Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
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Meir Levin

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Kedoshim 5765

The heart of darkness.

The Jews have produced a rich and varied literature during the second Temple period. Most of these works, termed Apocrypha[1] and Pseudoepigrapha,[2] have been purposefully excluded from the Jewish Scriptural canon for various reasons. Some of them reflect non-traditional views[3] and they were forbidden to be read and studied for this reason. Others, such as Wisdom of Solomon[4] and Maccabbees are cited on occasion by Rishonim and Ben Sira[5] is treated by the Talmud as containing important and true teachings. Presumably these ones were rejected because they were not written with Ruach Hakodesh. In addition, in our own day, we became aware of clearly sectarian writings, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

These writings are certainly not Torah but they can on occasion shed light on obscure Midrashic passages. They do so by either preserving the same tradition that the later midrashim cite, demonstrating ancient origin of many Midrashic interpretation, but also by helping identify interpretive issues. Consulting these works can often clarify or explain why Midrash pursues one explanation rather than another. In the latter cases, Midrashic writers may have been aware that a sectarian teaching may stem from a particular interpretation and have taken steps to provide us with a different explanation.[6]

The following verse is a case in point:
You shall surely rebuke your neighbor and you shall not bear sin over him (Lev. 19, 17).

There are ahost of exegetical issues and anyone writing about this verse must take them into account. For our purposes let us focus solely on one issue.

Why does one who does not reproach bear sin? What is this sin and who incurs it? Who is the verse focused on - the sinner who is being rebuked or the one who administers the rebuke?[7] The context of surrounding verses, all of which are in 2nd person argues that the sin is that of the rebuker; however, it is also possible that it is of the person being rebuked for which the rebuker than bears responsibility.

The first one to tackle this issues appears to be Ben Sira who writes: "Reproach a friend before getting angry secretly. ..it is better to reproach than to be angry (20:2)" He seems to understand the verse in Leviticus as teaching us that hate hidden deeply inside the heart leads to anger and to other transgressions. The sin is that of anger and it is of the rebuker. He must administer rebuke or else he will grow angry, which is itself a grevious transgression. This interpretation assumes that holding back from reproach leads to the sin of anger. Its weakness is that this rebuke is ultimately self-serving, solely for rebuker's own benefit, so as not to be angry, and not at all to benefit his neighbor. That is not the sense that one gets from reading this verse on context, including the famous "Love your neighbor as yourself". All other exhortations are focused precisely on benefiting the other and not yourself.

Testament of Gad, a pseudoepigraphical part of the Testament of the 12 Patriarchs, interprets the connection between the beginning and end of the verse somewhat differently. The sin that you must avoid is one that your brother may fall into if you rebuke him improperly.

Love one another from the heart and if anyone sins against you, speak to him peacefully, having banished the sin of hatred and do not maintain treachery in your heart... If he listen to you, you have gained a brother.[8] If he denies, do not dispute with him, lest he swear and you thereby sin doubly (6:3-4).

This is weak as well for it is difficult to understand what the purpose of the rebuke really is. If hatred is already banished from the heart, what purpose does rebuke serve and what does it accomplish? In fact, the only thing that is likely to result from it is that your brother be led into more sin, the exhortation not to dispute notwithstanding. Besides, why should the rebuker care about someone's else sin, especially being that he himself is doing the right thing by administering the rebuke.

Thus, Ben Sira explains the sin as that of anger into which the reproacher will otherwise fall while Testament of Gad explains it as that of the person being rebuked, who through proper rebuke may confess and make peace but with improper kind of rebuke, may be led into additional sins.[9] Both explanations are weak.

The Sifra offers the following explanation.

Do not hate your brother in your heart. You might think you should not hit him, curse him, slap him (to make rebuke successful). It says, 'in your heart', the only thing prohibited is hating him in your heart (but slapping, cursing and hitting are OK).

This interpretation is clearly the opposite of that of the Testament of Gad.

How do you know that if you rebuke him 4 or 5 times (and do not accomplish), that you continue to rebuke him. It says: "You shall surely rebuke".

The Sifra appears to hold the purpose of the rebuke is for the "neighbor" to repent. Pressure in the form of hitting, if needed, slapping, and cursing is a part of successful rebuke. The purpose is to benefit the indivudal who is being rebuked by bringing him or her to repentance.

Are there limits to how rebuke can be administered, as Testament of Gad claims?

You may think even if his face changes, "It says and you shall not incur a sin over him".

Thus, only as much pressure as is required to bring about repentance is allowed but no more. It is not permitted to cause him emotional pain, even if that would accomplish repentance. That would be a sin and the rebuker is warned to avoid it.

It is obviously quite difficult for anyone to forcefully escalate rebuke but stop just short of emotional damage.

R. Tarfon said: by Divine Service, if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to administer rebuke. R. Elazar Ben Azaria said: By Divine Service, if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to receive rebuke. R. Akiva said: By Divine Service, if there is anyone in this generation who knows how rebuke is given. R. Yochanan ben Zakkai said: I bring Heaven and Earth into witness that that R. Akiva was flogged more than 4 and 5 times through me by R. Gamliel, that I complained about him, so much was I certain that he would love me even more.

The Sifra's explanation keeps a proper balance between concern for one's neighbor and one's own proper spiritual welfare. Unlike the explanations offered by non-canonical writings, it is consistent with the context by keeping the focus on the rebuker, the one referred to throughout the surrounding verses as "thou". In this it is a much superior explanation on the level of pshat.

Consideration of how non-canonical works handled exegetical concerns enables us to throw the Midrashic comments into sharper relief and to appreciate how Tannaim offered a comprehensive, more satisfying, and therefore more "true" interpretation than their contemporaries who did not have access to or rejected the Oral Law.

1 Works that were a part of the Septuagint and consequently of Vulgate and accepted as canonical by the Catholic Church.

2 Works attributed to Bibilcal characters and preserved by Eastern or Ehtiopian Churches in Amharic, Slavonic or Syriac versions.

3 An example is the book of Susanna which casts aspersion on the "elders" and also portrays the process of cross examination that is against halakha (contradictions in testimony revealed by cross examination of bedikos are ground for applying the law of premeditated false witness (zomamim), sig. Professor Sid Leiman.

4 Cited by Ramban in the Introduction to his Torah commentary.

5 See Sanhedrin 101a.

6 Most references are taken from J. Kugel's, In Potiphar's House, Harvard U. Press, 1990

7 The connection between hidden hatred and verbal deceit is drawn in other Biblical books, for example, Proverbs 25:9-10, 26:24-25 and 10:18

8 The use of terms 'brother' and 'neighbor' supports the contention that both these passages have the Leviticus passage in mind.

9 The Ramban ad. loc. offers an explanation that incorporates both these ideas.

10 This statement of R, Akiva appears to be a reaction to the disagreement between RT. Tarfon and R. Eliezer. R. Akiva notes that the two Sages disagree about rebuke and points out the obvious fact that there is no one in his generation who understands the parameters of giving rebuke.