Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
on the weekly parasha by
Meir Levin
e-mail

AishDas Home

Midrash and Method Home
Acharei Mos 5764

How should we relate to the literary approaches to Bible study.

Over the past several decades, the developments in the academic studies of hermeneutics have bypassed the historico-critical Biblical theories and consigned them to a corner of the interpretive universe. They are now generally viewed as just another interpretative tradition and not a particularly apt one at that. Instead, a variety of literary methods and approaches have taken their place. These ways of reading are much more compatible with our tradition for they do not assume that Biblical works are collections of disparate documents by different authors but rather that they speak with one voice. One author, although perhaps, not the Author. Repetitions, gaps, patterns and deviations from chronological order are interpreted as deliberate devices of a consummately skilled writer to a literary end. Naturally this is much preferable to the abominable reductionism of the Documentary Hypothesis.

The responses of yeshiva educated Torah scholars to these innovations ranges from outright rejection to mild curiosity. Then there are those within Modern Orthodoxy who have passionately embraced literary methods. Yet, there is no denying that these approaches were innovated by those with minimal commitment to tradition. While Jewish proponents often consult Rabbinic sources, they sometimes disparage traditional readings in favor of new ones or, worse, propose ideas that completely subvert received Jewish understanding of the figures of our forefathers, seminal events in Biblical history and basic assumptions of our religion. Adding to the problem is the fact that it has become well recognized that there is no such thing as a value neutral interpretation; every attempt at reading involves assumptions, background and belief systems. Thus, Akeida is for Jews all about faith, trust and obedience foreshadowing Jewish martyrdom for Hashem's sake throughout the ages. For a Christian, on the other hand, it replays the central myth of his religion. Where a Jew sees Isaac as a mature grown man and a full participant in the drama of self-sacrifice, the Christian sees a child and vicarious atonement. A modern, secular humanist reading the same story naturally perceives it as raising issues of autonomy, limits of obedience, and natural morality versus religious ethics. Each one reads it as both reflecting and confirming his or her own spiritual preoccupations. What, we must ask, is the value of importing a foreign method, complete with its own assumptions and worldview into sacred quarters of the Torah. Must not a true believer question, if not reject, the wisdom and propriety of such a course of comportment?


The proponents of literary methods have claimed that the Rabbis were not cognizant and therefore routinely missed literary clues within Biblical narrative and poetical passages. In fact, however, careful study of Midrash demonstrates unequivocally that they were very much aware of the features upon literary analysts build their conjectures. There are many Midrashic passages where such a conclusion is inescapable. Because, however, the Rabbis were using their own method of analysis and had their own unique worldview, they chose to acknowledge these observations only when useful to their purpose. In other words, the Rabbis did not feel compelled to pursue and write down every insight; rather they subordinated them to another goal. As we said, theology and worldview drives interpretation.


The two scapegoats of Yom Kippur are a good example. The stylistic pattern-device of goat-kids making an appearance during episodes of strife and separation is a favorite of literary critics. They point to the two goats in the blessing of Yakov and Eisav, the presence of a kid in the story of Yehuda and Tamar, Yosef and his brothers and their reappearance as the two scapegoats of the Day of Atonement.

The point has not gone unnoticed in the Midrash.

"Good" - they (goats) are good for Israel for through them they achieve atonement on Yom Kippur... R. Yitzhak says: "And the live goat (seir) shall carry the transgressions.." - this is Eisav, as it says, " my brother Eisav is a hairy man (seir)".
"Their sins (avonotam) - the sins of tam (Yakov) (Genesi Rabbah 65, 11, see ibid).

The Sages in these comments make skillful use of both the recurring pattern of goat-kids and the pattern of two sons, one of whom is identified with the forces of destruction and violence and the other with constructive element[1]. Such are the pairs of Kain and Hevel, Yishmoel and Yitshak, Eisav and Yakov and such is the symbolism of the two scapegoats.

Notice, however, that the Rabbis did not pursue or even explicitly discussed these patterns for their own value to exegesis and also that they elected not to bring them out in entirety. Instead, they used their awareness of these patterns to their own ends and within their own interpretative system. Perhaps this shows us the way. Perhaps we should also labor to assimilate and understand their approaches, using the insights of literary critics solely as data that can assist us in this task. In this way we honor their words and respect the Word of Hashem. Not only are we more likely to discover the truth on this path, we also may avoid stumbling and find favor in the eyes of G-d and men.


1 See the commentary of Abarbanel to Vayikra 17,7