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MIDRASH: The Stories We Tell


by Reba Carmel

Moses received the Torah at Sinai and he transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly . . . [who] said three maxims: Be measured in the legal process, raise up many students; make a fence for the Torah. —Ethics of the Fathers 1:1

WHY DOES A TEXT called “Ethics of the Fathers” (Pirkei Avot), compiled and edited in its final form in approximately 200 CE and focusing on the development of moral character, begin with this genealogy of a text? One purpose, of course, is to arrogate authority, for the “Fathers,” the men of the Great Assembly (Sanhedrin) who held administrative responsibility in Israel during at least some of the centuries between the conclusion of the Babylonian Exile (538 BCE) and the first Jewish revolt against Rome (70 CE), by declaring a continuity between their rulings and maxims and the Biblical Sinai narrative.

This prologue also proclaims, however, that the Torah narrative itself, deeply embedded in Jewish cultural DNA, has now landed squarely in our laps. Pirkei Avot’s opening sentences invite dialogue, argumentation, interpretation, and inquiry into Scripture. What began as an oral transmission that weathered change either by accident or design has developed into a full mandate for interpretation. Yes, the Jewish tradition repeatedly affirms the immutable sanctity of the Torah’s words — but it also treats the Torah as an unbound book to which each generation adds. The stories that the Torah generates, the rabbinic conversations those stories elicit, these form the the basis of midrash, which is created anew with each transmission.

IN ITS SIMPLEST and perhaps most basic meaning, the word “midrash” is derived from the Hebrew root drash -- study, inquire, seek, explain, investigate, interpret. The sheer number of verbs that actively describe the process of creating midrash speaks not to uncertainty but to vibrancy. These are not stories hidden away for centuries in clay pots, only to be discovered and enshrined behind glass in a museum. Rather, the multiplicity of descriptors speaks to the Jewish people’s relationship with the foundational literature that has been transmitted.

Midrash is our persistent attempt to create meaning — yet the question remains, meaning out of what and for whom?

In his key article, “Defining Midrash,” in Jacob Neusner’s The Study of Ancient Judaism, Gary Porton notes that several writers have explained midrash by what it is not. It is not an exposition of the plain meaning of Torah text, nor is it merely the process through which those texts are made relevant or contemporary, for that definition is simultaneously too broad and too limiting: broad, since the same can be said of the interpretive modes applied to Chaucer or Shakespeare or T.S. Eliot; limiting, because the art and practice of creating midrash is not aimed merely at textual analysis for the contemporary reader, but rather at solidifying, codifying, and ensuring its influence as the arbiter of what may otherwise be considered an arcane and cryptic Biblical text.

Midrash therefore serves, according to Porton, a fixed, canonical text considered to be authoritative and revealed. Within that framework, however, midrash can be didactic, moralistic, subtle, and even subversive. This is possible because midrash is a body of literature conjured up by human authors who were passionately engaged in molding what they saw as a divinely driven text into human form, with all of its nuances, contradictions, and messiness.

The process of midrash-making began with the redaction of the Bible, a centuries-long process that began around 400 BCE and ended in the early years of the Common Era. It can even be argued that the Bible itself is midrash: The latter books of Chronicles explain and interpret parts of the narrative presented in earlier books of Kings. But the earliest extant collection of “official” midrashim are the 6th century’s Genesis Rabbah and the 11th or 12th century’s Exodus Rabbah (Rabbah meaning “great”), elaborations of the stories in Genesis and Exodus. Both of these compilations are aggadic — that is, they tell stories, stories precisely crafted to address textual anomalies, potential theological questions and linguistics. As in:

“And God said: ‘Let us make man’” (Genesis 1:26). With whom did He take counsel? Rabbi Am-mi said: He took counsel with his own heart. He was like a king who built a palace with the counsel of an architect. When he saw the palace, it did not please him. At whom was he indignant? Was it not at the architect? Hence, “and it grieved Him at His heart” (Genesis 6:6) [with which He had taken counsel at the making of man].

Rabbi Hanina said: He consulted with the ministering angels.

