Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Am I Inconsistent In Ascribing Figurative or Literal Properties to Midrashim?

An anonymous commenter asked a good question on my previous post about the need to teach ikkarei emunah explicitly in schools. A student was asked by a bus driver whether Jews believed that God was corporeal, and he knew absolutely that the answer was "Yes" because of a midrash cited in the gemara that God wears tefillin which has written on it "Mi KeAmecha Yisrael Goy Echad BaEretz." To answer with such certainty, and without apparently knowing the default position of Rambam which occurs in Yigdal and Ani Maamin, immediately assuming the most literal of interpretations of this midrash and not seeing any potential problem with it betrays, in my opinion, a tragic ignorance of the ikkarei emunah.

But the anonymous commenter made a good point. Here is what he asked:
I don't understand why the God-has-a-body midrashim must be taken figuratively, but you are unwilling to do so for virtually any other midrash. What is the source for this distinction?

Indeed, it is a good question. Especially since everybody takes the Rambam about certain "impossible" midrashim, such as God having a body or a mountain or the moon talking, and extending it to anything they deem impossible, such as any miracle, or miracles which can be cast as silly, such Vashti having a tail. What basis do I have to make such a distinction, such that I subscribe to a figurative explanation for the former but not for the latter?

In fact, I do not exclusively reserve figurative interpretations to that narrow scope, and am willing to entertain it for any midrash or aggada. Indeed, in a critique of a recent post on Lazer Beams, I said that the aggada was indeed figurative. And indeed, I am willing to consider a literal interpretation for God-has-a-body midrashim.

However, in making the determination, I try (or at least I think I do) to base myself not on my own feelings as to the likelihood of the midrash being historically true (which I think is the most common stumbling block), but rather by what Chazal may or may not have held, and also by analyzing the context to get a sense of their intent and aims in stating the midrash.

This particular midrash has a very homiletic feel to it, in which explicitly the idea is that Israel's singular devotion to Hashem is matched by Hashem's singular devotion to his people. The midrash occurs on Berachot 6a, which is extremely relevant because where Rambam speaks of the idiots of his day who take certain midrashim literally, he explicitly refers to the midrashim he means, namely the ones in perek Chelek as well as the ones in gemara Berachot. Indeed, everything else aside, if I wished to merely appeal to authority, I could appeal to the Rambam in his introduction to perek Chelek and note the circumscribed domain to which he applied his statement (see inside).

But even without that, the character of the midrash has much to recommend it as homily.

The gemara reads:

א"ר אבין בר רב אדא א"ר יצחק מנין שהקב"ה מניח תפילין שנאמר (
ישעיהו סב) נשבע ה' בימינו ובזרוע עוזו בימינו זו תורה שנאמר (דברים לג) מימינו אש דת למו ובזרוע עוזו אלו תפילין שנאמר (תהילים כט) ה' עוז לעמו יתן ומנין שהתפילין עוז הם לישראל דכתי' (דברים כח) וראו כל עמי הארץ כי שם ה' נקרא עליך ויראו ממך ותניא ר' אליעזר הגדול אומר אלו תפילין שבראש א"ל רב נחמן בר יצחק לרב חייא בר אבין הני תפילין דמרי עלמא מה כתיב בהו א"ל (דברי הימים א יז) ומי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ ומי משתבח קוב"ה בשבחייהו דישראל אין דכתיב (דברים כו) את ה' האמרת היום <וכתיב> וה' האמירך היום אמר להם הקב"ה לישראל אתם עשיתוני חטיבה אחת בעולם ואני אעשה אתכם חטיבה אחת בעולם אתם עשיתוני חטיבה אחת בעולם שנאמר (דברים ו) שמע ישראל ה' אלהינו ה' אחד ואני אעשה אתכם חטיבה אחת בעולם שנאמר ומי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ אמר ליה רב אחא בריה דרבא לרב אשי תינח בחד ביתא בשאר בתי מאי א"ל (דברים ד) כי מי גוי גדול ומי גוי גדול (דברים לג) אשריך ישראל (דברים ד) או הנסה אלהים (דברים כו) ולתתך עליון אי הכי נפישי להו טובי בתי אלא כי מי גוי גדול ומי גוי גדול דדמיין להדדי בחד ביתא אשריך ישראל ומי כעמך ישראל בחד ביתא או הנסה אלהים בחד ביתא ולתתך עליון בחד ביתא וכולהו כתיבי באדרעיה:


At any rate, my response to him was more elaborate and broader than the above, and it is a shame to leave it in the comments, unseen by anyone, so I reproduce it here:
It's a good question that deserved asking. Correspondingly, my response will need to be lengthy and non-trivial. Thus, I'll get to the issue of midrash in a while. Bear with me, please.

Indeed, this is what I meant in referring to Marc Shapiro's book. Rambam is by no means the only possible position one can take on the issue of God's corporeality. It is, however, the most widely accepted in the educated Jewish world as a rough *default* position. I addressed this a bit in my post on "The Outer Limits of Orthodox Theology.".

To be as objective as possible, I would note that as to the issue of God's corporeality or lack thereof, there are a number of things to evaluate separately.

a) The objective reality - is God corporeal or not.
b) The Biblical conception of God's corporeality (assuming this is consistent across Tanach).
c) The Pharisee conception of God's corporeality.
d) The approach of various medieval Jewish commentators, kabbalists, and other rabbis as to God's corporeality or lack thereof.

Perhaps a=b=c=d, or perhaps there is some gap.

As to (a), I must profess ignorance. I can try to get a handle on (a) by drawing conclusions about (b), (c), and (d).

In terms of Biblical conception of God's corporeality or lack thereof, we have evidence such as a possible careful reading Vayera that goes against the traditional midrashic (and thus Pharisee) interpretation which would have God in human form accompanied by *two* angels visit Avraham. We have things like Yeshaya's prophecy, which might be taken literally. We have the fact that Adam was created betzelem Elokim. This *might,* or might not, show that God either *always* has human form or can assume human form at will.

On the other hand, while that may or may not be peshat in those instances, there are other references to Divine anatomy that, even or especially on a peshat level, are to be taken allegorically. Knowing to take something allegorically is a hard thing to prove - it involves developing a sense of the text and a sense of Biblical style. Thus, it is an art as much as a science. But when I see the Egyptian magicians say that something that they cannot perform is "the Divine finger," and see that the writing on the Ten Commandments was also written with "the Divine finger," I can make an assessment that this is an idiom connoting wondrousness and something outside of typical human experience, and can assess that it does not mean that God literally engraved in the luchot with His Mighty Pinky.

Similarly, when Biblical *poetry* praises Hashem for mighty deed by calling Him an Ish Milchama, I don't take this as evidence of corporeality but rather correctly understand it as poetic allegory.

The same for Yad Hashem, where the connotation is mightiness.

This has nothing to do with whether other instances may or may not intend to ascribe corporeality to God. It is about getting a feel for the theme of the text and what role the specific phrase plays. And in this, I find Rambam fairly convincing on the level of peshat about many of the descriptions of God.

This, of course, does not necessarily mean that early Chazal held the same conception that I do (whatever conception I may have) or even one that is equal to the Biblical perspective.

Once again, in order to determine what Chazal meant, we need to examine the context of their statements and decide whether corporeality was intended.

My criticism of the student on the bus, of his friend, and of the school was not based on the particular conclusion he came to about God's corporeality or about the meaning of that midrash. Rather, in order to come up with this "proof" of God's corporeality, and be so utterly convinced so as to respond earnestly to the Christian bus driver about this as the Jewish position, you must be utterly aware of the position of the Rambam on this statement. You must be unaware that the Rambam would take issue with such a literal interpretation of this midrash, and would provide an allegorical one. Rather, you would hear a midrash in the gemara, not wrestle with any theological issues whatsoever, not consider any cues within the midrash itself that it is allegorical (I'll get to that in a moment), but simply take it at its utmost face value.

That reflects a tragic level of ignorance of ikkarei emuna.

Now, to determine what Pharisee Chazal held about God's corporeality, we have to assess various sources. Perhaps they were unanimous in their assessment of this issue, or perhaps not.

If they were unanimous, we can perhaps take certain statements of Pharisaic Chazal that seem to decry statements of God's corporeality/visibility as heretical. Thus, see my post on parshablog here about the tragic death of the prophet Isaiah. He was killed by King Menashe on the assumption that his statements contradicted the Torah, for he claimed to see Hashem. Of course, one can take this many ways. We would need to go through all various statements and see whether there is unambiguous rejection of corporeality anywhere.

However, we could or should take each midrash independently as well, and see from content and context if we can assess whether it was intended literally or figuratively.

