantastic tales we find in midrash. I have to cry “foul” on this example.
Nevertheless, the question remains: How could the Torah—a Torah of truth—mislead the innocent reader of simple faith?
Again, good question.
Indeed, Rabbi Abraham ben David (known as Raavad) criticized Maimonides for making this ruling. He himself agreed that G‑d has no form, physical or otherwise. What he could not bear is the condemnation, as he writes, of “many who were better than him [meaning Maimonides (!)] who believed such things due to their innocent reading of the text.”
This is something of a side topic, but as I read the two paragraphs above, I couldn’t help but think of the struggles we have in Christianity with Biblical interpretation, especially when it collides headlong with some of the alternate interpretations I find in different corners of Messianic Judaism and what has been called the new perspective on Paul.
From my point of view, many in the church have “believed” Christian interpretive traditions “due to their innocent reading of the text,” while from my (and other’s) point of view, that tradition and innocent reading of the text is based on a two-thousand year old mistake that does not reflect the true Gospel message of the Bible.
But this speaks of differences in how to interpret the Biblical text. Midrash is something else and is understood differently, even as it is addressed to the written Torah.
“Better than him,” writes Rabbi Abraham. Even though they believe something about G‑d that he himself agrees is utterly false! What is so wonderful about people who cannot fathom a formless G‑d?
To answer that question, we need to readjust our thinking about several issues: about Torah, about reality, and about human language.
OK, buckle up and get ready for the ride.
R. Menachem Azariah was concerned with a statement of the Talmud, that the Torah sometimes exaggerates.
R. Menachem Azariah writes, “Heaven forbid that the Torah should exaggerate! Everything in the Torah is truth—even the lies the characters of the Torah tell are truth. For in a Torah of truth, there is no room for inaccuracies, never mind exaggeration.
One of the supposed exaggerations in Talmud has to do with the report of the spies who were sent into Canaan to scope out the land (Deuteronomy 1:28) stating that the cities were “fortified up to the heavens” (Talmud, Chullin 90b and Tamid 29a).
Like last week’s example explaining why it is true in midrash that Moses was fifteen feet tall and yet in the written record we have in Torah, there’s no indication that Moses was seen as unusually tall, the description of impossibly high boundaries around the great cities is rationalized as a way of saying how the external ministering angels could not enter the boundaries of the land (Rabbi Menachem Azariah of Fano, Asarah Maamarot, Maamar Chikur Din, part 3, chapter 22).
In other words, Talmud does not exaggerate (Heaven forbid), it simply reveals greater truths about the observations of the spies in Canaan than are revealed in a plain reading the written Torah text (don’t forget the four “departments” or PARDES).
I feel like I’m running around in the same circle I was while I was writing last week’s review. Nothing new to see here. Really. I’m sorry. I’m just not convinced. I’ll buy that Talmud doesn’t exaggerate, at least for the sake of exaggeration, but it can employ metaphor to describe just how daunting and impenetrable the great cities of Canaan seemed to be to the Israelite spies. That’s not an untruth, it’s a poetic description to communicate an important point to the audience. This is a perfectly legitimate literary device to use, even when describing actual events.
Unfortunately, the Rabbinic commentary completely flips things around.
To R. Menachem Azariah, that itself is the meaning of exaggeration in Torah—not an inflation of the facts, but a statement of a higher truth that cannot be expressed in our physical world. Torah, however, speaks only secondarily about our physical world—and in a world higher than our own, there is certainly some very real manifestation of this truth.
The “higher truth” of which the Torah primarily speaks is also the “higher reality,” and actual, observable, factual events are relegated to playing second fiddle in the mystic Jewish tapestry of God’s interactions with Israel, at least as understood by some of the sages.
I think I like Ramban better than Azariah.
Ramban (Nachmanides) had written that the Torah speaks about earthly matters and alludes to spiritual ones.
The great Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero presented a unique understanding…
This is a radically original way of thinking of metaphor in Torah: all that exists in our reality is nothing more than an analogy derived from the true reality to which it points. As the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, explained this view, G‑d gave us a hand and eyes and ears so that we could understand the true hand and eyes and ears as they are above. And the same with all that we find in our world. The whole world is one big parable, a crystallized analogue of the real thing.
So it is our physical, observable reality that is the parable, and the parables of midrash that represent true and higher reality. Rather than saying God has arms or eyes by way of analogy, describing and indescribable God in terms mere mortals can comprehend, the “arms” and “eyes” of God represent “divine verbs,” so to speak, indications of His activity, while we are given physical equivalent body parts as a way to “understand” something about God.
Freeman and Shurpin are right. This is “a radically original way of thinking of metaphor in Torah.” One that my western, Gentile mind doesn’t want to accept. I feel like Neo (Keanu Reeves) in the film The Matrix (1999) where everything I ever thought was real turned out to be a complex illusion and “reality” exists almost completely outside my experience.
Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne): Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.
However in the case of midrash, everyone can be told what “the Matrix” is, the chore is understanding and accepting without seeing it for ourselves, that is, experiencing the “reality” that the midrashic Sages expect us to comprehend beyond the simple meaning of metaphor.
Can a metaphor be a truth, not just in telling of some moral or ethical principle, but can it have a life of its own, so to speak, an independent heavenly meaning that transcends the mere symbolic representation between metaphor describing an event and the event itself? How can metaphor come from “above” and why should we not understand midrash as a product of a Rabbi’s fertile imagination in attempting to communicate a complex topic in simple, easy to digest terms?
Except we have an equation that I cannot resolve. Jewish tradition is Torah and Torah is always truth.
