Monday, 13 February 2012

Putting Midrashim in their proper perspective

Guest Blogger:

Rabbi Jacob S. Jaffe


I can only weigh in as a high school teacher, and not as an elementary teacher, but here it goes -
I agree that Rav Yoel Bin-nun, and Rav Yaakov Medan, have tried to develop a third approach to Midrash: They do not reject it, axiomatically, if it is not peshat. They do not accept it, axiomatically, as if it was written.

Instead, the approach is basically "Most Midrashim really reflect pshuto shel mikra, but if you can't see it - it's probably because you haven't learned the pshat correctly."
And, as a high school Tanach teacher, I think that this derech, is the single most important thing to teach HS students in the US today: All midrashim are really explaining pshuto shel mikra - but if you can't see it, its because you aren't reading closely.

How do we know Nachson jumped in first? Not from Beshalach, but from a close reading of Psalm 114.
How do we know the angels came to Lot on Pesach? Not from the Matzahs, but from the literary parallels to Makat Bechorot.
How did we know the mountains all moved to be the one the Torah was given on? From Psalm 68.
How do we know Yehudah set up a Beit Midrash in Egypt? Check a concordance for the word "lehorot."
How do we know Menashe did Teshuvah? From Divrei Hayamim, of course.
How do we know angels were created on the second day of creation? From Nechemiah

The list goes on and on.

Last year, we did a three week lesson in Maimonides school on the Gemara in Sanhedrin about Shevnah's rebellion, and after the first week, all of my students were saying "the Midrash is fabricated, where did they get that from" - until we studied all the psukim more carefully and they all recognize that the Midrash's literary, linguistic, and textual sensitivity was so advanced, that many of the 'creations' of the Midrash can be revealed as just closer readings of the text.

I think in 2012, too many of our students will go to colleges (Be them YU, or secular colleges), Yeshivot and Seminaries - where they will meet teachers who criticize Midrash Aggadah; and this will lead too many of our students to then take the next step - that if we can ignore Midrash Agaddah, then we can Midrash Halacha too - and once they make that step, we've lost the battle. Instead, I think we must reaffirm their faith in the Chachmei Ha-mesorah; but not through asserting that it is so, rather, by showing how it is so, and where the Midrash comes from.

In more than half a decade teaching this way, I have yet to find a class or a Midrash when the students did not walk away with a refined, committed embrace of Midrash after we studied them the right way - and I've challenged students to find Midrashim and we work together on them to explain how each and every one is really the pshat.

I am troubled by teachers who insist on teaching "pshat only;" because that implies that the Midrash isn't pshat when it often is. Imagine the teacher who will never refer to Bas-Paroh by name "Bitya" because 'that's a midrash' - when it's really the pshat of the passuk in divrei hayamim. I think teaching "pshat only" gives our kids a not-so-subtle message that the midrash as less authoritative, or less worthy.

So, my vote, for what it's worth - is that we continue to teach Midrash together with pshat. And when someone objects, we just show them how the Midrash is really just the pshat itself.

Yaakov Jaffe
Tanach Department Chair
Maimonides School
Brookline, Mass


Rabbi Jaffe's words resonate with those of my colleague R Sacha Pecaric - namely that when Midrashim are properly understood they are addressing "P'shat" issues within the text itself

If I might add, it appears that Rishonim "got it" intuitively, but we don't. That is to say we don't "connect the dots" so easily. B"H some S'farim address this, and the Torah T'mimah is one of them, because the TT often shows HOW the Midrash got there

Shalom and Regards, RRW

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