Shattering Rock: Contemporary Approaches to Midrash
The first midrash in Bereshit Rabbah begins somewhat unexpectedly with multiple explanations of a word in Proverbs.
R. Hoshaya began: “I was with Him as an amon[i] a source of delight every day, rejoicing before Him at all times.”[ii] The word amon means a “tutor.” Amon means “covered.” Amon means “hidden.” And some say it means “great.”… Another interpretation: amon means an artisan. The Torah declares: I was the instrument that the Holy One, blessed be He, used when He practiced His craft. It is customary that when a king of flesh and blood builds a palace, he doesn’t build it solely from his head, but he uses plans and blueprints in order to know how to lay the rooms and arrange the doors. So, too, the Holy One, blessed by He, looked into the Torah and created the world.
The midrash continues by reinterpreting the first verse of Bereshit to reflect and support the explanation of amon as blueprint.
And so the Torah said: “By means of[iii] the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth,”[iv] and the word “beginning” always alludes to the Torah, as Scripture says, “The Lord created me at the beginning of His course[v].”[vi]
This midrash calls attention to some important challenges that learning midrash aggadah typically presents. The passage offers no less than five possible interpretations of the word “amon,” a hapax legomenon from the book of Proverbs. Furthermore, only the last of these five explanations, which takes “blueprint” as the interpretation, proves relevant to the verse it is appended to. And even this marginal connection to the base text in Genesis is still something less than an interpretation of it. Indeed, it is just the opposite. The meaning of Genesis 1:1 is assumed and used as a proof text to the verse in Proverbs. Additionally, the assumed meaning of the verse in Genesis is far from its “plain sense,” which is normally read “In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth.” The midrash, however, assumes that the word “Bereshit” is to be read “by means of the beginning.” It then adds that “the word ‘beginning’ always alludes to the Torah.” And therefore, the verse should be read “By means of the Torah, G-d created the heavens and the earth,” demonstrating that G-d used the Torah as a blueprint for the world and supporting the interpretation of amon as blueprint.
An engaged reader might wonder how we reconcile the five possible interpretations of “amon?” Is one correct? Are they all correct? To what extent is the midrash attempting to interpret Genesis 1:1? And why begin a commentary on the Torah with a difficulty in Proverbs?
These questions comprise the heart of much of contemporary midrashic study. Scholars of various disciplines, particularly literary criticism, have turned to Midrash over the past three decades as a potential locus for a uniquely Jewish hermeneutic. The parameters of such a hermeneutic lie in the answers to these very questions and can be simply summed up as: how did the Rabbis read?
Polysemy was one of the first qualities of midrash which was alluring to literary academics. The idea that one verse, or even one word, as is the case in Proverbs 8:30, could simultaneously signify three, or five, or ten meanings seemed a natural point of interest to academics in the 1980’s, when the literary moment belonged to Jacques Derrida and deconstructionism.[vii] At the center of this controversial movement stood Yale University, which (most notably through Paul de Man) led the deconstructionist charge in America. It was therefore both natural and telling that the first major work to put midrash and literary theory in conversation would be co-edited by Yale professor, Geoffrey Hartman, and published by Yale University Press. It was likewise unsurprising that many of the essays in this work, Midrash and Literature, equated midrashic polysemy with literary “indeterminacies,” a term taken from Derridean thought that points to textual ambiguities as the source of textual mobility and instability.
As the title, Midrash and Literature, subtly reflects, the book is an early inquiry into the juxtaposition of these two fields, rather than a univocal or developed approach to their relationship. As such, the essays present a number of different perspectives and interests within midrashic study. However, the central trend within the essays is a focus on the perceived mutual exegetic principles that underlie both midrashic polysemy and post-structural literary theory.[viii] In her contribution, Betty Roitman explains that “the mobility and indeterminacy of midrash…. explains its attractiveness to present-day theoreticians who understand midrash in a way that feeds their faith in an infinite unfolding of textual signification.”[ix] In short, midrash was seen as provocative fodder for post-structuralists[x] rather than a significant study in its own right.
