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Midrash: Commentary or Prophecy?

Marc HirshmanFilmed at Hebrew University

The Jewish Sages taught that one should only teach if one can make the lesson as attractive as a bride, and groom I add, on her wedding night. I can't imagine making good on that challenge but it shows the Sages to be connoisseurs of good teaching and great ideas. This lecture tries to provide insight into their truly enchanting and fairly unique approach to Biblical commentary. Anyone interested in Scripture of any religion and particularly the history of Jewish Thought will I hope both learn and enjoy this brief introduction to Midrash Aggada.

Marc Hirshman is the Mandel Professor Jewish Education at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University. He has been teaching teachers Midrash, Talmud and Jewish Thought in Israel at Oranim Teachers Seminar, Haifa University, The Shalom Hartman Institute and at the Hebrew University for the past 35 years. He has been a visiting Professor at the University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, University of Notre Dame and Wake Forest University, and held fellowships at Cambridge, Harvard and NYU. His first book was translated into English as ‘A Rivalry of Genius: Jewish and Christian Biblical Interpretation in Late Antiquity’ (SUNY 1995) and his most recent book is ‘The Stabilization of Rabbinic Culture 100-350 c.e.: Texts on Edcuation in their Late Antique Context’ (Oxford University Press 2009). His edition of ‘Midrash Qohelet 1-6’ is to appear in the Fall 2016. He is fascinated by the Jewish sages’ astonishingly playful yet presumably serious interpretation of Holy Scripture as their main expression of deepest held beliefs and religious thinking. These rabbinic comments take on more vivid meaning when viewed alongside competing interpretations offered by Christians Gnostics and as response to Pagan philosophical critiques.

