Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Further Perils of Taking Midrashim Figuratively -- Vashti's Tail

I think that there are midrashim that were intended allegorically. Just as (I think) there are midrashim that were intended literally. But articles like this demonstrate the perils of this approach.

Vashti had a tail, and that was why she refused to appear before the king. What? That is ridiculous! A human being does not suddenly develop a tail! How are we, as rational human beings, to make sense of this?

At lookstein.org, a teacher in a Jewish girls junior high school teacher explains how she deals with this thorny issue in general, and with this difficult midrash in particular:
However, I have another alternative. If I can take this midrash and interpret the words in such a way that an inner meaning emerges which conforms to reason and reveals a hidden truth, and thereby highlights the purpose of midrash and the wisdom and insight of our Rabbis, then I will choose to teach and share this midrash with my class.
What is this interpretation of the midrash that shows the inner meaning?
In this vein, I have offered the following suggested interpretation to my classes concerning the midrash of Vashti’s tail. Who has a tail? A horse, a dog, a cat, a cow... in short ,animals have tails. When Vashti was called to appear before Ahasverosh and his guests, she became so enraged that she lost all sense of reason and logical thought and grew a tail. She became as irrational as an animal, and as emotionally caught up in getting back at her attacker as any animal naturally would.
Snort.

I'll address in a moment the reason for the snort, and how this interpretation has nothing to do with the midrash. I want to first highlight the next paragraph, which is much to the writer's credit:
This is my own interpretation of the midrash, and I emphasize to my classes that it is only my understanding, and therefore they are free to accept or reject it, just as you the reader are free to do. What is important here is not this particular midrashic interpretation, but rather the approach to midrash which I am trying to convey.
Thus, she realizes that her interpretation is just that, an interpretation, and leaves the possibility of other interpretation open. Her point is that an allegorical option is open, and this particular example was just an illustration of how one might so interpret.

The problem with her interpretation is that it is really really bad. It does not conform to the theme the midrash is trying to convey, as would have been apparent had she looked at the midrash in its original context, in Megillah 12b:

אמר להם אחשורוש כלי שאני משתמש בו אינו לא מדיי ולא פרסי אלא כשדיי רצונכם לראותה אמרו לו אין ובלבד שתהא ערומה שבמדה שאדם מודד בה מודדין לו מלמד שהיתה ושתי הרשעה מביאה בנות ישראל ומפשיטן ערומות ועושה בהן מלאכה בשבת היינו דכתיב אחר הדברים האלה כשוך חמת המלך אחשורוש זכר את ושתי ואת אשר עשתה ואת אשר נגזר עליה כשם שעשתה כך נגזר עליה ותמאן המלכה ושתי מכדי פריצתא הואי דאמר מר שניהן לדבר עבירה נתכוונו מ"ט לא אתאי א"ר יוסי בר חנינא מלמד שפרחה בה צרעת במתניתא תנא [בא גבריאל ועשה לה זנב]

What is going on here? Achashverosh wanted Vashti to appear before them naked. This was picked up from the theme of appearing before them to show off her beauty, as well as quite possibly from:
יא לְהָבִיא אֶת-וַשְׁתִּי הַמַּלְכָּה, לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ--בְּכֶתֶר מַלְכוּת: לְהַרְאוֹת הָעַמִּים וְהַשָּׂרִים אֶת-יָפְיָהּ, כִּי-טוֹבַת מַרְאֶה הִיא. 11 to bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look on.
leharot - to display, as well as from beketer malchut - with her crown, and nothing else. Agree or disagree with this theme being developed as actual intent of the text, this is the sort of theme being developed. Thus, the gemara states ובלבד שתהא ערומה . This is cast as middah kineged middah, especially as this is also a major theme in Chazal, in midrashim, and in the plain text of the megillah, since the hidden hand of God directs events such that all the evildoers are getting their just desserts {from French - just deserves) while the righteous prevail. Thus, she is being cast here as an evildoer, and so the gemara elaborates on what the did wrong in the past. The specific derasha is made on ואת אשר עשתה ואת אשר נגזר עליה, what she had done and was was decreed upon her, as a reference to middah kineged middah.

Finally, the gemara states: ותמאן המלכה ושתי מכדי פריצתא הואי דאמר מר שניהן לדבר עבירה נתכוונו מ"ט לא אתאי א"ר יוסי בר חנינא מלמד שפרחה בה צרעת במתניתא תנא [בא גבריאל ועשה לה זנב.
"Vashti the queen refused" - let us see. She was a prutza! For Master said: both of them (Vashti and Achashverosh) intended to sin. If so, for what reason did she not come? Rabbi Rossi bar Chanina said: This teaches that she developed an outbreak of leprosy. In a brayta they teach that (the angel) Gavriel came and fashioned for her a tail."
Compare this which what this teacher wrote in explaining this midrash:
Who has a tail? A horse, a dog, a cat, a cow... in short ,animals have tails. When Vashti was called to appear before Ahasverosh and his guests, she became so enraged that she lost all sense of reason and logical thought and grew a tail. She became as irrational as an animal, and as emotionally caught up in getting back at her attacker as any animal naturally would.
In this account and "explanation" of the midrash, Vashti disliked the king's suggestion and was offended by it. Her reaction is one of rage. Meanwhile, if the author had simply looked at the original context, she would have seen that this "explanation" is entirely implausible, for the introduction emphasised how Vashti liked the idea of displaying herself in a lewd manner. Why would she then become so "enraged?"

