Monday, May 22, 2006

The Dangers of Midrashim?? A Fisking

I last week's "Five Towns Jewish Times," there was an article by Rabbi Pinchas Rosenthal, entitled "The Dangers of Midrashim." I feel this article is misguided and wrong, and so I dissect it piece by piece here. His main thesis is that we should make clear to children that midrashim are not to be taken as true accounts, but rather exist to teach moral/ethical/homiletical lessons. And this is the only correct approach.

One problem, among many, is that I do not believe that this is indeed the attitude of Chazal, or of various Rishonim, when they presented many midrashim, and the resulting reinterpretation of the midrashim and discounting of initial intent is misguided. The easiest way to do away with uncomfortable beliefs/statements is to declare them metaphorical. Anyhow, on to the article:
As part of the interview into high school, I often challenge incoming students with questions that contrast the p’shat of a Chumash story with its Midrashic counterpart. The reaction is always the same: the student looks at me like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck.
In an interview situation, one often feels put on the spot, and that is not the best time for giving reasoned responses to sudden, complex questions. One needs to approach a problem like this calmly, and with access to all the relevant information. To expect a 14-year old kid to answer you al-regel achat - on one foot - deep philosophical questions such as the relationship between peshat and derash - or, for example, tzadik vera lo, or how Yechezkel can detail laws of kohanim which seem counter to Torah and halachic law (see two posts previous) is unfair.

Especially because the kid is nervous already, wants to get into school, and is afraid how her answer will be judged. And she is being interviewed by someone with whom she has (as yet) no social/emotional connection.

Wait until the middle of the year, when she has developed a connection with her teacher, learn the relevant sources which show a difference between peshat and derash, and open it up for a class discussion, and you might very well get a different result.

Back to the article:
The other day, the student was an eager young lady named Leah. I asked her the following question: If you were able to go back in time to the moment when Pharaoh’s daughter saw baby Moshe in his basket, what would you see? Would you see Pharaoh’s daughter requesting her maidservant to fetch the basket—as the pasuk tells us—or would you see her arm grow 25 feet long (like Mister Fantastic) and rope in the basket—as the Midrash says?

I felt at that moment as if I had asked Leah to choose between her two parents at a divorce proceeding. She knew that the Torah was an authority and correct and the Midrash was an authority and correct. Her mind was telling her both versions could not be simultaneously true! Therefore, she was frozen and unable to respond.
First, show her the pasuk inside. Show her the midrash inside.

(Before proceeding, let me note that I answer for this specific instance, but I would have to -- and could -- answer for every such instace.)

Secondly, this is a false contrast, between what the pasuk says and what the Midrash says. It is not a difference between what the pasuk says and what the Midrash says. Rather, it is a difference between what one specific peshat interpretation of the pasuk says and what one specific midrashic interpretation of the pasuk says.
The pasuk says {Shemot 2:5}:

ה וַתֵּרֶד בַּת-פַּרְעֹה לִרְחֹץ עַל-הַיְאֹר, וְנַעֲרֹתֶיהָ הֹלְכֹת עַל-יַד הַיְאֹר; וַתֵּרֶא אֶת-הַתֵּבָה בְּתוֹךְ הַסּוּף, וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת-אֲמָתָהּ וַתִּקָּחֶהָ. 5 And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the river; and her maidens walked along by the river-side; and she saw the ark among the flags, and sent her handmaid to fetch it.
Ignore the English translation for a moment. This English translation is what Rabbi Rosenthal labels "what the Torah says" or "what the pasuk says."

What the Torah says is וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת-אֲמָתָהּ וַתִּקָּחֶהָ. What does this mean? What does אֲמָתָהּ mean? It turns out that there are two possible meanings for אֲמָתָהּ on the level of peshat, though one might be favored over the other. אֲמָתָהּ can either mean "her maidservant" or "her arm," and this on the level of peshat.

If we understand it to mean that she sent forth her arm, and we add to this the Midrash that her arm extended, there is no contradiction between peshat and derash on this pasuk. Might we say that this is how Chazal understood אֲמָתָהּ? (And then further, that they took she *stretched* out her arm literally.)

To cite Rashi:

Heb. אֲמָתָהּ, her maidservant. Our Sages (Sotah 12b), however, interpreted it as an expression meaning a hand. [The joint from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger is known as אַמָּה, hence the cubit measure bearing the name, אַמָּה, which is the length of the arm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger.] Following [the rules of] Hebrew grammar, however, it should have been vowelized אַמָּתָהּ, with a dagesh in the mem. They, however, interpreted אֶתאֲמָתָהּ to mean her hand, [that she stretched out her hand,] and her arm grew many cubits (אַמוֹת) [so that she could reach the basket].
(Note that in characteristic midrashic style, אֲמָתָהּ is taken to mean multiple things. First, her arm, and second, that it extended many אַמוֹת.)

Now, one might say because of the lack of the dagesh, we cannot say that this is the peshat in the verse. And Rashi seems to say as much. But that does not mean that Chazal (namely, those in Sotah 12b) agreed to this grammatical judgement.

Even if we grant that they considered peshat to be "maidservant" and derash to be "arm," it is not clear that they did not consider the derash to supercede the simple literal meaning of the verse. We are Pharisees, after all, and so were Chazal. They feel that Torah was written by the Author in such a way that there are hidden meanings to verses that may be brought out via hermeneutical methods, middot shehaTorah nidreshet bahen.

As he writes, "She knew that the Torah was an authority and correct and the Midrash was an authority and correct. Her mind was telling her both versions could not be simultaneously true! Therefore, she was frozen and unable to respond." Yet we might say that the Torah is an authority and correct, and the Midrash is showing what the Torah means. The way he lays it out, it is as if they are in absolute contradiction to one another, rather than the Midrash being a specific interpretation of the text in the Chumash.

There are many different approaches as the relationship of peshat to derash. I suggested above that the derash might supercede the peshat interpretation. Indeed, some commentators might say exactly that. For example, one might say (and if I recall correctly, Saadia Gaon does) that there is not peshat, derash as discrete levels of interpretation. Rather, there is the truth as to what the Torah means. Words carry a range of meaning. If there were no compelling reason to assume otherwise, we can interpret the words literally. If there are problems with the most straightforward rendition, we might explore some of the other implications of meaning that the words carry, and thus arrive at the one true meaning of the text via its "derash" meaning.

That is one possible explanation. One might also simply say that the Torah was given in both Written and Oral form, and together with the Torah was given hermeneutical methods for discovering the meaning. Without applying these midrashic methods, we would get one, "literal," meaning. Using midrashic methods we might discover the Torah's true message.

(One could also state that there are multiple levels - pardes. My aim here is not to explore all different approaches, though this is an exemplary goal in its own right.)

Now, everyone likes to cite the Talmudic statement the ain mikra yotzei midei peshuto, that the Torah does not leave from its peshat meaning, even as we add derash meaning. However, first and foremost, Rashi and other medieval commentators do not use it in the sense as it carries in the gemara. (See Rashi scholars on this point.)


