Ask a dedicated Jewish student of the Bible about the standard methods of Bible interpretation and you will likely receive a reply that includes the word Pardes. This word means orchard in modern Hebrew. In addition to its common usage, pardes is also used as an acronym. This is how the Bible student will be using it. It stands for ‘P’ – pshat, ‘r’ – remez, ‘d’ – drash’, and ‘s’ – sod. These for Hebrew words refer to the four methods of Bible interpretation (in order of the letters in the acronym: simple, allusion, homiletic, mystical). Simple is the literal interpretation of the words. Allusion, or hint, refers to any hidden meanings in the words. Homiletic refers to the wide variety of textual reinterpretations to reveal some underlying story or message. Mystical is in a class by itself and will be dealt with in its own section.
The method of ‘drash’ is what we are concerned with. The word itself has many meanings, ranging from interpretation to study to search. These words are somewhat related but the connection is not all that evident. Because of this, the category of drash ranges over methods of Bible interpretation that seem to have nothing to do with each other and frequently nothing to do with the text itself. The word ‘midrash’ is a variation of the word drash that is generally used as a noun, referring to both a single teaching using this method of interpretation or an entire compilation of such teachings. Midrashic interpretation is so important that it is commonly considered to be of equal status with the literal interpretation of the text. In fact, in many instances, including standard sermons, or drashot as they are usually called in synagogues, the simple interpretation is frequently bypassed altogether in favor of Midrash.
The history of Midrash, like much of Judaism that dates from Talmudic times, is hazy at best. Midrash probably has its origins in the pre-Mishnaic teachings of late second temple times. An early prominent teacher of Midrash was the obscure (in Jewish circles) but highly influential early 1st century Greek Jewish scholar named Philo, whom we have already encountered. He wrote dozens of books using Midrash as his primary method of interpretation. How much of Philo’s midrashic teachings made it into the mainstream rabbinic world is unclear. After Philo, midrashic interpretation can be found in the Mishna itself, though only rarely. In the Talmud it is sprinkled liberally throughout the text of both the Bavli and the Yerushalmi. Stories of Biblical figures, of rabbinic incidents, of countless metaphors and ethical teachings, may not be the bread and butter of the Talmud, but they sure are the spice. When found in the Talmud these teachings go by the name aggada, or its Aramaic equivalent aggadata, which means stories or legends.
The teaching that eventual came to represent the word Midrash were those midrashim (plural of midrash) that originated in Israel during Mishnaic, Talmudic, and especially post-Talmudic times. The earlier version is currently known as halachic Midrash, being as it usually deals with matters of interpreting the text to explain matters of Halacha, or Jewish law and custom as it is practiced. The best known of these are the 2nd or 3rd century compilations on the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Sifra, also known as Torat Kohanim, covers Leviticus, while the Sifrei covers Numbers and Deuteronomy. The halachic midrashim do contain many stories and homiletic teachings, but this is not their focus. Variations of many of the midrashim found in these works are also found in Talmud, demonstrating either a common origin or a Talmudic retelling of older midrashic teachings.
The better known class of midrash is now known as aggadic midrash, because it deals almost exclusively with stories surrounding the text of the Bible but not contained within the text. There are many such compilations and they probably date from the 5th century to as late as the 15th century. The heyday of these Midrashim began after the premature closing of the Talmud Yerushalmi in the late 4th/early 5th centuries. Following this abrupt change in the rabbinic world of Israel, the rabbis switched their primary focus from legal to homiletics.
In all likelihood, these midrashim were the result of regular rabbinic sermons in the synagogues of 5th through 10th century Israel, probably on Shabbat afternoons. These sermons were the channel for rabbis to connect with their lay-population and to convey some of the practical and spiritual wisdom of rabbinic Judaism to an audience that was increasingly inundated by Christianity, Islam, and oppressive foreign rule. They were the Jewish lifeline for the Jews of this forgotten era. For this reason, these teachings were absolutely essential and had to be taught in a manner that would perk the interest of the Jews and allow them to walk away with instructive messages.
The most famous of these compilations is the Midrash Rabbah, meaning ‘great midrash’. It covers the 5 books of the Chumash and the 5 scrolls, or megilot (Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and Song of Songs). These scrolls, like the books of the Chumash, were (and still are) read in public on regular occasions in the synagogue. These 10 individual components of the Midrash Rabbah were not compiled at the same time. Until recent centuries, they were not even considered part of the same work. The section on Genesis is the oldest, likely dating from the 5th or 6th centuries. The others date from the 7th to the 12th centuries.
