Monday, 24 November 2014

Pshat and Drash

The idea of midrash(aggadah) has always bothered me a bit. The main problem is the subjectivity of it all. Unlike other realms of Torah Learning, such as Halacha, or studies of chumash that focus on pshat, the rules for Midrash are not well defined and the standard of proof is minimal. To sharpen the question, are we really learning Hashem’s Torah when engaging in such subjective study—it seems more like we are learning whatever message we choose to overlay on the scripture?

And yet, the Torah literature contains tons of books of Midrash, containing drashot from all of our favorite Tanaitic and Amoritic halachists. So what is the deal?

On Reading the Bible as Literature

In answering this question, I’ll just point out that, in addition to the Torah’s halachic role, it has a much broader role of providing us spiritual and moral guidance. As such, Hashem want us to read the Torah and seek meaning in it, even in the case where one cannot prove objectively that one’s exegesis is the definitive one.

This is technically similar to how we read general literature, searching for meaning, symbolism, and insights into the Human experience. That said, we clearly relate to God-given literature differently than that written by Man. Ultimately, I think that one has to conclude that Hashem has given us, the Jewish people, a good deal of responsibility with regard to interpreting his Torah—and here we are obligated to darshan responsibly.

Just looking at the current Sidra. The meanings behind the stories of of our forefathers are anything but explicit. Certainly there are many hints at meaning, but for every tefach revealed, another two seem to be concealed. It is certainly helpful to read mefarshim—midrashei chazal, rishonim, and acharonim, and certain themes do tend to repeat themselves, yet in many cases, it is hard to prefer one explanation over another based on purely textual grounds.

Even the Brisker methodology with its synthesis of induction and deduction, is hard to apply to Tanach. In Halacha, there is a system and an assumption of conceptual consistency within that system. In scripture, this assumption is much weaker since one pasuk may teach us one lesson while the following one focuses on another(Rav Mordechai Breuer’s תורת הבחינות epitomizes this problem, arguing that different parshiot or even psukim can teach opposing lessons as an expression of Hashem’s different names/midot). When learning Tanach, we are often left with only the induction but with no strong deduction to support it i.e. Midrash.

The popularization of pshat-focused learning is certainly a response to this subjectivity. They bring a more scientific approach to parshanut by focusing on the objective portions of Tanach study. Certainly, there is a good deal to be learned from this approach and I don’t mean to detract from that. That said, at some point analysis of pshat runs up against a wall in the face of inherent ambiguity and drash is the only tool that can take our understanding further.


That said, let’s take a look at some of the action in recent parshiot hashavua. We’ll start with a few difficult points that yell to the reader “Darsheni”:

  1. The prophecy says about Yaakov and Easav ורב יעבוד צעיר. Yet we never get to see this. How is this prophecy fulfilled?
  2. Yaakov buys the בכורה, then in next week’s parsha he must marry the בכירה before he can marry the צעירה. He also has to work 7 years for each.
  3. Upon returning from Padan-Aram, Yaakov first encounters angels, about which little is said, and then must fight a mysterious איש. He is then called Yisrael because שרית עם אלהים ועם אנשים ותוכל. What is the significance of these events?

Originally there were supposed to be two complementary roles as expressed by ורב יעבוד צעיר. Easav was meant to provide physical sustenance while Yaakov was to provide spiritual guidance. Together, they were to form the nation of Israel.

This plan goes awry at the selling of the Bechora. Easav couldn’t even provide for himself, much less the both of them. Not only that, but Yaakov, rather than providing him with spiritual guidance, convinces him to give up the בחורה and thus his role in the family.

When it comes time for Yaakov to marry, he must work hard for his bride but is then tricked into marrying her older sister first. The message here is clear: you took Easav’s role from him, you must first fulfill that responsibility before you can start fulfilling your own role(This may also be a punishment for pushing Easav away rather than bringing him back to the right path.)

Yaakov was already fitting for his role as spiritual leader, as is show with is nondescript encounter with the angels, but is he really able to take on Easav’s physical role? Ultimately, he must show his physical prowess against the איש to obtain the name Israel. Only once he proves that he can deal, not only with אלוהים but with אנשים is he ready to be the sole father of the nation of Israel.

Modern Midrash

Note that this sort of explanation is similar to classic Midrash(actually, it’s inspired by Rav Huna’s statement in Midrash Rabba ורב יעבוד צעיר-אם זכה יעבֹד ואם לאו יעבד). It goes beyond the simple pshat to attribute a thread of meaning to the events of the parsha. Note also that it offers very little proof of its correctness. Unlike a Halachik Chakira that ties several sources together, there is no rigid system that demands these events are related. One could claim that because they are part of the same story of Yaakov and Easav they are thematically connected, but this assumption is by no means binding.

So ultimately, where does this leave me with regard to Midrash? I guess I’m still concerned with its subjectivity, but its strong results certainly speak in favor of the method despite its caveats.

(One final note: it may be that I'm defining Midrashic methodology too narrowly here. Rashi insists several times that his goal is to focus on the pshat, by which he means to focus on midrashei Chazal that are consistent with the pshat. The implication is that there are other midrashim that are less consistent with the pshat. My original question, then, still would apply to these. The only answer I have to offer in this case is the insight that I once heard Rav Ezra Bick point out about chassidic tales--even if they aren't Factual, they may still be True...)

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