Rabbi Berekhiah said: When the Holy One was about to create Adam, he saw both the righteous and the wicked who were to issue from him. So He said: If I create him, wicked men will issue from him; if I do not create him, how are righteous men to be born? What did the Holy One do? He diverted the way of the wicked from before His sight, partnered the quality of mercy with Himself [saying Let us make man] and then created him. —Genesis Rabbah 8:3-4

In this midrashic discussion, one unassuming word, “us,” embedded in the creation story of Genesis 1:26, gives rise to musing about God’s process in the act of creating humankind, issues of God’s singularity or collective nature, a recognition of the competing aspects of human nature, and God’s concession to human frailties. For humanity to survive, conclude the writers, God would have to temper judgment with mercy.

In these passages, the rabbis are asserting that in order for humanity to thrive, God must refine God’s own nature. To assert that God relies upon “outside” counsel would potentially introduce an unwelcome duality into Jewish theology and undermine its monotheistic underpinnings — so, in fact, Rabbi Hanina’s brief mention of “ministering angels” is not given consideration in this midrash, but neither is it excluded.

Another midrash unfolds quite differently, as an angelic chorus is given a voice by the rabbis, who find in it the worst exemplars of intra-family human squabbling:

Rabbi Simon said: When God was about to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and companies, some of them saying, “Let him be created,” while others urged, “Let him not be created.” Thus it is written, “Love and truth fought together, righteousness and peace combated each other” (Psalms 5:11). Love said, “Let him be created, because he will perform acts of love.” Truth said, “Let him not be created because all of him will be falsehood.” Righteousness said, “Let him be created, because he will do righteous deeds.” Peace said, “Let him not be created, because he will be all strife.” What did the Holy One do? He took truth and cast it to the ground, as it is said, “Thou didst cast down truth to the ground” (Daniel 8:2). The ministering angels dared say to the Holy One, “Master of the universe, why do You humiliate Your seal? Let truth arise from the earth.” Hence it is written, “Let truth spring up from the earth” (Psalms 85:12).

The elder Rabbi Huna of Sepphoris said: While the ministering angels were parleying with one another and disputing with one another, the Holy One created Adam and then said: What are you parleying about? Man is already made. [Rabbi Huna read na’aseh, ‘let us make,’ as ne’eseh, ‘it has been made.’] —Genesis Rabbah 8:5

The rabbis who framed these stories would have us believe that the individuals named were contemporaries engaging in a lively, creative, theological conversation. In fact, the careers of the rabbis in the first tale, about divine introspection, spanned as follows: Rabbi Ammi’s from 290 to 320, Rabbi Hanina’s between 220 and 250, and Rabbi Berekhiah’s between 320 and 350. The rabbis quoted in the second parable similary spanned different decades, with one active at the end of what is considered the second generation of Talmudic activity, 250-290, while the other just began his career in 290. One lived in the Galilee, in Northern Israel, and the other on the coast. Yet the rabbinic imagination would have us believe that these rabbis were in dialogue.

THE GENERATIONS of rabbis who transcribed, edited and disseminated these books that we know as the Midrash or the Great Midrash (as distinguished from midrashim of other generations that were, in general, not codified) were seeking to fight the powerful impulse to see Judaism as destroyed because the Temple had been shattered and the Jewish people dispersed by the Romans in 70 CE. By overriding the confines of time and geography in their midrashim while delivering lively, at times subversive, opinions about God and human nature, the rabbis taught that neither ritual nor leadership are confined to place. Temple rites could be replaced by prayer, so worship was no longer the sole domain of the priests and Levites. Destruction of the Temple meant democratization of worship and leadership.

Even more powerfully, the rabbis created midrashim asserting that when the Jewish people were forced to leave Jerusalem and the broken Temple, God departed with them:

“The glory of the Lord went forth from off the threshold of the house” (Ezekiel 10:18). Rabbi Aha said: God was like a king who was leaving his palace in anger. Nevertheless, as he was leaving, he turned back, embraced and kissed the walls of the palace, the pillars of the palace, and wept, and said: Farewell my palace! Farewell, my royal residence! . . . so too as the Presence was departing from the Temple, it turned back, embraced and kissed the wall of the Temple and the columns of the Temple, wept and said: Farewell my sancturary!!! Farewell my royal residence! Farewell.” —Lamentations Rabbah 25

Rabbinic midrash is not, and was never intended to be, objective exegesis. The process presumes that any verse can be related to any other. The Bible is treated as an integral whole that carries a uniform divine message, and its texts can be mined from the entire Biblical terrain to prove an interpretive point, and to create meaning among seemingly contradictory texts. What may appear arbitrary to the contemporary reader is in complete harmony with the notion that all is possible, and that within the one revealed text, created by the one divine presence, there is a multiplicity of truths that can be unearthed. As Ben Bag Bag says in Pirkei Avot 5:22: “Turn it [the Torah] over and turn it over, for everything is in it; look into it, grow old and worn in it, but do not budge from it, for you have no better measure than it.” Such is the presumption of rabbinic midrash.