Other commonly known midrashim include the Pirke d’Rebbe Eliezer, likely dating from the 8th century, even though the Rebbe Eliezer to whom it is attributed lived during the late 1st century. Another popular collection was the Midrash Tanhuma from the 9th century. It became the only midrash collection to rival Midrash Rabbah in popularity. There are two versions of Midrash Tanhuma that frequently bare little resemblance to each other. Both are clearly the recordings of rabbinic sermons expounding on verses in the Torah that almost invariably veer widely from the storyline of the text. These sermons were intended to impart a specific message to a particular audience, with the verses quoted being nothing more than a springboard to launch into the main theme.
Following these, there were numerous collections of older compilations of midrashim. Scholars in the many lands of the Jewish Diaspora collected these different midrashic teachings from almost any source they could find and grouped them according to the verses of the Torah or the Tanakh that they were associated with. Like the older versions of midrash, these midrashim were not the unified teachings of one rabbi or even that of a rabbinic school working towards a common goal.
The increasingly large amount of midrashim frequently disagreed with one another or presented views that diverged from the Talmud. Unlike the Talmud, the midrashic collections probably never went through an editing process. This resulted in a kind of mishmash of midrashim, with no way of knowing which should be considered more authentic and which should be viewed suspiciously. All that is needed for a midrash to qualify for legitimacy is simply calling it a midrash. In fact, most people today who quote a midrash for whatever the purpose do just that – they refer to some story, tradition, or interpretation and call a midrash and leave it at that. Midrashim have acquired a kind of immunity to any questioning. They are accepted at face value no matter how outlandish the content or how much they contradict the more mainstream sources such as the Talmud.
This has resulted in a rather bizarre situation in which Judaism is on the one hand a religion based on highly detailed laws and customs, with a well-documented history and a firm theological and philosophical basis, while on the other a religion filled with countless myths and stories and fantastic legends that try the imagination of even the most open-minded believer. Attempts to move Judaism into the rational direction have been made through the centuries but they have invariably resulted in a backlash in the mystical direction. Attempts to move in the mystical direction result in a similar backlash from the rationalists. The end product is an uneasy combination of the two, mystical and rational, with most religious Jews trying to straddle the fence between them. It’s not an easy task.
The most common defense against the mythical tendency of the midrashim is to claim that they were never meant to be taken literally. The imaginative interpretations, according to this view, were simply vehicles to bring out a certain point, couched in some way within a loose interpretation of Scripture. While it is true that some midrashim have to be rejected when they contradict the Talmud or some accepted tradition, the bulk of them either fit within rational standards of credulity or can be reinterpreted in a metaphorical manner. As satisfactory as this approach may be, it has never really caught among the Orthodox. There is something about stories that stretch truth to the breaking point that defies questioning. Midrashim, perhaps more than any other facet of Torah, fulfill the odd spiritual need for the fantastic.
This may explain the most famous of all the midrashim, a midrash that is so in a class by itself that most people do not even consider it to be midrash. This is the Zohar, a midrash on the bulk of the Chumash and assorted other sections of the Tanakh, which came to light at the end of the 13th century. The Zohar will have its own essay in the section on Jewish mysticism, which is where it really belongs. Suffice it to say at this point that the Zohar was written in classic midrashic style but with a distinct bent towards the spiritual/mystical world of angels, souls, powers of purity and impurity, and the emanations of Godliness that permeate creation. The Zohar is almost an indefinable work that stands by itself among Jewish books. It has gone through many stages of popularity and rejection, and right from its outset was the subject of controversy. But it has influenced the direction of Jewish spirituality and theology more than any other midrash.
In spite of the somewhat unreal tendency of midrashim, they remain a classic source of Jewish learning and wisdom. There is nothing quite like the satisfaction of figuring out, through nuances in the language or by working out the ideas, the true essence of a midrashic message. If done patiently and correctly it can be nothing short of exhilarating. One gets the feeling of almost having written the midrash anew. Midrashim may be hard to fully accept at times, but they breathe new life into ancient texts that makes the stories and the characters as relevant and as real as if they were happening today.
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Date: 10/10/16 at 00:16:15
Someone once told me you are a fool if you believe the Midrash and a fool if you don't believe the Midrash...thanks for contextualising the time line when they came into use as a buffering against the Christian thought etc. Do we have any reference to the Midrash being revealed at Har Sinai, with the rest of the oral and written Torah?