And (as I have discussed elsewhere), this phrase occurs only three times in Talmud, and
it is not clear what it means. For example, one instance is in hilchot Shabbat {Shabbat 63a}, where a verse from Tehillim is cited which describes a sword as a glorification. An objection is cited that that verse refers to learning of Torah, and the answer is that ain mikra yotzei midei peshuto. Here we have an allegorical interpretation of the verse, and we are stating that when you have a mashal, both the literal story and its allegorical interpretation are valid. And further, this is stated in an halachic context, in terms of deriving Biblical law. This is not a sweeping statement about Chazal's midrashic approach to understanding pesukim, reading events into the narrative via extremely close reading of the text (which is what midrash is). Rav Kahana is surprised by this statement, exclaiming that even though at the age of 18 he knew all of Talmud at the age of 18, he did not know that mikra does not leave its peshat interpretation. This in terms of halachic ramifications, that both peshat and derash are relevant. Another instance is in Yevamot 11b, again in an halachic context, and it is possible that we should not apply it there. And the last in Yevamot 24a, again in an halachic context, where an extreme literal peshat might have that the son must be named after the deceased, rather than shem taking to mean nachala, inheritance (="title," which encompasses both senses). If so, they will say that here the gezeira shava in which shem means inheritance (by Ephraim and Menashe) elsewhere entirely uproots the "peshat" meaning of actually naming after the deceased.

It is not clear that in general, and in narrative contexts, Chazal in the gemara thought that both the most literal and the midrashic levels were simultaneously true, or even that the literal level, without applying rules of midrashic interpretation, was true. Perhaps they did think that, but it is not obvious. So this question is a very deep one, and different very smart people of different generations took varying approaches.

Back to the article.
Leah was educated in a yeshiva day school. The vast majority of children from the current yeshiva system believe that all Midrashim are part of the literal account of the events that occurred in the Tanach.

Firstly, many children are not educated enough in the peshat meaning of the text and in what the Biblical text actually says, such that they think in many cases that the midrashim are actually written in the Biblical text. I know of one person who looked at one point for the pasuk that stated that Avraham destroyed his father's idols. It is a flaw in the way we teach Tanach. It is also a flaw in how we teach midrashim, in that we do not show how the midrash is derived from the text. In Rabbi Rosenthal's article, he does not address this issue.

However, there were a good many great Sages of years past who also believed that Midrashim are part what actually happened on the ground in Tanach. Other Sages may have disagreed with them, but that does not make the former position entirely illegitimate, to the extent that the belief is flawed. (Note also that it is hard to believe in all midrashim as part of the literal account, because many a times one midrash will argue with another midrash.) This includes medieval Sages, and may very well represent the beliefs on the Talmudic Sages.

Back to the article:

Let me fast-forward to an anthropology class at Queens College. The professor is discussing ancient Egypt. He mentions there is a legend among the Jews about the daughter of Pharaoh concerning her arm stretching out to retrieve baby Moses. Leah raises her hand. She says that it was a miracle and the daughter of Pharaoh had her arm stretched out to save Moshe. Suddenly, all 53 members of her class turn to her and stare. Her face turns crimson. The professor asks her, “Do you believe that actually happened?” Leah feels the temperature rising. She knows that her beliefs are under attack, and that she has been publicly put on the spot. She desperately wants to explain the Torah position in a cogent way, and yet she finds that despite 15 years of yeshiva education, she is unable to do so.

This is clearly a hypothetical, since he was just interviewing her two days ago. So let me pose a similar hypothetical, changing the details only somewhat. (My changes in bold.)

Let me fast-forward to an anthropology class at Queens College. The professor is discussing ancient Egypt. He mentions there is a legend among the Jews about the Nile turning to blood. Leah raises her hand. She says that it was a miracle and Aaron stretched his hand over the waters and they turned to blood. Suddenly, all 53 members of her class turn to her and stare. Her face turns crimson. The professor asks her, “Do you believe that actually happened?” Leah feels the temperature rising. She knows that her beliefs are under attack, and that she has been publicly put on the spot. She desperately wants to explain the Torah position in a cogent way, and yet she finds that despite 15 years of yeshiva education, she is unable to do so.

Yes, Rabbi Rosenthal, not only
midrashim speak of miracles. This I think is your real trouble, as evident by your earlier jibe "like Mr. Fantastic." Will Leah have an easier time explaining the many miracles written in the actual text of the Torah than the miracles mentioned in midrashim? What about all of the plagues? What of the splitting of the reed sea? The destruction of Sodom? The angels blinding the residents of Sodom? The giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai? The manna falling every day? The clouds of Glory and the Heavenly fire leading the Israelites in the desert? The widow pouring oil from one vessels into many other vessels? Eliyahu ascending in a chariot of fire? The list goes on. To all these, the anthropology professor can ask, "Do you believe that actually happened?" Jewish beliefs are not determined by anthropology professors at Queens College.

Now, Ibn Ezra takes a similar approach, only accepting miracles explicitly mentioned in
pesukim, in part because of difficulties some midrashim would present in terms of explaining and arguing occurences (such as the population growth in Israel in Egypt) to Arab scholars. Yet "what will the gentiles say" is not a great argument for rejecting Oral Torah and actual Jewish beliefs, if they indeed are Jewish beliefs (though this is what is up for debate).

The article continues:


What is the Torah position on Midrashim?
Not a Torah position on Midrashim? Rather the Torah position on Midrashim. Might there be multiple approaches? In fact, historically there were, and there was, and is, great debate about the nature of derash and peshat, and there relationship to one another. Furthermore, which midrashim? All midrashim? Midrash aggada? Midrash halacha? Aggada in the gemara? Only the midrashim involving miracles or all explanations of narrative rooted in derash and stated in gemara and midrashic seforim?

Back to the article:

Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, in his commentary to Perek Chelek (Ch. 10 of Sanhedrin) states unequivocally that Midrashim are not to be taken literally, but are a source of deep wisdom. Ramchal, The great mekubal, in his Introduction to Aggadah (found in most editions of the Ein Yaakov) states that the Midrashim are a source of deep and abstract ideas and are not to be taken literally. The Ra’avad on his commentary on the Mishneh Torah (Hil. Teshuva Ch. 3) states that when one takes the Midrashim literally, it is mishabshos es ha’dei’os—it distorts one’s principles of belief. Sadly, this is case with our children. They have been taught Midrashim as fairy tales. The effects are disastrous.

Firstly, why did they have to say this? They had to say this because there were others who disagreed and had other beliefs.

Furthermore, this is selective citing. Can we cite others from the same time-period who propound other beliefs? Is the Rambam saying this under the influence of the incorrect Aristotelian philosophy of his day? Can we demonstrate the Chazal in the time of the gemara actually did belief in the reality of the midrashim?

