Friday, June 16, 2006

Midrashic Literalism: 180 Billion in Egypt?! A Response.

A week after Rabbi Rosenthal's piece advocating that we take all midrashim figuratively (which I fisked here, in a post called "The Dangers of Midrashim? A Fisking"), the Five Towns Jewish Times prints an piece by Avi Goldstein (scroll to page 22) championing the same approach. He makes some of the same errors, and others as well.

Let us start by noting that there are three distinct meanings of literal in the context of midrashim.

1) A given Rabbinic statement is the peshat/literal interpretation of a verse.
2) The midrash uses midrashic exegetical methods but the Rabbi who stated it believed it to be historical reality. That is, the midrash was intended to be taken literally rather than allegorically.
3) The midrash is actually what happened on the ground and represents historic reality.

Conflating these definitions leads to confusion and error.

What is the opposite of each of these definitions?

1) A given Rabbinic statement is a midrashic interpretation of the verse, and thus uses midrashic exegetical methods rather than methods of peshat.
2) The midrash was not intended by its Rabbinic author as a literal account of event, but it is meant figuratively or allegorically.
3) The midrash does not depict what actually happened on the ground.

Various folks on the internet have conflated these definitions, and Avi Goldstein does so as well in this article. Thus, for example, DovBear in his ranking system of midrashim writes:
Blue: I've established to my own satisfaction myself that this midrash should be taken literally. ("That happened!")
White: This probably didn't happen, but maybe it did. ("Shrug")
Black: I've established to my own satisfaction myself that this midrash should be taken figurativly. ("Didn't happen!")
But that is not what is under discussion. What is under discussion is: Did Chazal, who wrote the midrash, believe it to have happened or not. Even if DovBear does not think a midrash happened, that does not mean that the midrash should be taken figuratively. We might disagree with the midrash. And many pashtanim do. But "didn't happen" does not = "figurative."

Conflating the two leads one to claim that midrashim were not intended literally, and to seek and propose a figurative interpretation where one just might not exist. Thus we move away from a proper understanding of a midrash and propose an explanation that is false.

This is the conflation of definition (2) with definition (3). Besides this error, the article by Avi Goldstein also conflates (1) and (2). Thus, he writes that because Rashi admitted he would have liked to have written a more peshat-based interpretation, had he the time, Rashi would consider midrashim to be figurative. This is quite a simplification. It is quite likely that Rashi believed that many of the midrashim he quoted represented historical reality, but were derived via midrashic methods (after all, Rashi was citing midrashim). He wanted to focus on the historical realities revealed on the peshat level, as he understood the concept of ain mikra yotzei midei peshuto. But that did not necessarily entail rejection of midrashic narrative as historical untruth.

Now, certain midrashim are meant to be taken allegorically. And even those that are intended literally pick up on themes in the text or can teach us uplifting lessons. But we must be intellectually honest and evaluate each midrash.

This evaluation must be done inside, not citing it off the cuff. We must learn through a midrash with the same intensity and rigor that we use when learning a piece of gemara. Furthermore, not everyone has the right type of mind or has developed the right type of mind for learning midrash. It takes a feel for the theme of a text, linguistic awareness, and a propensity for pun in order to understand and appreciate the situational and textual ambiguities that lead to a midrash.

With this lengthy introduction out of the way, let us treat the article.

The title of his article is "Midrashim and the Literal Truth." This already sets off red flags for me, since he, like Rabbi Rosenthal, is equating "truth" -- that is, what we believe is the historical reality -- with "literal," which is intent of the author of the midrash as historical vs. allegorical/figurative.

He writes:
There is a series of Torah tapes to which we have put my youngest son to bed this past year. The series is wonderful, bringing each parashah to life for my son. When an adult friend of mine was stumped by a question at the motzaei Shabbos father–son learning program we attend, my six year-old had the answer!

Yet these tapes concern me, because they are largely based on the Midrash, and they retell Midrashim as if they are literal truth. I worry that my son’s Torah education will be distorted, as the wrong balance is struck between historical reality and the lessons that Midrashim attempt to teach.

In this light, I was thrilled to read “The Dangers of Midrashim” (Five Towns Jewish Times, May 19, p. 64) by Rabbi Pinchas Rosenthal, the dean of the Torah Academy of Long Island. Rabbi Rosenthal’s thesis—that Midrashim often are not to be taken literally—is on the mark. Unfortunately, many rebbeim do not take the time to differentiate allegorical Midrashim from historical truth. The error is compounded by the fact that teachers thereby fail to teach the meaning behind the Midrashim. The actual lesson is lost, while its façade is taken as Torah miSinai, and our talmidim learn how to miss the point. Simultaneously, students are taught to believe that if one questions the literal truth of Midrashim, he is a heretic.

Le’havdil, the story of Alice in Wonderland is written on two levels. It is a children’s fable, but it is also a political satire. In like manner, the Torah can be understood at many levels, and many Midrashim are also styled in this fashion. Thus, one can teach the Midrash that Moshe Rabbeinu was 20 feet tall at a simple level. For a six-year-old, this may suffice. For a 20-year old, it is unacceptable! At some stage, one must seek the lesson behind the Midrash. And even a six-year-old should be exposed to such Midrashim only in moderation, lest he or she lose sight of the reality within which our ancestors lived.

His article is a bit better than the previous in that he summarizes the idea as being that Midrashim often are not to be taken literally. The word "often is key." He recognizes that there are some midrashim that are to be taken literally.

However, worrying that his son's Torah education is being distorted, when in fact this is a Torah position (among others, of course), is off the mark. I don't know what school he went to, but in the school I went to, students were not taught that if they did not believe in the literal truth of midrashim, they are heretics. Did the author? Perhaps. Yet he came out of it still disbelieving in the historical truth of midrashim. How did this happen?

Now, we leave in a pluralistic society, and there are many different flavors of Orthodox Judaism today. This is a good thing. Variety is the spice of life. If some chareidim or right-wing modern Orthodox, or left-wing modern Orthodox believe the midrashim actually happened, kol hakavod! If they do not, kol hakavod as well! There are many legitimate approaches to midrashim that have been held by sophisticated greats throughout Jewish history. We have Rashi and Ibn Ezra. We have Malbim and Shadal. We have Targum Pseudo-Yonatan and Targum Onkelos. We have aggadists and we have Rabbi Zera who was opposed to certain types of aggada.

Also different levels of understanding of Torah and midrashim are appropriate for different physical and intellectual ages. People mature throughout their lifetimes and different understanding of sources hopefully comes with that (as he mentioned). But I would not categorize a literal reading of midrash as only fit for 6 year olds. First, he thus insults many people who are his (and my) betters (in terms of Torah knowledge and understanding) who believe(d) in the truth of these midrashim, calling them children. Second, perhaps a sophisticated analysis will yield a different perspective than he assumes is the correct one. I will not address the Moshe Rabbenu vs. Og midrash here. I would need a lot of time to study it inside.

However, the question is not whether Avi Goldstein believes this midrash to be true on a literal level. The question is whether Chazal who formulated the midrash believed it to be true on a literal level. And while we may be skeptical of Moshe having such a tall stature, there is some evidence that some members of Chazal may have thought this could be true on a literal, historical level. Two midrashim immediately spring to mind. The first is in Bava Batra 73b-74a:

Rabbah b. Bar Hana related: We were once travelling in a desert and there joined us an Arab merchant who, [by] taking up sand and smelling it [could] tell which was the way to one place and which was the way to another. We said unto him: 'How far are we from water?' He replied: 'Give me [some] sand.' We gave him, and he said unto us: 'Eight parasangs.' When we gave him again [later], he told us that we were three parasangs off. I changed it; but was unable [to nonplus] him.

He said unto me: 'Come and I will show you the Dead of the Wilderness.' I went [with him] and saw them; and they looked as if in a state of exhilaration.