In my past conversations with Pastor Randy at the church I attend, he has asked me repeatedly “what is Torah” and the answer has always seemed elusive. Perhaps, if anything labeled “Torah,” no matter how outrageous, must always be truth, and many, many things beyond the written text are labeled, “Torah,” then I can see the source of his confusion, and admittedly, mine.
All of this will become clearer if we examine this metaphor of the metaphor: clothing. Why do ideas need clothing?
An author wishes to communicate an idea, an ethic or a perspective on life. If he would spell it out in the raw, the point won’t come across. He needs something that will carry his audience from their perspective to his, so that they will see that which is currently imperceptible to them. He can’t pick them up and take them there, and he can’t plop his mind into their brains.
I think the Rabbis are clothing the midrash and the definition of metaphor in an unnecessarily complicated way. Something can be “truth” and “not fiction” and still not have to be fact on any plane of existence and still function as a teaching tool and a guide. I know mystics are defining a lot of these concepts and I make a lousy mystic, but in order to assign mysticism a validity, you must subscribe not only to the existence of a supernatural world, which we do as religious Christians and Jews, but that Rabbinic Sages can peel back the covering over the written word in the Bible and uncover an objective, mystical reality underneath, much as one might remove the clothing from one’s beloved to reveal her greater beauty.
It’s all very poetic and even compelling, but I recently read a commentary by an Aish Rabbi saying that Christianity is a religion of (blind) faith, while Judaism is a religion of word, documentation, and truth. I’d like to get the Aish Rabbi and Rabbis Freeman and Shurpin together and listen to them engage in a frank discussion of their viewpoints.
Actually, my metaphor of unclothing a beautiful lover to reveal even greater beauty may not be correct.
But what he can do is find clothing that fits the subject and makes it presentable, that hides whatever is distracting them and brings out the highlights he wants to point out. As good clothing brings out the natural beauty of the subject, so a good parable brings out a depth otherwise ineffable. Paradoxically, both do so through concealment—concealment for the sake of revealing a deeper beauty.
Are we removing clothing, the outer material world, to reveal a greater beauty beneath, or is the metaphor, the midrash, clothing in which we dress the material world in order to show a more majestic appearance?
Bruno Bettelheim is best known for his classic work of child psychology, “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.” He criticizes the “narrow-minded rationalists” who object to telling children fantasies, pointing out the value children receive from these stories in dealing with the emotions and turmoil of life. As for the unrealism, he writes that this is “an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales’ concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner process taking place in an individual.” In short, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue . . .”
The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, seems to be going beyond this. When a small child is told that the archangel Michael threw candies at him, that is very real to him. He imagines the angel there in the room, and the candies become very precious candies. And yet it is not a lie.
Most cultures have some sort of tradition of fables or folk tales that serve important purposes in educating their population, both children and adults. Usually the more industrially and technologically advanced a culture, the less room there is for folk tales that have any semblance of seeming “true” (Do kids even learn about “Paul Bunyan” or “Pecos Bill” in grade school anymore?). In the western world right now, many of our folk heroes are characters from 1960s comic books who are being brought to life in films such as The Avengers (2012) and Man of Steel (2013) (with Captain America: The Winter Soldier being released to theaters in less than a month).
But no one is suggesting that Superman or Captain America have a “reality” of their own that not only operates as a metaphor for our real world but that represents the best and truest form of our world. No one really believes that we are only a shadow of that higher existence of heroes, superpowers, and fantastic worlds that we see in film and television.
Midrash, even though we encounter it outside of its original, aged and ancient places of origin, meeting it here in the modern world, nevertheless demands that we accept it on its own terms.
I think the central message I’m getting here is that the very manner in which Freeman and Shurpin (and Orthodox Judaism) describe Midrash and metaphor is by way of metaphor. They rewrite how we understand the words “midrash, “Torah,” “reality,” and “language” in order to support a mystic vision of metaphor that lies in neither this world nor the next, but somewhere in-between.
In his introduction to the 1963 episodes of the Twilight Zone television series, Rod Serling said in part, “You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas…” (the text of Serling’s now-classic introduction to this series changed a bit over time). This seems to be not only where we cross over into the Twilight Zone but where we meet the realm of midrash as well.
I don’t mean to sound unkind or disrespectful in my descriptions. I’m only illustrating how I understand what is being presented in this article as I encounter it. I really do feel I’m being asked to enter into a space that sits on a fence between my world and someplace else, evaluating a “fairy tale” as fanciful metaphor and ethical principle wrapped up in the gossamer fabric of Jewish lived experience.
Some are stuck with a very pedestrian view of the Talmud and Midrash as nothing more than a repository of teachings from various teachers—teachers they imagine to be much like themselves, prone to exaggeration for the sake of making a point. Such a view is sorely insufficient at explaining Jewish practice and belief.
Unfortunately, that describes me to a “T”. I’m willing to admit that I may be at fault here and that it is my human, Goyishe limitations that prevent me from seeing midrash as it’s being presented to me, but as inadequate as the Rabbis would believe me to be, I find it difficult to cast off my tethers to the world around me and enter their’s without so much as a safety net or even a soft pillow to cushion my eventual fall.
Next week’s article is called “Death by Secrets” and the title alone is worth the price of admission. It’s the last article in the series. Will Freeman and Shurpin be able to pull off an eleventh hour save and convince me that midrash actually does exist beyond just imagination?
Or should I, like last week, believe that midrash is the Chabad’s answer to Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi and accept that the better story is also the more “real” story?
For additional reading, try this brief and succinct article, Is the Midrash Literal?