Further, recall that Rambam was a somewhat controversial figure. His books were banned. Many do not know this about Ramchal, but his kabbalistic books were banned. He wrote mesilat yesharim when prevented from working on his standard kabbalistic fare.

Furthermore, are they talking about all of Chazal's interpretations of pesukim? Or just some of the more fantastic, miraculous midrashim? Are they speaking about every derasha which Rashi cites throughout his commentary on Torah? Or are they speaking about select midrashim which were clearly intended by Chazal to be allegorical, to teach some deep message? I haven't seen them inside in a while, and don't recall, but one can clearly make such distinctions.

Let me give you some examples, because you cannot really discuss this without examples. Chazal say that whoever says that Reuven sinned is only making a mistake. Yet the simplest peshat in the pasuk states that he slept with Bilhah. Bereishit 35:22:
וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֶת-בִּלְהָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אָבִיו
Chazal explain that he merely moved his father's bed from Bilhah's tent. This is based on other pesukim in Tanach, as well as the fact that vayishkav literally means "sleep," and so he caused her to sleep alone rather than be with Yaakov that night. This would be labelled by most as a "midrashic" explanation of the verse. Yet would all the aforementioned say that this is not meant to be taken literally and of course Reuven slept with his step-mother? Even if they would, would Rashi? I doubt it.

How about ayin tachat ayin? Most literally it means "an eye for an eye." Do we say that is actual Torah law, and the idea of paying money merely contains a "deep meaning?"

I can demonstrate to you that on the best peshat reading, one of the three angels who appeared to Avraham was really Hashem, which shows that God can assume corporeal form. And that is why, for example, only two angels arrived in Sodom. Read Speiser in the Anchor Bible. Chazal's approach, which is assumed by all the classic commentaries, is that the three angels and God's appearance are separate. Shall we say that these interpretations are untrue in the sense of actually happening, and reflect some deeper message?

The examples above are extreme examples, but less extreme examples abound throughout Rashi's commentary on Torah. He often cites midrashim exclusively, where people (incorrectly, but that is for another rant) try to discover "what was bothering Rashi." Did Rashi truly believe in each of these cases, where he cites Chazal who use midrashic methods, that this is not what actually went on? My sense from reading Rashi is that this is not the case.

I have a few questions, which put to the test the statement that all midrashim are to convey some "deeper meaning." Some have answers of course.

1) If midrashim are to convey a deeper meaning, such as a moral lesson, why must every midrash be derived via exegesis from the text?

2) Why do we find Sages arguing with one another, bringing textual proofs for why the midrash must be X and not Y (such as: Adam ate the fruit because of an argument presented by Chava, because it says, since you listened to the "voice" of your wife. The other: If so, it would have said "the words." Since it says the "voice," we see it was crying.). If they are commenting on the deeper moral lesson of the story, what sense is there to argue with one another, bringing textual proof?

3) If only the deeper meaning is meant, why do we sometimes find narrative midrashim cited in halachic contexts, with halachic ramifications? For just one example, in Chullin 5a, a question is asked based on the assumption that the ravens {in I Kings 17:14} were bringing meat from the butchers of Achav. How is such a question even possible if they did not believe it actually happened but is only conveying a deeper meaning?

The article continues:

I explained to Leah that the Torah’s account is what truly occurred in space and time. The Midrash is there to point to the story behind the story. In my opinion, the seemingly miraculous extension of Pharaoh’s daughter’s arm is directing us to another idea—the great difficulty that she must have faced saving the life of a Jewish baby. Imagine, if you will, a modern day Pharaoh—perhaps a Hitler or a Stalin, or even a Saddam Hussein. How likely would it be for the daughter of such a singularly evil dictator to defy her father’s murderous intentions? Her actions required her to go against her upbringing and the dictates of her father. 
This would of necessity create tremendous conflict for any young woman, but particularly for one in her position of prominence in Egyptian society. The Written Torah’s typically spare prose seems to gloss over this conflict. But the Midrash points to it, and if used properly, makes us stop and examine her motivations. The metaphor of her extended arm is an expression of G-d’s directing the actions of Pharaoh’s daughter. The rabbis are teaching us that her emotional shift towards feeling protective of this baby is as much of a miracle as if G-d had extended her arm 25 feet.


Oy vey. This is a terrible explanation of the midrash. I do not find this believable at all. Firstly, as daughter of Pharaoh she did not necessarity have to worry about the repercussions as much as a common Egyptian. She could have "her" Jew. Indeed, Moshe knew of his Israelite ancestry. Furthermore, the discovery that it was an Israelite child and her having compassion on him happens in the *next* verse, not this verse. For all she knew, it could have been an abandoned Egyptian baby when she saved him. Finally, just from my general knowledge of midrashim, this explanation of the midrash is quite forced. "as much a miracle as *if* her arm had extended...?" Eh.
Now, it is really easy to create justifications. I can create a justification - a deeper meaning - for any midrash and any pasuk. That does not make it true.

However, I have in fact pointed out many times on parshablog the deeper meaning of the midrash, and how midrashim pick up on the theme running through the text, making it clearer.

If we examine the plain text, we find that the narrative is written in a very naturalistic manner. Moshe's mother put him in the Nile, and by chance, Pharaoh's daughter was bathing in the Nile and found him. He was brought up in the palace, then killed an Egyptian and had to flee.

However, it is clear that there is a Divine Hand at work. The same Divine Hand which Yosef explained to his brothers directed him to Egpyt so he could save them is at play here. Pharaoh's daughter stretched out her hand, or sent her maidservant, to retreive the boy, but this was because God was pulling the strings and directing events. (Alternatively, something along the lines of: when one tries to do a good deed, God helps along.)

The article:

Leah felt as if a load had been removed from shoulders. At age 14, she was taught—for the first time— the relationship between the Torah and the Midrashim. It is my belief that all teachers should only teach a Midrash if they help the students discover its deeper message.


She felt a load lifted from her shoulders because she no longer had to answer the difficult question posed to her during the interview. The interviewer wanted to tell her *the* answer.

And now she knows the one and only relationship between Torah and the Midrashim.

Does he really believe that "all teachers should only teach a Midrash if they help the students discover its deeper message?" This will be problematic for midrashim that do not have deeper messages. But it will be even more problematic in that they will never be able to learn Rashi on Torah without a protracted discussion. Then again, I do not know whether Rabbi Rosenthal realizes the extent of midrashim, or only considers the fantastic ones.

Also, even if there is a deeper meaning all midrashim, are we not to develop other skills by focusing on other aspects of midrashim - how they are derived, how they relate to the text, etc.?


The article:

Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW, and Chaya Feuerman, LCSW, in their article “Teaching Midrashim to Children” suggest using the notion of seeking a “moral of the story” for presenting the idea of a deeper meaning of Midrashim to children. Here is a good example:

These are social workers. Now they might have good ideas, but I would also like to hear how a scholar - say, an academic scholar, might approach midrashim. Must we turn every midrash into fluff and psycho-babble?