They slept on their backs; and the knee of one of them was raised, and the Arab merchant passed under the knee, riding on a camel with spear erect, and did not touch it. I cut off one corner of the purple-blue shawl of one of them; and we could not move away. He said unto me: '[If] you have, peradventure, taken something from them, return it; for we have a tradition that he who takes anything from them cannot move away.' I went and returned it; and then we were able to move away. When I came before the Rabbis they said unto me: Every Abba is an ass and every Bar Bar Hana is a fool. For what purpose did you do that? Was it in order to ascertain whether [the Law] is in accordance with the [decision of] Beth Shammai or Beth Hillel? You should have counted the threads and counted the joints
I would read his attempt to take the corner of the tallit as parallel to David's taking of Shaul's tallit - evidence of his presence and thus evidence of the historicity of his statement. But the Sages recommend that he should have counted the threads and joints in order to determine halacha. Would we determine halacha based on allegory? Perhaps one can find a way out of this one.

There is another midrash in Midrash Rabba and in Niddah 24b:

It was taught: Abba Saul (or, as some say, R. Johanan stated): I was once a grave-digger. On one occasion, when pursuing a deer, I entered the thigh-bone of a corpse, and pursued it for three parasangs but did neither reach the deer nor the end of the thigh-bone. When I returned I was told that it was the thigh-bone of Og, King of Bashan.

It was taught: Abba Saul stated, I was once a grave-digger and on one occasion there was opened a cave under me and I stood in the eye-ball of a corpse up to my nose. When I returned I was told that it was the eye of Absalom. And should you suggest that Abba Saul was a dwarf [it may be mentioned that] Abba Saul was the tallest man in his generation, and R. Tarfon reached to his shoulder and that R. Tarfon was the tallest man in his generation and R. Meir reached to his shoulder. R. Meir was the tallest man in his generation and Rabbi reached to his shoulder. Rabbi was the tallest man in his generation and R. Hiyya reached to his shoulder, and R. Hiyya was the tallest in his generation and Rab reached to his shoulder. Rab was the tallest man in his generation and Rab Judah reached to his shoulder, and Rab Judah was the tallest man in his generation and his waiter Adda reached to his shoulder.

Clearly the Midrash and gemara are trying to show that on a literal, historical level, a Biblical character can be this big. Otherwise why the proof that generations of people shrunk in order to justify his having fallen into Avshalom's eye-socket. So Chazal may have thought this to be true, and literal.

This might not be the case for the Moshe as 10 cubits high midrash (some elements might lend themselves to allegory), but we should not consider it figurative just because we would not believe it. The focus must be on whether Chazal could have believed this to be historical. Otherwise, we are just making stuff up and attributing it to Chazal because we are unconfortable disagreeing with Chazal.

Avi Goldstein continues:
I believe that two elements have led to this regrettable misunderstanding of Midrashim. The first element is the intrinsically enticing quality of Midrashim. To illustrate, let us take the Midrash that when Yaakov Avinu lay down to sleep at Beit E-l, he put rocks around his head (Bereishis 28:11). Each rock desired to be the one upon which Yaakov actually lay his head, so G-d fused them into one rock. It is undeniably more exciting to teach the Midrash kiphshuto, in its literal form. How enthralling it must be for a child to read about this miracle. If we take the Midrash as allegorical, we are forced to seek its intended message. What do the Sages mean to imply about the greatness of Yaakov? The easy, fun way out is to teach the Midrash literally and stop there.
So, what does it tell us about the greatness of Yaakov? That he was a great guy? I think we got that even if we take the midrash literally.

Note that there are midrashim on this that have more overt allegorical reasons for this - that there were 12 stones becoming one, showing (in a maaseh avot siman labanim way) that he alone of the forefathers would have the 12 tribes. Or that there were three stones, showing some connection with the other two forefathers, as one. Or that there were two stones (because the minimum plural is two) and the binding together showed that unlike the other forefathers, there would not be chaff among his children. This works well with the general theme in the peshat of the pesukim of the dream telling him his destiny. Yet while this allegorical interpretation is obvious, this does not mean that Chazal did not simultaneously think that it was historically true. One should often not stop there regardless of whether the midrash is literal or allegorical.

I am not sure what greater message than 'Yaakov was a great guy and the stones wanted to honor him' one will get out of Rabbi Yitzchak's formulation in Chullin, though. And if you can tell me an allegorical interpretation, make sure it is convincing. Because I can come up with a rationalization for anything, but that does not make it true. A false rationalization is a perversion of original intent and an insult to Chazal.

For example: We see the greatness of Yaakov in that even the stones wished to support his head - thus, his greatness is intellectual. We see the greatness of Yaakov in that even the stones of Israel wished to be under his head, thus showing how he deserved to inherit the land. We see the greatness of Yaakov that these stones which were destines to become an altar wished to support this mortal's head, thus showing how a righteous man can elevate himself to the extent that these lofty stones would still consider it an honor.

I could come up with hundreds of such rationalizations. This is a gift I have - but the true gift is being able to distinguish between rationalizations and true explanations. By being able to generate rationalizations, I can recognize when others are trying to present poppycock. And indeed, some of Avi Goldsteins "explanations" in this article are indeed nonsense.

Furthermore, what exactly is he saying about Rashi -- that he took the fun and easy way out?
Truth be told, my sense from reading Rashi extensively is that he himself believed the midrashim to have been intended literally and to have been literally true. But more on that later.

He continues:
The second element is our bias toward Rashi’s exposition of the Torah. Rashi’s importance cannot be emphasized enough. However, he does sometimes resort to Midrashim, especiallywhen he feels that they conform to his stated intent of focusing upon the simple understanding of the text.
Oh my goodness! Rashi sometimes resorts to Midrashim?! I would say that upwards of 80% of Rashi is midrashim. Here is a link to a perek in Bereishit - the one just discussed. That presentation of Rashi from Judaica Press is helpful because it sources most of Rashi's statements. Count how many of Rashi's statements are citations of midrashim, and how many are not. Sometimes resorts to midrashim? Ha!
"Especially when the conform to his stated intent of focusing on the simple meaning of the text."
Oy! This is a reference to Rashi's famous statement that he is only coming to teach the peshuto shel mikra uleaggadah hameyashevet divrei hamikra davar davur al ofnav.

There is in fact a major dispute among Rashi scholars about how to understand this statement. Because Rashi presents so much midrash, some scholars actually say that Rashi only means this about the pesukim on which he actually said the statement.

And it is not clear what aggada hameyashevet divrei hamikra davar davur al ofnav means either. It is subject to dispute. However, it seems to mean that if a midrash bolsters or explains some peshat concern, Rashi will cite it. This can mean that he will bring a midrash if it fits with the rest of the text when the rest of the text is understood on a peshat level, and if it also answers some peshat based difficulty.

Let me now turn to Avi Goldstein and ask him: Why would Rashi cite a midrash to answer a peshat-based difficulty if he did not think that the midrash was meant literally?! If it was only intended to teach some homiletic message, why should Rashi think he could make use of it to arrive at peshat.

I will ask further. Avi Goldstein just presented the midrash from Chullin of the rocks merging together. Rashi cites it. Presumably, he does so because it is aggada hameyashevet divrei hamikra davar davur al ofnav - that is, it answers some peshat concern. How can it do this if it was not intended literally, and if Rashi did not intend it literally?

He continues:
(At the beginning of Parashas Vayeishev, Rashi’s grandson, the Rashbam, writes that he took Rashi to task for not writing his commentary in a simpler way. The Rashbam records that his grandfather conceded the point.)
Argh! In a simpler way?! What Rashbam actually says is that because midrash is primary, people have come to focus on derash and neglect the school of peshat. But ain mikra yotzei midei peshuto, the verse still maintains its peshat interpretation, and this is what he focuses on. And then he concludes:

וגם רבנו שלמה אבי אמי מאיר עיני גולה שפירש תורה נביאים וכתובים נתן לב לפרש פשוטו של מקרא, ואף אני שמואל ב"ר מאיר חתנו זצ"ל נתווכחתי עמו ולפניו והודה לי שאילו היה לו פנאי היה צריך לעשות פרושים אחרים לפי הפשטות המתחדשים בכל יום

Apparently Avi Goldstein is reading הפשטות as hapashtut, the simpler way, rather than hapeshatot, the novel peshat interpretations, which is the correct translation of the phrase.

Rashbam is saying that he had arguments with and before Rashi. Rashbam is much more of a die-hard pashtan than Rashi, and perhaps he even had different conceptions of the relationship between peshat and derash. But in the course of the argument, Rashi conceded that had he enough time, he would write other interpretations according to the novel peshat interpretations they were coming up with every day.

Rashi and his beit midrash revolutionized study of mikra in focusing on peshat interpretations, and Rashi's commentary was a major first step, but still, a large portion of his commentary is midrash. And Rashi concedes this, not that he could have written it in a simpler way.

This is an important conclusion for those who cite the statement by Rashi that he comes only to teach the peshuto shel mikra uleaggadah hameyashevet divrei hamikra davar davur al ofnav, and deduce that every statement by Rashi is peshat. Rashi concedes that a large portion of his statements are derash, as one call tell be simply examining Rashi's sources.

Now, a peshat interpretation is certainly intended literally, and so one can no longer say that since every Rashi is peshat, it must be intended literally and have been historical.

However, just because something is derash {or aggadah hameyashevet divrei hamikra davar davur al ofnav} does not mean that it was not intended as literally (rather than allegorically) true and historical.

We must take care not to conflate method of interpretation with intent. Peshat vs. derash involves the methodology used to determine the interpretation - as Rashbam writes, methodology such as the 31 middot of derash interpretation. Such a derash interpretation might still have been intended by its author as literally true and historical, and Rashbam and/or Rashi might still consider them literally true and historical. See my points above regarding why Rashi brings derash to answer peshat issues.

He continues:
When our children begin to study Chumash with Rashi, rebbeim expose them to the Midrashim that Rashi brings, without bothering to note that many Midrashim are to be taken figuratively.
Again, how does he know? Perhaps some are, but I am not sure that Rashi regarded them as anything other than literal (as opposed to figurative) or that Chazal intended them as such. To his credit, at least he uses the word "many" rather than "all."a

He continues:
A prime example is Rashi’s comment on the word “vachamushim” in Parashas Beshalach (Sh’mos 13:18). Rashi’s first explanation is the literal one: that the Israelites were armed with weapons and supplies when they left Egypt. Rashi then proceeds to record one of several Midrashim on “vachamushim.” Extracting its root, which is ch-m-sh, or “five,” he states that only one of every five Israelites actually left Egypt, with the remaining four-fifths perishing during the Plague of Darkness, out of sight of the Egyptians.
If you examine Rashi's source (Mechilta), you will see that his midrash also starts out with the definition "armed" before introducing other explanations. So the midrash itself concedes this basic interpretation.
Inevitably my children have come home from yeshiva with Rashi’s Midrashic comment as the true meaning of “vachamushim.”
The solution to this is to have the rebbe teach the Rashi better, stressing that Rashi says both. Does Rashi mean one literally and the other figuratively? Or is he recording different opinions on the matter? Or, does he maintain that both are simultaneously true?

Looking at Siftei Chachamim, you will see that he asks about this double explanation and concludes that ain mikra yotzei midei peshuto, and thus holds that both are interpretations of the verse. It seems to me that Siftei Chachamim at least considers the chamushim as 1/5 to be literally true. I guess he is writing this when he is a 6 year old.

Here is the midrash as cited in Tanchuma:

אחד מחמשה, ויש אומרים אחד מחמשים, ויש אומרים אחד מחמש מאות, רבי נהוראי אומר העבודה לא אחד מחמשת אלפים, ואימתי מתו? בימי האפלה שהיו קוברין ישראל מתיהן ומצרים יושבין בחשך, ישראל הודו ושבחו על שלא ראו שונאיהם ושמחו בפורענותן.

In Mechilta, after the explanation of 1/5 (and subsequently those who say 1/50 and 1/500), Rabbi Nehorai says 1/500, but the Gra emends to 1/5000. Rabbi Nehorai in mechilta actually cites other pesukim from Nach to bolster his argument (revava ketzemach hasadeh, and uvnei yisrael paru veyishretzu.) A straigtforward reading of the Mechilta strongly suggests that the dying in the 3 days of darkness is Rabbi Nehorai as well, but Rashi takes this to explain the 1/5. So perhaps in the initial Midrash, those who said 1/5 left thought that the others assimilated and wished to stay in Egypt. Look at the Mechilta yourself. Rashi, who combines it, apparently accepts that 4/5 died.

He continues:
And yet, if this were meant to be understood literally, several questions should arise. First, it would mean that the Plague of Darkness was actually much more a plague for the Israelites than it was for the Egyptians. Second, it would require us to believe that the Egyptians did not notice how 80 percent of the Israelite population suddenly vanished! Third, it would be inconceivable that just a few weeks later, a decimated Israelite population would go withsuch joy into the wilderness. How, in the face of this massive loss of life, could they heartily celebrate the Exodus?
This is a reason for disagreeing with Rabbi Nehorai's explanation that they died in the 3 days of darkness. It is a reason for disagreement, but is not proof that Rabbi Nehorai did not mean it literally (/historically)! Perhaps Rabbi Nehorai would have answers, or perhaps Rabbi Nehorai would concede. But yes, he would say that it was more a plague for the Israelites. But 1) that these people were going to die anyway to it was to Hashem's credit that he did this when the Egyptians could not see. 2) Perhaps the Egyptians were aware that they vanished but did not get to witness the actual dying and burial of the Israelites and have a chance to rejoice, or perhaps they were so busy with their own plagues -- namely, darkness followed shortly by the killing of the firstborn; or else, because the Israelites lived in Goshen, away from the Egyptians, and 3) perhaps these were not righteous Israelites, which is why they were not to leave Egypt, and were concentrated in families which were not friendly to the Israelites who left; or perhaps even with this massive loss of life, finally getting their freedom made them happy.

As you can see, answers are possible. I don't know that Rabbi Nehorai (or Rashi) would put forth these specific answers, but they might maintain that this is intended literally and give some answers. Just because Avi Goldstein does not agree with the mechilta does not mean that the mechilta is figurative as opposed to literal.

He continues:
Finally, the Midrash records other opinions that have a much smaller number of Israelites escaping the Plague of Darkness. One opinion is that only one out of 50 left Egypt. Another opinion is that one in 500 survived.
He apparently did not see the Gra's emendation to 1 in 5000. He continues:
And the Talmud, in Maseches Sanhedrin (111a), writes that only 2 out of every 600,000 left Egypt! For one thing, only one of these can be literal. Moreover, if we take the calculation in Sanhedrin literally, it would require us to believe that 180 billion Israelites lived in Egypt.
Firstly, this is not the meaning of this midrash. In fact, the midrash in Sanhedrin is more conservative than even 1/5, as I will demonstrate shortly. But first, two points.

1) "For one thing, only one of these can be literal."
Buzz! No. Only one of them at most can be historical. The midrash states:
אחד מחמשה, ויש אומרים אחד מחמשים, ויש אומרים אחד מחמש מאות

The words veyesh omrim means that there is a dispute. Many people can dispute what the literal interpretation of a verse is. At max, only one of them can be right. But that does not mean that the other interpretations were intended or must be taken figuratively.

As an illustration, let us take three pashtans. (pashtan in the sense of using peshat rather than midrash methods of interpretation.) Let us take Ibn Ezra, Shadal, and Rashbam. I am sure that you can find a verse in which each pashtan offers a different interpretation than the other two. Would Avi Goldstein say that "only one of these can be literal?"

2) "Moreover, if we take the calculation in Sanhedrin literally, it would require us to believe that 180 billion Israelites lived in Egypt."

No. If we interpret the midrash this way (which I will attempt to disprove next), then it would require us to believe that Rabbi Simai believed that 180 billion Israelites lived in Egypt.

My emendation in bold. Look, Avi Goldstein does not believe 180 billion Israelites lived in Egypt because of modern sensibilities and conceptions of demographics. Perhaps Rabbi Simai disagreed, and felt his explanation was indeed historical. Perhaps 180 billion, while astronomical, did not seem so impossible to Sages back then. Or perhaps it was astronomical but Chazal assumed a miraculous existence, as is clear from many other midrashim.

Anyhow, on to the gemara. My selection includes Rashi, which is higher up in the page. Look for Tanya: Rabbi Simai...



Rabbi Simai learns a hekesh between their exodus from Egypt and their entering the land of Israel. "Just as when they entered the land, only 2 from 600,000 entered, so too their exodus from Egypt, there were 2 out of 600,000."

Who were the 2 out of 600,000 who entered the land? Calev and Yehoshua, as Rashi explains. That is, out of 600,000 people in the generation of the wilderness, only 2 actually entered the land. Of course, not only 2 entered the land. There was a new generation who were raised in the wilderness who numbered 600,000 as well.

Similarly, there were 2 out of 600,000 who exited Egypt. Many read this as a ratio. That is, for each 2 who left Egypt, 599,998 did not leave. This is how one would come up with 180 billion.

But is this what Rabbi Simai means? There is a hekesh, connection, here, between the exodus and entry in the land. We know 600,000 entered the land. Do we say that that means that for every 2 who entered the land, 599,998 were left in the desert? There were not 180 billion in the desert. Pesukim tell us about 600,000!

The simplest connection to make is to assume the same situation for both, rather than a ratio. Thus, out of 600,000 people in Egypt in a certain generation, only 2 left. Of course, they were accompanied by an additional 600,000 who were born to the next generation.

Who are these 2? Let us say Moshe and Aharon, who were 80+ at the time. (Perhaps also Korach, though he must be under 50 to be fit for service in the mishkan.) All the rest of their generation died in Egypt of natural causes (such as old age), and it was 600,000 of the generation of Calev and Yehoshua who left Egypt. And that generation of Calev and Yehoshua died in the wilderness to be replaced by another 600,000. And, as Rava adds, the same for the days of Mashiach.

Without looking at Rashi, and just looking at the gemara, this seems the simplest peshat in the gemara.

This is then a more conservative number than even 1/5. It is 1/2. And it is not people who died suddenlt in the 3 days of darkness, but over the course of the long servitude in Egypt. One can readily understand this as intended as literal/historical, and perhaps even accept it as historical reality oneself.

Now, Avi Goldtein is to be excused. After all, 180 billion is what Rashi says, and what Artscroll says as well. But our concern is with what Rabbi Simai meant, not how Rashi understands it.

However, even Rashi may something similar to what I propose. Read Rashi again, this time without the words enclosed in brackets, and translate the first mikol as "from all the 600,000," rather than "for each."

{Please note: I do not need Rashi for support in this, since at issue is what Rabbi Simai means, rather than what Rashi means - but it would be nice to have such support.}

Rashi also suggests they died in the 3 days of darkness. The gemara does not state this. This is grabbed from Rabbi Nehorai in mechilta, and Rashi carries it over.

As I always say, it pays to look at sources inside and to read those sources critically. I do not think Avi Goldstein or Rabbi Rosenthal are used to doing this, and so instead they put forth nonsensical figurative/allegorical explanations. (This is not to say that certain figurative and allegorical explanations do not in fact make sense.)

He continues:
Truly the Rambam is correct in writing that the literal approach to Midrashim is a foolish one. (And yet, many years ago I heard a rabbi in our community say that this Midrash in Sanhedrin is literally true!)
Does Rambam say this about all midrashim, or only ones such as those that imply that God is corporeal?

I do not believe that Avi Goldstein understands midrashim, and the relationship of peshat and derash, well enough to write credible articles on the subject.

But stop for a moment. If the rabbi in the community could believe the midrash in Sanhedrin is literally true, is it not possible that Rabbi Simai believed it as well?

Anyhow, he continues:
Meanwhile, the lesson of these Midrashim is missed. How about the following interpretation for the 1-in-50 version? We are taught that the Israelites were mired in 49 levels of impurity, out of a possible 50 levels. The Midrash hints at this low spiritual level by stating that one in 50 Israelites left Egypt—that only 2 percent of Israel’s spirituality had been preserved during the Exile.
Wow. This seems to me to be an instance of rationalization rather than explanation, as I explained above. Wow! Looking through Rabbinic literature, we find another number 50, so we can connect the two and explain one in terms of the other! Color me unimpressed.

Rabbi Nehorai did not just leave it as just a derasha on chamushim. He bolsters it with other pesukim to show a large Israelite birthrate. Why do this if the whole thing is allegorical? He also tries to explain when they disappeared - in the 3 days of darkness. Why would Rabbi Nehorai try to do this if he did not think it actually happened? Rabbi Nehorai makes great efforts to fit the derasha in with the narrative, which is not what we would expect if it was intended as allegorical/figurative.

Also, will he be able to find a similar parallel for 5? For 500? For 5000? One of the numbers luckily matched up to another rabbinic statement, and so he thinks he has intuited the figurative interpretation.

He continues:
The result of literal teaching of Midrashim is mind-boggling. Our children grow up believing that the ancients lived a fairy-tale existence.
And some members of Chazal believed this as well. Feel free to disagree.

He continues:
On the aforementioned tape series, the narrator, a highly respected rebbi (and former teacher of mine), says that during the Plague of Wild Animals, all the world’s animals descended upon Egypt, bringing along their local climates. Thus, where the polar bears were it was icy cold, while where the lions were it was hot. This is taught as literal truth, in total disregard of the much more likely alternative: that wild animals native to Egypt served as G-d’s instrument of punishment, without a bizarre change in climate. In order to counter the teaching method to which children are exposed, I have sought, from when my kids were young, to explain that Midrashim are not necessarily literal. I have pointed out that the Talmud itself states: “The rabbis spoke in exaggerated terms” (Chullin 90b). I hope that other parents are doing the same.
Again, kudos for "not necessarily literal." I would have to see that midrash inside, and see what details are deduced from what, but a less miraculous alternative is just that - a less miraculous alternative. As rationalists, we like to dismiss miraculous accounts. But we are talking already about a miracle - we have here a more muted version of the miracle. So whoever wrote this midrash might not have agreed that a less miraculous miracle is more likely, and therefore is historical truth.

Indeed, the Talmud does state that the rabbis spoke in exaggerated terms, such that some fantastic details are guzmas. But we must take care how we apply this dictum. If a detail is an explicit derivation from a verse, it is no longer a manner of speaking but rather the very substance of the derasha. We should not take statements out of context and apply them across the board to where Chazal never intended them.
I have no doubt that Rabbi Rosenthal’s brave piece (and this article as well) will encounter fierce opposition. It is too bad that in some quarters, in-depth Torah study has been forced to yield to shallowness.
Oooh! Great way to end an article. Paint yourself as a courageous martyr, and paint any opponents as shallow, closed-minded frummies.

I believe that my opposition to Rabbi Rosenthal's piece, and to this article as well, is based on the fact that their approach is shallow, ill-informed, and dumb.

33 comments:

Avi Goldstein said...

Hello. Thanks for all the attention. I had not known until this evening that my article generated significant blogging activity.
Your comments (wrong though most are) deserve lengthy treatment, and, im yirtzeh Hashem, I shall get to them in detail. Let me at present make just a few comments.
1. I did not think the Rashbam wrote "hapashtut." I read the word correctly!
2. If you believe that Og was a few miles tall, I think you need recall that G-d wants us to use our common sense. As for the Gemara in Niddah, it clearly is teaching that one generation was greater (head and shoulders above) the next; it is not discussing physical height.
3. I am well aware that there is controversy regarding Rashi's view of peshuto shel mikra. I think he may have sought midrashim that most closely addressed the text.
4. I agree fully that the main issue before us is whether Chazal believed that the Midrashim were literal. And I believe fully as well that they did not intend most Midrashim (especially of the supernatural kind) to be taken literally.
I hope to present a fuller response when I am able to carefully consider each of your points.
Oh, for the record, I do know of the variant explanations for the 2 in 600,000.

Avi Goldstein said...

Regarding the one in fifty pshat that I proposed (that the Israelites had descended to the forty-ninth level of impurity), while you prefer to be "unimpressed," I think it's an excellent dvar Torah. And isn't that the great thing about divrei Torah? We have the right to propose a pshat, and others have the right to reject it. No, this would not explain the one in five or in 500. So what? Meanwhile, you have clearly contradictory views in the Midrash. They cannot all be literal. Please give me your explanation.
Interestingly, I heard many years ago from a rav that there is evidence that many Israelites chose to stay in Egypt rather than participating in the Exodus. If true, this would provide a wonderful explanation for the Midrashim: that by choosing to stay, these souls effectively "died," were cut off from the Jewish people. The 5/50/500 variance might then reflect a debate regarding how severe was the desertion.
Avi Goldstein

joshwaxman said...

hi.
my internet connection is down, so I do not have opportunity to post much - I am posting at other people's houses.

but I will see if I can post briefly in response.