SHOULD MIDRASHIM be considered pure fiction? Clearly they are the product of the rabbinic imagination, much as Hamlet and Gatsby are products of their authors. But Mirsky and Stern suggest that whereas modern fiction folds in on itself, midrash is bound up in Scripture and seeks to affirm the ubiquity of its insights. Even the traditional form of midrashic storytelling, the mashal — an allusive parable — is accompanied by its nimshal, its religious moral, which is usually tied to a prooftext that the rabbis apply to the the situation they are addressing. Any Biblical verse can be used to support the ultimate theological point. Meaning is created from what may seem to be the unlikeliest of sources — yet it often can yield the most nuanced, provocative results. “Do not treat the parables as a trivial thing,” say the rabbis in Song of Songs Rabbah 1:8, “for it is through the parable that one can come to understand the deepest secrets of Torah.”

These parables are the rabbis’ enduring, stubborn attempts to present God in a human image — most often, an image of a king that is based upon perceptions of the Roman rulers. Matrons, royal consorts, princes are also drawn from the Roman court. This permits the rabbis to be as grotesque, comic, tragic and full of operatic emotion as they wish to be to prove their point.

Only in the Middle Ages did the classical Jewish parable become more esoteric. The almost predictable, formulaic parable of the human king was then replaced by various divine eminences that were more heaven-bound than earthly. The mystical literature of the 13th-century Zohar was the pinnacle, according to Mirsky and Stern, of this allegorical use of narrative. The passionate, mournful, angry king of the rabbinic midrash is perceived in the Zohar as a divine spirit whose uncontainable presence on earth is constrained and tempered only by its own awareness that its presence on earth can only be tolerated in small doses.

A view of divine power unbound on earth is found in a midrash about Rabbi Shimon bar Yokhai, a 4th-century rabbi who is said to have authored the 13th-century’s Zohar during his dozen years hiding in a cave. The adventure begins when he and three colleagues are discussing the Roman government. Rabbi Yehuda praises the emperor’s infrastructure projects, and Rabbi Shimon offers the following retort: “Everything they established, they established for their own needs. They established markets to place prostitutes there; bathhouses to pamper themselves; bridges to take tolls” (Shabbat 33b-34a).

Rabbi Yehuda ben Gerim, who had opened the discussion, reports Rabbi Shimon’s remarks to the authorities, and Shimon is ultimately sentenced to death. Instead, along with his son, he hides in a cave.

They dwelled in the cave for twelve years. Elijah came to the opening of the cave, saying: Who will inform Bar Yokhai that the emperor died and the decree is annulled? They went out.

They saw men plowing and sowing. Rabbi Shimon said, “They forsake eternal life and busy themselves with temporal life?!” Every place they turned their eyes to was immediately burned. A heavenly voice came out and said: “Did you go out to destroy my world? Return to your cave!”

. . . They remained hidden for another twelve months, after which Bar Yokhai declared, “The sentence of the wicked [relegated to hell] is twelve months.” A heavenly voice went out [and replied], “Go from your cave.” —Shabbat 33b-34a

By the time Bar Yokhai reminds God that enough time has been served in the cave, he has come to understand the value of mercy — that to be present on earth requires accommodation of the physical, the ordinary, the imperfect. Understanding that the unleashing of the full complement of God’s power would devastate humankind, the rabbinic midrash-writers, in contrast to the esoteric Kabbalists, thus sought to unite the supernal God with earthbound, frail humanity

For Daniel Boyarin, author of Intertextuality and the Study of Midrash (1994), midrash is not interested in the text itself but its implicit ideologies and semiotics. Boyarin suggests that Torah texts have severe gaps, and that the role of midrash is to fill in those gaps, especially those silences, contradictions and repetitions in the text that demand interpretation. There is even a native rabbinic saying, observes Boyarin, for this quality of the text: “this verse cries out, ‘interpret me!’”

