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

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Devarim 5764

That Semitic jurisprudence differs radically in its methodology from contemporary law systems that derive out of Roman legal tradition is now a truism. The former arranges and presents itself in specific examples that leave the jurist with the duty of generalizing principles and applying them to other real world cases. The question then becomes: "How similar are these two cases and do the principles implicit in one apply to the other?" Because the focus is on similarity, less precision of definition is required.[1] Western law, on the other hand, is constituted via statements of general principles and rules that then need to be applied to concrete cases. The question for this system is: "How are the principles defined and do they apply to this particular case?" The former strives for clarity and concrete application; the latter for accuracy of definition and comprehensiveness - how the principle is defined and what it includes and excludes.[2]To a large part, this divergence is predicated on the linguistic resources available to the respective crafters of the two systems, a topic that we hope to explore in future.

Frequently those trained in Western languages and epistemology tend to read Talmudic derivations narrowly because they are used to words and syntactic structures that carry predictable, reproducible and defined meaning. Instead what is needed is a looser reading, one that aims to extract the kernel of an idea and then apply it to other instances. I suppose that the best analogy is poetry. No one reads poetry and its associated metaphors and allusions literally; they are supposed to portray an idea that then is translated by the reader to its intended goal.[3] Insisting on reading in the Western mode can lead to misunderstanding. Let us take the passage that derives rabbinic prohibition of bishul akum, the prohibition of eating the cooked food of a Gentile, from a Torah verse.

R. Mordechai Levenshtein in his work on Targum Onkelos, Nefesh Hager[2] points out that in Tanach whenever the sword is in the hand of Jews, the expression that is used is "lfi Chorev", "by" or "according" or "with one blade" of a sword[3]. Whenever a gentile is described as wielding the sword, the espression is "b'cherev", "with sword". There is only one exception, this verse here. In this unique instance it is the Jews who are wielding the sword and still the expression "b"cherev" is used. A sensible explanation for this anomaly is that in this case, Jews are using the sword in the manner of Gentiles. From here it is but a short distance to the claim that Bilaam exchanged his device, the sword for their device, prayer, and that they, in return, dealt him the sword in a way and in a manner that belonged to him.

"Cooked foods prepared by a non-Jew are prohibited. What is the source for this? The Torah states, "Food you will sell for me for money, and I shall eat; and you will give me water for money and I shall drink (Devarim 2:28)"...just as the water they wished to drink was unchanged at the point of sale through heating, so were the dishes (purchased form gentiles) unprocessed. But does this verse say anything about cooking? Rather, the law is Rabbinic and the source offered is but an asmakhta (Avodah Zara 37a).

The Maharal in Be'er 1 of his Be'er Hagolah analyzes this passage and defends it from the attacks of Azariah De Rossi, a contemporary Italian rationalist and thinker who criticizes it on several grounds. De Rossi pointed out that the law of bishul akum is rabbinic; how could the Sages be justified in deriving it form an event that antedated it by many centuries. For Azariah De Rossi this passage was but one of many that showed Chazal as manipulators of the text rather than its true interpreters.

The Maharal counters that all nations take pride in their unique habits, customs and way of life. A proud nation will therefore take great pains to not culturally depend on others. It would wish to maintain its own culture according to its particular national characteristics and identity. When forced to import cultural building blocks, it would accept only the raw and unchanged material that it can subsequently rework and fashion according to its own determinants and inheritance. That idea is expressed in the verses under discussion. The Jews were not willing to accept the prepared food of other nations but only the raw materials that they could form into something that carries their own unique stamp. It is this understanding of national pride and identity that many years later led to the Rabbinic prohibition of gentiles' cooking and for the same reasons.[4]

What we have here is the concept of Rabbinic exegesis read loosely and not concretely. Maharal asked the question: "What is the kernel of the drasha?". Once it was isolated, he was able to discard the particular circumstances and expression of this central idea and focus on its core. This leads him to a much more profound and significantly more general understanding of the passage.

1 See Rashi to 22:23 for a slightly different version of the same midrash which is found in Tanchuma to that verse and also in Midrash Hagodol in our parsha.

2 Hashmotos, Lfi Cherev

3 One simple explanation of this usage is that a gentile uses his sword indiscriminantly and without serious consideration of the grave moral issues involved. A Jew, on the other hand, uses only the appropriate blade or side, only as much force as is required.