“Consider the Midrash that contains a strange twist to the plague of frogs. The verse (Sh’mos 8:2) states:
‘And the frog went up and covered all of Egypt.’ The text uses the singular form when referring to the frogs. Of course, the simple explanation (pashut p’shat) is that in Hebrew, as in many languages, an entire group or species is labeled in the singular form. However, the Midrash derives from this choice of words that actually one frog rose out of the Nile. However, each and every time an Egyptian tried to hit the frog, instead of it being squashed and killed, it split into several new frogs. Thus, as the frogs began to jump all over, and Egyptians encountered and hit them, the plague grew worse and worse. (See Rashi.)

“To our thinking, there is no question that any classroom of children who were encouraged to ponder what the real lesson behind this Midrash is would draw powerful insights into the nature of problems and how people get further into them. The inescapable lesson of this Midrash is that when you try to stubbornly and pig-headedly fight a problem—as the Egyptians did— instead of thinking about what has gone wrong, you will end up panicking and making things far worse. The more the Egyptians fought the frogs, the worse it got. Who among us in life has not panicked and made a situation far worse instead of staying calm and using problem-solving skills?”
To their credit, they at least develop the relationship between peshat and derash, such that we get some sense of why they say only one frog ascended from the Nile. They omit the fact that in the next verse we have the plural, וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶת-הַצְפַרְדְּעִים עַל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, such that we are going from one to many. They do not mention how the idea of hitting is derived.

Furthermore, their "moral" really has little to do with the Biblical text. This is a lesson for life, not a lesson in understanding the narrative. Why did Chazal teach this lesson here? We might as well be teaching the children Highlights, with Goofus and Gallant. Obviously one might learn a life lesson from the midrash, just as one might learn a life lesson from pesukim. But I have read a lot of midrashim, and this does not seem to me to even approximate the intent of the midrash.

(By the way, this was Rabbi Akiva's attempt at midrash, which caused Rabbi Eleazer ben Azarya to tell him "don't quit your day job" of midrash halacha.)

In fact, since earlier about the frogs the word sharatz is used, we might consider that the frogs are being used as a stand in for the Israelites. When they came to Egypt, they came small in number. Then, yishretzu, they swarmed. To cite Shemot 1:7:
פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ--בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם

What was the Egyptians' reaction? They hit them. They oppressed them. But hitting and oppressing the Israelites just made them increase, with God's blessing and direction. Thus, Shemot 1:12:

וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ, כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ; וַיָּקֻצוּ, מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

"But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And they were adread because of the children of Israel."

Might *this* be a more accurate explanation of the midrash, rather than the psycho-babble offered above as the supreme example of teaching the children the "true, deeper" meaning of the midrash?? I think so.

He concludes:

As our children enter the 21st century and its scientific mindset, it is obligatory for all educators to ensure that our children see the Torah in its most sophisticated light.
Perhaps. I *also* do not like it when people have an unsophisticated approach to midrashim. But an intellectually honest approach to midrashim might (or might not) recognize that Chazal themselves actually believed these midrashic stories to be true. If we reject these stories, or the idea that midrashim produce true facts, perhaps that makes us (and the Rambam, and quite possibly me) heretics. And giving incorrect meanings to midrashim is not productive. Further, before giving correct meaning, we need to really really know philology and midrashic method. And finally, there are multiple approaches to the relationship between peshat and derash, and let us not think that we know the one true answer.

I will end with the following story from Sanhedrin 100a, and ask you: what does this tell us about Chazal's attitude towards midrashim:
R. Johanan was sitting and teaching: The Holy One, blessed be He, will bring jewels and precious stones, each thirty cubits long, and thirty cubits high, and make an engraving in them, ten by twenty cubits, and set them up as the gates of Jerusalem, for it is written, And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles. A certain disciple derided him saying, 'We do not find a jewel even as large as a dove's egg, yet such huge ones are to exist!' Some time later he took a sea journey and saw the ministering angels cutting precious stones and pearls. He said unto them: 'For what are these?' They replied: 'The Holy One, blessed be He, will set them up as the gates of Jerusalem.' On his return, he found R. Johanan sitting and teaching. He said to him: 'Expound, O Master, and it is indeed fitting for you to expound, for even as you did say, so did I myself see.' 'Wretch!' he exclaimed, 'had you not seen, you would not have believed! You deride the words of the Sages!' He set his eyes upon him, and he turned in to a heap of bones

I have a lot more to write on the subject, but most people are probably not going to even read this far. Perhaps in a later post.

31 comments:

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Great post. I linked to it (sorry, didnt know how to do a trackback).

>I can demonstrate to you that on the best peshat reading, one of the three angels who appeared to Avraham was really Hashem, which shows that God can assume corporeal form.

Can't it be demonstrated rather that God appeared as the three angels, rather than one of them?

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>But an intellectually honest approach to midrashim might (or might not) recognize that Chazal themselves actually believed these midrashic stories to be true.

While I agree with you, you must also realize that for many people this is frightening because they do not think they are free to have another approach than Chazal, not realizing when they do. That's why they won't recognize that Chazal believed them literally themselves. There is currently a school of thought making the rounds that Chazal didn't really believe in demons, superstition etc, but taught those things because the masses of their day believed them. This is untenable. But why would someone want to think that? Because they cannot countenance the possibility of Chazal believing while they don't. As far as I can tell, anyway.

joshwaxman said...

thanks.

As to God appearing as one as opposed to 3 angels, at issue is the following two pesukim. First, Bereishit 18:16, which states
וַיָּקֻמוּ מִשָּׁם הָאֲנָשִׁים, וַיַּשְׁקִפוּ עַל-פְּנֵי סְדֹם; וְאַבְרָהָם--הֹלֵךְ עִמָּם, לְשַׁלְּחָם
such that the Anashim left (and then *two* specifically arrived).

Secondly, pasuk 18:22, which states:
וַיִּפְנוּ מִשָּׁם הָאֲנָשִׁים, וַיֵּלְכוּ סְדֹמָה; וְאַבְרָהָם--עוֹדֶנּוּ עֹמֵד, לִפְנֵי ה
meaning that the Anashim left, but Avraham still stood before Hashem. Lending strength to the matter is the rabbinic statement (brought by Rashi) that this is a tikkun soferim, and the verse really means (or else perhaps originally stated) that *Hashem* still stood before Avraham, thus giving a contrast between the (two) Anashim who are leaving and Hashem, who still remains before Avraham.

Also, this accounts better for various sudden shifts between plural, as in pasuk 9, and singular, as in pasuk 10 and 13.

Also, it lends an interesting interpretation of the fleeing from Sodom, in which Hashem joins them towards the end.

Thus, as a matter of pure peshat, I think that Hashem as one of them, perhaps the middle one (instead of, as one midrash has it, IIRC, Gavriel) makes for the most interesting/compelling interpretation on a peshat level. (Whether this is the peshat we should then learn, to the exclusion of the reading by Chazal is another story entirely...)

