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

AishDas Home

Midrash and Method Home
Tazria Metsorah 5764

Progressive Revelation?

Does Judaism believe in Progressive Revelation? The idea that Revelation is ongoing and that new discoveries can trump the old received truths, dates back to the ideologues of the Protestant Reformation who invoked it to justify their schism from Catholicism. From there it eventually made its way to the Conservative thinkers of the 20th century. Quite clearly, traditional Judaism does not accept this idea, for our Torah is Toras Moshe and its legitimacy derives from the Revelation at Sinai. We can, perhaps, discover in it new insights but these must be harmonized with the traditional understanding to be valid. Rejection of Progressive Revelation does, however, present a theological difficulty for in addition to Moshe's Torah we possess a large body of inspired literature, the Tanach, that must have something new to say, or else why have it at all. Chazal have addressed this question in a variety of ways. Some of the most explicit statements are the following:

Had Israel not sinned, the Jews would be left with but with the Chumash and the Book of Joshua (Nedarim 22b).
Prophecy that was needed for generations was written down and prophecy which was not needed for generations was not written down (Megila 14a).
There is nothing which is found in Prophets and Ketuvim which is not hinted to in the Chumash (Taanit 9a).

The cumulative import of these and other statements is that other books of the Bible were given to us because there was a need to rebuke, to exhort or to guide the Jewish people to repentance from sin. They served a certain purpose which was dependent on the historical developments and the needs of the succeeding generations. The function of Tanach is to bring out, explain and elaborate that which is already implicitly present in the Chumash but never to change or contradict it.

The idea that books of Tanach interpret the Chumash and also each other is now a staple of academic dogma[1]. These days it is fashionable to speak of intertextuality, in itself a concept that reaches beyond mere interpretation for it stems from literary theory and criticism. As always with ideas that come out of approaches other than Talmud Torah, such ideas must be sifted and examined a thousand times[2] before they can be accepted fully or partially. It is, however, to my mind, incontrovertible that Chazal reviewed and considered the entire range of our sacred literature as a standard interpretative technique. An example is found in this week's parsha.

The laws of Tsaraas, seem, at first glance, to belong solely to the realm of Tumah and Taharah. They do not come with any introduction; in fact, they appear to in no way be connected or dependant on the moral sphere or that of isur and heter. Sandwiched between the laws of Yoledes and Zav, they are introduced in a matter of fact way that implies that tsaraas is something that just happens to people. "When the plague of leprosy befalls a man...(Vayikra 13,9)", as if this was a natural occurrence, not an outcome of moral failing.

Although local context demands such an interpretation, it is inconsistent with distant context. In other words, since we find that elsewhere in Tanach tsaraas is represented as wages of sin, our understanding of the original must necessarily be adjusted to incorporate that reality. This is exactly what Chazal did.

...Afflictions (of tsaraas) do not come except for evil speech as it says " Take heed in the plague of leprosy, that thou observe diligently, and do according to all that priests and Levites shall teach you... Remember what L-rd, your G-d did to Miriam ... (Devarim 24, 8-9)". How are the two related? To teach that this happens because of evil speech...R. Shimon ben Eliezer says: Also for prideful spirit plagues come, for so we find by Uziah: And when he was strong, his heart was lifted up... and he went into the Temple of the L-rd to burn incense... the leprosy rose up in his forehead... (Chronicles II, 26, 16-19 (Toras Kihanim Metsorah 5,7)[3].

Both evil speech and pride lead to tsaraas. The Midrash Tanchuma is quoted by Rashi and accordingly finds both in the purification ceremony.

...And the priest shall command to take for him... two birds alive and clean, and cedar wood and red thread of worm (derived coloring) and hyssop (Vayikra 14,4). Birds - since plagues come for evil speech and birds constantly chatter they were required for his purification. Cedar - because tsaraas comes for haughty spirit. Hyssop - what should he do and be healed? He should lower himself like worm and hyssop.

Thus, here as in many other places, we find Chazal sifting, correlating and collating the entire range of Biblical literature (and often also the Oral Law and worldly wisdom) in order to establish the correct understanding of verses, concepts and ideas. This methodology is one of the outstanding defining features that distinguishes Rabbinic interpretation from other interpretative traditions, both within Judaism and without[4].

Are evil speech and haughty spirit unrelated and separate failings or are they both manifestation of a single underlying deficiency? If former, only tsaraas can be the appropriate punishment as it is the one prescribed by the verses; if the latter, another remedy directed to the underlying cause may do as well.

The Chofets Chaim in Shemiras Halashon I, Ch. 6 asks why we do not find tsaraas in our own day for we know that evil speech was one of the sins that caused destruction of the Temple and our current exile. Since we are still in this exile, that sin has not been forgiven. If so, all Jews should have been branded with this punishment. One of the answers that he quotes from Davar Shebakedusha in the name of Sefer Hakaneh is that poverty is equivalent to tsaraas, apparently coming down on the side of the latter possibility. Since it is pride that is at the root both of evil speech and of haughty behavior, it is possible to address the root cause in some other fashion than through the medium of tsaraas alone[5].

1 This idea is sometimes expressed as an assertion that midrash as a method of interpretation has not started with the Rabbis but can already be seen to be present in parallel passages of different books that treat of same events. It is claimed that later books, such as Chronicles, serve as a Midrash on earlier books, such as Samuel. While this idea has a certain appeal and occasional usefulness, it endangers the basic principle of the existence of Oral Law. It is more faithful to the tradition to see both passages as reflecting the underlying oral tradition then to see one as interpretation of another. The approach taken in this lesson explores methodology and should not in any way, G-d forbid, lead to lessening of our faith in this basic principle of Judaism.

2 For some examples how I personally approach intertextuality, please refer to my shiurim on Yonah at torah.org/learning/Yonah

3 See Tanchuma Metsora 4 where 11 things that cause tsaraas to come are listed and derived. See also Erachin 15.

4 Certainly it is also a feature of later medieval and modern Jewish exegesis, but not as fundamentally and relentlessly.

5 Shaar II, Ch. 14 is devoted to in depth exploration of pride as source and cause of evil speech.