Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
on the weekly parasha by
Meir Levin


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Midrash and Method Home

The Midrash is our basic inheritance. The Sifrei, Sifra, Mechilta, Pesikta, Tanchuma, Midrash Rabbah and many other collections of Midrashic commentary serve as one of the cornerstones of Torah literature; in recent times, however, they have receded to the periphery of the Torah world. The same can be said of the midrashic method of analysis - respected but hardly ever used and even less understood. It would not be an understatement to say that midrashic works are now rarely studied. Other subjects have taken their place and midrashic classics seerve largely as a as a foil for homiletic reflection. This is a pity for we thus loose an opportunity to learn directly from our Sages, our Torah mentors, “of whose waters we drink”. True, we must look to more recent authorities to guide us in how old wisdom should be applied to contemporary situations; yet, can we afford to so easily forego the benefits of the direct engagement with the wisdom of the Tannaim? There is great scholarly and spiritual benefit to studying Midrash and we ought to pursue it.

One of the reasons for this deplorable neglect of this important part of out heritage is the difficulty that even accomplished scholars experience when confronted with the fantastic style and language of Midrash and its use of hyperbole and poetic license. Often we fail to see what it claims to be the meaning of verses, which, to us read completely differently. Midrash seems to conflate concepts and ideas that do not properly belong together and uses an obscure and unintelligible methodology to equally obscure and unintelligible ends. An average learner faced with this unsolvable conundrum tends to throw up his hands and withdraw. Some justify it by a reference to mystical depths of meaning that they are not yet ready to explore. Others take refuge in assigning such passages to the realm of poetic expression, that is into insignificance. Both are and remain escapes.

One thing is clear. The Sages invested a great deal of time and effort into composing and preserving Midrashic material; obviously they viewed it as important and of great value. Clearly this in itself demonstrates that Midrash is no mere poetry [1].

Our approach in this series will be based on the assumption that the Sages used Midrash to interpret or comment on specific problems in the text of the Torah. The former is now commonly referred to as exegetical and the latter as homiletical Midrash. To do so, they collated, considered and sifted the entire universe of Torah literature and Biblical texts; they classified, assigned, resolved and catalogued cognate word usages, idioms, philosophic and theological concepts, psychological and mystical ideas - everything that had bearing on the verse or passage in question. This enabled them to respond in a way that may appear obscure to those who remained unaware of the “entire data set” but that is nevertheless internally consistent and persuasively valid. Midrash is not always explicit about the problem that it addresses; in addition, it will often confuse us with a moshol (parable) or tangentially related aggadic comment. At all times, however, these asides are integral to its message or exegetical technique. Learning which is interpretation and which is homiletics is one of the challenges of decoding midrash. Although the Sages utilized both the pshat and derash to resolve difficulties, they did not see the derush as being in some way inferior to pshat. Oftentimes pshat is unable to completely resolve all difficulties. The Sages did not fear to offer answers that were correct in the overarching perspective but not in the local context of the verse. While peshat elucidates some difficulties, it leaves others behind. It is simply the matter of choosing which difficulties to resolve and which to leave unsolved. The kinds of problems that initiated Midrashic inquiry fall roughly into 6 general categories: gaps, contradictions, repetitions, difficulties, uncertainties and teaching points.

Gaps - Biblical narratives are notoriously brief and rely to a great extent on the reader to fill in the background for a consistent interpretation. It relies on context, similar passages or verses, general human experience, and even individual’s unique experience and mindset. The received wisdom and accepted tradition also play a large role. Midrash sees filling in such gaps for the benefit of the reader as a part of its mission.

Contradictions - one often finds entire episodes, names, locations, and other details of events in one book or account that contradict those of another. At times, these contradictions are indisputably intentional as evidenced by deliberate clues or nearby positioning of the contradictions. In this sense, the contradictions serve as a planned literary technique. The Midrash comments and resolves contradictions.

Repetitions abound. We find the story of Miluim (tabernacle initiation rites), for example, treated in three separate passages, the story of quail in the desert in two, the Matan Torah (Revelation at Sinai) on two separate occasions. The Midrash will offer explanations for such repetitions. It will suggest a rationale for the repetition or reformulate the events described in a way such as to obviate the contradiction.

Difficulty. I use this term for a situation where the events of actions described conflict in one way or another with Torah’s moral or theological outlook or values. Thus, it is a form of contradiction but not between texts but between the significances or between surface readings and principles established elsewhere in the Torah.

Finally, Midrashic authors will often, although not always, comment on verses that can be interpreted in two or more different ways - an uncertainty. At such times, the Midrash will attempt to establish the “correct” interpretations on the basis of the collating and systematizing described above.

In a small number of cases, there appears to be no other motivation for a midrashic comment other han a desire to teach or edify.

Our approach will be as follows. We will present the verse or passage along with its Midrashic comment. We will use classic commentaries to identify the difficulty that occasioned this comment. We will then quote the midrashic selection statement by statement, attempting to determine how it solves the problem, the role that it plays in supporting or referencing the proposed solution, whether it represents an aggadic tangent or part of the continuing argument, and its overall contribution to the point that is being made. We will tend to earlier, exegetically more consistent, Tannaitic midrashim but refer to other parallel passages to help us along the way.

Let us then proceed into the world of our Sages who are our mentors and at whose feet we sit. Let us drink deeply of their unsurpassed wisdom, let us drink out of the font of their Divine inspiration. May we merit to in some measure be called their students and may we share in the profound inheritance that they left us.

[1]. One must guard against generalizing the approaches to the study of Aggada to questions of Midrash. While Agggada is often used by Midrashic authors to make points or to illustrate their conclusions, it is not at the heart of Midrash. At the heart of midrash is exegesis.