In terms of (1), then it is not a simpler explanation but a peshat-based commentary, in which case you are simply mischaracterizing.

In terms of (2), your response indicates that you did not understand my post, and continue to conflate authorial intent with what you want to believe. God wants us to use our common sense. Great! that means that you do not accept that this actually happened. but the social and intellectual inputs to Avi Goldstein are not necessarily the same as to the author of the midrash. I never said I wanted to believe that Og was a few miles tall. I said I wanted to believe that the *author of the midrash* may have believed that Og was a few miles tall. That you cannot distinguish between the two after reading all that I have written dismays me. In terms of the gemara in Niddah, then you are reading the gemara in a krum manner just to support your convictions. Because that discussion was *obviously* brought down to bolster the preceding statement about the skull of Avshalom being gigantic. As are other statements in that gemara.

In terms of (3), great! What do you mean most closely addressed the text? Do you maintain Rashi read midrashim like a 6-year old?

In terms of (4), what is your evidence?

In terms of variant explanations of 2 in 600,000, so why did you not bring it down in your article?

joshwaxman said...

"Meanwhile, you have clearly contradictory views in the Midrash. They cannot all be literal. Please give me your explanation."

um... I said this already. this is a *dispute*. Just as Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and Shadal may all give different explantaions of a pasuk, all on the level of *peshat* -- thus all intended to be literal. so too when a bunch of midrashim argue, and explicitly conflict - the words *veyesh omrim* are used, they can all be intended as historically accurate (please don't use "literal", because of its other meanings), and argue with one another.

and please don't tell me elu ve`elu, because that is nonsense.

but I said this already in my post.

joshwaxman said...

"Regarding the one in fifty pshat that I proposed (that the Israelites had descended to the forty-ninth level of impurity), while you prefer to be "unimpressed," I think it's an excellent dvar Torah."

alas, I am afraid you are correct. the majority of what passes for divrei Torah in rabbi's speeches and parsha sheets are similarly nonsense.

this is what I wrote about earlier in the post about the difference between rationalization and explanation.

"No, this would not explain the one in five or in 500."

Or 1 in 5000, or 2 in 180 billion, according to the incorrect explanation of the gemara.

"So what?"

The so what is that this makes it less plausible. I can also choose 1 out of a list of 5 numbers and find an explanation for it. but if you claim that these numbers are intended as allegorical, these other numbers will be (or truly seem to be) quite more difficult to find an allegorical interpretation for the other five numbers.

to compare - you also have the number 50 as miracles on the yam. So Yay! You can say the rather silly explanation of 49th level of tuma. But try carrying that further to 200 and 250.

joshwaxman said...

"Interestingly, I heard many years ago from a rav that there is evidence that many Israelites chose to stay in Egypt rather than participating in the Exodus. If true, this would provide a wonderful explanation for the Midrashim: that by choosing to stay, these souls effectively "died," were cut off from the Jewish people. The 5/50/500 variance might then reflect a debate regarding how severe was the desertion."

I will check again inside the Sifrei (I only cited the shorter version from the Tanchuma above), but if I recall correctly, the beginning of the midrash does not mention dying at all, in which case one need not allegorize "dying" at all. One may just suggest that these opinions are just speaking of how many left Egypt and do actually think that the rest remained.

According to Rabbi Nehorai, who adds the dying aspect, he also speaks of burying them during the 3 days of darkness, which does not work well with idea that they merely stayed in Egypt. And if this was the case, why didn't Rabbi Nehorai simply state that they assimilated? What is the need for this allegory? (And why does Rabbi Nehorai (who holds 1 in 5000) play up the aspect of the incredible population explosion by citing other pesukim that speak of this aspect?)

I think this explantion does not work well with the text of midrash when learned inside, and we must always look at the actual text of the midrash when proposing an explanation.

happywithhislot said...

Avi
what if chazal meant the medrashim literally.
does it neccesarily follow that we do?

for those of us who believe chazal could err in matters of science, wouldnt the literal medrash be just another proof.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Wow, Josh, calm down! ;)

Anonymous said...

"This evaluation must be done inside, not citing it off the cuff. We must learn through a midrash with the same intensity and rigor that we use when learning a piece of gemara. Furthermore, not everyone has the right type of mind or has developed the right type of mind for learning midrash. It takes a feel for the theme of a text, linguistic awareness, and a propensity for pun in order to understand and appreciate the situational and textual ambiguities that lead to a midrash."

I think you forget this point. I agree with you that many analyze midrashim without paying close attention to the text, the source of the drasha, the themes of the text chazal are picking up and commenting and etc etc. But even doing all that, people bring to midrash implicit understanding of chazal built up through many years of analyzing midrash, and that understanding is going to differ between people. And it's simply not the case that all people are equally equipped to analyze midrash - some people are just not that literary and midrash is above all a literary medium.

It's possible to disagree with your analysis here and yet to read the midrash as if not more closely than you do - a point I'm sure you will concede in theory. There have been a number of cases where you assume chazal meant something literally that I think otherwise based on differing implicit understanding of the themes in the text, what chazal were picking up on, etc. Eg I think to arrive on this:

"Clearly the Midrash and gemara are trying to show that on a literal, historical level, a Biblical character can be this big. Otherwise why the proof that generations of people shrunk in order to justify his having fallen into Avshalom's eye-socket. So Chazal may have thought this to be true, and literal."

you take a series of midrashim literally that I believe are allegorical, and I think I can demonstrate this. For ex, we have measurements of golias' spear and this midrash would then make him a midget. For another, "hiney mitaso" can't accomodate these measurements because it would be bigger than rabas benei amon, and you'd be left in the position of saying the midrash is literal and the posuk not, since the posuk would leave rabas bnei amon in og's bed, rather than og's bed in rabas bnei amon. This is just the beginning, there are other proofs.

I suppose I can agree that anyone who says *all* difficult midrashim are allegorical is not a close reader, but that's about it. You seem to forget your own point and to act as though your own analysis closes the door -- I don't think in theory you believe this but in practice that is how your posts on this topic read.

"If a detail is an explicit derivation from a verse, it is no longer a manner of speaking but rather the very substance of the derasha. "

That's a claim you've made in the past, and I dispute it. I believe that many drashas are asmachtas and not an indication of literalness. Surely this is at least a legitimate disagreement, and not simply to be dismissed as "people foisting their opinions on chazal"

joshwaxman said...

I've got to work tonight, so I will try to post a better response tomorrow.

for the moment, a few (really quick points):

1) You just gave a great example of having to learn the midrash inside before making pronouncements. "hinei mitaso" is a statement about King Solomon, who had 30 strong men about his bed -- which Chazal take figuratively, by the way. The pasuk you are looking for is "hinei arso," in Devarim 3:11.

See here:

http://mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0503.htm

If Chazal really believed Og to be that big on a literal level (which I take no position - just that it *might* be intended literally or *might* be intended allegorically), then what to make of this pasuk? Obviously, they must make some other rendition of this pasuk.

And here is the rendition. It states בְּאַמַּת-אִישׁ, a normal person's cubit - rather than Og's cubit. But the pasuk does NOT refer to his BED, mitato, but rather to his eres:
הִנֵּה עַרְשׂוֹ עֶרֶשׂ בַּרְזֶל

Now, an eres can be a bed, but it can also be a CRIB. In modern Hebrew, an Arisa is a crib or cradle. Thus, even the baby Og had such a large crib, made of iron, no less! (as one possible answer to the question.)

but answering questions like this is like swatting at flies. we are dealing with general conceptual questions, and a quick "but how about X," especially without going into detail about X, is tangential at best.

2) You write:
"I agree with you that many analyze midrashim without paying close attention to the text, the source of the drasha, the themes of the text chazal are picking up and commenting and etc etc. But even doing all that, people bring to midrash implicit understanding of chazal built up through many years of analyzing midrash, and that understanding is going to differ between people. And it's simply not the case that all people are equally equipped to analyze midrash - some people are just not that literary and midrash is above all a literary medium."

Of course people will bring an implicit understanding to each new midrash. But I think most of the people involved in the dispute in modern times are not qualified or equipped to analyze midrash. (the subject of a later blogpost of whether only "gedolim" are qualified to render these decisions.)

3) I don't take a series of midrashim literally that you would take allegorically. In fact, I would be amenable to taking almost any one of those individual midrashim allegorically.

