Thursday, December 19, 2013

In favor of Serach bat Asher, harpist

Over at Fink Or Swim, Rabbi Eliyahu Fink has a post analyzing the "famous" midrash of Serach bat Asher, as told by The Little Midrash Says, and his conclusion is:
Barring the discovery of serious egregious errors, I think we have to question whether the legend of Serach and her harp should be a basic part of the way we teach and learn Vayigash.
His reasons amount to:
  1. It is from Sefer HaYashar, a late (early 16th century) "discovered" source that claimed to be very early
  2. The earlier midrashic version (Midrash Hagadol) doesn't have the harp as part of it
  3. The earlier midrashic versions is also late (from 14th century) and obscure
  4. "[W]e do not usually accept aggadic interpretations invented by Medieval commentators in the same way we accept Talmudic aggadic interpretations"
I disagree with his conclusions here. It is a trend in some circles to criticize the widespread and uncritical adoption of "famous" midrashim. Especially where the adoption of the midrash is as a literal, historical event with the full weight of the masorah behind it. And there is merit to such a critique.

But that doesn't mean that one mustn't teach and learn the midrash.

Here are a few points, in no particular order, in favor of teaching this and other obscure sources.

1) As I noted earlier and elsewhere, the midrash also appears in Targum Yonatan on Torah. This Targum is really Targum Pseudo-Yonatan, not written by Yonasan ben Uziel. Some scholars think it was written early, in the 8th century. Others think it was written later, in the 14th century. The earliest date possible date comes from things like using the names of Mohammed's wife (Aisha) and daughter (Fatima) as wives of Yishmael, and referring to Constantinople as Constantinople. Later dates come from the fact that, e.g., Rashi does not seem to know about its existence. Scholars argue.

It was easy to miss this midrash in Targum Yonasan, since it does not appear where Yaakov is told, but later when Serach is mentioned.

The Targum does not mention a harp, but does mention that she told him and was rewarded with not dying. However, this is not as simple as that. Realize that the Targum, which incorporating midrash, is not a midrashic work of its own accord. By which I mean that its primary purpose is translation, not the creation of midrash. If it refers briefly to a midrashic fact, it is likely (to me, at least) that it was extant in some other work available to the author of Tg Yonatan. And so, if he brings in the midrash briefly where relevant (Serach's being listed in the count), that does not mean that this is (a) the earliest source for it, or (b) a comprehensive account of the midrash.

Further, given its prominence in Mikraos Gedolos, and in the minds of traditional Jews who assume that it was from Yonasan ben Uziel, it is far from an obscure source.

BTW, Ginzberg also included this midrash in his Legends of the Jews.

2) Regarding whether to avoid teaching midrashim like this: I grew up on The Midrash Says, by Rabbi Moshe Weissman. Not The Little Midrash Says, by the same author, which is a simplified version of The Midrash Says, for younger readers, with a simpler presentation, vocabulary, and without as much analysis and drawing of lessons. I read The Midrash Says, on Chumash Bereishis to Devarim, several times in my youth.

I don't think it is perfect, and there is of course what to critique. (Such as a bug / feature, the blending of details from several midrashim to make a cohesive story, which the reader might not realize is happening.) But it familiarized me with many different midrashim, from a variety of sources, "obscure" to more mainstream.

And I believe that this strong background in midrashim served me well. When I got older, I learned to distinguish between what the pesukim say and what the midrash says. I learned the difference between peshat and derash. And I learned some dikduk. And I studied the midrashim inside. And then, with a broad knowledge in midrashim, I could appreciate what Chazal were doing, how they reinterpreted pesukim to bring out various themes or ideas already in the text, and how they appreciated fine nuances in phrasing, etcetera. Had I only begun studying midrashim when I was mature and could fully appreciate their message, I would have nowhere near the same level of background, and would suffer for it.

It is a pity if people at age 30 read the chumash and midrash the same way they did when they were 8. But that doesn't mean that one should not give the foundations to the 5 or 8 year old, on his or her own level.

3) It is misguided to focus on The Little Midrash Says as opposed to The Midrash Says. Not just that The Midrash Says is more sophisticated. Much of R' Fink's research tracking down the origins of the midrash, and the component parts which were in some midrashim but not others (such as the harp as a means of delivery) are already made explicit in The Midrash Says. Here is an image of the relevant page, 426, in The Midrash Says on Bereishis.

Note the footnotes.

We see footnote 64 after the close of the statement that they noticed Serach coming out to greet them. And this is a reference to Sefer Hayashar. So he makes it explicit that he is taking it from Sefer Hayashar. The next half sentence, as we see from footnote 65, he takes from the Rokeach. Then, he returns to Sefer Hayashar until the 66. Then, up to 67 is taken from Targum Yonasan to Bereishit 46:17. And finally, up to the 68, he takes something from Derech Eretz Zuta, perek 1 (which you will find at the very close of the perek).

Elsewhere, for instance when he takes certain things from Midrash Rabba and others from Zohar, he will make that clear as well.

This admittedly does not make it entirely obvious that these items are found in Sefer Hayashar and in no other source. He does not mention Midrash Aggadah, for example, which doesn't mention the harp.

Regardless, it is not like he is passing off "obscure" midrashim without letting us know of their provenance. He lets us know exactly where he gets them from.

4) By the way, on the next page, 427, he discusses how this reward is a middah kenegged middah. "Serach's reward was midda - kineged - midda. Since she had revived Yaakov's soul and caused the ruach hakodesh to return to him, she was given eternal life."

In the foreword to the book, Rabbi Weissman discusses his goals and methodology. And in the introduction, he introduces certain "basic key concepts", the first of which is midda - kineged - midda. As such, we might begin to understand why Rabbi Weissman decided to include the Serach midrash in the book.

If one is going to critique Rabbi Weissman's approach and his inclusion of this midrash and not that one, then it would pay to first read through the forward. That doesn't mean that ultimately we might not disagree with his methodology, philosophy, or his specific choices. But first we should know what they are.

Here is a page from the end of his foreword. Note that he believes that "[n]o midrash was recorded to tell us a simple story -- each conveys a profound message." Earlier, he wrote about how the midrashim were written in code (though that doesn't necessarily preclude many of them being historical). And he also writes about how one should ideally be reading the midrashim inside, rather than in an English popularization.

Finally, focus on his penultimate paragraph, where he discusses his selection process.
"This collection does not claim to include all or even a majority of the Midrashim available on each parsha (Torah-reading). In truth, it represents but a minute fraction, a drop in the ocean of Midrashic material found in our Sacred Writings. The Midrashim selected were those which would, hopefully, be meaningful to the reader. Often the view quoted ina Midrash is not the only valid one on the subject. It was technically impossible to point out in every instance all the views which exist. In many cases, Midashim from different sources were interwoven in order to make the work as readable as possible."


Eric said...

Great post, I used to love TMS, and I agree as you get older you learn to love it in a different way. The author clearly knows his midrashic sources and his weaving them into cohesive units is actually pretty impressive. He also has some interesting and for me humorous critiques of 1980s frum culture (pizza shops) that he puts in the footnotes.

There was a rumor that Rebbitzin Weissman wrote most of it but I don't know if that's true.

"If one is going to critique Rabbi Weissman's approach and his inclusion of this midrash and not that one, then it would pay to first read through the forward"


Moshe Laymore said...

I also read TMS cover to cover in my youth. It is a marvelous collection. I am now older, so I read this blog.

Ed said...

Rabbi Waxman:

Why do you feel compelled to say than the earliest date for the Targum Yonasan is from the time of the Geonim? Granted, the reference to Constantina in the prophecy of Balaam can be read as indicating a date no earlier than the fourth century CE--which is still the time of Chazal (the later Amoraim)--but the references to Adisha or (Arisha) and Fatima hardly compel the conclusion that the Targum was composed after Mohammed. For one thing, Pirkeu D'Rebbe Eliezer (Chapter 30)identifies Yishmael's second wife as "Fatuma" and the Radal's comments there state that the same identification is found in the Yalkut. The Radal also posits that the Moslems could well have taken these names from texts of Chazal (they were quite familiar with Jewish sources) or had a tradition of their own.

There is a very good book on Targum Yonasan along with Peirush Yonasan and Naar Yonasan that came out five years ago written by a fellow in Lakewood. (It's in Hebrew.) He has a lengthy introduction that discusses the various views on the authorship of Targum Yonasan from classical Jewish sources.


joshwaxman said...

Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer is also dated by scholars to the time of the Geonim. And the Yalkut Shimoni is much later, maybe around the year 1310. Regarding PDRE, see here:
The topic of chapters one and two of the composition is the beginnings of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus; it is due to them that medieval sages attributed the entire work to him. However, Zunz conclusively proved that this traditional ascription is not historically accurate.


Jost was the first to point out that in the 30th chapter, in which at the end the author distinctly alludes to the three stages of the Muslim conquest, that of Arabia (משא בערב), of Spain (איי הים), and of Rome (830 C.E.; כרך גדול רומי), the names of Fatima and Ayesha occur beside that of Ishmael, leading to the conclusion that the book originated in a time when Islam was predominant in Asia Minor. As in ch. xxxvi. two brothers reigning simultaneously are mentioned, after whose reign the Messiah shall come, the work might be ascribed to the beginning of the 9th century, for about that time the two sons of Harun al-Rashid, El-Amin and El-Mamun, were ruling over the Islamic realm. If a statement in ch. xxviii. did not point to an even earlier date, approximately the same date might be inferred from the enumeration of the four powerful kingdoms and the substitution of Ishmael for one of the four which are enumerated in the Talmud and the Mekilta.

It seems to me quite a kvetch to say that the Muslims (or rather, Arabs) took these names from Chazal. They adopted these names as what? Common Arab names? Or as fictional names for Mohammed's wife and daughter? Meanwhile, it makes sense if PDRE adopted these names. It is making a homiletic point about the relationship of Yishmael and the events back then to the current events happening in the authors' day.

kol tuv,


Blog Widget by LinkWithin