Susan Handelman in her much scrutinized work, The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory, continues the literary Midrash project, offering an ambitious rationale for the midrashic tendency towards polysemy as well as its connection to post-structural criticism. She claims that two distinct traditions of reading exist: Patristic (Greco-Christian) and Jewish. The Patristic tradition stems from Plato, Aristotle, and later the apostle Paul who favored objects (or ideas) as possessing ultimate reality rather than language. Therefore, Western culture developed a logocentric tradition which looks for meaning “behind” a text, with words being conventional rather than intrinsically meaningful. Words are a veil, and we must see through them to extract the deeper truth which they shroud. Handelman contrasts this to the Jewish tradition, which understands the words of the Torah to be primordial, to be the blueprints of the world (as we have seen in the midrash above). If that is the case, then words enjoy a reality, an importance of their own, which surpasses any one signified concept. Because it is with His words that G-d created the world, language contains a divine quality that lends the text an inexhaustible nature. And this understanding of language allows for the scriptural polysemy in midrash, as the text of the Torah is not limited to a simple signified/signifier (word/object) relationship. In the second part of her work, Handelman further claims that this Jewish hermeneutic resurfaces in the works of famous post-modern thinkers such as Freud, Derrida, Bloom, and Lacan who similarly view texts as mobile or unstable.
Handelman’s equation of the goals of midrash to those of certain literary critics is likewise made implicitly by the editors of Midrash and Literature who feature the writing of Derrida and other Post-Structuralists in a section of the book entitled “Contemporary Midrash.”
However, for all of the excitement and momentum that these early texts both reflected and generated, there is a very significant sense in which they were both missing the boat. Neither The Slayers of Moses nor Midrash and Literature gave serious treatment to actual midrashic texts or their context. These scholars were less interested in understanding midrash as they were in using midrash to better define theory. Hartman’s clarion call in his essay Midrash as Law and Literature is fairly representative when it says “Ask not what literature may do for midrash, ask what midrash may do for literature.”[xi]
Therefore, in concluding his critical review of The Slayers of Moses, David Stern suggests that perhaps
Before the Rabbis can instruct us, it may be necessary to study them lishmah, as they would say, for their own sake. Contrary to the usual rabbinic order of things, their literature may have to be studied lishmah before it can be used shelo lishmah, for a purpose other than its own, like teaching us how to do literary criticism today.[xii]
As the field developed, increased attention was given to the study of midrash lishmah, with literary theory applied more judiciously, and in the service of understanding midrash rather than the other way around. In this new and refined stage of scholarship more than a few important voices emerged. However, for the purpose of this paper we will focus on the unique contributions and approaches of two authors: David Stern and Daniel Boyarin, as they represent distinct schools of thought within contemporary midrashic scholarship.
Having discussed the early stage of literary midrashic study, we can understand why it is significant that in the first chapter of his book, Midrash and Theory, David Stern sets out to disconnect midrashic polysemy from post-structural “indeterminacies.” Stern cites a passage found in two places in the Talmud, which he believes constitutes the “virtual ideological cornerstone of midrashic exegeses.”[xiii]
Abaye said: The verse says, “Once G-d has spoken, but twice I have heard” (Psalms 62:12). A single verse has several senses, but no two verses ever hold the same meaning.
It was taught in the School of Rabbi Ishmael: “Behold, my word is like fire—declares the Lord—and like a hammer that shatters rock” (Jeremiah 23:29). Just as this hammer produces many sparks [when it strikes the rock], so a single verse has several meanings.[xiv]
Both of these verses point to the idea of scriptural polysemy but must be qualified by two other important Talmudic passages. One of which tells of a student who, deeply bothered by the many contradictions and disagreements in halakhah, asked Rabbi Eleazar b. Azariah
Since some pronounce unclean and some pronounce clean, some prohibit and other permit, some declare unfit and other pronounce fit- how then shall I learn Torah?