In the context of this particular midrash, there are certain poetic elements inherent in God matching Israel's devotion to Him and Him alone by wearing parallel tefillin that describe His devotion to them and them alone as a nation, that strongly suggests that an allegorical interpretation is due here.

This is not due to my own conceptions about God's corporeality or lack thereof, but an assessment based on features of the midrash itself. It calls out to me "darsheni!"

Also, while I often argue against midrashim being taken figuratively, as I tried to stress, this is not to say that I would not often find allegorical interpretations the most compelling.

However, the criteria for deciding a midrash's literalness or figurativeness must be (or so I posit) internal factors, rather than external factors such as what one (in modern times) would like to believe.

Recently, I wrote a post about whether Rav Nachman predicted Erez Lavanon's murder. In the course of that post, I noted that a cryptic statement in the gemara had features that would lead one to take it allegorically. See there for what I mean. But this must be done carefully, on a case by case basis.

And when one proffers an allegorical explanation, one should first take care to understand the midrash in context, see what features/themes of the text are being picked up on, and offer an explanation in line with that, rather than just making one up off the cuff.


Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Josh, the most obvious indication of the Tanach's position on this issue is the prohibition of images. Although you can rationalize it away, the simple peshat of why the Torah rejects idolatry is that God cannot be represented physically.

In terms of Chazal, of course Onkelos is the best proof of their position - and his Targum wasn't just his own personal view, it was accepted as the authoritative translation by all of Babylonian Jewry and considered "misinai".

joshwaxman said...

good points.

without wanting to argue too much in favor of corporeality, I would point out that many scholars argue that Israelite conception of idolatry was simply fetishism, the worship of the idol itself rather than as the symbol of a living deity. They try to bring proof by the type of mocking comments and what arguments prophets bring to try to dissuade people from idolatry. If they only considered idolatry as fetishism, then it is more difficult to argue that the injunction against creating graven images is based on God's incorporeality.

In terms of Onkelos, I agree, and was initially going to point this out in my post, but for lack of space and because of lack of explicit statement in the gemara about this. We encountered something fairly close to this in daf Yomi the other day, at the end of Megillah, where one who translates (renders Targum) literally is a liar and one who adds is a blasphemer, and Ran elaborates based on Onkelos. Still, it is Ran who does this elaboration.

To cite from my post on Alfasi:
Rabbi Yehuda says: If one translates a verse according to its form {literally}, he is a liar, and if one adds, he is a blasphemer.

{Ran gives this illustrative example: Shemot 24:10
י וַיִּרְאוּ, אֵת אֱלֹקֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו, כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר, וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם, לָטֹהַר. 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness.
Translating literally like that of the JPS translation above -- "and they saw the God of Israel" -- one is a liar, for they did not actually see Hashem.
Adding things, for example, translating it "and they saw the angels of Hashem, God of Israel, and the bottom of his throne of glory {perhaps this last is a translation of וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו} -- one is a blasphemer, for he equated the honor of the Master {Hashem} with the honor of His servant {the angels}.
Rather, translate like Onkelos -- and they saw the honor of Hashem God of Israel.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

The story of Eliyahu at Har Hacarmel and his mocking description of the Baal pretty much demonstrate conclusively that the Prophets did not construe idolatry as mere fetishism.

joshwaxman said...

true. there are several other reasons to reject the idea that it was fetishism as well. I would argue that all those sources which appear to show fetishism because they mock just the idol are exactly the point - since there is nothing real behind the idol, despite what the idolaters think, we can mock the idol as just a piece of wood, unable to do anything.

I wonder if one can muster an argument, though, that Eliyahu's mocking there was about the physical idol which was, e.g. busy sleeping or on the toilet. Were the idols of Baal present on har haCarmel that we can disambiguate?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Well, depending on how you read the particular words in the passuk (they are obscure), Eliyahu seems to be suggesting that the Baal is involved in a conversation or perhaps on a journey, and Eliyahu encourages the prophets to shout loudly so the Baal can hear them, implying that he is not close by.

Anonymous said...

I am the aformentioned "anonymous commenter" :)

1) What you put in bold type about ikkarei emuna - criticizing the yeshiva students less for their choice of position than for the shallowness of their justification for it - I can fully understand and agree with.

