Dangers of Understanding Midrashim Literally: Part IV


Chananya Weissman



Far be it from me to speak on behalf of others, but I feel a need to respond to Zechariah Porter’s criticism of Rabbi Rosenthal’s article on properly approaching Midrash and of Avi Goldstein’s supportive letter. 

Mr. Porter begins by accusing Rabbi Rosenthal of determining the hashkafah of his school by how he’d be viewed in a college class.  This is a disingenuous remark; Rabbi Rosenthal’s point was that Jews who relate to Midrash in a simplistic way and take all Jewish legends as literal historical truth will make laughingstocks of themselves and the Torah they hold so dear.  No one is arguing that we should change anything about Judaism to garner the approval of secular intellectuals, but that a primitive understanding of Midrash is bound to create needless personal embarrassment and Chillul Hashem when confronted with obvious, penetrating questions.  Judaism is not mindless dogma, and it’s a shame that it has been reduced to that in much of the religious community.

Mr. Porter goes on to “prove” that it’s not far-fetched to believe that Bisya’s arm literally stretched, since it was a time of open miracles.  Again, no one is doubting that Hashem could have caused this miracle as well if He so desired, only that there is little compelling reason to believe that He actually did so, a literal reading of the Midrash notwithstanding. 

In fact, I daresay that it is ludicrous to believe that the Midrash should be taken literally.  Imagine that you were Bisya swimming in the river, and you saw a basket floating in the distance.  Would any rational person stretch out her hand for it when it was clearly well out of reach?  Of course not.  The Midrash as literally written makes only slightly more sense than taking Hashem's "outstretched arm" literally!

As for Mr. Porter’s thought-stymieing question of “who has the authority to decide which Midrashim are allegorical and which are literal truth”, I submit that it is our obligation as Torah-studying Jews to raise ourselves to the level where we are all capable of making such a determination, where in fact doing so would become almost second nature.  Is not one of the goals of all learning to achieve higher levels of knowledge, understanding, and intellectual capacity?  Is learning Torah an aimless pursuit, meant merely to occupy our spare time while an ivory tower of “Gedolim” does all the thinking for us?  Should we think just enough to write letters to the editor that squelch anyone else who would dare use his own mind for more? 

And I throw Mr. Porter’s question right back at him: who had the authority to decide who is qualified to do the thinking for us?  How is one nominated as a Gadol who is now capable of thinking for himself and others?  If this is determined largely by the masses, then what gives the masses the intelligence to determine who is qualified to be a Gadol and shape the world of Jewish thought?  Besides, don’t we expect our Gedolim to be so humble that they don’t consider themselves worthy of thinking for others?  What nonsense!

Nearly 10 years ago I asked Rabbi Hershel Schachter how one should relate to the more difficult-to-believe stories in the Midrash.  He responded with a Mashal.  Imagine that archaeologists one thousand years from now find an old newspaper from our generation.  The headline reads “Yanks Bomb the Red Sox”.  The archaeologists would scratch their heads and wonder why northerners are bombing red socks, and come to all kinds of wild theories about our society.  Of course, someone from our generation immediately understands the real meaning of this headline.

Same with Midrash.  The darshanim of former times had a unique style of making a point that was readily apparent to their audience.  We study their words a thousand years later and often wonder what they really meant.  It is tempting to take the easy way out and just interpret everything literally.  But what seems like the safe route is really the most dangerous of all.  We miss the original point of the Midrash.  We shut off our minds and feel threatened when others challenge us.  We cling to nonsense instead of truth, and instead of being an am chacham v’navon we become an am naval  v’lo chacham.  We may be unable to uncover the intended meaning of every allegory, as we no longer have access to the culture and references of the time, but whatever we manage to discover is another diamond for us to treasure.

In addition, it’s well known that Chazal often couched their messages in allegory to avoid trouble with the Romans and their sympathizers.

All this has nothing to do with emunah in Hashem or Chazal, but emunah in ourselves to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors, who were not afraid to study Torah with an active, inquisitive, truth-seeking mind – right up until this wayward, cowardly, superficial generation that learns Midrash either not at all (why even bother?) or strictly on a first-grade level. 

The Midrash and Torah in general will not be threatened by being studied in a sophisticated, intellectually mature fashion.  They will only be enhanced, and their lessons will be brought to the surface, instead of being buried under the rubble of intellectual cowardice and primitive dogma posing as frumkeit.