My point was basically as follows: before assuming based on modern scientific knowledge that a midrash describing a giant must be allegorical, we should consider that:

a) this midrash does not stand alone, but is in fact one of several
b) in one of these instances, the setama degemara bolsters a midrash about sinking up to his nose by stating that one should not think that Abba shaul was a dwarf, because he was tallest in his generation, and each subsequent generation until theirs was progressively a head shorter. The setama degemara truly seems to take this particular midrash literally.

Therefore, perhaps a midrash describing a giant is to be taken allegorically, or perhaps it is to be taken literally. My point is that one should not assume based on modern attitudes.

I'll try to adress these and other points in greater detail sometime this week, but I really have to make a phone call to work.

Kol Tuv,
Josh

Anonymous said...

i confused the psukim, you're right, but there are many other problems with literal interpretation of that midrash, some of which I've already indicated.

"b) in one of these instances, the setama degemara bolsters a midrash about sinking up to his nose by stating that one should not think that Abba shaul was a dwarf, because he was tallest in his generation, and each subsequent generation until theirs was progressively a head shorter. The setama degemara truly seems to take this particular midrash literally."

I disagree completely with that reading of the stama degemara.

I agree with your larger point, but think that eg with this preconception:

"If a detail is an explicit derivation from a verse, it is no longer a manner of speaking but rather the very substance of the derasha. "

you are going to be taking midrashim literally that others will think ought not to be so taken. I've disputed this point in the past on this blog.

"My point was basically as follows: before assuming based on modern scientific knowledge that a midrash describing a giant must be allegorical, we should consider that:"

I understand, but my point was that you can't rush to the conclusion that "modern scientific knowledge" is the reason for any given dispute. It's just as much an error to impose one's own thinking on chazal as to start with the preconception that chazal had different "Social and intellectual influences" and assume a nonexistant difference.
That is also imposing a potentially inaccurate preconception, just from the reverse direction.

"I think most of the people involved in the dispute in modern times are not qualified or equipped to analyze midrash.(the subject of a later blogpost of whether only "gedolim" are qualified to render these decisions.) "

it's mostly a matter of not paying attention. (depending on how you define "gadol" some of them are not paying particular attention to midrash)

If your argument is that many people just say "allegorical midrash" at the first sign of trouble, I'm with you. You seem to go further, in practice if not in theory.

joshwaxman said...

still incredibly swamped. I'll try to get back to this next week.
good shabbos.

Avi Goldstein said...

I apologize for my belated response; I just do not have much time to blog. I wish to address a few points made by Josh Waxman.
1. YOu wrote that I "mischaracterized" the Rashbam. I have no idea what you are talking about. The Rashbam writes that Rashi would have rewritten his commentary (had he the time) given the parshanut of him time (the "peshatot" to which the Rashbam refers). The Rashbam was part of the school that emphasized peshat over derash; Rashi agrees that he should, in light of these explanations, written on a level closer to peshat.

2. Regarding Og's height, you have me totally puzzled. YOu are saying that you do not believe Og was several miles tall, but that the author of the Midrash did. In other words, you know better than he did! I am astonished at the arrogance, and also at your willingness to impute to a Talmudic figure the ridiculous notion that a human being could be so tall. I stand my ground; the author of this aggad'ta did not believe so silly a thing. Ditto the Gemara regarding Avshalom.

3. What I mean by "closely addressed the text" is not, chas v'shalom, that Rashi read the Torah like a six-year-old (although you appear to believe that our Tannaim and Amoraim did just that). What I mean, and I agree this is speculative, is that Rashi looked for Midrashim (regardless of their historical accuracy) that worked well within the text. Thus, for example, the Midrash of three stones merging into one accords with the Torah's switch from plural to singular, avanim to even.

4. The term "common sense" denotes just that: not Avi Goldstein's common sense, but sense that is common to most rational beings. My evidence for the non-literal approach to midrashim includes the long list of Rishonim and Acharonim who held this way, including the Rambam, the Ramban, the Ralbag, Rav Hirsch, and others. But it is common sense that causes these Sages to take this approach. This is covered in my article.

5. I had about 1000 words in the article to set forth my views. It was not the place for extreme detail, and that is why I did not explore the different views of the 2 in 600,000 aggad'ta.

3.

joshwaxman said...

thanks for your response. Anonymous, I know I still have to respond to you, and beEzrat Hashem, I will soon.

Avi:
thanks for taking the time to respond. I'll try to answer to your points succinctly.

1) I meant that in your article, you wrote that Rashbam said that Rashi admitted that he would have written a simpler commentary, not that he would have written a more radical commentary.

By the way, just because they were in the same school of Biblical commentary does not mean that Rashi is exactly the same as Rashbam in his approach. Rashbam states נתווכחתי עמו ולפניו which implies that there was a *dispute* between them in the matter, with a final admission that he should have incorporated more peshat in his commentary.

At any rate, that is not the same as stating that the midrashim he cites are untrue - just that they are derived via midrashic methods rather than peshat-based methods. He might agree to this premise, or perhaps not.

Thus, for example, Ramban (who admittedly is not Rashi, but it shows what one might hold) notes that the statement is not ein mikra yotzei ela lifshuto (or something like that) but rather ein mikra yotzei midei peshuto. There may be both peshat and derash meanings arising from the text.

Next point in another comment so that I don't lose it, and so I can tackle these one at a time.

joshwaxman said...

Regarding point (2), I am glad you finally get what I am saying. Makes for more productive conversation and all that.

Happywithhislot in the above comment really answered this well, if a bit succinctly.

It is not *I* who labels the notion ridiculous. It is you who does that. Ridiculous is a relative notion to the beliefs common at the time.

For example, Chazal (including Rambam) believed in spontaneous generation, and in the dirt-mouse which is half dirt and half mouse.

Chazal believed in astrology (a science at the time). Chazal believed in a mandrake plant, which walked around and which could be killed by disconnecting the umbilical cord connecting it to the ground.

Will you contest even these?

It is *possible* that *some* statements of Chazal are intended allegorically, and it is *possible* that these statements are intended literally. In each case, I believe it best not to follow pre-conceived notions of what Chazal would or would not have believed, and instead follow the text.

You have not explained the meaning of the text "and do not think that Abba Shaul was a dwarf" (that he would have come up to his nose in the corpse's eyeball.)

By the way, it is important to note that in each of these instances, it is not Abba Shaul who states it, but rather he is relating what others told him. ("I was told.")

"I stand my ground; the author of this aggad'ta did not believe so silly a thing."

And this is arguing based on conclusions rather than based on texts. Which means that no matter how many countless sources I throw at you which say something you do not believe they could have believed, you will deny it.

Did you read my response to Rabbi Rosenthal, in which I point out various times that one occassion, fantastic aggada is used to determine halacha, something difficult to do if it were understood purely allegorically? That would be one way to try to pin down how some midrashim were intended.

More in another comment.

joshwaxman said...

"3. What I mean by "closely addressed the text" is not, chas v'shalom, that Rashi read the Torah like a six-year-old (although you appear to believe that our Tannaim and Amoraim did just that). What I mean, and I agree this is speculative, is that Rashi looked for Midrashim (regardless of their historical accuracy) that worked well within the text. Thus, for example, the Midrash of three stones merging into one accords with the Torah's switch from plural to singular, avanim to even."

Again, "like a 6 year old" are your words, not mine. My point is basically that, if you insist that only a 6 year old could maintain such a thing, then you risk (or end up) calling people who are orders of magnitude greater than you (or me) in Torah learning 6 year old.

In the case of Rashi, he does not merely cite the midrash on a verse closest to the text; he often uproots a midrash from one location to answer a difficulty in the text in another location - one that was not initially intended by the midrash. This may well be the mark of believing in the historical accuracy of the midrash.

There are others that you risk calling 6 year olds. Have you read the Rambam in perek chelek inside? If not, I posted it on my blog at the beginning of July. See here.

The Rambam discusses three groups amongst his contemporaries. The largest group, who are idiots, believe in the midrashim literally, and believe that the impossibilities in these midrashim are reality. Another large group, who are even bigger idiots, believe that Chazal intended the fantastic midrashim literally and thus dismiss Chazal. (I am closest to this second group of idiots, except I do not dismiss Chazal.) The last group, *who should not even be called a group because of their small number*, realize that there are hidden mysteries, and that Chazal are speaking in allegory. The Rambam counts himself amongst this last group.