2) In regard to the rest of your answer, I'm less convinced so far. It's not so clear to me which "poetic elements" in the tefillin midrash prove that it cannot be taken literally and which elements of the typical midrash prove otherwise. Yes there's a "homiletic feel", but don't most midrashim have a homiletic element? Isn't a homiletic element exactly what the girls school teacher saw in the midrash of Vashti's tail? Or am I misunderstanding what homily is? And even if these poetic or homiletic elements provide evidence in favor or against literalness, is this evidence so absolutely convincing that it is to override all other tools with which we approach the text? And perhaps you identify the tefillin midrash as homily because of your preconception that God cannot have a body, and not vice versa?

(By the way, I'm not breaking Shabbat, I'm in Israel.)

joshwaxman said...

it's always possible I am influenced by my preconceptions, though as I tried to highlight, I am not entirely convinced that we can show that corporealists were wrong, such that I would be less likely to read my own boases into this.

Still, let me just elaborate on what I mean by homiletic feel. See this post on Moshe as progenitor of Rabbi Eliezer. Here it is clearly not preconceptions as to God's corporeality or lack thereof that influence me.

Yet, I would consider that *Chazal* would have considered this homiletic as well, though I am less convinced about the midrash of Vashti's tail.

What these two midrashim share is what I am describing crudely as homiletic feel.

Perhaps I can make it more concrete as follows. With Vashti's tail, they take pains to work the midrash into the narrative, and it even answers another question within that narrative. There is interplay of various midrashim, and a general sense that they are constructing a story where elements answer to one another. Thus, she is to appear nude. But that is not a reason to not appear, for another midrash said that she was a prutza! Ah, but another midrash said that she grew a tail or developed leprosy, so that is why *within the context of the narrative of Megillat Esther* everything works out.

In constrast, this midrash about tefillin is not coming to supplement any narrative or answer any question. The only message is (reading the quotes inside) how God is committed singularly to his people just as they are to Him. Other layers of Amoraim supplement that by providing other parshiyot which also highlight this message. There is *just* this homiletic message, not explaining any practical difficulty or clarifying a reading within a narrative.

The same is true by the one of Moshe asking to be the ancestor of Rabbi Eliezer. It clarifies no detail of a difficulty in the parsha in which the derasha is based. The *only* point seems to be the meta-halachic concept.

A midrash about Hashem appearing as a female horse to entice the male horses (or probably v.v., I cannot remember) of the Egyptians at the Yam Suf, would be more sketchy, since it works into the narrative -- though there are other reasons to consider it homiletic I won't get into here.

It is difficult to concretize a sense of something being homily or narrative. But these are just off the cuff remarks.

joshwaxman said...

Also, just because one can derive a life lesson from something does not mean that it was intended as homily. I can derive lessons from many things, including pesukim, but one can only assume that they were intended literally.

Anonymous said...

And thus Vashti's tail should be taken literally, because it solves a textual problem.

I'm satisfied by your differentiation between the literal and not-literal midrashim, but still unsatisfied by some of those which you take literally.

Yes, for example, Vashti COULD have miraculously grown a tail, and perhaps you can finagle an explanation of how Megillat Esther can be an example of "haster astir panai" if main characters miraculously grow body parts whenever the salvation of the Jewish people depends on it.

But is there not an implicit assumption in most texts that the world generally behaves in a logical manner, and people make decisions based on those assumptions? Wouldn't Chazal though these midrashim be contradicting that assumption? Not contradicting a particular verse, but contradicting the entire flow of narrative. If the Biblical world were really as Chazal describe it, wouldn't the characters' reactions and choices have been different from what they usually were? Vashti's tail solves one difficulty, but at the same time seems to create two or three others.

I'm still very much bothered by the following question: Did Chazal had a concept of "reasonableless" as we do? And if not - is this a problem?

It's the exact same issue that comes up with the more extreme okimtas, I believe.

joshwaxman said...

not *just* because it solves a textual problem (though that *is* an important distinction), but *also* because we see how Chazal interacted with it, and this seems to be in a literal manner. In other words, if it were homily, how could it be used to resolve problems in other narrative midrashim?"

This is somewhat akin to when someone tried to show that a sword is a decoration because of a pasuk in Tehillim that described it as such, with the end result that one can wear it on Shabbat. The objection was "but that was allegorical for learning Torah." To which the response was "Ain Mikra Yotzei Midei Peshuto," that even so the text of Scriptures retains its literal meaning as well, so it is also a decoration. It a midrash was intended only allegorically, then an objection would be raised when it was used to resolve a practical question.

