Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Vayera: Rivka's Age

I am unimpressed with many of the takes on the parsha that I've seen on other sites. I am not go ingaround commenting/picking fights on each of them because it would not be useful and would just cause me aggravation.

One thing I have seen is that people in general have an unsophisticated view of midrash. Midrash is a close reading of text, which picks up on fine points, details and nuances. It often serves a homiletic purpose, or emphasises/exaggerates features that are in the literal story itself. It is also an art form.

Those who take every midrash absolutely literally are missing the point. Those who try to harmonize competing midrashim are missing the point. Those who are upset at the midrash and rail against it because they think it improbable or against a literal reading are also missing the point.

Consider DovBear's recent post about how old Rivka was when she married. He takes issue with the claim that she was three, and rails against the teachers in elementary school for only teaching this opinion. I am frankly surprised that people wouldn't realize that this is midrash and that there are other possible midrashic and non-midrashic views. Did DovBear just discover this, or does his typical readership not know this? The view given in Rashi is based on the math that he gives, based in turn on "assumptions," but these "assumptions" are based on the hermeneutic devices - for example, of smichut in Bereishit 22:19-24, juxtaposing the end of the Binding of Yitzchak with Avraham being informed of children born to Nachor, mentioning the children:

יט וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל-נְעָרָיו, וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל-בְּאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם, בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע. 19 So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba.
כ וַיְהִי, אַחֲרֵי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וַיֻּגַּד לְאַבְרָהָם, לֵאמֹר: הִנֵּה יָלְדָה מִלְכָּה גַם-הִוא, בָּנִים--לְנָחוֹר אָחִיךָ. 20 And it came to pass after these things, that it was told Abraham, saying: 'Behold, Milcah, she also hath borne children unto thy brother Nahor...
and then focusing on only one of Nachor's children, again mentioning only one child - Rivkah, and not her brother Lavan:

כג וּבְתוּאֵל, יָלַד אֶת-רִבְקָה; שְׁמֹנָה אֵלֶּה יָלְדָה מִלְכָּה, לְנָחוֹר אֲחִי אַבְרָהָם. 23 And Bethuel begot Rebekah; these eight did Milcah bear to Nahor, Abraham's brother.
The focusing on Rivkah right after the narrative, the statement that this informing happened right afterwards ( וַיְהִי, אַחֲרֵי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה), the mentioning specifically of Rivah (who we know will be married to Yitzchak), with the implication that what Avraham is being told in verse 20 is of the latest addition - that is Rivka's birth, all seem to suggest Rivka being born around the time of the Akeida. This is one feature, amongst many, that all contribute to the idea of a a 3 year old Rivka at the time of betrothal, described two chapters afterwards, after Sarah's death. Other features are similarly derived. On the level of message, we see early on the idea of God's hand in arranging the match. Yiztchak survives the ordeal, and God blesses Avraham that He will ensure that his seed multiply (see two psukim earlier, 22:17). And here Yitzchak's destined mate is waiting for him, having just been born. This foreshadows the Divine Hand in arranging the match that we see later, when Avraham's servant (Eliezer or not Eliezer) travels to Charan.

(Of course, one could also read the juxtaposition, and Avraham's being informed about his brother Nachor as a smooth transition, a segue, from the personal, "J" account, into the "P" account, which operates on a macro-level, giving us genealogical details so that we can fit the individual up-close-and-personal stories into the greater scheme of history. We are told of Rivka's birth because this is the place for a genealogical account that gets us up-to-date before proceeding. Please note - I use "J" and "P" as I always do, not in ascribing different authorship, but recognizing different styles used to achieve different aims - here, the macro vs. micro level of detail.)

There is much more to this midrash, but I am not in the mood to flesh it out now. Unfortunately, people are not trained sufficiently and properly in grammar, in midrash, and in literature (and in the connection between the three) to understand midrash on a sophisticated level.

And so, the reaction I see is similar to that of a petulant child - he is upset that he is being misled by his teachers who told him fairy tales. This misses out on the nuances of the midrash, and fails to appreciate its beauty and import.

As to why he only heard one opinion of Rivka's age when he was in elementary school? This is sound from a pedagogical perspective. While adults can understand dispute about details, what will a typical 2nd grader make of it? What was her age? How does this fit in with other details, also which are under dispute? It is far better to give one account that is more-or-less consistent (there will always be minor inconsistencies because different midrashim will naturally be inconsistent with each other), based on the popular commentary Rashi. Hopefully, as one matures, one will learn the text with other meforshim, such that he will realize that a matter like this is under dispute. But hopefully he will also become aware of nuances in the text that spark these differences of opinion, as well as learn techniques of close textual analysis to appreciate the midrashim on a far deeper level than one can as a kindergartener.

I was also amused by his post on Angels, with his nitpicks and possible answers. I will not go into just why here - I have to finish a book on Syntactic Parallelism by 4 PM - but one really heretical observation: note his assumption that there are three angels at play.


DovBear said...

Yes, this is exactly why I object to the widespread beleif that Rivka was three. The truth - ie the point the Midrash was trying to make - is far more complicated, but how many Jews ever get around to investigating the issue? Instead they go thtrough life imagining that Rivka was three, according to our "authentic, traditional, beleif" and that’s where it ends. A little sad, no?

joshwaxman said...

I think I reacted to the (perceived) offhand rejection of Rashi and the midrash as being silly, without giving them their due. In other words, the rejection as a fairy-tale, and the bolstering of Ibn Ezra as an alternative.

People do not realize the *awesome* textual and linguistic sensitivity of Chazal in midrash, and how midrash emerges from the text. As I argue many times on this blog, midrash *always* emerges from the text. While your post was rejecting Rashi/the midrash on pshat grounds, which is acceptable (in fact, Ibn Ezra does it!), I would liked to have seen some mention of the depth of the midrash. So perhaps it was more a reaction to tone.

On one level, Rashi and the midrash are looking at the text as a whole, and are optimizing certain features at the expense of others (here, some slight implausibility of certain actions she takes at the age of three). Ibn Ezra optimizes for other features.

And further, I am not convinced that *Rashi* (or Chazal who authored the midrash) felt that the midrash was not at the same time literally true on the ground in Charan. It is, rather, likely that he felt it could be literally true. (It depends on what their view of pshat and drash was.) He would arrive at this conclusion from various close readings. We might disagree with him in those conclusions, but the fact remains that he (and Chazal) were *awesome* in ways that most do not imagine. The depth and breadth of their familiarity with Tanach, and their keen sense for the nuances of the text is unmatched by you or me. Ideally, one should try to develop a similar feel for the text, but for people who only know the midrash, they have someone upon whom to rely.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin