Friday, June 09, 2006

Midrashic Musings

One of my favorite bloggers, e-kvetcher, (of “Search for Emes”) just wrote a post on the ‘slippery slope’ question of how to relate to midrash.

This is hardly a ‘new’ issue here in this micro-universe of jewish bloggers. In fact, it seems like midrash has been in the forefront of many erudite minds:

Judaic studies scholar (and bottle head blues master) Fred McDowell published a very telling post in which he ‘fisks’ an article about whether midrash should be taught as fact or fiction. Dov Bear, who has ranted on this in the past, suggests a ‘ranking system’ which would indicate the level of historical likelihood of each midrash. (Dov Bear’s system has the benefit of being color coded so that even the residents of New Square can use it.) The great Godol Hador (perhaps soon to be zt’l), contented himself with a passing shot at Dov within this post, and some well aimed strafing at Fred.

As an agnostic who does not believe in Torah Misinai, I don’t feel like I’m in much of a position to critique the credibility of midrash. I leave that for the believers to argue. As e-kvetcher points out, the issue is disturbing because it is, in fact, a slippery slope. Or, to use Godol’s point, why is one supernatural story more believable than another?

I would like, however, to point out some more subtle things which are both positive and negative outcomes of our affinity to midrash.

First, it is important to recognize the astonishing storytelling power of allegory. Parables can create an emotional connection to a moral message or insight into the human condition much more forcefully than expository writing. From “The Trial” to “Life of Pi”, allegories give the author freedom to create an entire setting – divorced from our experience of day to day life – which brings the subject into powerful focus.

Often, politicians, pundits and public speakers use small personal stories to convey a global point. In some ways, this is the same mechanism at work. We don’t ask for ‘proof’ of these stories – and many of them are apocryphal. But they are there to connect us with a theme. We are evaluating the point itself, not the story.

My second point is what I call “miracle inflation”. It’s never enough for us jews. Revelation at Sinai wasn’t enough. God had to suspend the mountain over our heads. 600,000 (or 2.5 million, all in) jews was not enough. All of the future souls had to be assembled as there well. God couldn’t just speak, he spoke both versions of the 10 commandments simultaneously. Etc., etc, etc. What’s wrong with us? Are we worried that the basic miracle isn’t impressive enough?

Last, and this is just something which adults should know, children are taught midrash as fact. If you think that midrash should be taken literally, then fine. But, if you don’t, you may want to check in with your kids. You many be a bit surprised by what you find out. My kids attend fairly liberal modern orthodox schools. Here is a question from my eleven year old son:

“If each body of water split at the same time as the Yam Suf, and the Yam Suf split into twelve paths (one for each shevet), then did each river and lake split into twelve parts?”

Of course, this is only one aspect of the abuse of mythic storytelling in our education system. The principle of my son’s school recently told his class the ‘chicken’ story. In a nutshell, it is this:

“A devote butcher is rushing to close his store before shabbos, when an old begger woman knocks on his door and asks him to butcher a chicken for her. In his impatience, he sends her away. Later that evening, as he is making kiddush, he suddenly tells his family that they must take the entire meal to the home of this poor woman. His family is perplexed, but he is adamant and so the go along with him. Afterwards, he explains that in his previous life, he failed to do the exact same mitzvah in the exact same situation. God had given him a second chance, which he nearly missed taking advantage of.”

Okay. So what gives? Do we (litvaks that we are) believe in reincarnation? I know that chessed is very important, but is it impossible to make that point without reverting to such extreme fiction? And, in case you’re dismissing this as just a way to get through to small children, guess what, a few years ago the Rabbi of my (RW MO) shul told the exact same story. Did we all laugh? Did we shuffle uncomfortably in our seats? No, we listened, we nodded. The conditioning worked; Hear enough incredible stories your whole life, and pretty soon, you can believe anything.

In the end, many fine and noble ideas are conveyed through midrashic allegory, and there are many, many midrashim who’s beauty touch me to the core of my soul. But in the orthodox fog of fact and fiction, I would gladly shed the magnificent allegory for a fidelity to truth and a moral priority to tell it the way it is.


Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

>>>Are we worried that the basic miracle isn’t impressive enough?

Sounds like a bad case of miracle envy.

We are definetly a nation of story tellers, I just wish we could once and for all get the Genre straight.

It's fiction, people, fiction!!

June 09, 2006 9:08 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

>>What’s wrong with us? Are we worried that the basic miracle isn’t impressive enough?

I wrote the same thing in my follow up post

June 09, 2006 10:49 AM  
Blogger The Jewish Freak said...

Great post! Why do they say someone below age 40 should not learn Kabbalah, but they will teach any kid the wackiest midrash stories.

June 09, 2006 2:22 PM  
Blogger Just me said...

"We are definetly a nation of story tellers, I just wish we could once and for all get the Genre straight."


June 11, 2006 1:50 AM  
Blogger Monica said...

It doesn't matter whether it is "fact" or "fiction," though quite honestly there are typically more "truths" inherent in what we call fiction. Midrash is very much about the process, rather than the product. Creating midrash brought people closer to God; likewise, reading and discussing midrash now brings us closer to God. It's the act of questioning, interrogating even, the Hebrew bible that is important -- not that answers we find or stories we generate as a result. Isn't that what "Turn it and turn it" is all about?

July 25, 2006 9:23 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


I agree, but I like it when the cover says “The following is a work of fiction”.

In any case, medrash is such a huge body of literature that its isn’t really possible to characterize it as a single work. Some pieces are metaphysical, some moralistic, some help us understand something in the bible which doesn’t fit, some are folksy, some are just…well…silly.

I think that it is all man-made-myth. Very beautiful. Very moving. But myth all the same. To me – and I truly understand that this is just my own thing – having a fidelity to the objective truth is very important.

My main point, I think, is that even believers should have a more discerning appreciation for the use of fiction vs. fact in medrash.

But, hey, left brain, right brain.

July 26, 2006 12:17 AM  

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