Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
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Meir Levin

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Midrash and Oral Law.

Our ability to trace Oral Tradition back in historical time used to be quite limited. Although later books of Tanach, such as Ezekiel, Chronicles and Ezra provide evidence of an oral tradition in how they interpret Mosaic Law,[1] the trail appears to go cold after the close of the Biblical period. The early Second Temple period is the dark ages of Jewish history and we do not know very much about this period at all. The trail of Oral Law is picked up again toward the end of the Second Temple period by scholars such as R. Dovid Hoffman, Isaac Halevy, Zecharia Frankel,[2] and more recently Chanoch Albeck, Saul Lieberman and many others. These scholars were able to demonstrate incontrovertible antiquity of many mishnaic traditions. They were generally unable to trace them past the middle of the Second Temple period based on internal evidence from the Rabbinic literature alone. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls brought forth a wealth of new information, much of which is still being digested. It is already clear, however, that although these scrolls are in majority of sectarian origin, they confirm the existence of many mishnaic laws, some of them in the same arrangement and phrasing that we find in the mishna but 300-400 years before its final editing.[3] What remains then is a span of some 200-300 years after the last Biblical books were written down and the earliest evidence for existence of the Oral Law available form internal Jewish sources. While it is not often possible to trace a specific interpretation or legal statement, general trends are clear.

The comparative study of Midrash helps close this gap. When we compare a variety of extra-canonical Jewish books and the midrashic sources, we find a great deal of overlap and similarity. Many of these books date back to the beginning or even before the Second Temple period.[4] They come from diverse locations and sectarian standpoints. These works were not written with Ruach Hakodesh and some of them clearly contradict the Rabbinic tradition, marking them as being products of deviant movements. Some of them are Hellenistic, such as Philo, and others, are marked by some degree of contamination by Hellenic thought and philosophy. Septuagint, a translation into Greek that also contains a great deal of interpretation, is the earliest, probably receding the return to Zion. All of them, however, unexpectedly and as a matter of course present remarkably similar interpretative traditions, suggesting that there was a body of traditional interpretative tradition at an early time period that was widely shared among Jews of all types and believes and across widely separated lands. These traditions solve the interpretative problems and fill in narrative gaps in very similar ways. The high degree of uniformity and correlation supports the existence of Oral Tradition at least in the aggadic sphere. To a lesser degree, the same can be said of legal interpretation, although, as we would expect, sectarian tendencies and inaccessibility of legal traditions to some of these authors lead to a wider divergence.[5]

Let us look at one example.[6]

Our parsha contain a very ambiguous phrase:

Ben Poras Yosef; ben poras alei ain, banos tsaady alei shur (Genesis 49,22).

Many possible interpretations of this verse have been offered.[7] Among them is one that sees daughters of Egypt (Banos) prancing on the nearby wall as Yosef's carriage derives by, so he may look at them and also in order they may enjoy his beauty. This interpretation is found in Targum Yonasan, Targum Neofitti[8], Genesis Rabbah and Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer.[9] From the latter: "Yosef rode in a chariot and crossed the whole land of Egypt, and the Egyptian girls would climb up on the wall and throw down on him golden rings, so that he might look upon their beauty (39)."
This tradition is also found in 'Joseph and Asnas', a Greek Hellenistic work, probably written in the 1st century C.E and is reflected in Jerome's Vulgate.[10]

The idea that Joseph was very handsome and that women were attracted to his beauty is reflected in Philo, Testament of Joseph, Testament of Simeon and in Josephus[11] as well as in various midrashim. It is clear that the tradition of Yosef's great beauty and its effect on the daughters of Egyptians was widespread throughout the Jewish world confirming the existence of widespread oral tradition among the Jews. While our example is from the later Second Temple period, there are many similar examples from the early Second Temple period. This kind of evidence strengthens the Orthodox position and enables us to respond to various critical theories, at the same time broadening our understanding of midrash.

1 The point was first made and elaborated by R. David Nieto in Mate Dan published in 1714. See Dialogue 1, 30-41. The accumulated evidence led to the now popular theory among the non-Orthodox that these later books did not so much report oral tradition as interpreted earlier works. This and archeological evidence forced these scholars to push the purported origin of the final version or versions of the Pentateuch to the late First Temple period, much earlier than Wellhausen claimed. In addition, they were forced to admit that the major part of Pentateuchal material dated yet much earlier. As a result, the time period between the late books and early books narrowed greatly, leaving untenable the claim that later books interpret rather than document a contemporary oral tradition. As result of this internal contradiction, they found themselves having to choose between denying the Written Law and accepting Oral Law and denying Oral Law but accepting greater antiquity and thus authority for Written Law. Since heresy precedes philosophy, another approach had to be formulated. The most recent, almost contemporary, entrant in the field of critical theories in the contention that Written and Oral Law both evolved together. This is clearly a fallacious argument, unable to explain side by side existence of two legal systems that treat the same material but are taught and passed on in very different ways. A comprehensive refutation of this approach cannot be presented here and it needs to wait for another time.

2 In fact, it was his unwillingness to clearly state that he believed in Sinaitic origin of these ancient laws that caused great controversy and impelled R. Samson Raphael Hirsch and others to write works that were highly critical both of Frankel's orthodoxy and his scholarship. See R. Hirsch's Collected Writings, Vol. 5 (Feldheim)

3 For example. Miktsat Ma'asei Torah is a missive sent by the Teacher of Righteousness to the High Priest in Jerusalem in which he argues against several specific practices in regard to laws of tumah and taharah. The Qumran inhabitants upheld a different Halacha than that eventually recorded by Chazal. These laws are arranged and phrased essentially identically to how they were preserved for us in Tractate Yadaim, an incontrovertible proof that these several mishnayos were taught and widely known hundreds of years before they were written down in the Mishna (heard from Professor Lawrence Schiffman).

4 The earliest among them are Ben Sira, Tobith, Judith and Jubilees. For a list of known works see http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com.

5 This argument is eloquently laid out by James Kugel in the last chapter of his In Potiphar's House: The Interpretative Life of Biblical Texts, Harvard University Press, 1994 and to a lesser degree in the introduction to his The Bible as it Was, Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1997. For a reflection of Rabbinic legal interpretation in Septuagint, see C. Albek, Introduction to the Mishna, Ch. 1.

6 From Kugel ibid.

7 See onkelos, Rashi, Saadia and other standard commentators.

8 The Septuagint is not helpful here as it reflects the Samaritan version of this verse, which is very similar but does not contain the word banos.

9 As the Radal points out in his introduction to P'DRE, this work is the first example of Oral Tradition written down (if you discount Megillas Taanis).

10 Hebrew questions in Genesis 49,22. Jerome studied Hebrew and Tanach from the Jews in Palestine and often quoted his Jewish teachers.

11 Sources quoted in Bible as it Was p. 254