What are Midrashim
Virtually every tractate of Talmud contains sections known as Aggadoth or Midrashim. Some include various statements of our Sages and stories regarding different people and events. Others contain moral principles, and biblical exegesis. Not all Midrashim were recorded in the Talmud. Some were compiled in separate books by various Sages, such as Midrash Rabba and Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer. Upon close examination of the various Midrashim a common problem often arises: they do not make sense. Some Midrashim contain passages that make sense at first glance, yet careful analysis will expose many problems. Many, on the other hand, do not make sense even at first glance. They appear to be outright absurd and irrational. Others actually contradict verses in the Torah. How are we to understand these statements? Did our Sages want us to understand Midrashim literally and thereby accept nonsensical statements as true? No intelligent person will accept nonsense as truth. Perhaps, then, they had a different purpose in mind when compiling these statements. We must understand what these great minds were trying to accomplish with Midrashim and what our method should be when approaching them.
The Rambam writes in the Introduction to the Guide for the Perplexed that there are pasSages in the Midrash "which, if taken literally, appear to be inconsistent with truth and common sense, and must therefore be taken figuratively." Many people are drawn after the literal meaning of Midrashim. They feel that since our Sages wrote them in this form, we must accept them in that form. They do not understand that there is great wisdom behind their words. The cause of this mistake is ignorance as the Rambam states, "We have further noticed that when an ill-informed Theologian reads these Midrashim, he will find no difficulty; for possessing no knowledge of the property of things, he will not reject statements which involve impossibilities." A person that accepts impossibilities as possible cannot have true knowledge and a sound intellect. The Rambam continues to discuss the method which an intelligent person should use when confronted with a difficult Midrash, "When, however, a person who is both religious and well educated reads them, he cannot escape the following dilemma: either he takes them literally, and questions the abilities of the author and soundness of mind, or he will acquiesce in assuming that the pasSages in question have some secret meaning, and he will continue to hold the author in high estimation whether he understood the allegory or not." A person has the right to accept either possibility. However, it would be irrational to accept the passages literally and at the same time hold the author in high estimation. For a person cannot be respected for making statements which are inconsistent with truth. If a noted scientist would publicly proclaim the earth to be flat, he would be ridiculed and called a fool. He would lose all honor he might have had.
The Rambam's approach to Midrashim is not unique. It is the approach of our Mesora. Rishonim such as the Meiri, Ritva Ramban and Rashba offered non-literal interpretations to numerous Midrashim. In fact, Rashba wrote a special commentary on certain Midrashim called Perushai HaAggadoth. In it, he shows that Midrashim were not meant to be taken literally. They contain deep concepts, which were written by way of allegory, and only great Torah scholars will understand their true meaning. Rabbeinu Yitzchak Abohab writes in his Menoras HaMeor (Fourth 'Ner', Part 3, Chapter 2), "But a person that does not have the ability to comprehend them (Midrashim) by way of their deeper meaning and he thinks that they are literal - there isn't anything that is more separated from intelligence and further from knowledge."
Acharonim, as well, held that Midrashim have a deeper meaning and are not meant to be taken literally. The Vilna Gaon analyzed various Midrashim in a non-literal manner in a small book entitled 'A Commentary on Many Aggadoth'. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal) discusses the nature of Midrashim in his Essay on the Aggadoth. He writes, "they would commit them to writing so that they would not be lost to succeeding generations, but [they would do so] in an obscure form or in various riddles." The Maharsha discusses in the introduction to his Commentary on Aggadoth that statements of our Sages that contain wild stories and statements that do not make sense are to be explained as parables and metaphors.
Why, then, did our Sages write Midrashim in this manner? The Rambam writes in his Introduction to the Commentary on the Mishna, "The Sages purposely arranged them in such a disguised form due to extremely weighty considerations. First of all, the purpose in this was to sharpen their disciples' wits and to broaden their minds. Another purpose was to beguile the fools so that their minds would not be able to discern their actual substance; for if you would plainly show them these brilliant truths, they would turn their faces away in scorn, because of their destitute nature." Foolish people cannot appreciate a true profound concept. Rather they prefer to understand Midrashim literally and project a mystical, supernatural quality on them. They are amazed at the literal appearance, yet if shown the underlying concept they run away from it and despise it. Even brilliant scholars may fall into the category of fools. The Ramchal writes in his essay, "As for their (Midrashim) value, it would be disrespectful towards the Creator, blessed be He, to give over His secrets to men of bad character, even if they be brilliant scholars." He continues, "only persons of clear mind, who have been well trained in correct logical analysis, will succeed in [understanding] them. Dense individuals and those untrained in correct logic, if they should come across them, would interpret these true and precious concepts as to make them erroneous and harmful." A person may be an expert in Talmud and Halacha, be in charge of a synagogue or a Yeshiva, yet be dense in areas of philosophic thinking. He will think he understands the Midrashic passage properly and proceed to teach them to others. By this he will do great harm to himself and to others. The author of the Siddur Avodas Halev states, "the aggadoth according to their outward appearance without understanding their deep intentions are prone to cause the blind to go astray on the way and lead them to darkness and not light (Otzar HaTeffilos, pg. 20)." A person must be trained to think properly to begin to comprehend the hidden ideas contained in the Midrashim, otherwise he "will become snared in error and confusion" (Ramchal), and will never see the light of truth.
Amazingly, many people today will only accept Midrashim in their literal sense. They are brought up to believe that our great and wise Sages were magic men capable of performing supernatural feats. They feel that these brilliant and sharp minded men accepted ridiculous stories as actual occurrences and passed them on to future generations. These people have either disregarded the above opinions or are ignorant of them. They are arrogant in assuming they understand the words of our Sages without even using the method of our Mesora. We must not jump to conclusions when faced with a difficult statement. We must use intelligence in all attempts to comprehend a Midrash. If we cannot understand it, we must have the courage to admit we lack the knowledge needed. Conversely, we should only tackle problems which are within our capabilities. The more true knowledge we acquire, the more we will comprehend the profound ideas of our great Sages.