From context, it is clear that the felt ashamed because of some new development which marred her beauty and made her embarrassed to appear nude in public.

We cannot really fault this teacher, because in many Jewish schools for girls, opening up a gemara is strongly discouraged. She probably never saw it inside in the gemara, and did not think to look it up in the original context. And probably would not give the students in her class gemaras to look at this source inside. Or perhaps she would. I don't know her or her teaching methodology.

In this instance, though, she did not. The result was that she proposed an allegorical explanation that sounds good (to some people, at least - my reaction was a snort), but which bears no relation to the intent of Chazal.

A better approach would be to see the original context in which the statement occurs, to see what theme Chazal are developing there, and to examine what cues they are picking up from the text.

Did they mean it allegorically? Perhaps. Perhaps not. They are deriving all the details from derashot on the text. Thus, as Tosafot points out, the derasha for leprosy from Esther 2:1:
וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר-נִגְזַר עָלֶיהָ, where the word nigzar occurs here as well as in 2 Chronicles 26, in describing King Uzziyah who developed leprosy. See there, and see Tosafot. I would suggest that the source for developing a tail was at least in part from the earlier phrase, וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂתָה, which shares the word asah with the statement בא גבריאל ועשה לה זנב. Thus, we might interpret/translate "and that which he (Gavriel) had made for her (the tail)." Why a tail? I have not as of yet discovered the basis of every detail of the midrash, but fairly regularly they are derived in some way from a verse in some place.

So, did they actually believe it? This teacher subscribes to the view that a miracle would have been mentioned explicitly in the text had it occurred. Indeed, Ibn Ezra agrees to this. But he argued with contemporaries who held the opposite. Thus, his contemporaries maintained that Yocheved gave birth to Moshe at the tender age of 130. If Ibn Ezra's disputants could hold this, perhaps earlier Chazal could have held this as well.

We need to realize that we might have a very different general worldview than they did back then. If so, taking what was intended literally (if it was indeed intended literally) and consistently reinterpreting it as allegory simply because we disagree with it destroys original intent. Chazal, we believed in sheidim, could well believe (or perhaps they did not) that an angel made Vashti grow a tail in order to advance the narrative and the hidden agenda of God, to get Esther into the palace.

Further, Chazal live in a world where truth in halacha is derived not explicitly from the verse, but from applying hermenuetical methods. That some detail is only revealed by a derasha might be reason for us to doubt it, because truth be told a lot of us are modern day Karaites in attitude. Chazal might have used derasha for homiletical purpose in case of narrative aggada sometimes, but it is quite possible that they felt they were revealing true hidden details that were meant to be exposed via derasha.

If I were to interpret allegorically, which is indeed a possibility, I would focus on theme, as above. Say it was not something as striking as a tail or leprosy. Say that she had an allergic reaction to the food at her banquet and developed a skin rash. Say she developed a mole or an unsightly growth on a place that would normally be covered -- such as where a tail might grow from. Say she had put on a little bit of weight recently. She thus had no problem conceptually with lewdly displaying herself, but did not think she would display herself to the best advantage at that time, while Achashverosh apparently did.

Thus, without adopting the tail or the leprosy entirely literally, we still maintain the effect and theme Chazal were trying to create.

Now, let us say I disagree with this theme. Or let us say I think Chazal meant it literally, and would consider such an interpretation as contrary to sechel. What should my reaction be?

Well, it depends who you ask. Some would think, or shout "koifer." Indeed, this "some" includes some big names, some Rishonim and Acharonim. Think Ran in derashot haRan. Think Alshich. They hold that midrashim are tradition passed from Sinai (or in this case from Esther), and we may not divert to the right or the left. (And that there is dispute about what happened? There is dispute about halacha as well. Perhaps one reflects the true tradition and the other is wrong.)

You have others upon whom to rely. For example, Shmuel haNaggid and R' Avraham son of the Rambam both say that only halacha is from Sinai from God's mouth, but narrative aggada was just the author of the aggada's personal opinion, and you have the right to argue. This approach, of course, has its own dangers, but where we diffuse the impact of interpreting the intent of Chazal as literal, we have opportunity to delve into what they actually meant, without worrying that we then must set aside our own judgments. Otherwise, if whatever we say was their intent we must believe, then either we believe what they actually believed or else we change what they say by appealing to allegory to first transform what they believed into what we believed.

