Commentary Magazine


The Rabbinic Imagination

Hayyim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky’s Sefer Ha-Aggadah, now translated and published for the first time in English as The Book of Legends,1 is a work of creative scholarship that makes the word “monumental” seem modest. First issued in six Hebrew volumes in Odessa between 1908 and 1911, it has been reprinted dozens of times in a standard Hebrew edition having 736 double-columned, nearly folio-size pages. The new English version, which preserves the format and almost all of the contents of the Hebrew, is physically even a bit bigger. This should deter no one from acquiring it, however, for it is not a book for a week, a month, or a year. Having consulted it often and with unfailing enchantment during the three decades that I have had it on my shelf, I can testify that its treasures are almost literally inexhaustible.

Yehoshua Ravnitzky was a Hebrew editor and publisher who formed a business partnership with the great Hebrew poet Bialik in 1901 when the two of them started an Odessan Hebrew publishing house named Moriah. The company’s first commercial success was a series of annotated Bible stories for children that appeared between 1903 and 1905, which were also the years of Bialik’s peak productivity as a poet; subsequently his powers declined sharply, so that by 1908, when he was only thirty-five and at the height of his authority in the Hebrew literary world, he had stopped writing serious poetry almost completely. It was partly to compensate for this drying-up that he now began to devote himself to a number of ambitious editorial projects that came under the rubric of what—giving an old Hebrew term a new meaning—he called kinus.

Literally, “gathering,” kinus meant for Bialik salvaging and transmitting to future generations the literary heritage of a Jewish tradition which an increasingly nontraditional Hebrew-reading public was no longer willing or able to read in its original forms and contexts. In some instances, as in the case of medieval Hebrew poets like Yehuda Halevi and Solomon Ibn Gabirol, tradition itself had not bothered to preserve many important texts, which had to be culled and collated from numerous manuscripts and forgotten books; in others, the problem was not preservation but presentation. And nowhere was it greater than in the area of what Judaism calls Midrash or Aggadah,2 a large anthology of which was Bialik and Ravnitzky’s next major undertaking.

The reasons for this were several. In the first place, there was the sheer mass of the material. If we take the canonical corpus of Midrash to include all the non-legal sayings and stories attributed to and transmitted by the rabbis of the mishnaic and talmudic periods (an era extending roughly from 100 to 600 C.E.), we are speaking of more than a dozen major collections devoted exclusively to the genre that were either committed to writing during these centuries or written down later on the basis of oral traditions dating from them. In addition to all this, there are a vast number of aggadic passages embedded in various other texts, and above all in the 37 tractates of the Babylonian and the 39 tractates of the Palestinian Talmud. Thus, despite its great size, Bialik and Ravnitzky’s Sefer Ha-Aggadah had to be based on a painstaking selection of a small fraction of the material eligible for inclusion in it.

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When an aggadah or several aggadot are found in the Talmud, their contextual relationship to the halakhic or legal text surrounding them is usually clear. Take, for example, a well-known story that we will shortly consider in detail, that of Rabbi Akiva and his wife Rahel, which occurs in the talmudic tractate of Ketubot, a volume dealing with marriage contracts and the mutual obligations of husbands and wives. This story is told in the course of a halakhic treatment of the biblical commandment of onah, i.e., of a man’s duty to attend to his wife sexually, and it follows another story about the son of Rabbi Hiyya and his wife, the daughter of Rabbi Yannai.

Since both these aggadot are about husbands who absented themselves for long periods from their homes for the purpose of studying Torah, it is self-evident what they are doing in the text. To be sure, there is no way of determining whether their presence here records their actual narration by someone during a rabbinical discussion of onah, or whether they were inserted at a later date by an editor because of their perceived relevance. But it is clear that the rabbis often did pause in the midst of debating complex legal issues to tell tales, swap anecdotes, and even make jokes that were sometimes included in the oral or written protocols of the proceedings. One can feel in reading the Talmud how such interruptions must have been welcome opportunities to relax from the ardors of legal argument—as they indeed are to this day for Talmud students who, exhausted from puzzling out the intricacies of a complicated halakhic passage, arrive with a sense of relief at an aggadic rest-stop in the middle of it.

