Taking Midrashim Literally II



Rabbi Pinchas Rosenthal, dean of Torah Academy of Long Island, has recently addressed many of Jewish education’s flaws; one of which is the blind acceptance of Midrashim as historic truths, and not the metaphoric instruction intended by our Rabbis as stated by Abraham ben Maimonides, Ramchal, and of course, King Solomon. (Proverbs, 1:6) Rabbi Rosenthal expounded upon the famous Midrash of Pharaoh’s daughter Batya “extending” her arm to retrieve Moses from the Nile. Rabbi Rosenthal offered an enlightening insight, removing the need to understand Batya as literally “extending” her arm.

Following, we record the Rabbi’s original article, some responses, and finally the Rabbi’s response.






“And the daughter of Paroh’s arm stretched out many cubits” and the dangers of Midrashim


Rabbi Pinchas Rosenthal, Dean

Torah Academy of Long Island


As part of the interview into high school, I often challenge incoming students with questions that contrast the P’shat of a Chumash story with its Midrashic counterpart. The reaction is always the same- the student looks at me like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. The other day, the student was an eager young lady named Leah. I asked her the following question: If you were able to go back in time to the moment when Paroh’s daughter saw baby Moshe in his basket, what would you see? Would you see Paroh’s daughter requesting her maidservant to fetch the basket as the posuk tells us or would you see her arm grow 25 feet long like Mister Fantastic and rope in the basket as the Midrash says?

I felt at that moment as if I had asked Leah to choose between her two parents at a divorce proceeding.  She knew that the Torah was an authority and correct and the Midrash was an authority and correct. Her mind was telling her both versions could not be simultaneously true! Therefore, she was frozen and unable to respond.

Leah was educated in a yeshiva day school. The vast majority of children from the current Yeshiva system believe all Midrashim are part of the literal account of the events that occurred in the Tanach. 

Let me fast forward to an Anthropology Class at Queens College. The professor is discussing ancient Egypt. He mentions there is a legend among the Jews about the daughter of Pharaoh concerning her arm stretching out to retrieve baby Moses. Leah raises her hand. She says that it was a miracle and the daughter of Paroh had her arm stretched out to save Moshe. Suddenly, all 53 members of her class turn to her and stare. Her face turns crimson. The Professor asks her, “Do you believe that actually happened?” Leah feels the temperature rising. She knows that her beliefs are under attack, and that she has been publicly put on the spot. She desperately wants to explain the Torah position in a cogent way and yet she finds that despite 15 years of Yeshiva education, she is unable to do so.

What is the Torah position on Midrashim?

The great philosopher, the Rambam, in his commentary to Perek Chelek (10th Ch. of Sanhedrin) states unequivocally that Midrashim are not to be taken literally, but are a source of deep wisdom. The great Mikubal, the Ramchal, in his Introduction to Aggadah (found in most editions of the Ein Yaakov) states the Midrashim are a source of deep and abstract ideas and not to be taken literally. The Ra'avad on his commentary on the Mishne Torah (Hil. Teshuva ch. 3) states that taking the Midrashim literally “Mishabshos es ha’deos” distorts ones principles of belief.  Sadly, this is case with our children. They have been taught midrashim as fairy tales. The effects are disastrous.

I explained to Leah that the Torah’s account is what truly occurred in space and time. The Midrash is there to point to the story behind the story. In my opinion, the seemingly miraculous extension of Paroh’s daughter’s arm is directing us to another idea - the great difficulty that she must have faced saving the life of a Jewish baby.  Imagine, if you will, a modern day Paroh  – perhaps a Hitler or a Stalin, or even, a Saddam Hussein.  How likely would it be for the daughter of such a singularly evil dictator to defy her father’s murderous intentions?  Her actions required her to go against her upbringing and the dictates of her father.  This would of necessity create tremendous conflict for any young woman, but particularly for one in her position of prominence in Egyptian society.  The Written Torah’s typically spare prose seems to gloss over this conflict.  But the Midrash points to it, and if used properly, makes us stop and examine her motivations.  The metaphor of her extended arm is an expression of G-d’s directing the actions of Paroh’s daughter.  The rabbis are teaching us that her emotional shift towards feeling protective of this baby is as much of a miracle as if G-d had extended her arm 25 feet.  