There are perils of offering allegorical interpretations unbound by an examination of original context and influenced by one's own attitudes. I will end by offering some of my own "explanations" of the midrash. I will try to make them offensive so that there is no danger of them being taken seriously. But I want to show that you can come up with any nonsense and read it into the text, because that is exactly what the human brain is conditioned to do -- make up explanations.

As she wrote:
This is my own interpretation of the midrash, and I emphasize to my classes that it is only my understanding, and therefore they are free to accept or reject it, just as you the reader are free to do. What is important here is not this particular midrashic interpretation, but rather the approach to midrash which I am trying to convey.
So let us see. What has a tail? A monkey has a tail. Vashti was being punished for being "uppity," for wanting to expand the role of women. She was being punished for reading the ketubba under the chuppa at her friend's wedding. Indeed, this is why Vashti made her own party for the women, and why Achashverosh stressed that the man should be master in his household, underscoring how Vashti was trying to take control.

Alternatively -- another midrash relates that Chava was created from Adam's tail (not rib as translation of tzela). That she grew a tail is meant to convey how she was now separating from her husband, and becoming her own person. But she forgot that her role was to be ezer kenegdo!

Alternatively -- on Rosh haShana, we eat significant foods. We eat a head of lettuce (/sheep/fish), to show that we should be the rosh and not the zanav. The point here is that this was the cause of Vashti's downfall, and she would no longer be the head, as queen, but degraded, as the tail.

I can go on. Do any of these really relate to what Chazal intended? My reaction to these three suggestions above is -- quite properly -- Snort! But they are about on the same level as the author's suggestion. And this type of fluff and nonsense is what often enough passes for interpretation in some girls schools. I would trust myself to give an allegorical interpretation in many instances. But in choosing this particular interpretation, in an article advocating the approach, the author also demonstrates the perils of taking midrashim figuratively.

9 comments:

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Have you ever considered writing a book on midrash, on the interplay between peshat and derash, literal and allegorical?

I think you should consider it.

joshwaxman said...

thanks for the compliment.

i've actually been thinking about it the past year or so...

Anonymous said...

Human tail do exists as an atavism.Of course it appears congenitaly since embryo development.Not in adult life.
See image at www.creation-vs-evolution.us

Obviously if Vashti was bearer of such malformation would be very enraged to show herself nude.

Shimon

Anonymous said...

"SNORT"? Does your usage not bear a striking resemblance to this "uppity" behavior you describe?

Joe in Australia said...

I think another basis for the midrash is that "כְּשֹׁ֕ךְ חֲמַ֖ת הַמֶּ֣לֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרֹ֑ושׁ זָכַ֤ר אֶת־וַשְׁתִּי֙", after Achashverosh's anger was appeased he remembered Vashti. The king wanted to take her back but there was an obstacle - there was something "אֲשֶׁר־נִגְזַ֖ר עָלֶֽיהָ", a decree which was upon her. So if we take "upon her" literally then it was either a skin condition or something attached to her, leprosy or a tail.

This is why the king's servants suggest that "יְבַקְשׁ֥וּ לַמֶּ֛לֶךְ נְעָרֹ֥ות בְּתוּלֹ֖ות טֹובֹ֥ות מַרְאֶֽה" - that young virgins of good appearance be brought for the king. Why bother saying that the king should find someone who is attractive? Well, one explanation is that Vashti had never been very pretty, and her position was due to her high birth (as we find in another midrash). Another explanation is the one above: Achashverosh would have taken Vashti back but she was now phenomenally ugly and therefore unsuitable. Hence the midrash.

Anonymous said...

It's nice that you recognize that people did not think the same way as us. It's a shame that you don't recognize that there was no concept of litterally back then.

As for the tail, the animal part is right but the reaction is wrong. Gavriel made her realize she was acting like an animal which gave her shame. Gavriel is often used in midrash this way.

joshwaxman said...

shaming aside, evidence please.

for (1) there was no concept of 'literally' back then.
(also, please define literal, as distinct from historical)

for (2) Gavriel often used in the midrash in this way. (e.g. pushing Moshe's hand, or Ish Tzar Veoyev by Esther, might be good ones to put forth.)

Anonymous said...

1) litteral. The words mean what you cognitively think they mean. But that was not how the populace worked. Words had conotative and emotional meaning beyond all else. If it rhymed, it stuck, if it stuck it was 'true'. In this case tail doesn't mean tail, it means the emotion you have when you think of someone with a tail.

2) I once saw this written on Judaism.stackexchange, I'll find the link.

Anonymous said...

Here is the link about Gabriel in midrash.

http://judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/13569/what-does-the-angel-gavriel-represent

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