“The Midrash Says…”

25 08 2010

Most people who use the word “midrash” don’t know what it means. To them, “midrash” simply denotes a convoluted and nonsensical commentary to a text: a tract composed with the intention of obfuscating a point, of inventing a wild fantasy, or of replacing the biblical literature with arcane trivia about first millennium rabbis and their views on the science of the day. To open any casual guide to Judaism, such as grace the shelves of bookstores throughout this country, is to be vindicated in this suspicion. These authors, whose noble aim is to educate people in the broadest strokes possible, could not possibly be more incorrect.

While the genre of Midrash is homogeneous in respect of the fact that it is, 100% of the time, a commentary upon the biblical literature (unlike the Talmud, for example, which comprises a commentary upon the Mishna), it is also held together by its utilisation of a particular methodology. According to one source, this methodology was first adumbrated by Hillel, who ostensibly determined seven rules of exegesis. According to another source, it was Rabbi Ishmael who created the concept of Midrash, and who defined it with a total of thirteen rules. A third source has Rabbi Eliezer propounding thirty-two rules of midrashic exegesis, and a fourth (attributed to Samuel ben Hofni) places the total number at forty-nine.

For those of us who are not accustomed to actually spelling out the methodological principles that underscore our immediate comprehension of a text, the very existence of such rules is enough to inspire a headache. And for those of us who subscribe to the various hermeneutical principles of the modern era (that a text must be understood in its immediate context, in relation to other similar texts, and in light of the society that produced it), the nature of the midrashic methodology that underscores this particular genre is abstruse to the point of appearing ridiculous.

To read a collection like Midrash Rabba (perhaps, more than any other, the collection to which people unintentionally refer when they say that “the Midrash says…”), none of this is particularly problematic. Like several other examples of midrashim and collections of midrashim, Midrash Rabba is homiletic in its import. The rabbis, concerned with making sense of the anomalies of the text, together with the various silences of the text, used the intellectual tools at their disposal in order to provide the stories with a more profound meaning. The overwhelming majority of them could not be taken literally even if one were so inclined, and it is reasonable to suggest that none of them were meant to be taken literally in the first place. By removing verses from their immediate context, and by understanding them on the basis of verses elsewhere within the Tanakh, the rabbis turned the Hebrew Bible into a single, comprehensive rabbinic text.

But what happens if one is to derive messages from this text? What occurs when, instead of dealing with the narratives of Genesis or the poetry of Psalms, the text is dealing with the pronouncements of Numbers, or the stipulations of Deuteronomy? What happens, in other words, when the text, rather than being homiletic in nature, is halakhic instead? Is halakhic midrash any different to narrative midrash? And does this difference have any impact upon Judaism today?

The means by which academic midrash becomes practical law was a bone of contention between two second century rabbis: Akiva and Ishmael. While Ishmael is traditionally credited with a halakhic midrash to Exodus (“The Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael”), Akiva’s students are credited with the halakhic midrashim to Leviticus (“Sifra”; also called “Torat Kohanim”), Numbers and Deuteronomy (“Sifrei”), as well as the anonymous sections in both the Tosefta (that which was, purportedly, left over after the crystallisation of the Mishna), and even the Mishna itself.

Rabbi Ishmael, whose approach to text is best exemplified by a statement of his that “the Torah speaks in human language” (Sifra, Num §112), was a strict applicator of midrashic methodology. Rabbi Akiva, whose approach appears to have had a more mystical bent, was apparently inclined to derive laws from obscure features of the text (such as an additional letter), and with less regard for the conventional midrashic tools. A discussion that the two have in a Talmudic passage (bSan 51b) is particularly illustrative.

There, the debate concerns the fate of a priest’s daughter who has committed adultery. The discussion concerns a passage in the Torah (Lev 21:9), which stipulates that she should be burned, but which fails to make clear whether it is adultery of which she is guilty, or whether it is premarital sex. Based on a comparison with two other biblical verses (Lev 20:10 and Deut 22:21), and utilising at least two different midrashic principles, Rabbi Ishmael determines that the young girl in our verse is only betrothed to be married, and that if she were actually married already, her punishment would be stoning instead. Rabbi Akiva disagrees.

According to Rabbi Akiva, the daughters of priests merit burning both for premarital intercourse as well as adultery. Despite the fact that the Torah does not make this clear, and despite the fact that Akiva is unable (or unwilling) to answer the objections of Ishmael, or even to provide an alternative rationalisation, this is his final word. His reason is that the word “daughter” in the particular verse under discussion has a vav attached to it, and he explains this extra letter – for reasons that are unclear – as alluding to the fact that she is burned despite her marital status at the time of her crime. Famously, Rabbi Ishmael cries out, “And because this word has a vav attached to it, you would take her out to be burned??”

Sadly, the Talmud furnishes us with very little that can really indicate the relationship of these two scholars. As with Hillel and Shammai, the tradition is predominantly recorded by those who favoured one over the other, and in this instance the majority of the literature venerates Rabbi Akiva. It is worth noting, however, that the texts that do so tend to lionise him in mystical terms. To give but two examples, Moses is granted a vision of Akiva, expounding halakha from the “crowns” appended to the Torah’s letters (bMen 29b); and Rabbi Akiva, alone of four venerable sages of his day, succeeds in both ascending to the supernal realms and descending from them in peace (tHag 2:2). Rabbi Ishmael, on the other hand, is depicted in far more mundane and logical terms than his contemporary.

In the field of halakhic studies, a major question concerns the relationship between the Mishna and the halakhic midrash. Alone of all of the halakhic texts, the Mishna presents the law without any justification for the law. Rather than referencing its opinions in other texts (as the Talmud does), or even with an appeal to logic, the Mishna presents the law, which is the law because the Mishna presents it. This is in sharp contradistinction to the halakhic midrash, which presents law as the results of a methodological analysis of the literature of the Torah.