Leah felt as if a load had been removed from shoulders. At age 14, she was taught for the first time, the relationship between the Torah and the Midrashim. It is my belief that all teachers should only teach a Midrash if they help the students discover its deeper message.

Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW and Chaya Feuerman, LCSW in their article  “Teaching Midrashim to Children” suggest using the notion of seeking a ‘moral of the story” for presenting the idea of a deeper meaning to Midrashim to children. Here is a good example.

Consider the Midrash which contains a strange twist to the plague of Frogs. 

The verse (Shemos 8:2) states: "And the frog went up and covered all of Egypt." The text uses the singular form when referring to the frogs.  Of course, the simple explanation (poshut peshat) is that in Hebrew as in many languages, an entire group or species is labeled in the singular form.  However, the Midrash derives from this choice of words that actually one frog rose out of the Nile.  However, each and every time an Egyptian tried to hit the frog, instead of it being squashed and killed, it split into several new frogs.  Thus, as the frogs began to jump all over, and Egyptians encountered and hit them, the plague grew worse and worse.  (See Rashi, Op. Cit.)

To our thinking, there is no question that any classroom of children who were encouraged to ponder what they real lesson behind this Midrash is, would draw powerful insights into the nature of problems and how people get further into them.  The inescapable lesson of this Midrash is that when you try to stubbornly and pig-headedly fight a problem, as the Egyptians did, instead of thinking about what has gone wrong you will end up panicking and making things far worse.  The more the Egyptians fought the frogs, the worse it got.  Who among us in life has not panicked and made a situation far worse instead of staying calm and using problem-solving skills?” 

As our children enter the 21st century and its scientific mindset it is obligatory for all educators to ensure that our children see the Torah in its most sophisticated light.



What About Biblical Miracles?

Re: “Shortchanging Our Children By Teaching Midrashim Literally” by Rabbi Pinchas Rosenthal (op-ed, June 2): I believe this is a question better left to recognized Talmudic scholars and authorities. As for Rabbi Rosenthal’s statement that “As our children enter the 21st century and its scientific mindset, it is obligatory for all educators to ensure that our children see the Torah in its most sophisticated light,” I wonder whether he’d use such language in referring to the accounts of malachim; miracles such as those that Moshe displayed in Egypt; the splitting of the Red Sea; etc.

 -Rabbi Velvel Straub



Watered-Down Torah

Having read Rabbi Pinchas Rosenthal’s article, I feel compelled to stand in defense of poor Leah.

Rabbi Rosenthal relates two episodes concerning fourteen-year-old Leah and from there leads us to the premise that the yeshiva system is teaching Midrashim too literally – as “fairy tales” – and that the “effects are disastrous.” He then brings three sources that appear to back him up.

In Talmud Bavli (Sotah 12b), there is a disagreement between two tanaaim, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nechemia. One (the Talmud is not clear on who says what) holds that Batya sent her maidservant. The other insists Batya sent forth her hand and her arm stretched several cubits.

The Talmud and the later commentaries explain that the disagreement is actually over the translation of the word “amasah.” One says this means her maidservant, as the word amah in Tanach normally means maidservant. If it had meant her hand, it would have said yadah, the common Hebrew word for hand.

The other tanna holds that the word amah is translated here as both arm and cubit because in Tanach the correct word for maidservant for a person of stature such as Batya is na’arah, not amah, which is used for commoners. In fact, this expression is in the very same verse. Therefore, he translates the word amah as her arm and cubits (which is why it does not say yadah) to teach us that her arm stretched several cubits.

Since neither the Talmud nor the classic commentators decide definitively according to either one (which is probably why Rashi brings both to explain the verse), each account is perfectly legitimate. Therefore, in my view, Leah was perfectly correct in being dumbfounded when pushed to the wall to choose between the two. How could she know for sure? She wasn’t there when it happened. In fact how could anyone be one-hundred percent sure?

As for her experience in the college classroom, Leah could have explained to the professor and the class that this event is related by one of the greatest sages of Israel who, having lived almost 2,000 years closer than us to the event in question, seemingly would possess a better understanding of the events and times of the Torah.

She could also have pointed out that this sage devoted his entire life to the Torah and is still considered an expert all these centuries later. His words were recorded in the Talmud and have been studied, in the original text, by millions of scholars over the generations. There are also many classic commentators on the Talmud and the Chumash, all of them great rabbis in their own right, who quote him and take what he says quite literally.

There are a number of questions Leah could ask Rabbi Rosenthal. Why is it that in a time of miracles – a time when the Nile River turned to blood, locusts covered the land in a moment’s notice at the command of Moshe, and every firstborn in the land was struck at midnight (events clearly described in the Torah) – it is not acceptable to believe that a woman’s hand could stretch three times its length and then retract?

Surely Rabbi Rosenthal knows that Torah she’bichsav and Torah she’baal peh come from the same source – God Himself. Why, then, would he take one literally and not the other?

How would the rabbi explain the Mishna in Avos (chapter 5, Mishna 5) that there were 10 miracles that happened in the Bais Hamikdash? How about the countless stories basic to our history and faith, such as the one of Avraham being thrown into the fiery furnace without being harmed?

Of course there are Midrashim and aggados that are not to be taken literally. However, they are clearly explained in that way by the classic commentators. If Rabbi Rosenthal would look a little closer at the sources he brought he would see that they are speaking about those specific Midrashim.

From the very fact that the commentators explain those Midrashim as parables or metaphors shows us that they believe that in general the Midrash and Talmud should be understood literally. Why would a Jewish educator willingly take away beautiful and meaningful history from our children and water it down to “fairy tales”?

-Zev Weinstein




A Stretch of Reality

Dear Rabbi Rosenthal, 

I read the exchange in this week's Jewish Press between you and those who challenged your comments about studying Midrash.  There is an easy and foolproof response that will close the mouths of the braying donkeys (at least for now): imagine that you were Batya 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 CAN'T be taken literally! It wouldn't make any more sense than taking Hashem's "outstretched arm" literally!







Rabbi Rosenthal Responds

Over the past year I have sought to begin a dialogue on the subject of Jewish education that I believe is vital to the continued health of the Jewish community. I am truly happy to see that so many people are interested enough to take the time not only to read the articles, but to respond to them, since my intention has been to stimulate thought and discussion.

As a Jewish educator, it is my firm conviction that we must always encourage all questions. It is in that spirit that I welcome the responses of both R. Velvel Straub and Zev Weinstein.

The thrust of my concern lies in my observation, as a rebbe and principal for many years, that most current chinuch, rather than inspiring our students with the beauty and wisdom of Torah, too often teaches them that Torah learning requires that they suspend disbelief, setting aside their intellectual faculties rather than further engaging and sharpening them.

As a result, many of our students harbor secret suspicions (which they are too often afraid to voice because their rebbeim will not welcome questions of this type) that Torah cannot stand up to rigorous intellectual scrutiny and/or feel that Torah is completely irrelevant to their lives as 21st century Jews.

 It is not responsible to teach our children scientific method and then expect them to be satisfied with a “Be quiet! Smarter people than you have always thought this way” kind of answer. What should they tell their professors who say their religion is nothing more than an empty fraud? What will they think of a chinuch that has no better answers than “You aren’t qualified to ask questions”?

For the most part the reaction to my point has been very positive. There is a very large group of people like Leah who wish that their yeshiva education had provided them with the tools to show Judaism to the world as the way of life of an am chacham v’navon – a wise and discerning nation (Devarim 4:6).

Such an education is within our grasp. The Ramchal, in his introduction to Derech Tevunos (The Ways of Reason, Feldheim) speaks of making a Talmud Torah that is accessible and relevant to every single Jew. The Ramchal’s methodology leads the mind unfalteringly in the search for wisdom. He points out exactly what our rabbis of blessed memory meant when they praised King Solomon for making “handles” for the Torah. He was able to accumulate a large measure of wisdom with ease through the application of short concise rules. He further states that these principles are within the understanding of ordinary people.

Such a chinuch must demand absolute precision of terminology. I believe at least some of the rejection of the Rambam’s and Ramchal’s teaching regarding Midrashim is due to confusion over the difference between pshat and drash. Rashi, as referenced by Mr. Weinstein, clearly identifies the definition of “amasah” as “arm” as a drash. The translation of “maidservant” is presented clearly as the pshat.

This is also the clear basis of distinction between Midrashim and the miracles in the Torah. The miracles of the Torah are written as pshat and must be taken therefore as literal occurrences.

The derech presented by the Ramchal is the better way. We must found our chinuch on a derech tevunos that inspires our children to see the wisdom of the Torah with their own minds. This is the way to be an am chacham v’navon.