Similar to how they try to show there is no techum Shabbat (/techum Yom Tov) over ten tefachim, because of certain reports that were carried very swiftly on from Sura to Pumpedita, and it must have been done by Eliyahu haNavi, and being Jewish, he would not violate techum, so he must have flown over ten tefachim. Since they are trying to make practical use of it, it seems intended as being literal.

joshwaxman said...

within the context of the midrashim, you *do* see attempts to explain reactions. Thus, they wanted her to appear nude. But she was a prutza and would not have minded! Ah, but she developed a deformity - a tail or else leprosy. We see exactly this attempt to explain characters' reactions. Of course, if one lives *only* in the realm of the text on a peshat level, and *only* looks at the odd midrash out, then it strikes us as out of the ordinary and unreasonable.

Another important thing to consider, IMHO, is that Chazal's wordview was much different than our worldview, because their social and intellectual environment were different.

Thus, while I think they had a concept of "reasonableness," their what they would consider reasonable are not necessarily the same things you or I would consider reasonable.

In terms of Vashti, I don't see how it creates two or three other problems. She might well have reacted in this way to the immediate request, refusing, perhaps in a state of shock and horror, intending to call a doctor at the first opportunity, but was disposed of before that happened. Would she send a message to the king, embarrassing herself by announcing to *all* that she had leprosy, or that she had grown a tail? Female and queenly dignity may well have dictated otherwise. It is only reading in specific emotional reactions that we assume otherwise. And thus, I would not consider these "problems" that are being created within the world of midrash.

In terms of the fact that this is hidden, well she did not know why she developed the leprosy. And she did not see the angel Gabriel give her the tail. She had a sudden growth. Furthermore, all of this happened behind closed doors and Vashti was soon killed or exiled, so that it never came to light. This is exactly Divine direction behind the scenes, and thus hidden miracle.

Hastir Astir Panai is not within the main text of the megillah. It is a hint to Esther's name in the Torah, but that does not necessarily mean that it is intended as a constraint of what can happen, particularly on a midrashic level, any more than Mordechai is constrained to being flowing myrrh (mor deror). It is also a *theme* developed in the megillah, given the hidden developments that appear to be al derech hateva. But a given midrash might work out well with this, by having a different conception of hidden mechanisms than you do. Or this particular midrash might choose to *argue* and have explicit miracles. Not all midrashim agree, you know.

Anonymous said...

You say "if it were homily, how could it be used to resolve problems in other narrative midrashim?" - perhaps these particular other midrashim were also homily.

You give a very thorough and convincing answer regarding Vashti, thank you. But this is the first time I've ever seen such an analysis carried to a logical conclusion (logical referring to both the results and the decision to conclude). I wonder how often people, when analyzing the midrash, go through all that analysis. I wonder if Chazal did it themselves. If not, and my impression is that they might not have, then it is hard to rely literally on interpretations which could easily have hidden stumbling blocks. But homiletical interpretations would not have this issue. That is why I persist in disagreeing with you as to how many midrashim should be taken literally.

By the way, would you read the following midrashim literally?
-The mussaf offering of Rosh Hodesh being our atonement for God's sin (Breishit Rabbah at the beginning, and Rashi on Bamidbar 28:15) (it addresses two textual problems: 1. "shtei hameorot hagedolim" 2. more importantly, the extra word "lashem" in 28:15)
-God potentially being punished in Gehennom (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 2:4 I think) (it quotes pesukim as proof)

On a totally different topic - how do we know Vashti was killed or exiled? I don't remember a verse that indicates either of those. Perhaps she was simply divorced.

joshwaxman said...

it is certainly possible that those other midrashim were also homily, but then I would prefer that they were all homily in the same way, for them to interact intelligibly.

thank you for the compliment about my analysis. in terms of what people do in terms of analyzing midrashim, I'm fairly jaded about almost *everyone's* ability to analyze midrash, whether they typically take midrashim literally or figuratively. I believe that to effectively analyze midrash, one needs to develop a midrashic skill set such that he can generate midrashim himself. This then lets him see patterns and textual cues that Chazal saw, such that he sees what is *not* a possibility, and such that he has an idea of what they were aiming at. To an extent, in different ways, Malbim and Maharzu do this, though a bit technically rather than holistically. Ideally, one should be an expert on dikduk (Hebrew and Aramaic syntax and phonology), linguistics in general (so as to develop an intuition about ambiguities), middot sheHaTorah nidreshet baHen, breadth of knowledge of midrashim, and English literature. And that is just to start.

I do think Chazal who wrote the midrashim (and of course one cannot speak this broadly, because midrashim were written in different time periods and locations, but I'm thinking of Talmudic ones and many midrash Rabba one) did put this sort of thought into midrashim. I think this mainly because of all the times that midrashim, even troublesome ones, work well with this type of analysis.

I am not sure what you mean, though, about whether they carried them to their logical conclusion. If you mean whether every time if given enough thought one can be convinced that it makes sense that it happened, then I would say that many times yes, but sometimes, I am willing to posit, no. For example, I am willing to say that Chazal believed that only 1 in 500 Jews lets Egypt. Does it work out demographically? Well, they likely did not have the same sense of demographics as we do. And if so, we should not rely *historically* on these "interpretations which could easily have hidden stumbling blocks." But that does not mean that they did not *intend* them historically and literally, which is more of my concern. I am more concerned with determining original intent.

In terms of the midrashim you mention, I will have to look at them inside to see what I think in context.

Totally off the cuff, however, I would label the first one HOMILY. Why? Firstly, this is the type of midrash that Rambam refers to in perush haMishnayot in which impossible things happen. Namely, the moon speaks, and it is not meant to be something miraculous.

Secondly, and more critically, this always struck me as having a homiletic feel, in which Chazal derive a life lesson about being content with one's place in life and not begrudging the place of others. It could be that this is homily of one kind (about the moon vs. Sun) forming the basis of another homily (Hashem feeling guilt for this punishment, for reason X). One is not really resolving questions present in the other, but building upon that background, so I would be comfortable with this.

In terms of the textual problems, it is important to distinguish between text and pretext. Many a homiletic midrash (as opposed to simple aggadeta) is built upon some text, and derivation thereof. But I would not consider them "problems" - and pashtanim would have no difficulty with those problems. This distinction between "text" and "pretext" is again difficult to explain in words.

A real problem would be more about some issue in the narrative, perhaps exacerbated by another midrash, or perhaps not.

But I'll have to look at them inside.

About Vashti being killed or exiled, I agree with you on a peshat level. It states וְיִכָּתֵב בְּדָתֵי פָרַס-וּמָדַי, וְלֹא יַעֲבוֹר: אֲשֶׁר לֹא-תָבוֹא וַשְׁתִּי, לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ. And indeed, it makes sense -- as my wife points out -- he could not take Vashti back after sending out messages saying about how man is king in the home, and what Vashti did - practically, he could not have taken her back, or would have looked like a fool.

Midrashically, I think they have derivations. Practical considerations such as the midrashic assertion that she was the source of Achashverosh's rule (being IIRC the daughter of Nevuchadnezar) might play into it. And "nigzar" might carry some negative connotation more than divorce. And we say the death penalty as a possibility for Esther not being allowed to come before the king. But I haven't given this midrash its examination inside, and so haven't given it its proper due.

Beli neder, I'll attempt to look at the two midrashim you mentioned.

Anonymous said...

Obviously after 400 years of the scientific revolution, or whatever, I am going to approach Tanach with different assumptions than Chazal did. But I think there is a kind of internal contradiction which is hard to explicitly quantify, but which nevertheless is truly an internal contradiction and can be identified as such even in the absence of any personal assumptions about Tanach. Let me try to give a hypothetical example.

Let's say you came up with a midrash which inserted a blatantly miraculous event into a Biblical story. The story would then go on as it did before, with the exception of this midrashic addition. And yet, let us say that in a different part of the Biblical story there is another miracle, which causes immediate surprise and commotion, generating an uproar with tangible effects on the storyline. Somehow though, the midrashic miracle which occurred in similar circumstances did not provoke a similar reaction. Why was the reaction to the two miracles so inexplicably different? I think it is not only my presumption, but also Chazal's, that people act similarly in similar situations. I might attribute it to "laws of nature", while Chazal might choose one miracle as the baseline and ask why people acted unexpectedly regarding the second miracle, but it comes down to the same principle. If the midrashic miracle had been explicit in the text, then Chazal would have jumped all over the difference between the two text-based miracles, and come up with an explanation for the inconsistency. But because in my hypothetical situation one miracle comes from the midrash, therefore it takes several mental steps before you even notice the inconsistency. And I don't see evidence that Chazal noticed such inconsistencies, for example corrections of midrashim based on these kind of factors.