R. Eleazar responds by telling the student that
Scripture says: All of them “were given from one shepherd.” One G-d gave them, one leader (i.e Moses) proclaimed them from the mouth of the Lord of all creation, blessed be He, as it is written, “And G-d spoke all of these words” (Exodus 20:1).[xv]
A similar idea is expressed with respect to the Houses of Shammai and Hillel who, we are told, argued for three years “These said, the law is according to our view: and the other said, the law is according to our view. [Finally] a heavenly oracle decreed: The words of both houses are the words of the living G-d, and the law is like the House of Hillel.[xvi]”
These sources point to an exegeses that is at once open to multiplicity and yet still quite closed. The notion of post-structural “indeterminacies” renders a text open to free “play.” And though scripture can simultaneously support different, even opposite, interpretations—fit and unfit, clean and unclean—Stern is demonstrating that there is more at stake than just “play” in midrashic study. Midrashic polysemy is necessarily rooted in the divine source. G-d has “Spoke[n] all of these words.” And therein lies a world of difference. As Stern writes,
What differentiates midrash from indeterminacy is not its style but rather the latter’s formal resistance to closure, its final revelation of a perspective that, as Hartman writes, “may be, precisely, the absence of one and only one context from which to view the flux of time or the empirical world”… In contrast, midrashic polysemy is predicated precisely upon the existence of such a perspective, the divine presence from which all contradictory interpretations derive.[xvii]
Stern’s position on midrashic polysemy is important for two reasons. Firstly, it offers a grounded approach to the question with which this essay began: How are we to understand the five interpretation of amon? Stern would say that they were presented as heavenly ordained and mutually correct interpretations. It is important to note that Stern is not asserting that these interpretations were in fact heavenly ordained, or even believed to be so by their authors. Rather, Stern is highlighting that midrash operates in framework far different than that of endless textual free play. It operates in a framework where textual stability and meaning is sourced in the divine. Stern’s position is also important because it represents a turn away from engaging midrash superficially and with ulterior motives. It is a turn towards studying midrash on its own terms.
Stern’s fundamental understanding of midrash, like his view of its polysemy, stands in stark opposition to the scholarship we have seen thus far. Whereas scholars like Handelman looked to find in midrash an overarching hermeneutic principle that mediates between text and commentary, Stern denies that any such hermeneutic exists. Midrash, for Stern, is less exegetic than it is homiletic. Midrash is a platform upon which the Rabbis could speak. Stern acknowledges that there is an exegetical component to midrash, which often grows out of a textual difficulty. However, the substance of midrash gives little attention to actually resolving those difficulties.
Take for example the verse in Lamentations. “He has cast down from heaven to earth the majesty of Israel, tiferet Yisrael.”[xviii] The midrash says:
R. Joshua of Sikhnin said: It is like the inhabitants of a province who made a crown for the king. They provoked him but he bore with them; they provoked him again, but he bore with them. He said: The inhabitants of the province provoke me only because of the crown that is placed upon my head. Here, I cast down in their faces!
Similarly, the Holy one, blessed be He, said: The Israelites anger Me only because of the image of Jacob that is sculpted on My throne. Here, I cast it down. This is what is written, “He has cast down from heaven to earth the majesty of Israel.[xix]
In his book, Parables in Midrash, Stern cites and rejects several possibilities for how this midrash functions as exegesis, and concludes that the midrash is not driven by exegetic concerns. Rather, it is an “apologetic” midrash. R. Joshua interprets tiferet Yisrael as the icon, a pictorial representation, of Jacob[xx]” as opposed to the nation of Israel itself to offset the harsh implications of the verse. Rather than God casting down Israel in a fit of anger, he has cast down only an ornament as a warning, making the verse far more palatable.[xxi]
Stern explains the rise of such faux-exegesis in Midrash and Theory by citing the midrash in Bereishit Rabbah with which we began. Since the Torah is the blueprint that G-d used to create the world, it has a metonymic relationship with Him and is a trope or stand-in for Him. As such, in the post-temple period, the Rabbis attempted to overcome a sense of alienation from G-d by prolonging the conversation with Him through exegesis. Stern says that “Midrash became a kind of conversation the Rabbis invented in order to enable G-d to speak to them from between the lines of Scripture, in the textual fissures and discontinuities that exegesis discovers.”[xxii]
This approach significantly alters the trajectory of midrashic study from a how inquiry to a why inquiry. We no longer need to account for how the Rabbis derived an interpretation, only why it was beneficial for them to do so. Stern is therefore participating in what can be called a hermeneutic of suspicion, which Gerald Bruns defines as “interpretation as unmasking or emancipation from mental bondage….to produce… alienation where historical and cultural difference has been repressed in favor of institutionalized systems or doctrines that claim to speak all at once and once for all.”[xxiii] While mainstream Jewish thinkers classically seek to defend the elusive but ever-present exegetic nature of midrash, Stern seeks to expose it as something else entirely.