You offer an interesting explanation of the sociological phenomenon. Makes sense. It is just funny/aggravating when this reinterpretation is then used to delegitimize those who hold something akin to the actual original beliefs. One of the dangers of apologetics. :)

happywithhislot said...

s.
In the soncino guide to the talmud the author says what you pointed out.
The people believed in the demons, so chazal talked in their language.

Where I am at is that I think that chazal believed in demons, and they were mistaken to believe so.
I think they believed their incantantions about seven sisters etc. to cure a poison attack was mistaken.

On the other hand, many people talk about guzma d rabba bar chana.
My father told me that even the old age of people in bereishis are a guzma. I was surprised. But happily so to see he thought independantly.

joshwaxman said...

my own take on dreams interpretation, demonology and astrology is that this is just like any other contemporary science in the time of Chazal. that is, that they believed in them as a matter of trusting the modern (gentile) science, based on the (partial) statement in Eicha Rabati: אם יאמר לך אדם יש חכמה בגוים תאמין.

and these things seem to have been regarded as sciences -- rather than tenets of faith -- based on various gemaras and toseftas I've seen.

in terms of the ages of people in Bereishit, of course compare to the ancient Sumerian king lists (see for example here:
http://www.b17.com/family/lwp/things/antediluvian_king_lists.html
)

but I actually have an interesting post on this topic in the works since R' Gil's post a bit back...

Anonymous said...

"I will end with the following story from Sanhedrin 100a, and ask you: what does this tell us about Chazal's attitude towards midrashim:"

I think this is a mistake - the main point over there is that the dimensions are not merumaz in the posuk! It is fairly clear from the gemara that R Yochanon was repeating something b'mesora or perhaps that he knew through other means (a vision such as the one the talmid had) because there is no drosho on the posuk. The posuk says "u'sh'orayich l'avney ekdoch" and R Yochanon, without evidence from the posuk, simply asserts that the stones will be a given size. This is not a midrash! It's external information that is not derived from the posuk.

Incidentally, in the Slifkin brouhaha, R Moshe Shapira cited this gemara to try and make the point that one can't say chazal erred on science (or ever), or ask for evidence for their claims. Again I think it's a misreading for this reason, that there is clearly no indication in posuk of these dimensions, and so the dimensions are coming from elsewhere, perhaps b'kabala, or b'ruach hakodesh, and because the talmid himself never confirms the event in actuality, he changes his belief because of a vision.

Anonymous said...

"3) If only the deeper meaning is meant, why do we sometimes find narrative midrashim cited in halachic contexts, with halachic ramifications? For just one example, in Chullin 5a, a question is asked based on the assumption that the ravens {in I Kings 17:14} were bringing meat from the butchers of Achav. How is such a question even possible if they did not believe it actually happened but is only conveying a deeper meaning?"

Again, it's probably worth noting htat this is not a textual midrash, which perhaps means it should be judged differently.

Anonymous said...

"My father told me that even the old age of people in bereishis are a guzma. I was surprised. But happily so to see he thought independantly."

how does your father understand how they arrived at the 576x count of age of the world?

joshwaxman said...

Anonymous:

you make a number of comments, and I'll try to treat each one in turn.

Firstly, regarding the gemara in Sanhedrin. Claiming that he had it "bemesorah" or "visions" is a cop-out, and it is often used as a cop-out when one cannot figure out what the derasha is. As I have tried to demonstrate on parshablog over the past few years, there ALWAYS is a derasha and extrapolation from the actual text in Tanach.

The problem is that in modern times, the typical reader of midrash is not as expert in Tanach and in philology to the extent that Chazal were, and so cannot discover the derivation easily, and so believes there is *no* derivation.

In this instance, Rabbi Yochanan cites a pasuk as a prooftext. Of course he is basing himself on the pasuk.

And here is the derivation. I've only though about it for a few minutes, so the derivation might be deeper, but here is a plausible derivation:

The pasuk in Yeshaya 54:12
(
http://mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt1054.htm
)

reads:
שַׂמְתִּי כַּדְכֹד שִׁמְשֹׁתַיִךְ, וּשְׁעָרַיִךְ לְאַבְנֵי אֶקְדָּח; וְכָל-גְּבוּלֵךְ, לְאַבְנֵי-חֵפֶץ

which roughly translates to:
"And I will make thy pinnacles of rubies, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy border of precious stones."

Rabbi Yochanan is midrashically reading the pasuk) assuming that when the pasuk states "and thy gates of carbuncles," what is meant is that each gate will be made of a single carbuncle, and there are multiple gates. The "peshat" reading would be that many many carbuncles would be used to form a gate, but Rabbi Yochanan has this that each gate of Jerusalem would be made of a carbuncle.

Furthermore, Rabbi Yochanan lived in Eretz Yisrael and knew the dimensions of the gates to Jerusalem, and the dimension of the hollow ("engraved") in the gate. Or he knew the dimensions of a typical gate.

Or, there is more to derive from the pasuk for the particular dimensions which is not obvious to me at the moment, but further investigation will yield it.

The student did not argue about the specific dimensions, but on the fact that a single precious stone could be used as a gate. That is one enormous carbuncle! We do not even find a stone as large as a dove's egg! In his "vision," as you call it -- I think within the terms of the story, it is not a vision but witnessing actual events (even if we disbelieve this event happened) -- he saw them taking single large gems for the purpose of making the gates.

So it is too a midrashic extrapolation from the pasuk.

More later.

joshwaxman said...

Anonymous:

continuing my response:

"Incidentally, in the Slifkin brouhaha, R Moshe Shapira cited this gemara to try and make the point that one can't say chazal erred on science (or ever), or ask for evidence for their claims."

I think that this may very well be a good reading of this particular gemara. (though I believe I could cite other sources in the other direction.)

The source of conflict between Rabbi Yochanan and his student always seemed to me to be a conflict between the ancient Rationalist and Empiricist philosophies. Rabbi Yochanan was a Rationalist and his student was an Empiricist.

Citing the following website:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rationalism-empiricism/

"The dispute between rationalism and empiricism concerns the extent to which we are dependent upon sense experience in our effort to gain knowledge. Rationalists claim that there are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience. Empiricists claim that sense experience is the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge.

Rationalists generally develop their view in two ways. First, they argue that there are cases where the content of our concepts or knowledge outstrips the information that sense experience can provide. Second, they constuct accounts of how reason in some form or other provides that additional information about the world. Empiricists present complementary lines of thought. First, they develop accounts of how experience provides the information that rationalists cite, insofar as we have it in the first place. (Empiricists will at times opt for skepticism as an alternative to rationalism: if experience cannot provide the concepts or knowledge the rationalists cite, then we don't have them.) Second, empiricists attack the rationalists' accounts of how reason is a source of concepts or knowledge."

For Rabbi Yochanan and I think many of his colleagues, one did not only gain knowledge via direct observation but also via deduction from basic axioms. The Tanach and the truth of middot shehatorah nidreshet bahen are the axioms, and the middot can be used to derive knowledge about the world.