When, on the other hand, one turns from the Talmud to a specific collection of midrashim, the internal logic of the aggadic material may at first glance seem less clear. This is because most of these collections are not structured topically, like halakhic literature, but rather by biblical verses. The historical origins of the method are obvious: in the period when Aggadah was still an entirely oral medium, its rabbinic specialists (or ba’alei aggadot) were expected to memorize many thousands of stories, parables, homilies, and exegetical interpretations and to be able to relate them on demand. Thus they needed some mnemonic principle of organization to facilitate the task; and since they all knew the Bible by heart, the handiest solution was to use each of its verses as a point of accretion—or, to alter the metaphor, as a string on which a large number of aggadic beads could be strung. Sometimes such a “bead” has an intrinsic relationship to the “string” it is on and sometimes it has one only to the “bead” before or after it, to which it may be linked by subtle associations of words and verses.

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Suppose we open Bereshit Rabbah, a volume whose “strings” are the verses of the Book of Genesis, and look at its commentary on Genesis 25:7-10. In Genesis we are told:3

These are the days of the years of Abraham’s life, a hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. And Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, the field which Abraham purchased from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried with Sarah his wife.

Among the “beads” we find in Bereshit Rabbah are:

These are the days of the years of Abraham’s life. It says [in Psalms 37:18), “The Lord knows the days of the blameless, and their heritage will abide forever.” “The Lord knows the days of the blameless”—this is Abraham, of whom it says [in Genesis 17:1] that he was blameless. “And their heritage will abide forever”—these are the years of Abraham’s life, for the Holy One Blessed Be He so loves the righteous that He records even the years of their lives in the Torah that they might be our heritage.

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What is the difference between those who die young and those who die old? Rabbi Yehuda says, Think of a candle: when it goes out by itself [because it has burned down], all is well for it and its wick, and when it does not go out by itself, all is not well. Rabbi Abahu says, Think of a fig tree: when it is picked at the right time, all is well for it and its fruit, and when it is not picked at the right time, all is not well. It is said of Rabbi Hiyya and his students—and some say of Rabbi Akiva and his students—and some say of Rabbi Yosi bar Halafta and his students—that they were in the habit of rising early and sitting down to study beneath a certain fig tree, the owner of which rose early too in order to pick its fruit. They said to each other, “Perhaps he suspects us [of coveting the figs for ourselves].” What did they do? They changed places and went to study elsewhere. The owner of the tree then came to them and said, “Masters, why is it that once you did me the honor of studying Torah under my tree and now you have stopped?” “It was because we thought you suspected us [of coveting its fruit],” they told him. When he reassured them that this was not so, they resumed studying beneath the tree. Now, however, he no longer went early to pick its fruit every morning, and when the sun shone on it, it turned wormy. Then the students said to each other: “The tree’s owner knew when the right time to pick its fruit was. So it is with the Holy One Blessed Be He, Who knows when it is the right time for the righteous to leave the world and takes them from it.”

At a good old age. Rabbi Levi says, Of three men is it said that they died at a good old age. It is said of Abraham, and he deserved it. It is said of David, and he deserved it. It is said of Gideon, and he did not deserve it. Why not? Because it says [in Judges, 8:27], “And Gideon made an ephod of it [the people’s gold jewelry] and put it in his city”—he made it for idol worship.

And Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah. Here the son of the bondwoman paid homage to the son of the rightful wife.

In the field which Abraham purchased. Rabbi Tanhuma says, Since there were thirty-eight years between the burial of Sarah and the burial of Abraham, why does it say, “And Abraham was buried with Sarah”? The verse wishes to tell us that whoever paid his last respects to Sarah came to pay them to Abraham too. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman says, “Shem and Ever led the procession in front of [Sarah’s] funeral bier and pointed to a place beside her [grave] that was reserved for Abraham.”

Clustered around the biblical verses telling us of Abraham’s death, we find here five different midrashim (the text of Bereshit Rabbah actually contains five more), the contents of which may be summed up as follows:

  1. The occurrence of the word “blameless” (tamim) both in a verse in Genesis referring to Abraham and in a seemingly unrelated verse in Psalms teaches us that the verse in Psalms may be applied to Abraham too, and can be taken to mean that God determined the life span of the Patriarchs in advance and chose to tell us in the Torah exactly how long they lived because every detail regarding them is dear to Him.
  2. Two implicitly opposed metaphors given by Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Abahu for the difference between death at an early and at an advanced age lead to a story that is a homiletic illustration of the metaphor of Rabbi Abahu. This aggadah has no direct relationship to the prooftext in Genesis but is associatively linked with the midrash preceding it.
  3. It is pointed out that when the Bible tells us that someone died “at a good old age” (be-sevah tovah), this does not necessarily indicate divine approval of him, since in one of the three cases in which the phrase occurs in Scripture it refers to someone guilty of a grave sin.
  4. The fact that in Genesis 25:9 Isaac is mentioned before his brother Ishmael even though Ishmael is the elder is interpreted as meaning that Ishmael, the son of Abraham’s bondwoman Hagar, finally acknowledged his subservience to his younger brother after a lifetime of rivalry between them.
  5. Rabbi Tanhuma and Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman offer two different explanations of why the Bible tells us that Abraham was buried “with Sarah,” even though he died long after her. Rabbi Shmuel’s explanation is the more fanciful of the two and invokes the miraculous appearance at Sarah’s funeral of Abraham’s distant ancestors Shem and Ever—who, according to rabbinic legend, founded a yeshiva and were the world’s first students of Torah. Since, according to this story, Shem and Ever used the occasion to show Abraham where he too would be buried, it is as if he and Sarah had been buried together.

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What did Bialik and Ravnitzky do with this passage in Sefer Ha-Aggadah? In a manner typical of their method in general, they passed over most of it; slightly edited the parts they did select, translating the Aramaic portions into Hebrew (like the Talmud, much of the Midrash alternates between the two languages); and reclassified those parts by subject matter.

Specifically, they chose two stories, the tale of the fig tree and the legend of Shem and Ever. The latter they placed in the original Volume I of their anthology, which is composed of midrashim on the narratives in the Bible, and the former in a section on death in Volume V, which deals with the human life cycle and is entitled “Man and His Needs.” In addition, they listed each selection in a comprehensive index and accompanied it with textual notes in order to help the reader find and understand it.

Of course, quite apart from the question of their choices (an issue inherent in any anthology), the experience of reading Bialik and Ravnitzky’s Sefer Ha-Aggadah is not the same as that of reading Midrash in its original form. The different “beads” on a midrashic “string” are indeed discrete units, just as Bialik and Ravnitzky treat them, and can be read independently of one another; but there is a challenge in negotiating one’s way from one to the next, and insights to be gained from this into the workings of the rabbinic mind, which are missed when the material is processed and packaged in advance. Even the fact that Sefer Ha-Aggadah eliminates many midrashim that are perfectly ordinary or even tedious is not an unmixed blessing, for it can be one of the lesser delights of reading Midrash to stumble unexpectedly on a genuine narrative or homiletic diamond after plowing one’s way through a good deal of chaff.

And yet none of this damage is irreparable. On the contrary: since Sefer Ha-Aggadah gives the source or sources of each of its entries, one can easily track these to their original location, and anyone who has used the book extensively knows that, far from acting as a barrier between the reader and the texts it anthologizes, it can serve as an invaluable pathway into them.

My speaking of “the source or sources” of Sefer Ha-Aggadah’s entries brings us to another salient feature both of the classical corpus of Midrash and of Bialik and Ravnitzky’s treatment of it. To resort once more to our bead metaphor, it is perfectly possible and even common in the Midrash for the same bead, often with minor or major variations, to be found on more than one string. In fact, given the organization of the Midrash, this is inevitable.

Take, for example, Rabbi Levi’s exegetical comment on dying “at a good old age.” Since this refers to the story of Gideon in the Book of Judges no less than to that of Abraham in Genesis, we might expect to find it “strung” in both places—and indeed, in the Yalkut Shimoni, a later collection of midrashim than Bereshit Rabbah, we do find a lengthier version of the same exegesis attached to Judges 8:27 and attributed not to Rabbi Levi but to his son Shimon. In the Talmud, too, the same aggadah may be cited in more than one text, as is the case with the story of Rabbi Akiva and Rahel, which is found also—for reasons we soon shall see—in Nedarim, a tractate dealing with vows.

This multiplicity presented Bialik and Ravnitzky with both a problem and an opportunity. On the one hand, when the same aggadah was found in different versions, which were they to choose? On the other hand, if the different versions had different strengths that complemented or supplemented one another, why not maximize these by editing and combining the original texts into a single master-version that would be superior to any of its components? The second course was the one Bialik and Ravnitzky boldly chose, and its results comprise both the most creative and the most problematic aspect of their work, as can be seen from the story of Rabbi Akiva.

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First, let us look at the composite version of this story as it appears in Sefer Ha-Aggadah:

Rabbi Akiva was Kalba-Shevua’s shepherd. Kalba-Shevua’s daughter Rahel saw that he was a modest but outstanding young man and said to him: “If I marry you, will you go to the study house [to become a scholar of Torah]?” He said to her: “Yes.” And so she was secretly betrothed to him. When Kalba-Shevua found out, he banished her from his house and disinherited her, but she married Rabbi Akiva anyway. That winter they slept in a hayloft, and [every morning when they awoke] he picked the straw out of her hair. “If only I could,” he said to her, “I would give you a Jerusalem-of-gold [a kind of gold pendant worn by brides].” Along came [the prophet] Elijah in the form of a [poor] man and stood in the doorway and said: “Please give me a little straw, because my wife has given birth and I have no bed for her to lie in.” “Just look at this man,” said Rabbi Akiva to his wife. “He does not even have straw!” “Go study in the study house!” she said to him. And so he went and spent twelve years in the study houses of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua.

When twelve years were up he returned home, bringing with him twelve thousand disciples. Everyone came out to greet him. His wife heard [that he had come] and went to greet him too. “Why don’t you borrow some clothes so that you’ll have something to wear?” her neighbors said to her. “The righteous man knoweth the soul of his beast of burden [a quote from Proverbs, 12:10],” she said to them. When she reached him she fell on the ground and kissed his feet. As his disciples were pushing her away, he said to them: “Let her be, for whatever is mine and whatever is yours is hers.”

Her father heard that a great scholar had arrived in town and thought: If I go see him, perhaps he can absolve me of my vow [to disinherit his daughter]. He went to see him. “Suppose you knew,” said Rabbi Akiva, “that her husband would be a great scholar, would you still have banished her?” “Not even,” said he, “if [I knew] he would know one chapter [of the Law], not even one single law!” “I am that man,” said Rabbi Akiva. He fell on the ground and kissed Rabbi Akiva’s feet and gave him half his fortune.

This brilliantly minimalistic tale demonstrates why, despite the great differences between the biblical and the rabbinic mind-set, the Bible and the Midrash form a single narrative tradition, the main features of which are extreme condensation, a preference for dialogue over description, a stark concentration on foreground, and an ability to create scenes of great dramatic power without the slightest resort to dramatic effects. Rahel’s determination and bravery; Akiva’s love for her; her ambition and willingness to sacrifice herself for him; the change twelve years have wrought in him and in their relationship; her father’s painful contrition—all are conveyed with an extraordinary economy of means.

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And yet if we go back to the texts in the Talmud that this story is a blend of, we see that if it has gained something in the process of its amalgamation, it has lost something—and perhaps several things—too. Here are the original versions.