Daniel Boyarin, author of Intertexuality and Midrash, takes issue with Stern’s approach on both intellectual and moral grounds. He explains that since the Rabbis expressly view their work as exegetic, the burden of proof is on Stern to show that Midrash is otherwise. Boyarin clarifies that he is not categorically rejecting a hermeneutic of suspicion, agreeing that the Rabbis may not have fully understood the degree to which their interpretation was a product of their time. However, one must first and foremost approach Midrash as it was intended to be understood: a true attempt at exegesis.[xxiv]
Boyarin’s approach to midrash stands in complete contrast with Stern’s, in some ways moving back towards earlier approaches and in some ways moving miles ahead. Boyarin’s main thesis is that midrashic exegesis operates with a radical form of “intertextuality,” a term coined by the post-structuralist Julia Kristeva with a rather elusive meaning. The meaning that Boyarin adopts can be summed as understanding one text through another text. Or as is the case for midrash, understanding one verse in light of another verse. Take for example the midrash with which we began. The midrash explains a word in Genesis by citing a word in Proverbs (or visa’ versa). Foundational to this approach is R. Yehudah’s statement “Here is a verse made rich in meaning from many places.”[xxv] Verses are given a mobility that allows for a dynamic development of meaning through myriad juxtapositions of one verse to another.
This approach beautifully underscores the Rabbis desire to highlight Tanach’s unification as a cannon of deep interconnectivity. As we saw above, even a verse in Proverbs has something to say to the very first verse in the Torah and vice-versa.
True to its form, we must conclude that midrash can and must support both Boyarin and Stern’s approach’s to some degree. Midrash is a highly differentiated and complex text that requires different approaches at different times. The truly successful scholar should view midrash with some mixture of Stern’s suspicion and Boyarin’s faith, because somewhere between the two, lies a perfect and impossible balance that we might call truth.
Daniel is a graduate student at Bernard Revel Graduate School for Jewish Studies studying Bible and is a semikhah student at RIETS.
[i] JPS translates this word as “a confidant”; in the Jerusalem Bible it is rendered “a master craftsman”
[ii] Proverbs, 8:30
[iii] A play on the opening words of the Torah’s creation story “be-reshit bara”. The particle “be” is conventionally translated as “in”, although here it is being used in the sense of “by means of”.
[iv] Genesis, 1:1
[v] Proverbs, 8:22
[vi] Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, ed. J. Theodor and Ch. Albeck, 3 vols., 2nd ed. (Jerusalem, 1965), 1:1-2
[vii] Deconstruction is a literary theory and philosophy of language which questions language’s ability to communicate and signify with the accuracy that western literature and philosophy ascribe to it.
[viii] David Stern and James Kugel, two significant voices in the field of academic biblical study, were notable exceptions to this rule.
[ix] Betty Roitman, “Sacred Language and Open Text” in Midrash and Literature ed. By Geoffrey Hartman and Sanford Budick (Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 1986), 159
[x] Post-structuralism refers to is a very diverse group of thinkers that came to prominence in the mid-twentieth century. As the name suggest, the movement is classified based on their rejection of structuralism. Post-structuralists were often committed to the absolute complexity and irreducibility of the human experience and generally viewed language as unstable.
[xi] Hartman, Geoffrey. “Midrash as Law and Literature” The Journal of Religion 74.3 (1994):355
[xii] Stern David. “Moses-cide: Midrash and Contemporary Literary Criticism.” Prooftexts 4.2 (1984): 193-204. Print.
[xiii] Stern, 18.
[xiv] Sanhedrin 34a, Translation taken from David Stern’s Midrash and Theory
[xv] Hagig 3b, Translation taken from David Stern’s Midrash and Theory
[xvi] Eruvin 13b, Translation taken from David Stern’s Midrash and Theory
[xvii] Stern, 22.
[xviii] Lamentations, 2:1
[xix] Eikhah Rabbah 2.1 B, translation taken from David Stern’s Midrash and Theory
[xx] The names Israel and Jacob are interchangeable
[xxi] Stern, 109
[xxii] Stern, 31
[xxiii] Bruns, Gerald L. “What Is Tradition?” New Literary History 22.1 (1991): 1-21.
[xxiv] Boyarin, Daniel. “Review Essay: Midrash in Parables.” AJS Review 20.1 (1995): 123 138.
[xxv] Boyarin, p.27