The student is an empiricist and will not accept truth from authority of tradition or via extrapolation from pesukim, especially where it contradicts what he has come to surmise about the nature of the world based on his direct experience.

When the student eventually experiences what he does, he can, as an empiricist, bolster Rabbi Yochanan the Rationalist's account. Rabbi Yochanan is upset that the student rejects the Rationalist approach and only accepts Rabbi Yochanan's statement and interpretation based on direct experience.

Rabbi Shapira may thus well be correct in his reading of how Chazal, and Rabbi Yochanan, would have reacted to a claim that Chazal erred in science, especially where they had derived that fact from exegesis of pesukim using midrashic methods.

Now, we might not agree with Chazal, and specifically Rabbi Yochanan, about this. But I respect that Rabbi Shapira may well agree with Chazal, and can appreciate how he constructs a worldview which takes this into account.

I am absolutely certain that the midrash in Chullin 5a about the ravens is a textual midrash. EVERY SINGLE midrash is.

To be continued when I have time. Gotta feed the baby.

joshwaxman said...

"how does your father understand how they arrived at the 576x count of age of the world?"

who arrived? "seder olam" arrived.
obviously, his father believes that those who arrived at that count based themselves upon a literal reading of those pesukim. but that a different rendition is possible, in which case the world is not that old.

(shtarot in the days of the gemara, BTW, were not dated to briyat haOlam)

joshwaxman said...

in terms of the ravens bringing meat from Achav's table, the following leads are promising:

Eliyahu is told he will be fed via ravens, in I Kings 17:34
וְהָיָה, מֵהַנַּחַל תִּשְׁתֶּה; וְאֶת-הָעֹרְבִים צִוִּיתִי, לְכַלְכֶּלְךָ שָׁם
"And it shall be, that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there.'"

and 6:
וְהָעֹרְבִים, מְבִאִים לוֹ לֶחֶם וּבָשָׂר בַּבֹּקֶר, וְלֶחֶם וּבָשָׂר, בָּעָרֶב; וּמִן-הַנַּחַל, יִשְׁתֶּה
"And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook."

so he is getting bread, *meat* and water.

In the next perek (18) we see that Izevel cut off (i.e. tried to kill, but also implying lack of support) the prophets of Hashem, Ovadia supported them but was only able to supply them with bread and water. 18:4:
וַיְהִי בְּהַכְרִית אִיזֶבֶל, אֵת נְבִיאֵי יְהוָה; וַיִּקַּח עֹבַדְיָהוּ מֵאָה נְבִיאִים, וַיַּחְבִּיאֵם חֲמִשִּׁים אִישׁ בַּמְּעָרָה, וְכִלְכְּלָם, לֶחֶם וָמָיִם.
"for it was so, when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the LORD, that Obadiah took a hundred prophets, and hid them fifty in a cave, and fed them with bread and water."

Meanwhile, the prophets of Baal were supported by Izevel. In pasuk 18:19:
וְעַתָּה, שְׁלַח קְבֹץ אֵלַי אֶת-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל--אֶל-הַר הַכַּרְמֶל; וְאֶת-נְבִיאֵי הַבַּעַל אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת וַחֲמִשִּׁים, וּנְבִיאֵי הָאֲשֵׁרָה אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת, אֹכְלֵי, שֻׁלְחַן אִיזָבֶל.
"Now therefore send, and gather to me all Israel unto mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the Asherah four hundred, that eat at Jezebel's table.'"

What did they eat at a king's table? Meat, as is evident from other pesukim.

Thus based on smichut - one might derive from whence the meat was coming.

Or perhaps we might continue and see pesukim 18:40-42:
וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלִיָּהוּ לָהֶם תִּפְשׂוּ אֶת-נְבִיאֵי הַבַּעַל, אִישׁ אַל-יִמָּלֵט מֵהֶם--וַיִּתְפְּשׂוּם; וַיּוֹרִדֵם אֵלִיָּהוּ אֶל-נַחַל קִישׁוֹן, וַיִּשְׁחָטֵם שָׁם.
וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלִיָּהוּ לְאַחְאָב, עֲלֵה אֱכֹל וּשְׁתֵה: כִּי-קוֹל, הֲמוֹן הַגָּשֶׁם.
וַיַּעֲלֶה אַחְאָב, לֶאֱכֹל וְלִשְׁתּוֹת; וְאֵלִיָּהוּ עָלָה אֶל-רֹאשׁ הַכַּרְמֶל, וַיִּגְהַר אַרְצָה, וַיָּשֶׂם פָּנָיו, בֵּין בִּרְכָּו.
"And Elijah said unto them: 'Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.' And they took them; and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.
And Elijah said unto Ahab: 'Get thee up, eat and drink; for there is the sound of abundance of rain.'
So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he bowed himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees."

Firstly, one might midrashically interpret the last phrase of pasuk 40 - וַיִּשְׁחָטֵם שָׁם - to mean that he slaughtered animals rather than the prophets of Baal. Then, he turned to Achav and told him to eat and drink.

We might compare the וַיַּעֲלֶה אַחְאָב, לֶאֱכֹל וְלִשְׁתּוֹת to Eliyahu's eating and drinking in the previous pasuk.

Or else, we might draw inferences from I Kings 22, which is the source of the slaughtering of meat in the Yehoshafat/Achav story.

Again, this is just a first approach. I am confident that an exegesis from pesukim lies at the root of this, and every midrash. Often, though, we need to play catch-up to Chazal.

Anonymous said...

"As I have tried to demonstrate on parshablog over the past few years, there ALWAYS is a derasha and extrapolation from the actual text in Tanach.

The problem is that in modern times, the typical reader of midrash is not as expert in Tanach and in philology to the extent that Chazal were, and so cannot discover the derivation easily, and so believes there is *no* derivation."

I agree that there is USUALLY a derivation in the text. I also agree that frequently people miss this derivation, and I agree with your larger theme in this post - that is, I think students need to attend to the local and thematic derivations, and generally need exposure to midrashim and will implicitly learn about their patterns. But I disagree that every time chazal cite a posuk they are always learning everything they say from the posuk - sometimes the posuk or a problem in theposuk is a kind of asmachta and sometimes it is a jumping off poitn, but many rishonim say that information in midrash sometimes is b'kabala and I don't believe there is always a source in posuk for all derivations. Later in your comments, you seem to be equating conceptual derivations with textual ones, and that may be a source of our disagreement - I wouldn't call a conceptual derivation a "Textual" basis, but that maybe is semantics.

Regarding the gemara in sanhedrin. I may be missing something here. Of course r yochanan is assuming one stone for each shaar - that is clear in the gemara. But I see no basis for the 30x30 that is then hollowed out - I don't see that appearing anywhere in the posuk. Maybe I am missing something here.

"The student did not argue about the specific dimensions, but on the fact that a single precious stone could be used as a gate. That is one enormous carbuncle! We do not even find a stone as large as a dove's egg! In his "vision," as you call it -- I think within the terms of the story, it is not a vision but witnessing actual events (even if we disbelieve this event happened) -- he saw them taking single large gems for the purpose of making the gates."

The student is bothered speficially by the size of the stone. He's saying that if we don't find one the size of an egg, how can we find one that large. Of course it is a vision - that is independent of how one conceptualizes malachim, as forces, or "Real" angels. At any rate, that is all I meant by vision.

I don't know how R Shapria learns the gemara, but fwiw, his student (who relayed this approach from R Shapiro) didn't argue along your lines.

Of course the student is an empiricist (whether R Yochanan is best described as a rationalist is a separate issue).

"I am absolutely certain that the midrash in Chullin 5a about the ravens is a textual midrash. EVERY SINGLE midrash is."

It's a conceptual derivation, driven by a logical problem, not a dikduk in the words of the posuk itself. I think this is just a semantic dispute about what "Textual midrash" means.

"how does your father understand how they arrived at the 576x count of age of the world?"

who arrived? "seder olam" arrived.
obviously, his father believes that those who arrived at that count based themselves upon a literal reading of those pesukim. but that a different rendition is possible, in which case the world is not that old.

(shtarot in the days of the gemara, BTW, were not dated to briyat haOlam)"

I'm not sure it's obvious at all - People sometimes say the ages are a guzma without putting it together with the fact that the count is derived in seder olam from the ages (some of these accept ancient universe, but sometimes people just don't put any of it together).
Shtaros were dated to greek kings - so what? :)

joshwaxman said...

Thanks to S. from "On the Main Line" for the link.

There is a good discussion going on there about this.

Just a few points/clarifications:

1) My point about midrashic vs. peshat miracles is that, if need be, we look the anthropology professor from Queens College straight in the eye and say "Yes, I do actually believe that." We would do that for miracles described in the actual text.

Obviously, theological discussions and arguments are not best conducted by your average layman.

We might decide not to take midrashim literally for *other* reasons, but not because we cannot, or are embarrassed, to defend our beliefs to a "sophisticated" audience of kids just out of public school taking an Anthropology 101 course.

2) Why am I being so harsh? Because the approach of Rabbi Rosenthal dismisses as silly and unsophisticated what is quite likely the attitude of (some of) Chazal in the gemara, and does this by claiming that they did not maintain such a position. To this end, he constructs a "sophisticated" explanation to midrashim in general. Therefore, I seek to demonstrate that (a) the approach of Chazal seems to be exactly what is being dismissed, and that (b) the approach R Rosenthal champions is not all that great, and by teaching this as opposed to any othe approach (and by rejecting any other approach), we are *mis*-teaching. Indeed, the unsophisticated approach which, "sadly," many graduates of yeshivas have, is also shared by some very smart Torah scholars in other sectors of society (chareidim) as well as very smart Torah scholars of past generations.

Anonymous said...

I missed your post on the ravens when I posted the above. again, I understand where they got the idea from. But unless one goes with your diyuk on "Vayishchatem sham" which is a nice but a bit of a leap - do you have a source for it, and why wouldn't chazal bring it if that was their source? - it's a conceptual derivation. You can go about it more simply by just assuming that if there was meat every day, it came from the king's table.

"Thus based on smichut - one might derive from whence the meat was coming."

What smichus? This is conceptual.
I was taking most of this for granted. It's just that this is not a drasha based on problematic words, what I would call a true textual derivation; it's a drasha based on filling in the blanks with information from elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you on the larger points.

I'd like to add that even those rishonim who adopt allegorical explanations don't do so for *all* midrashim. In R Rosenthal's quotes, for ex, he cites the raavad, who specifically points to agados that can leave the impression that God is corporeal, as an authority who takes all midrashim nonliterally! That is a real leap!

joshwaxman said...

not conceptual but along the lines of gzeira shava, perhaps. filling in the blanks on the basis of shared words - for example leEchol velishtot, or Nachal.

smichut in the sense that in close proximity, in the text. sources of food (and meat) are mentioned.

and I am not saying that what I gave is for sure the derivation. This is just an on-the-spot suggestion of how it *might* be derived. In some cases, it takes quite a long time to begin to understand how Chazal derived it.

The problem is that this midrash is cited in the gemara to raise the question, and so we do not see the midrash in full in the original. That is one likely reason that no verse is explicitly cited. The gemara is bringing the *results* from a more developed source to raise the question. Since we do not have the source in full in its original context, it is an ordeal to try and reconstruct what the original derivation from peculiarities/similarities in the text was.

however, based on learning through quite a number of midrashim in midrash rabba, in the gemara, and elsewhere, I have found that in many many many instances, what seems to be a midrash based on what you label "tradition" or just because they felt like saying it, can be traces to actual difficulties, ambiguities, or similarities in the text of Tanach, or reading other verses from other seforim in Tanach in a specific way.

Dr. Steiner (from YU) once told me the same thing - that midrashim are not random, and one can always find a derivation from the text.

joshwaxman said...

anonymous:

indeed.

Anonymous said...

"smichut in the sense that in close proximity, in the text. sources of food (and meat) are mentioned."

this is a conflation of the source of the conceptual problem with the source of the derivation. The proximity is in time - who had (what kind of) food and who didn't in that period. It jsut so happens that the source of information is locally proximate.

I've found that most midrashim rest on textual ambiguities, some rely on such very tangentially and are really dealing with conceptual or thematic problems, in some cases the problem is entirely conceptual, and there are many rishonim who insist that some information in midrash (that can sometimes be information brought to resolve a logical problem) is b'kabala, so I take their word for it. It seems odd to assume that no information is b'kabala when there were likely additional texts and histories and traditions apart from the texts we have that are lost to us.

Anonymous said...

"or just because they felt like saying it,"
"midrashim are not random"

I wouldn't say either of those things.

Anonymous said...

To carry this further - what are you saying? Why assume there is kabala on halacha and no kabala at all on historcial information? This doesn't seem likely to me.

Anonymous said...

re the gemara in sanhedrin, the maharsha gives some kind of remez for the 30x30. Also, rethinking, the student might have a problem regardless, because anything larger than a dove's egg might be a problem, so my reading was probably off base.

joshwaxman said...

I'll try to respond later. I have to do some work and prepare for class.

joshwaxman said...

ok, I'm back for a short while.

in terms of this local midrash about Eliyahu and the ravens, if we step back for a moment and look at the whole sugya, we see it is embedded in another discussion which began on the previous daf (Chullin 4b) in which pesukim are interpreted using midrashic methods to demonstrate that the sheep and oxen Achav killed in abundance in II Divrei Hayamim 18:2 were also eaten by Yehoshafat and company. One might say this is implicit in a peshat reading of that perek, but midrashic methods are used and objections are raised. Thus, even if we say the midrash about Eliyahu and the ravens is only received tradition and NOT derived midrashically (which I personally do not think), other portions of the same gemara clearly do try to raise objections from midrashic interpretations of the text. (Though I can anticipate that one might argue that this is *peshat* in the pasuk.) We really need to categorize all the examples of halacha interfacing with narrative midrash and see if anything holds.