Given the mashing together of centuries and geography in classic midrash, it is odd to read these stories historically, as if the era in which the rabbis wrote were determinative of their meaning. Yet the rabbis were, indeed, commenting on texts that predated them by many hundreds of years, with the goal of preserving the integrity of the old while making it new. This literature should therefore be read with a sense of timelessness, but without losing sight of the rabbinic culture from which it arose. (Boyarin points out that the Bible itself is an intertext: Stories reappear and speak to each other across time and text. The story of Jonah running away and ending up in the belly of the whale, for example, echoes Noah’s building of the Ark. Both characters emerge and both leave the Biblical stage ignominiously.)

THE CREATION of midrash is ongoing. Both Sigmund Freud and Erich Fromm used the Bible, for example, to understand the human psyche. In “Fromm, Freud and Midrash” (in Judaism, Fall 1999), Elliot Gertel notes that Fromm drew upon Biblical passages about idolatry to discuss modern alienation. Fromm’s favorite Hebrew word, writes Gertel, is emunah, which ordinarily is translated as “faith” but which Fromm maintained meant the certainty of uncertainty. He embraced the Bible as an overarching story of liberation from incestuous ties to the soil and to blood, from slavery, from idol worship, from powerful and petty kings. The prophets, with their vision of social justice and humanism, led him to understand their message as one that grants humanity free choice.

Freud, most notably, approached Moses as if he were a neurotic patient who needed analysis. In Moses and Monotheism, Freud suggested that the Bible was derived from Egyptian beliefs and that Moses was Egyptian. For Freud, who also opined that religion was the scourge of humanity, the Bible represents Israel’s attempt to work out their revulsion and guilt for murdering Moses. Freud’s essay, which began as an historical novel, can certainly be viewed as subversive modern midrash. For the classical midrashist, however, God was not a dispensable character, but an undeniable presence who grants humanity permission to create a godly existence on earth and to search for answers to questions large and small.

The tale of the Oven of Akhnai, found in the Talmudic tractate Bava Metzia 59a-b, best presents this relationship between God and humanity, in which God cedes to humankind the power to wrestle with moral and legal questions against a backdrop of well- considered Biblical convictions and a deep understanding of individual and collective holiness. The midrash recounts a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer, one of the great scholars of his day, and other rabbis over a pedestrian issue — whether the construction of the oven was ritually pure or impure. Both sides assert that they are right:

On that day Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them: “If the law agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it!” Whereupon the carob tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — others affirm 400 cubits. “No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” they retorted.

Again he said to them: “If Jewish law agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!” Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. “No proof can be brought from a stream of water,” they rejoined. Again he urged: “If the law agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,” whereupon the walls began to fall. But Rabbi Joshua rebuked them, saying: “When scholars are engaged in a halakhic dispute, what have you to interfere?” Hence they did not fall, in honor of Rabbi Joshua, nor did they resume upright, in honor of Rabbi Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined.

Again he said to them: “If the law agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!” Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halacha agrees with him?

But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed: “It is not in heaven” [quoting Deuteronomy 30:12]. What did he mean by this? Said Rabbi Jeremiah, [he meant] that the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice because you have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai: After the majority one must incline.

Rabbi Nathan met Elijah [the Prophet] and asked him: What did the Holy One do in that hour? He laughed with joy, [Elijah] replied, saying, “My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.”

The Torah has been given, the text transmitted and received. It is ours to enter into, engage, contend with, argue with, and leave our imprint on. “So make yourself a heart of many rooms” says the Tosefta, a supplement to the Mishnah, the essential 2nd-century compilation of Jewish law (Sotah 7:12), “and bring into it the words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel, the words of those who declare unclean and the words of those who declare clean.”

The Torah is not merely to be received in a transaction that marks an endpoint. Transmission, rather, is an active organic act of giving, handing off, interpreting, of carrying forward. Each generation creates another layer of understanding, another layer of meaning, another interpretation, another midrash.

Rabbi Reba Carmel, our contributing writer, has served as a facilitator for the Jewish Dialogue Group regarding Israel/Palestine and has edited their facilitator’s manual. She received facilitation training both from JDG and the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia, and is part of the first cohort of Visionary Women of Faith Leaders of the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia.