Thursday, November 15, 2007

Literal Midrash

In Yoma (28b), a midrash is related concerning Bereshit 26:5. The verse speaking of Avraham's loyalty to God's teachings is used to teach us that the forefathers kept each minute detail of the law, even the rabbinic enactments that came thousands of years later. The same thing is taught about Yitzchak and Ya'akov, from different verses. This has raised some lively debate, and I wish to discuss this midrash's literal meaning, and the irony of reading any midrash literally.

There are many problems with a literal reading of this midrash. For example, if Ya'akov kept the Torah, how could he marry two sisters? Further, how could the midrash state that Shimon married Dinah, his sister? These are clear עריות. Also, more technically, how could Avraham have kept the rabbinic dictum to pray מנחה and ערבית, if the Talmud (Brachot 26b) tells us that Yitzchak and Ya'akov set those prayers, respectively?

The rishonim and acharonim take great pains to iron out these inconsistencies. The Ramban explains that the progenitors of Judaism only kept the laws voluntarily, and in Israel. Outside its bounds, they did not bind themselves to keep the laws. The Maharal, on the other hand, disagrees. He explains that the forefathers were pure in body and soul, and were able to penetrate the depths of creation. As Rav Kedar, זצ"ל, taught, just as God looked into the essence of the Torah to create the universe, so were the forefathers able, with their clear minds and holy spirit (רוח הקדש), to examine the world around them, and re-create the Torah. They willingly accepted the precepts on themselves, and kept it all.

However, the Torah has situations in which a prophet can uproot even a negative commandment as a הוראת שעה, an extra-legal ruling that lasts for a limited amount of time. The prime example for this is Eliyahu at Mt. Carmel, sacrificing upon an altar outside the holy Temple. In the same way, the same רוח הקדש that compelled the spirits of our forefathers to keep the Torah, also, at times, commanded them to break certain laws, as a הוראת שעה. And so, Ya'akov saw that he needed to marry two sisters, in order to bring forth the twelve tribes.

However, the Maharal ends up rejecting the Ramban's explanation, as well as his own first one. He finally settles on the idea that the avot kept only the positive commands, but did not keep away from the negative ones.

Rav Tzuriel, an expert on Maharal who lives in Bnei Brak, directed me to an answer to the third question we raised. Avraham did, in fact, pray mincha and arvit, as the Talmud itself (Yoma 28b) says. The passage in Brachot that claims that Yitzchak and Ya'akov instituted mincha and arvit is talking about setting the prayer as a tradition for their children after them. The forefathers set traditions for their children to follow called תורת האבות, and these traditions were studied and kept by some until the end of the bondage in Egypt. While Avraham prayed mincha, it was Yitzchak who instituted this and handed it down to his children.

In our discussion about this midrash, Rav Tzuriel made a point about reading midrashim literally in general, which I believe reflects the position of the Maharal, as well. He said that midrashim must be read allegorically. A midrash is meant to teach deep truths about our traditions, not to teach us literal facts about the lives and times of those who came before. When the midrash states that the forefathers kept the whole Torah, even the rabbinical decrees, it means to tell us that the process halacha from Sinai to the rabbis, is not some abstract field that has a limited relationship to the world around us. Rather, the commandments are the organic part of the spiritual side of this world, and honest and pure reflection on the world would bring us to a knowledge of the Torah and God. Even עירוב תבשילין, a seemingly insignificant loophole made to allow cooking on a holiday for a shabbat that immediately follows, is part of the spiritual chemistry of the world. Maharal explains the spiritual meaning behind עירוב תבשילין. (I will only say that it seems clear that this rabbinical decree embodies the importance of using the physical and spiritual world in a beneficial way to other human beings.)1

Reading the midrash literally is like reading Shir HaShirim literally. It seems clear to us that wise King Shlomo utilizes the passion of a couple in love to allegorize the relationship between God and His chosen nation. A reading that focuses on the literal meaning of the words does injustice to the work and strays from the true meaning the author had in mind. So too, we should expect depth of allegory and metaphor from the sages in their cryptic writings.

The reading of any midrash literally, and insisting that the literal meaning is the true point of the rabbinic wisdom encapsulated within, is demeaning and belittling to the wisdom of our great sages. The Rambam writes against this as well, in his introduction to the mishna. In it, he writes that one should not confuse his own inability to plumb the depths of חז"ל's teachings with the notion that חז"ל wrote silly, literalist things. The agad'ta of our sages is a repository of depth and metaphor, not the actual height of Moshe or Og.

(Recently, David Guttmann pointed me to an even more explicit and to the point quote from the Rambam's introduction to פרק חלק:

"והכת הזו המסכנה רחמנות על סכלותם לפי שהם רוממו את החכמים לפי מחשבתם ואינם אלא משפילים אותם בתכלית השפלות ואינם מרגישים בכך, וחי ה' כי הכת הזו מאבדים הדר התורה ומחשיכים זהרה, ועושים תורת השם בהפך המכוון בה, לפי שה' אמר על חכמת תורתו אשר ישמעון את כל החוקים האלה וכו', והכת הזו דורשין מפשטי דברי חכמים דברים אשר אם ישמעום העמים יאמרו רק עם סכל ונבל הגוי הקטן הזה. והרבה שעושין כן הדרשנין המבינים לעם מה שאינם מבינים הם עצמם, ומי יתן ושתקו כיון שאינם מבינים מי יתן החרש תחרישון ותהי לכם לחכמה, או היה להם לומר אין אנו יודעים מה רצו חכמים בדברים אלו ולא היאך פירושו, אלא חושבים שהבינו, ומעמידים את עצמם להבין לעם מה שהבינו הם עצמם לא מה שאמרו חכמים, ודורשין בפני ההמון בדרשות ברכות ופרק חלק וזולתם כפשוטם מלה במלה."

Marc Shapiro also points to an interesting reason put forth by the Rashba as to why some מדרשים are written in such a hyperbolic manner: "לעתים היו החכמים דורשים ברבים ומאריכים בדברי תועלת והיו העם ישנים, וכדי לעוררם היו אומרים להם דברים זרים לבהלם ושיתעוררו משנתם."

Additionally, see the Ibn Ezra in his introduction to Eicha: מדרשיה אל דרכים רבים נחלקים/מהם חידות וסודות ומשלים דבוהים עד שחקים/ומהם להרויח לבות נלאות בפרקים עמוקים/ומהם לאמן נכשלים ולמלאת הריקים...ודרך הפשט הוא הגוף בדברים נבחרים ובחוקים...)

If the preceeding is true, we must re-examine the extent to which Ramban and Maharal, and, indeed, many other מפרשים go in their desire to explain the literal meaning of the midrash. If it is all an allegory, why do we care how the little details work into the literal meaning of the metaphor? The answer, of course, is that any metaphor needs to maintain a level of internal consistency. Only through consistency can the deeper meaning behind the allegory come through, and not be obscured by tangental questions that inhibit clarity.

With humility and patience, we can learn great things from the agadot of our sages. By blending the stances of Rambam and Maharal with a level-headed reader's approach, we can truly see the wisdom and wonders of our Torah.
______________________________________________
110 Sh'vat 5769: In an important essay on the topic of Maharal and midrash, Rabbi Chaim Eisen gives some history and context for the Maharal's view. I offer in this parenthetical comment a short summary of an essay that is critical for anyone interested in Maharal or midrash.

Rishonic philosophic formulations were made on the backdrop of the neo-rationalist philosophers that flowered in the Arabic countries. Though the Jewish responses to this were rooted in the Talmud, they were formulated towards the philosophers of their times. In those times, most Geonim and Rishonim did not see אגדתא as binding, and R' Shmuel and R' Hai, his son, wrote in the manner that one does not rely on midrash if it is unattuned. Rather, if it is in the Talmud, we do our best to reconcile it [allegorically] with reason, and if we cannot, we disregard it as we do matters that are not in accordance with halacha. If not in the Talmud, we do not even do this much. There is no ruling in agadta, if there is no halachik implication. Similarly and yet very differently, the Rambam saw midrashim as a foundtain of deeper knowledge, allegory and metaphor that could be dismissed by the masses without danger to their souls, while at the same time, be held in waiting for the truly wise to study. The Moreh is a work that attempts to systematically review the allegories of agadta. Rambam wrote that those who misunderstand agadta or take it literally (and either force that upon themselves or reject it) are behaving foolishly, but are not going against the tenents of faith. R' Sherira held that midrash and agada are umdena.

There was a small number of rishonim who held that midrashim must be read as literally true (see K'tav Tamim), the breadth of thought, rationalist and mystical, that they reject to support this, points to the singularity and uniqueness of this approach.

The Ramban saw a duality to the physical and metaphysical worlds. Where the Rambam would see the garden of Eden, for example, as a non-physical reality, and the K'tav Tamim would see it as earthly, the Ramban discusses at length a duality in nature between reality on earth and spiritual reality in Heaven. Both are true, and are linked so that the words of the Torah describe the events in both spheres.

However, as the Enlightenment moved across Western Europe, Jews began to see the statements of the midrash and agadta as an excuse to leave the ways of their fathers. Whereas de Rossi in his Me'or Enayim essentially continued this tradition from the Geonim, willing to dismiss midrashim as non-binding, the Maharal saw in this a reaction to the outside attacks, instead of a re-examination and deepening of understanding of the texts in question. (To quote Rabbi Eisen, "de Rossi responded only to objections from the outside, without subsuming them in an inclusive system cominf forth essentially from the inside.") The Maharal found his roots in the Rambam's view, and this was the path of the Maharal. He saw the midrashim and agadtot as allegory, and once the allegory is understood, the words of the midrash make sense in their plain meaning. The secret of wisdom is unlocked, and the allegory takes over, giving the true, lofty meaning to the seemingly mundane words in which our sages couched their great thoughts. (This is not to detract from the disagreements Maharal had with Rambam's explanations, as Maharal was a student of Ramban's willingness to incorporate kabbalistic-mystical elements in his explications of passages.)


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