By David Shasha
While the Halakhah, Jewish civil and ritual law, is the stern discipline of Jewish life, the Aggadic Midrash is its fountain of creativity. The word Midrash comes from the Hebrew root D-R-SH meaning “to inquire” or “to seek.” The word Aggadah comes from the Hebrew root N-G-D meaning “to tell” or “to narrate.” Midrash is the mechanism that permits Jews to generate new and multiple meanings from the Sacred Scriptures.
The tradition of Midrash as interpretation can be found in the strikingly odd tale of Ezra the Scribe in Nehemiah 8:8, where Ezra stood before a gathering of the people and presented to them the text of the Law, “translating it and giving the sense so they understood the reading.” Ezra — the “Bookman” — transformed Judaism into a text-centered religion which promoted study and critical investigation of its traditions.
In the period of the classical Sages, Midrash became a discipline unto itself, and many collections of Rabbinical Midrashim, most prominently the canonical Midrash Rabbah, were generated and later collected into books.
In her classic 1981 study of Rabbinic interpretation in the context of contemporary thought, The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory, Susan Handelman contrasts Midrashic hermeneutics to the Greek philosophical tradition:
“The infinity of meaning and plurality of interpretation are as much as the cardinal virtues, even divine imperatives, for Rabbinic thought as they are the cardinal sins for Greek thought. The movement of Rabbinic interpretation is not from one opposing sphere to another, from the sensible to the nonsensible, but rather from “sense to sense,” a movement into the text, not out of it.”
Rabbinic Midrash begins with the text of Scripture in order to spin out infinities of new meaning through the agency of stories, interpretations, and exegetical acts. While the ethical aims of both the Greeks and Jews sought an ideality, the methods that the two groups used were quite different.
The great scholar Max Kadushin, in his seminal 1952 work The Rabbinic Mind, sees the Midrashic method of narrative expansion that he views in “organic” terms:
“The organismic principle of integration is an all-embracing principle, taking in all the value-concepts in the complex and relating every concept to every other concept in an identical manner. Within this general, all-inclusive type of integration or relationship, however, there is room also for additional forms of integration having to do not with the complex as a whole but with numerous specific concepts.”
Kadushin illuminates for us the ethical elements that drive Rabbinic thinking, elements that emerge from a kaleidoscopic reading of Scripture.
In Medieval times Rabbinic sermons centered around the rhetorical aspect called Melitzah. Melitzah is the Hebrew term signifying rhetorical ornamentation and poetical values. The expert Derashah was one in which, as Jose Faur has written in an article on Rabbi Joseph Dana and Jewish oratory, the eloquence and erudition of the rabbi were central:
“In our hands has been preserved a unique and quite singular art whose entire substance has been refined from a definitively Jewish source: the derasha or the ‘rabbinical oratorical art.’ It would be germane to mention here that the Tanakh functioned within the Sephardic rabbinical tradition as a fully formed model of ‘rhetoric.’ In this tradition, “rhetoric” is not considered an ornamental setting devoid of substance, but a Jewish aesthetic that shapes ‘truth/beauty’ into a single unity: a truth that is inimitably beautiful is inimitably true, and the reverse […]. From the aesthetic standpoint, the accomplished Darshan is no less an artist than the poet, painter or composer.”
The art of Derashah thus comprises the scholarly-intellectual, the ethical, the exegetical, the aesthetic, and the poetical. Its aim is to expound Scripture by means of narrative expansion, thus allowing the Darshan, the one making the Derashah, to formulate new and often innovative ideas that can encapsulate cultural, historical, scientific, and philosophical values that are seen as “emerging” from the ancient Biblical texts.
As the scholar James Kugel states so eloquently in his landmark 1983 article “Two Introductions to Midrash”:
“Here then is the crucial factor in the mentality of all early exegesis: for when what then happened in Scripture happens again and again, unfolds over and over, it is because the Bible is not “the past” at all. For it to be the past, its sense of time would necessarily need to be continuous with our own, and we would have to live amid a series of similarly God-dominated events, so that the whole flow of time from Abraham to now could make for one simple, consequential, story. Once this is no longer the case, biblical time becomes “other,” a world wholly apart from ours, yet one which is constantly intersecting our own.”
In the end, Midrash is a means to affirm the sanctity of the Hebrew Bible as Scripture, yet it permits us to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the text in order to evolve as mature human beings. The Biblical text thus takes on a dual aspect: the ancient stories are told and retold while our current concerns are addressed.
The Midrashic method contrasts with static historicism, known alternatively as “originalism” or as “fundamentalism,” in its ability to adopt multiple perspectives and a pluralistic stance towards meaning in our lives. Rather than assume that the truth is a singular, univocal idea, the attitude found in the Platonic philosophy and adopted by Western civilization, Jewish tradition leaves room for multiple truths and a seemingly infinite chain of meaning that is exemplified in the use of the Midrashic method.
Bibliographical note: For those wishing to learn more about Midrash, I would like to recommend the many books of James Kugel, particularly In Potiphar’s House (1990), The Bible As It Was (1997), and The Ladder of Jacob (2006). Another wonderful writer on Midrash is Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg whose three books also make Midrash accessible to the general reader.
*Article originally published in huffingtonpost.com as “Understanding Midrash,” in June 13, 2010.