First, Ketubot:

Rabbi Akiva was Kalba-Shevua’s shepherd. Kalba-Shevua’s daughter Rahel saw that he was a modest but outstanding young man and said to him: “If I marry you, will you go to the study house?” He said to her: “Yes.” And so she wed him secretly and sent him [off to study]. When her father found out, he banished her from his house and disinherited her. Akiva went and sat for twelve years in the study house. When he returned, bringing with him twelve thousand disciples, he overheard [as he approached his home] an old man saying to Rahel: “How long will you go on being the widow of a living man?” She said to him: “If he were to listen to me, he would spend twelve more years in the study house.” “In that case,” said Rabbi Akiva [to his disciples], “I have her permission.” And so he returned and spent twelve more years in the study house. When he came again, he brought twenty-four thousand disciples. His wife heard and went to greet him. “Why don’t you borrow some clothes so that you’ll have something to wear?” her neighbors said to her. “The righteous man knoweth the soul of his beast of burden,” she said to them. When she reached him she fell on the ground and kissed his feet. As his disciples were pushing her away, he said to them: “Let her be, for whatever is mine and whatever is yours is hers.”

Her father heard that a great scholar had arrived in town and thought: If I go see him, perhaps he can absolve me from my vow. He went to see him. “Suppose you knew,” said Rabbi Akiva, “that her husband would be a great scholar?” “Not even,” said he, “[if he knew] one chapter, not even one single law!” “I am that man,” said Rabbi Akiva. He fell on the ground and kissed Rabbi Akiva’s feet and gave him half his fortune.

Now the version in Nedarim:

Rabbi Akiva betrothed Kalba-Shevua’s daughter. When her father found out, he disinherited her. She was wed to him, and that winter they slept in a hayloft and he picked the straw out of her hair. “If only I could,” he said to her. “I would give you a Jerusalem-of-gold.” Along came Elijah in the form of a man and stood in the doorway and said: “Please give me a little straw, because my wife has given birth and I have no bed for her to lie in.” “Just look at this man,” said Rabbi Akiva to his wife. “He does not even have straw!” “Go study in the study house!” she said to him.

And so he [went and] was for twelve years with Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. At the end of twelve years he returned home. When he was outside his house he heard a wicked person say to his wife: “Not only did your father do you wrong, you are the widow of a living man!” She said to him: “If he were to listen to me, he would spend twelve more years [in the study house].” “Since you’ve given me permission,” he said, “I’ll go back.” He went back for twelve more years and returned with twenty-four thousand pairs of disciples. Everyone went out to greet him and so did she. “Where do you think you’re going?” asked the same wicked person. “The righteous man knoweth the soul of his beast of burden,” she said to him. She approached so that Akiva might see her, and as his disciples were pushing her away from him, he said to them: “Let her be, for whatever is mine and whatever is yours is hers.” Her father heard and had himself absolved from his vow and restored her property [to her].

Ignoring the minor details, we can list the major differences between these two variants, and between them and Bialik and Ravnitzky’s combination of them, as follows:

  1. Whereas in Ketubot it is Rahel who takes the initiative in wedding Akiva and has her heart set from the start on his becoming a scholar, in Nedarim there is nothing of this. There we are simply told that Akiva betrothed her and there is no mention of her plans for him. Sefer Ha-Aggadah opts for the version in Ketubot.
  2. The hayloft episode, all of which is incorporated by Bialik and Ravnitzky, is only in Nedarim.
  3. Even though it is mentioned in both tractates, the detail of Akiva’s going back to the study house for another twelve years after “receiving permission” from Rahel is omitted by Bialik and Ravnitzky entirely.
  4. In Ketubot, when Akiva returns a second time, Rahel throws herself at his feet and kisses them; in Nedarim, she merely tries to catch his attention. Sefer Ha-Aggadah adopts the version in Ketubot.
  5. Although in Nedarim, too, Kalba-Shevua relents in the end and restores his daughter’s inheritance, the dramatic scene between him and Akiva that occurs in Ketubot is missing, as is Ketubot’s portrait of a man suffering deeply from remorse. Once again Bialik and Ravnitzky follow the latter tractate, in which Kalba-Shevua’s vow is gotten around by his giving “half his fortune” to his daughter’s husband rather than to his daughter directly.