In general, I am not averse to the idea that some extra-biblical detail might be the result of tradition rather than midrashic exegesis of pesukim. Certainly there were extrabiblical books which were not canonized, and there is the occasional megillat yochsin that is found.

However: I have seen a number of midrashim that many would assume to be such only because what is needed is proper understanding of the derivation, or knowledge of some relevant verse from Nach. Therefore, I view any such claim with some suspicion.

Furthermore, where we have appeals to tradition in halacha - such as halacha leMoshe miSinai - we are most often told this explicitly. It is different to assume that something is tradition rather than derivation when it is not explicitly stated, when the vast majority are derived, and where we should not be confident in our ability to recognize the actual derivation if it exists.

If Rishonim say it (tradition rather than derivation), I can recognize it as an alternate approach to some midrashim (for their time period). But I would need some convincing that this is actually what is going on in Talmudic times, and that this is always the case when narrative midrash interfaces with halacha.

joshwaxman said...

also: perhaps partially against what I just said above, perhaps we might distinguish narrative midrashim which arise in the first place in halachic discussions as a result of an assumption that the Avot/righteous kings must have kept rabbinnic halacha.

Anonymous said...

"Thus, even if we say the midrash about Eliyahu and the ravens is only received tradition and NOT derived midrashically (which I personally do not thi"

to clarify again, I wasn't saying this midrash is a received tradition.

I agree that people sometimes are tempted to treat droshos as just mysterious sources of information, and that when one gets the larger picture there are textual derivations, or conceptual problems and solutions that are being solved with information from the text (not necessarily a local text).

This still doesn't mean that in many instances the textual issues are not occasionally or even often largely akin to asmachta.

It is sometimes difficult to tell. As an offhand example, I've seen people say that chazal knew b'kabala that mordechai and esther were married. Yet it seems to me that the source of the information is l'kocha mordechai lo l'vas, what is "l'vas", what sort of likuchin is this - what adoption procedure exists in jewish law - as well as possibly other minor textual support. This doesn't preclude there being a kabala about this of course, and (I think) it's not really possible to know that there is no kabala on this.

but in other cases, it seems pretty clear that when all is said and done, the drasha is largely asmachta. That doesn't mean either that the information is from kabala - it is sometimes thematic, or nearly entirely conceptual or logical.

In general, I think it is bound to be a mistake to say "all midrashim are..." anything. There are many different kinds of drashas, and midrashim have to be examined on a case by case basis.

Saying everything is derived from textual problems is not much different than saying that "midrashim are allegorical" or "midrashim are literal"....or ftm "chazal took from the science of their times." All purpose solutions will cover some cases, can cover many, but rarely are going to be right for all cases.

As a rough analogy, a friend of mine went through two mesachtas in yerushalmi and made a list of 60+ instances in which something said misvara in bavli is said as a drasha in yerushalmi. This indicates that many droshos in yerushalmi are more of the form of asmachta than a drasha gemura. Now, if you look at these drashas, you will definitely find local textual problems in many. Nonetheless, I think it would be a mistake to say that the information is derived largely from the local text. As a broad conclusion, I think it's fair to say that the yerushalmi is frequently drashas primarily as asmachta, but this still doesn't mean that in some cases the bavli isn't recreating misavara what was originally otherwise known.

To sum up, I agree with you that more attention needs to be paid to the text - even drashas that are asmachtas often contain or are based on textual information also - but to say that there is a rule that the derivations are always from the text -- I don't think that's justified.

Anonymous said...

regarding the gemara in sanhedrin, There appear to be variants of this text in psikta, psikta d'r kahana, yalkut etc I haven't had a chance to look at it properly yet

happywithhislot said...

The rambam does not take the miracles in psukim literall all the time.
see his view on bilums donkey, on the idea that chava had children the same day as she was created. the 3 melachim visting avraham.

joshwaxman said...

indeed.
see my post on Bilaam's donkey as well.
Bilaam was his donkey.

all this shows us is what the Rambam's attitude was, though. while useful, it does not show us what Chazal of the gemara's attitude was, though.

I read Shadal over Shavuot, and he has an interesting attack on Rambam and others who engaged in what he terms "drash haphilosophim." perhaps I'll get around to posting something about this sometime soon.

Anonymous said...

The issue is taking Midrashim literally and its impact upon the minds of the students who see the world that way.

As far as I know, Rambam, Ra'avad, RAmbam's son R. Avraham, Maharal, and R. Shim Shcwab, to name a few, all have warned AGAINST seeing Midrashim literally wihtou understadning their true inner meaning.

My encounter with adults who take this midrashim literally is that they often reason like children and have a hard time with analyzing a text. Not only that, they find Rashi himself to be radical at times becasue it doesn't fit their pre-conceived image based upon certain aggetas.

And if following Chazal straight was a requeirment then Ramban could not have argued against Rashi anytime he cited a Chazal but he does over and over again anyway.

My 2 cents

josh waxman said...

Hi.
I think you think you are responding to me, but I don't think you are.

for example, when you write:

"And if following Chazal straight was a requeirment then Ramban could not have argued against Rashi anytime he cited a Chazal but he does over and over again anyway."

I don't think I wrote anywhere that "following Chazal straight was a requirement."

my issue is NOT "taking Midrashim literally and its impact upon the minds of the students who see the world that way." (that is a side issue which I have not yet taken up.) Rather, it is the following: If you see various midrashim and do not wish to believe in their historicity, how do you go about it? Do you say that we do not agree with that midrash? or do we say that that is not what the midrash meant?

if we are going to propose a solely allegorical interpretation to midrashim, we should take care to ensure that this was indeed the authorial intent. In this post, I try to demonstrate the Chazal themselves do indeed some midrashim literally, even some that we would consider fantastic.

if so, to claim that these midrashim were *intended* as purely allegorical is not being intellectually honest. (And often, the allegories proposed are quite silly.)

In terms of all those you cited, please quote them inside and see to what extent they are talking. do they talk about ALL midrashim? or only certain midrashim? or only some really far-out aggadetic stories about Tannaim/Amoraim (as opposed to narrative midrashim derived from pesukim)? (let's deal with these souirces inside.) Would they say this about the majority of Rashi's perush on the Torah (for the vast majority is midrash)? would Rashi? If not, does presenting every Rashi only as allegory do justice to Rashi?

"My encounter with adults who take this midrashim literally is that they often reason like children and have a hard time with analyzing a text."

the solution is to teach midrashim in a more sophisticated manner. but more sophisticated does not necessarily mean teaching (the falsehood, in my opinion) that these midrashim were intended entirely allegorically. rather, do deep analysis of the text and its themes and show how various midrashim (which often contradict each other, make sure to point out) pick up on these themes and on irregularities in the text.

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