Traditionally Rava teaches us to begin with a joke, so this is opposite to the evening. I had a great uncle who was chief Rabbi Herzog’s (alav ha-shalom) secretary so they sent him abroad, he was American born, Rabbi Goldman, to drum up support in the Churches in America. So he got to St Louis and a Preacher told him, right opposite there was a clock, we preach for 15 minutes and no more, so my Uncle said here in Jerusalem we have the same custom, but in front of the preacher we put a calendar. So settle in and what I’m going to try to do is continue Professor Kugel’s speech and move it into the Rabbinic period. Let me strike one sombre note before I start, 11 years ago today, 9 people were killed at the Hebrew University in a bomb that exploded in the cafeteria, two of them were Marla and Ben and I would like to dedicate the evening and my talk to their memory. Off we go, Midrash, midrash aggada first let’s do it and then I will talk about it. We have moved from pre common era, which Professor Kugel was talking about mostly, to after the common era the first 5 centuries the real birgining of agadit literature is in the 1-5 centuries. Let’s talk about Eicha, let’s start with Adam and Eve. God says Ayeka, where are you Adam? The Rabbis read this not as Ayeka where are you? But Eicha, how did it happen to you? Now you know that no scripture is pointed, it is not vocalised, so they are allowed to do this. I’ll talk about why in a while but for what? Why instead of reading it Ayeka do you read how? How did it happen to you, just like the book of Lamentations begins, it goes like this, the Rabbi who preached this as Eicha, lamentation, how did it happen to you, answers a lot of questions by then, first question is. Didn’t God know where Adam was? Why did God ask? Maybe that’s a small theological problem. But there is a much more interesting answer, the Rabbi continues this Eicha theme with ‘Adam I put you into the Garden of Eden, I gave you one commandment you transgressed and then what happened, out you go’. The Rabbi says it’s the same thing that happens to Israel. Given commandments, put into the land, they transgress and then out they go, certainly means Ayeka but by changing it to Eitcha, there is new reading of the opening chapters of Genesis and what does it become? The opening chapters of Genesis become an introduction to Jewish history. That’s interesting, well let’s go to the next one. I had a friend on Kibbutz who defined midrash aggada in terms of paraphrase, what do we do in paraphrase we say the same thing with other words, in midrash we take the same words and make them mean something else. And the question is why? Professor Kugel touched on this, why this liberty with scripture? Here I tried to point out that this playfulness with the word, with revocalising it gives you this new insight into the structure. But it’s not always this way, sometimes they are more attentive to their own times than they are to Biblical times, why did the Rabbis of the land of Israel, that’s why it began, choose this form for all their theological reflections, for all ethical, the same Rabbis taught Mishnah, Talmud, they can make a sentence on their own, why did all their reflections have to be under cover of scripture well I can give a couple of quick answers, one is encyclopaedia. Just like the Greeks taught their curriculum through teaching Homer and when they hit a sea in Homer they would talk about the sea, so too the Jews whatever was of value, they linked that to the Torah, in our modern economic terms it was linked. Meaning every time I went back to scripture now that I read Eicha, Ayeka,, I’m not sure I think about the idea again so once I attach something to Torah it remains. Another possible idea is that what is going on here is what Yitzhak called serious play, I don’t know why people danced on the tips of their toes, but it’s an art form and here the Rabbis chose all their theological reflections, all their ethical reflections to do through the language of scripture, not on their own. How did this all begin? Well the modern study began there’s a much funnier picture, but I settled for this one, he was a great man. Leopold Zunz, wrote in 1832 a history of midrash now he wrote it for a very specific purpose it’s an academic work which was to show the Germans the Jews have real signs of Judaism and that they should be allowed into the academy, the other purpose was to show that it’s ok to preach in Synagogue’s in the vernacular, but in spite of this being research that was for a purpose, but it remains to this day the Bible of Midrash. What did he accomplish here? He had a couple of insights the first insight was this nationalistic time was the Bible became the Jewish portable homeland. The Bible was our nationhood and Zunz thought that I’m trying to work out this insight now you’ll see it coming up soon, Zunz thought that midrash in some ways continued the themes of the prophets now we are going to explore his insight and see what we can do with it. Let’s begin with the words midrash and aggada, midrash means ecliastisees and I think that’s the way it worked, scholars taught one another traditions and interpretations of the Bible verse by verse. We know this also from the Church Father Jerome in the 4th century he has a teacher trying to teach him to read it how the Rabbis read it but that would imply a kind of popular audience,, the next one in Yerushalmi Pesachim says, when asked to teach by Rabbi Simli the response is “I don’t teach southerners or Babylonians Aggada” the response is why not? Interpretation, another verse in middle ages that says this “I don’t teach southerners or Babylonians Aggada when they’re too young’ now this has an import and some people have shown this in research, Aggada sometimes means the mystical speculation around scripture, so maybe he was careful, southerners here around the airport, Lod was the yeshiva of the South in their day. We have talked about 2 types of audience, let’s talk about a third. There is a great story about Rabbi Meir and a female student, Friday night in the Hamta Synagogue near Tiveria which was excavated beautifully, at least in 4th century, this was probably second, could hold 200 people. Could they really preach on a Friday night,? Maybe. Story goes, Rabbi Meir would teach a lesson in the Synagogue every Friday night there was a woman who would come regularly to hear him, one time the lesson went on too long, she went home and her husband was unhappy. Well she replied to him I was listening to the lesson and he says I’m not going to let you back here till you spit in the eye of the preacher. Rabbi Meir with help of Holy Spirit what had happened pretended to have a pain in his eye, he says who can spit in my eye, lady says I can, does it 7 times, more to story than that. What I learnt from it, somebody can tell a story, one about a woman listening to story on Friday night, can say it’s a contrived story but on the other hand somebody is seeing it as possible. Two is, it is obviously a popular lecture, the biggest debate in understanding midrash aggada to this very day, over the last 150 years that has not been settled, who are they addressing? Is this Rabbi speaking to Rabbis? As Yona Frenkel Ola Vshalom claimed, this is Beit Midrash literature just like Talmud or is this popular literature to draw the hearts of women and children in Babylonian Talmud, that’s the problem. But even in Rabbinic times not everyone was happy with Aggada. Dalma is a phrase in the Yerushalmi that says, cut long story short, he says who can spit in my eye and the lady says I can. There is more to the story than that. Let me just say what I learnt from it, somebody could tell a story about a woman listening to a preacher on Friday night. Now you can say it’s a contrived story, on the other hand somebody is seeing as possible. Two is it is obviously a popular lecture the biggest debate in understanding midrash aggada to this very day over the last 150 years that has not been settled is, who are they addressing? Is this Rabbi speaking to Rabbis as Yona Frankel Ola Vashalom claimed or is this popular literature to draw the hearts of women and children like Rashi says in the Babylonian Talmud, that’s the problem, but even in Rabbinic times not everyone was s happy with aggada. Dalma is a phrase in the Yerushalmi that says it’s an Aramaic form on the Greek drama and it’s a story, a story Rabbi Zeira and Rabbi Abba Bar Kahana were sitting and Rabbi Zeira derided those of Aggada and called them Books of Magic. Now is this the aggada we are talking about made mystical or is this because they are playing so much with the words, what can you make of it, it doesn’t mean anything. Rabbinic times itself there was a movement against it but a huge movement for it throughout Jewish history to this day there’s a debate what’s the place of aggada, most of you who have studied in Yeshivas know that it was traditional in the Babylonian Talmud that when you got to Aggadic passages to skip it and go on to the next legal one, well we did our woman, we are coming into the finale. Midrash in Messiah, you saw that Rabbi Meir was claimed to have prophetic insight, ruach hakodesh, he saw that the woman had troubles at home, did they mean that? Is that a turn of phrase? Did they really think Rabbi Meir had some prophetic power? If you ask me my intuition I can’t prove it, is yes, it’s not just a turn of phrase. Here, I want to tell you the finale, Jacob’s blessings to his kids, he says come gather and I will tell you what is going to happen to you in the end of days. According to the midrash he foresaw for them the end of Gog and Magog and it says ‘ he foresaw for them the Building of the Temple’. The end of Genesis for these 2 Rabbis becomes the end of time, the end of Genesis contained both the beginning of time and the end of time. The Rabbi says and this is the one Rashi took, he tried to tell them but it was hidden from them, a failed attempt of what was going to be in the future. But the whole end of Genesis Rabba, the great Midrash Aggada is fraught with messianism, until it comes ….”For Jacob our Father saw Samson and thought that Samson was the King Messiah, (what strength,). When he saw that Samson died Jacob said, even this one died – “I wait for your deliverance, oh God”. What have I tried to show you through these examples? The Rabbis take Genesis read it in a creative, seriously playful way and try to get new ideas on it, but the book became the heart of their educational endeavour, this is the way they taught Jews what to think. Midrash is the meeting place of Biblical thought, Rabbinic thought, Greco Roman thought and motifs, battle ground of the Rabbis with Christians and agnostics, this is where Jewish thought as we know it today began and all I can do is invite you to study more.

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