This is fundamentally not a contradiction between the midrash and the text, because who knows, perhaps the Biblical world does not work logically, we already decided not to have preconceptions about Tanach. But it IS a contradiction between Chazal's assumptions, because one of Chazal's own preconceptions is that the Biblical world works somewhat consistently even if not "logically" in the 20th-century sense. Destroy this assumption, and I think you destroy at least part of the basis for a slew of other midrashim. But I think my hypothetical midrash contradicts this assumption. And I'm not sure it would be impossible for such a midrash to come about.

Sefer Shmuel at the end says that David bought the site of the Temple for 50 units of money; Divrei Hayamim has the same story but with the number 600 in place of 50. (Or vice versa, I forget.) That, at face value, is an obvious contradiction (though I can think of a way to reconcile the texts). And Chazal would never have thought up a midrash which contradicted Tanach the way these two parts of Tanach seem to contradict each other. Such a contradiction would immediately be brought up in the Gemara or wherever, and the midrash modified accordingly. I have seen such discussions and so have you. But I don't remember ever seeing a discussion of subtle issues of the sort I tried to give an example of in the previous paragraph.

This may be an issue of larger dimensions, dealing not only with okimtot as I suggested before, but also with much of midrash halacha...

It's a hard-to-explain issue, hopefully I've succeeded in making myself clear more than in my past comments.


I didn't even know there was a midrash about Vashti's fate, I just know that in every fairy tale the king "banishes" someone who disobeys. You learn this as a kid even before you know what the word "banish" means. And I assumed people were reading that into the megillah, without any basis from Jewish tradition. :)

Another reason for not taking Vashti back - we know from later in the megillah that the king's decrees cannot be revoked...

Anonymous said...

Destroy this assumption, and I think you destroy at least part of the basis for a slew of other midrashim.

I would add: not just midrashim but halachot too. Basically anything that relies on certain types of Biblical exegesis.

I'm well aware that some midrashim are mutually incompatible.

joshwaxman said...

it is hard to deal with hypotheticals, because they lack the details that might provide the "out" in each individual case.

I see what you mean. Assuming I agree that this is the situation, I don't think this would be evidence that Chazal did not *intend* a midrash literally, but rather (at the most) just that they did not delve into human repercussions/ reactions as much as we would.

I think in part, though, we can take our cue from Hagar. As one famous comment on her reaction to the angel goes - she was so used to seeing angels in the house of the Avot that she was not shocked to see one here.

Similarly, I don't think midrashim stand in a vacuum. Often enough, we are exposed to one "famous" midrash, but there are many other midrashim around them. The picture Chazal had of the Biblical world could well be one in which miracles happen left and right, particularly for main characters. And the reactions and events on a plain peshat level often have their own additional midrashim interpretations, such that we do not jump in and out of the midrashic world, but stay in the midrashic world throughout.

This may be a reason to then adopt their worldview, or to dismiss it.

I studiously avoid the issue of whether I personally then feel compelled to believe in the midrashim literally or whether I discard them. My issue is what Chazal held, disregarding repercussions for the moment. (And then likely relying on e.g. Shmuel haNaggid.) And despite difficulties of the sort you mention, I think that they intended many of these midrashim literally, even ones that seem difficult for us to believe, even on the human level of how Biblical characters would react.

Proof for this includes how halacha is sometimes based on these midrashim which we would otherwise take figuratively. (e.g. Eliyahu flying, ravens carrying food from Achav's butchers, etc.) But I've posted on things like that in the past.

PS: In terms of Vashti getting killed, Rashi mentions it, deriving it from the pasuk:

Anonymous said...

Well, this has certainly been a productive discussion, thank you.

Anonymous said...

We moderns have a strong tendency to judge ideas primarily by whether they are possible in a physical world. Not everyone has always thought this way. I think Philo, for one, believed that every detail of Tanach expresses an intellectual idea, while its historical significance was close to irrelevant. For him Tanach was one big philosophical allegory.

Similarly, perhaps Chazal saw Tanach as a collection of moral, spiritual, intellectual, and halachic concepts, with the historical background merely incidental. If so, then Chazal could have meant their midrashim literally, that is to say faithful to the "real", conceptual meaning of the text. Chazal would have agreed that midrashim don't necessarily reflect historical reality, but so what? The historical reality would not be what God really intended in the text.

Do you think such an interpretation of midrash is reasonable?


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