*However*, this last group is relatively small. The vast majority of the "idiots" is just just. They include some rabbinic contemporaries of Rambam. We call them Rishonim. You call them 6 year olds.

The Rambam is allowed to do this, in my book, because he is a gaon olam, and a master of the Written and Oral Law. It is incredible arrogance for you to do the same.

Another 6 year old? How about the Maharatz Chayos, in his Mavo HaTalmud. That is an impressive work for a 6 year old to write! There, he does cite the Rambam abuot the three groups, but seems to read the topic as midrashim talking about the corporeality of God. (He also talks about *some* midrashim not intended as reality but rather to encourage the nation in Avodat Hashem.)

In the very beginning, he claims that many midrashim were actually history passed down father to son - and the derashot attaching them to pesukim are just mnemonic devices (quite similar to what he says about midrash halacha, as a matter of fact). As evidence of this, he shows how many midrashim found in Chazal are matched by recorded events in Josephus' Antiquities and Josephus' War of the Jews. He explicitly includes some of the more miraculous midrashim that you consider ridiculous.

Indeed, his first example is that Josephus writes that many Jews died in the three days of darkness, a midrash you claim only 6 year old could believe. That Chazal and Josephus agree on this, he takes as a sign that the midrash was actually history.

An interesting thing to note that this particular midrash is not actually found in Josephus. Presumably it was found in the Hebrew version of Josephus, Yosipon. And presumably someone appended this midrash to the Hebrew Josephus. Still, this is not the case for other midrashim he mentions. And we say that Maharatz Chayos thus believes in the historicity of this midrash.

I would note that even as we may disagree with Maharatz Chayos that this was history - presumably Josephus was smiply citing and incorporating midrashim in his history - we may deduce from here how (some) people in Josephus' day related to midrashim - they regarded them as history rather than allegory.

joshwaxman said...

"4. The term "common sense" denotes just that: not Avi Goldstein's common sense, but sense that is common to most rational beings."

who live in Western society in the 21th century. My common sense, and your common sense, to not necessarily translate to the time of Rashi, to the time of the Geonim, to the time of the Tanaaim and Amoraim.

To assume otherwise is just cultural bias.

To expand on one example that I mentioned earlier, how do you know that giants are an impossiblity in Chazal's thoughts, or in the thought of Chazal's gentile scientific contemporaries?

In your article, one impossibility you mention, that only a 6-year old could believe (so you say), is that Moshe was 20 feet tall. Let us use the actual statement, that Moshe was 10 cubits tall.

Is it possible that Chazal's rational contemporaries believed this as a natural possibility?

Here is a link to a Wikipedia article on Giants.

Citing from that article:
In Greek mythology the gigantes (γίγαντες) were (according to the poet Hesiod) the children of Uranos (Ουρανός) and Gaea (Γαία) (The Heaven and the Earth). They were involved in a conflict with the Olympian gods called the Gigantomachy (Γιγαντομαχία), which was eventually settled when the hero Heracles decided to help the Olympians. The Greeks believed some of them, like Enceladus, to lay buried from that time under the earth, and that their tormented quivers resulted in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Greek mythology also features the cyclopes (κύκλωπες) —well remembered for their encounter with Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey—giants (though not gigantes) with only one eye. The titans were as well often imagined to be of great size and strength, whence the word titanic.

Herodotus in Book 1, Chapter 68, describes how the Spartans uncovered in Tegea the body of Orestes which was seven cubits long -- around 10 feet. In his book The Comparison of Romulus with Theseus Plutarch describes how the Athenians uncovered the body of Theseus, which was of more than ordinary size. The kneecaps of Ajax were exactly the size of a discus for the boy's pentathlon," wrote Pausanias. A boy's discus was about twelve centimeters in diameter, while a normal adult patella is around five centimeters, suggesting Ajax may have been around 14 feet tall.


will continue this thought in next comment. need to put the baby to nap.

joshwaxman said...

Now, Hererodotus' works were intended as history (see here yet some questioned the veracity of some of what he wrote.

But note, he writes of someone's body being 7 cubits tall. If we trust this conversion made in the article of 7 cubits = 10 feet, then 10 cubits in the midrash may well be 14 feet (the size of Ajax). Still more than the recorded amount of 7 cubits, but not that much of a stretch (excuse the pun).

One people allowed for people that tall, even if the intent was a 20 feet Moshe, this is still not something that should be dismissed out of hand as ridiculous.

As to whether they actually believed in the truth of the Greek mythologies - that may be up for dispute. However, one should not simply casually dismiss the possibility just because of modern rationalist Western attitudes.

Furthermore, they may have encountered things which may have led them to believe in giants.

From that same Wikipedia article, there is mention of giants in North America (though it unclear whether to trust this):

"Aside from mythology and folklore, mysterious remains of giants have been found in America. Giants are usually classified as human-like remains that are 7'-5" or more in height. The book Forbidden Land by Robert Lyman recounts the following finds:

A decayed human skeleton claimed by eyewitnesses to measure around 3.28 metres (10 feet 9 inches tall), was unearthed by labourers while ploughing a vineyard in November 1856 in East Wheeling, now in West Virginia.

A human skeleton measuring 3.6 metres (12 foot) tall was unearthed at Lompock Rancho, California, in 1833 by soldiers digging in a pit for a powder magazine. The specimen had a double row of teeth and was surrounded by numerous stone axes, carved shells and porphyry blocks with abstruse symbols associated with it."


Of course, some of these claims are "rather dodgy," as one commentor notes in the discussion page of the Wikipedia article. But there are extremely large animals which may have been dug up - to cite on commenter:

"Prehistoric animals of colossal size; Mammoth, Bison, Camel, Bear, vulcher, and even beaver, of very large proportions have co-existed with our ancient ancestors in the dawn of pre-history between 2 million and 5,000 years ago in America and the entire globe. Examples of these giants would be: Teratornis-meriamii or Teratornis Woodburnensis, a giant vulcher whose wingspan spread between 12 and 20 feet wide. Or how about the Columbian, or Imperial mammoth who stood 12-16 feet at the shoulder, Giant short faced bears 10- 12 feet tall, Beavers 6 to 8 feet long, Bison 9 feet tall at the shoulder, and camels 12 to 18 feet high. Not to mention giant lizards and reptillians whose ancient bones were excavated by native peoples--and legends likely sprang from such early fossil discoveries, combined with actual live encounters between pleistocene animals and man.

To view the skeletons of such ancient giants, you need only visit a local museum of natural history."

If Chazal's contemporaries had dug up similar fossils, it is quite possible that they believed in enormous humans.

And it is also possible that the midrash involving Moshe is allegory. Just don't jump to an immediate conclusion, based on "common sense," which is just another name for "Avi Goldstein's experiences and perspectives."

joshwaxman said...

"5. I had about 1000 words in the article to set forth my views. It was not the place for extreme detail, and that is why I did not explore the different views of the 2 in 600,000 aggad'ta."

My immediate reaction to the statement that you were aware of other approaches (presumably including my own) was, "Wow! Baruch shekivanti!"

I don't try to look through many Rishonim and Acharonim in trying to figure out midrashim. Most commonly, I rely on my own skills of analysis developed over the course of several years learning midrashim deeply. (And this is note just one of other interpretations. To my mind, it is the most plausible on the basis of THE TEXT.) I don't know of a source that suggests what I did. Could you tell me where it is, so that I can add a note to my blogpost?

What I meant was not that you should discuss in great detail every midrash you cited. However, when I was first informed of your article by Happywithhislot, the thing that impressed him the most was yuor reductio ad absurdum that if one claims Chazal intended midrashim literally, one is FORCED to say that there were 180 billion in Egypt.

Indeed, in other comments on other websites in the blogosphere, it was this point that impressed them the most. Which is why I gave such prominence to it in my response, even including it in the title of the blogspost.

My point is that, if you were aware of other interpretations in which one could take this midrash literally and in which it was not so "ridiculous," then it is (intellectually) dishonest to withhold this information and claim you have a reductio ad absurdum.

Anonymous: I know I still have to get back to you.

joshwaxman said...

also, since you mention Rashbam, yuo might want to see this post, in which I discuss an example of Rashbam making use of a heavily midrashic work to give peshat - thus, taking the midrashic work historically.

That is, in explaining Ki Isha Kushit Lakach, he states that Moshe was married to the queen of Kush for 40 years, citing the heavily midrashic Divrei haYamim leMoshe Rabbenu as his source.

Anonymous said...

To Josh:

If you believe that Chazal could have believed in these exaggerated statements they made (which in truth were not meant literally), then according to you they believed in anything, even the impossible because you would be saying that there was no such thing as exaggeration to Chazal because everything, EVEN things we consider exaggerated and impossible for it to happen according to Chazal, could happen! So why would the Gemara in Chullin say that Chazal spoke in exaggerated terms? According to you, they believed anything including exaggerated and impossible statements, were true! This puts you and Chazal in a contradiction. Therefore it is impossible that Chazal truly believed these statements they made because in reality, they did not mean them literally.

joshwaxman said...

Oy!

That is not what I am saying at all.

Of course certain things that Chazal say are exaggeration, as Chazal themselves say.

However, before discounting something as exaggeration because YOU don't agree with it, stop and consider the possibility that THEY might not have considered *this particular case* to be exaggeration.

Chazal don't say that EVERYTHING is exaggeration; just that ON OCCASION they speak in exaggeration.

It is the very basic difference between SOME and ALL.

And determining each particular case should be based on analysis of Chazal's cultural environment; on other statements of Chazal; how such statements are used; and their relation to the source text.

They should not be based upon whether *WE* would consider such a thing impossible or ridiculous.

"According to you, they believed anything including exaggerated and impossible statements, were true!"

According to me, when they MADE various statements, they may have meant them literally in their entirety; on the other hand, they may have meant them as exaggeration.

joshwaxman said...

as an example, reading Maharatz Chajes, we see that he is willing to accept as historical various (certain) miraculous events.

but at the same time will say that certain numbers used over and over - 300, 13, etc., are exaggerations, and a mode of speech. And that certain statements like "the mountains said," or "the moon said" are meant allegorically.

joshwaxman said...

Also - I don't know if you are the same Anonymous as before - from your writing style, I would guss not. But please choose an arbitrary pseudonym - e.g. Anon, or A, or some such, such that I can keep track.

Thanks.

joshwaxman said...

Indeed, I said this in my initial blogpost. I wrote:

"Indeed, the Talmud does state that the rabbis spoke in exaggerated terms, such that some fantastic details are guzmas. But we must take care how we apply this dictum. If a detail is an explicit derivation from a verse, it is no longer a manner of speaking but rather the very substance of the derasha. We should not take statements out of context and apply them across the board to where Chazal never intended them."

joshwaxman said...

for example, the statement in Sanhedrin 110a that Korach took the wealth of Egypt, such that the KEYS to the treasures were carried by 300 (note the common exaggerated number) camels; and these keys were made of leather; were they made of metal, they would not have been able to carry them.

Such is in all likelihood an exaggerated statement.

Compare that with the statement that Esther had green skin, taken by R Pinchas Rosenthal as clearly allegorical. As I note in this blogpost it is quite possible that what is meant is a sallow, or a pale complexion... and that it was meant literally.

Even nissim, miracles, may be intended literally - e.g. that Bilaam levitated and Pinchas brought him down with the tzitz, in the midrash on this week's parsha - MIGHT (or might not) be intended literally. But this is not perforce the same as exaggeration, as in the case of Korach's camels.

joshwaxman said...

Original Anonymous:

I now have a bit of time (about 45 mins) so I'll see if I can briefly respond.

"... but there are many other problems with literal interpretation of that midrash, some of which I've already indicated."

...
"I disagree completely with that reading of the stama degemara."

There are indeed difficulties understanding that gemara. e.g. What exactly did Abba Shaul experience? If we take it as intended literally, we can assume he was not fictionalizing it. (Though note that in both instances, he experiences something that could be completely natural - a lengthy rock formation, and e.g. a dinosaur or whale skull - and it is others who tell him a legendary explanation for what it is.)

Yet what exactly does the stama degemara mean here? (I am in fact perfectly willing to posit an allegorical interpretation for either or both of the sources - the eye-socket one and the up-to-the-shoulders one, but the way the stama degemara links the two in explanation, saying "and don't say that Abba Shaul was a dwarf" strongly suggests to me that the stama, at least, read these sources literally.

joshwaxman said...

Further Original Anonymous:

"agree with your larger point, but think that eg with this preconception:

"If a detail is an explicit derivation from a verse, it is no longer a manner of speaking but rather the very substance of the derasha. "

you are going to be taking midrashim literally that others will think ought not to be so taken. I've disputed this point in the past on this blog."

Yes, but your disputing of this point won't really hold me back from making it. Maharatz Chayes says something quite similar to what yuo say - that midrashim are either intended as allegorical or are historical, but in almost all cases, the derasha is not actually what generates the midrash, but is merely something upon which to hang ones hat, for mnemonic purposes are to let it better enter the heart of the hearer. (He says more or less the same for halachic midrash.) He makes a good argument for this, based on sources, but I disagree with him in understanding of these sources and in his general approach.

My reason for disagreement, as I've stated before, are the many times a midrash does NOT explicitly cite a verse, or cites a foreign verse but not the local one - when there is a hidden derasha that generates the midrash.

One example of this is the midrashim about Pinchas, Zimri, and Cozbi, as I discussed in this post, which is predicated on how one understands "hakuba," "kubata," and "achar."

joshwaxman said...

"I understand, but my point was that you can't rush to the conclusion that "modern scientific knowledge" is the reason for any given dispute...
That is also imposing a potentially inaccurate preconception, just from the reverse direction."

I agree.

Note it is not just modern scientific knowledge, but also differing hashkafa and philosophy.

Plus also that I believe they were authentic Perushim, who believed in the truth of Torah sheBaal Peh and the legitimacy of facts deduced via the middot sheHatorah Nidreshet bahem.

And while the medieval commentators (Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Abarbanel, etc.) were also perushim, even as they explored the level of peshat, I believe that most modern Orthodox base on these meforshim and go further, to the point where they are all neo-Karaaites.

And they mask this fact by transforming every midrash into allegory - not just the "irrational" (by 21st century standards) ones, but also the ones that are simply based on midrashic methods of derivation.

When approaching a midrash that seems to us to be "irrational," we should consider both the possibility that it is allegorical and the possibility that this is the result of a cultural difference.

And sometimes this is unresolvable; and sometimes one might make a guess based on various features and clues.

joshwaxman said...

""I think most of the people involved in the dispute in modern times are not qualified or equipped to analyze midrash.(the subject of a later blogpost of whether only "gedolim" are qualified to render these decisions.)"

it's mostly a matter of not paying attention. (depending on how you define "gadol" some of them are not paying particular attention to midrash) "

And that is where I disagree with you. I think that most people today are simply not equipped to deal with midrash, as a matter of innate skill and training. And the "gedolim," as I hope to outline later, are not necessarily rabbis with long flowing beards.

For instance, I would consider the following folks qualified (or to possess some of the qualifications) to make statements on these matters (though I might, and actually do, disagree with their conclusions):

Nechama Leibowitz
Yechezkel Kutcher
Rav Shmuel Pinchas Gelbard
Dr. Richard Steiner

I think one needs to be well versed in a large body of midrashic literature, have extensive training in Biblical philology and Semitic linguistics, and have a punny sense of humor.

I think most people, *even paying attention,* would not be able to conduct an analysis of a midrash even on the level that I performed on the aforementioned midrashim about Pinchas, Cozbi, and Zimri.

This includes even some great Rabbonim - because they are not trained in this particular skill set, or in analyzing midrashim from the perspective of Biblical philology.

joshwaxman said...

"If your argument is that many people just say "allegorical midrash" at the first sign of trouble, I'm with you. You seem to go further, in practice if not in theory."

True and true.

Kol Tuv.

joshwaxman said...

btw, in the above list, some I meant in terms of analysis of midrashim and some I meant in terms of understanding Rashi's intent, another issue that has been raised in the comment section.

avakesh said...

I just posted a discussion of fantastic measurements in the thought of Chazal, see http://www.avakesh.com/2007/01/fantastic_aggad.html

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