The Role Of Midrash In Orthodox Jewish Education

I heard a talk decrying the use of midrash as a literature co-extensive with the Bible.

Midrash is not so much scriptural interpretation as homiletics (inspiring stories), said the Orthodox rabbi, citing Maimonides.

When we treat midrash as equal to holy writ, we propagate a belief that is not true. It makes Judaism look stupid (because so many midrashic tales are fantastic). When kids go from yeshiva to university, they are likely to view Judaism as stupid if they’ve been taught that midrash is on par with the Bible. Also, selective teaching of midrash as equal to the Bible warps moral sensibilities. Instead of studying the moral struggles of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, our yeshivas too often select midrashim that show the patriarchs as all saintly and Esau as all evil.

The rabbi’s son gave a dvar Torah at the dinner table one Friday night on how the Israelites had little enthusiasm for stoning to death the man who picked up sticks on Sabbath (according to the midrash, this was a righteous man who sacrificed himself to show that Moses was really serious about not picking up sticks on Sabbath), while the Israelites were filled with enthusiasm to stone the blasphemer.

Why was this picked as the moral lesson of that week’s parsha?

The rabbi remembers looking for a yeshiva for his kids. He went into one classroom and saw the teaching telling the kids to take stuff out of other kids’ desks just as the Israelites used the darkness covering Egypt to plunder the Egyptians. This was enough to convince this Orthodox rabbi not to send his kids to this yeshiva.

Here’s a source cited in the lecture:

From Yasharbooks:

The following is an excerpt from R. Zevi Hirsch Chajes’ The Students’ Guide through the Talmud (buy it now), pp. 195-197. Keep in mind that the Maharatz Chajes was a giant of Torah scholarship whose glosses are printed in the back of the standard Vilna edition of the Talmud. This is from what was intended to be the introduction to the glosses and printed in the Talmud, but it was not finished in time.

Similarly, in Aggadic interpretations the lecturer’s aim was to inspire the people to the service of God and to awaken them to a realization of the emptiness of their vain life, so that they should be compelled in this world of forgetfulness to fit themselves for entering the banqueting hall (of immortality), adorned and graced with a pure heart and good deeds. Thus, the chief object of the lecturer was to awaken the slumbering soul from its foolish sleep and stir it up to do what was right. If at times he noticed that his simpler utterances made no impression upon the audience he sought to find another method for his purpose by telling them stories which sounded strange or terrifying or which went beyond the limits of the natural and so won the attention of his audience for his message.

The Rashba,[1] making reference to this in his commentary on Berachoth (chap. ix), in the Aggadic section, where he speaks of the stone which Og, King of Bashan, attempted to cast down upon Israel,[2] says of this matter: ‘Maimonides, in his introduction to the Mishnah, has referred to the two ideas which the Aggadic teachers had in mind (when relating these outlandish Aggadoth).[3] But, in my view, there was besides these another motive behind some of the Midrashim of the Aggadists, namely that since there were occasions when, as the Aggadists were delivering their discourses publicly and elaborating matters useful to the audience, the listeners fell asleep, the lecturer, in order to awaken them, had to make use of queer and astounding tales to rouse them from their sleep.’

The reason is clearly shown in the Midrash Hazitha,[4] par. ??? ??? where we read that Rabbi was delivering a discourse and the audience had dozed off, so in his desire to arouse them he told them of one Israelitish woman who in Egypt gave birth herself to 600,000 children.[5] Similarly, the story told of Og, how he uprooted a mountain three parsangs in extent, was meant to convey that Og’s object was to deprive the children of Israel of their rights based on their three ancestors. The Aggadists, however, put the idea in the form of this astounding tale in order to arouse the public to follow the lecture with greater interest.

Such are the Rashba‘s observations… Following this explanation, we can understand the following exposition of R. Akiba[6] (Sot. 11b): ‘The Israelites were delivered as a reward for the righteous women of that time. It happened by a miracle that they (the babies which they bore) were swallowed by the ground, and the Egyptians brought oxen and ploughed over them, etc. Yet they broke through the earth, sprouting (like herbs from the soil), and came in flocks to their homes.'[7] Although in the Gemara version this is reported in the name of R. Awira, in Cant. Rab.[8] it is quoted in the name of R. Akiba.[9] One who knows R. Akiba’s true genius and intellectual capacity… may find it difficult to reconcile such an odd Aggada with him; but from what we now know of his method, as shown in the two aggadic expositions which we have dealt with above, viz. that when he noticed his audience uninterested or drowsy he would relate to them sensational legends to arrest their attention, we may, I think, unhesitatingly accept this aggadic homily as another of those which had as their object the impressing of the masses and the impelling of their hearts towards the things which are right.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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