This gives us two possible options. Either we can suggest that the Mishna holds primacy, and that the halakhic midrash developed as a means of demonstrating to those Jews who rejected the Mishna that its laws were all contained within the Torah itself, or we can argue that the midrash held primacy and that the Mishna is simply a codification of the results of such hermeneutical exegesis. In the event of the former option, halakhic midrash remains speculative and the difference of opinion between Akiva and Ishmael is thoroughly academic. Irrespective of the means by which one reaches his conclusion, the conclusion is already established by the Mishna and is not the subject of debate.

In the event, however, of the latter possibility, the difference of opinion between Akiva and Ishmael is most profound. If the Mishna constitutes the crystallisation of halakhic midrash, then the methodology employed by the midrash has a tremendous bearing upon the practical realia of law. Approximately three centuries after the completion of the Babylonian Talmud, Rav Sherira – the head of a prestigious academy in Babylon – wrote a letter, in which he clearly explained the origins of the Mishna, the Tosefta, the two Talmuds and the halakha. In this letter, he makes it very clear that the anonymous sections of the Mishna were composed by Rabbi Meir, whose teacher – Rabbi Akiva – was the source of his every opinion.

Had the methodology of Rabbi Ishmael so captivated the hearts and minds of his disciples that he instead had been venerated over the charismatic Rabbi Akiva, and had the Mishna been composed in accordance with his views, what might the halakha look like today? In a world in which competing rabbis debate each other in relation to halakhic criteria that derive in essence from Akiva, perhaps the simplest solution for those who wish to read the passages more literally is to simply say, “I have it on tradition from the school of Ishmael.”

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5 responses

25 08 2010
Daniel

Why do I hear Rabbi Ishmael saying “And because this word has a vav attached to it, you would take her out to be burned??” with a Polish Jewish accent? Possibly even saying “boined”?

29 08 2010
Michael

I’ve seen R.Ishmael’s question somewhere before but had always assumed it was about arguing against the death penalty in a particular case for reasons of compassion — so it was interesting to see the real context. But then I don’t see why the statement should be famous, especially if R.Ishmael thinks she should be executed with a harsher punishment?

30 08 2010
Simon Holloway

Michael: thanks for that observation! To the best of my knowledge (and you can please correct me if I am wrong), the order of punishments is derived from the mishna, Sanhedrin 7:1. There, it states that the punishments are stoning, burning, decapitation and strangulation, and the fact that Rabbi Shim’on disgrees with the order seems to suggest that it actually is an order, and one which is subsequently understood to be in decreasing severity.

I have always had a problem with this idea, and would be very interested to know if there are other sources for it. That burning might be less harsh than stoning appears absurd to me – not least because the mishna itself describes stoning as merely pushing somebody from a height, and burning the process of pouring molten lead down their throats. I think that Rabbi Ishmael is opting here for the milder punishment, and that it is only the later passage in the mishna (or the even later exegesis on that passage) that makes it seem as though he isn’t.

And Daniel, if you can find a Polish Jew who lives in Brooklyn and whose name is Ishmael, I thoroughly congratulate you. I suspect you’ve as much chance of finding an Afghani Muslim in Iran with the name Yankele. Any news on when you’re coming to Sydney? I want to eat a bagel.

30 08 2010
Michael

I guess there are 2 separate issues, the punishments themselves and R. Ishmael’s statements. On the punishments themselves I’ve just looked up a Soncino translation of the Gemara there and the discussion says things like: “stoning is more serious because it is prescribed for idolatry which is a denial of the fundamental principles of Judaism” or “burning is more serious because it is done to the Kohen’s daughter who has brought disrepute to her father”. So the arguments seem to say the level of severity is not how painful the death is but rather just a match to the severity of the crime — it would therefore be more of a disgrace to be stoned even if it’s less painful than being burnt.

In terms of R. Ishmael’s statement, I was wondering if you knew why it was famous — since no matter what order of punishments you or R. Ishmael might think is most severe, he is still rebuking R. Akiva for simply substituting one form of capital punishment for another, which doesn’t seem to warrant the rebuke which gives off an air of being concerned with not being too draconian. Maybe his exclamation is that R. Akiva should not condemn her to the same punishment as is given to idolaters, but that’s still a far cry from what most people would read into the statement if they’re not thinking about the fact that both cases still refer to death.

30 08 2010
Simon Holloway

I think that it’s important to draw a clear line of demarcation between the historical rabbis Ishmael and Akiva, and the mythical rabbis with the same names. One might presume that the historical disagreements have here been recorded, although one would do well to remember that they have been recorded (in this instance) in a commentary upon the Mishna, the earliest strands of which (ie: the Mishna and the various beraitot) were redacted over a century-and-a-half after these two rabbis are said to have died. For that reason, I don’t think that the Mishna’s determination of the order of severity of capital punishments (and, even less, the Talmudic rationale that you have cited) should overly inform our perspective of Ishmael’s objection to Akiva’s exegesis – assuming that this was even a bona fide bone of contention between the two.

Where things get fraught is when you consider that Ishmael’s statement (“And because this word has a vav attached to it, you would take her out to be burned??”) is, to all intents and purposes, composed by the Talmudic author. Nonetheless, I don’t think that he is presented as attempting to protect the rights of a poor girl who is going to be horribly murdered so much as he is protesting the application of halakha on the grounds of a rather vague and airy exegesis. That he insists upon stoning the girl instead would belie any anachronistic sentimentality on his part.

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