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One can say many things about these divergences, but two points need to be stressed particularly.

The first point is that the aggadot in Ketubot and Nedarim are only in a sense the same story, for they present two quite different pictures. That painted in Ketubot is essentially conflictless. In it, Akiva and Rahel are in perfect harmony all along, and while Rahel’s self-deprivation has been great—her not even having a dress in which to greet her husband and his disciples tells us all we need to know about the poverty she has been living in all these years—it is clear that she has willingly accepted this as the price she has to pay for Akiva to achieve the greatness she believes he has in him.

This is not the case, however, in Nedarim, where Rahel, a young woman who has fallen in love with her father’s hired hand, finds herself sleeping in a barn and married to a man who adores her but has no livelihood and apparently no prospects. Indeed, it is quite possible to interpret her “Go study in the study house” as little more than an angry jibe, as if—furious at Akiva for putting up so passively with the situation he has gotten her into—she were saying: If you are so unworldly-wise that you can find consolation in someone else’s being even worse off than we are, you belong with the rabbis in the study house rather than with me in the real world! The rest of the aggadah would then be a tale not of amor omnia vincit but of reversal and estrangement, in which Rahel’s “If he were to listen to me, he would spend twelve more years [in the study house]” is blurted out in angry sarcasm too, and Akiva’s taking her up on it is the selfish reaction of a man so driven to succeed that he is indifferent to the misery of the woman he once loved above everything. It is no wonder that in this version Rahel does not kiss Akiva’s feet when he finally returns to her.

But the second point is that Bialik and Ravnitzky obviously did not read the aggadah in Nedarim in this fashion, for if they had, they would have considered it incompatible with the aggadah in Ketubot and concluded that they had to choose between the two instead of fusing them. Indeed, their rather surprising omission of Akiva’s first homecoming and re-departure, even though it is found in both texts, confirms that they read both in the harmonizing mode of Ketubot, since the only discernible motive for leaving out such a detail would have been the belief that it was inconsistent with the rest of the story—that is, that Akiva’s behavior at this point, even if justified as far as the rabbis were concerned by the supreme importance of Torah study, strikes a discordant note in a narrative about a youthful love that prevails.

It is, therefore, important to realize that Sefer Ha-Aggadah is both scrupulously faithful to the aggadic texts that it gives us and extremely free with them. The faithfulness is lexical, for Bialik and Ravnitzky were punctilious about changing the actual language of the Midrash as little as possible, an aspect in which they differed greatly from other 20th-century anthologizers of Aggadah (like Michah Yosef Berditchevsky in Hebrew and Louis Ginzburg in English). It was their belief that the concise bareness of midrashic prose concealed a great vitality and purity which should never be compromised stylistically even if its sequential leaps and inferences were not always immediately evident to the modern reader; and that the Midrash was to be considered not as raw material for literary reworking but as a high form of narrative art itself.

And yet at the same time they did not hesitate to create new texts out of old on the assumption that, in the process of their transmission and redaction, many aggadot had been fragmented and needed to be restored to their original unity. In some cases, as in their reconstruction of the intensely moving story of the rabbinic heretic Elisha Ben-Avuyah, Bialik and Ravnitzky even drew on as many as half-a-dozen different textual sources. Thus, although one always can trust them in regard to the authenticity of tone and texture, allowances must be made for the fact that sometimes in Sefer Ha-Aggadah one is reading not an actual text but a hypothetical Ur-text which may in reality never have existed in such a form, or perhaps even at all.

Nevertheless, the fact that numerous aggadic texts are aesthetically complete and satisfying as we find them should leave no room for doubt that the ba’alei aggadot were the self-conscious literary artists that Bialik and Ravnitzky conceived them to be. Nor is there any point in reviving the old question—one that already has been beaten to death in Bible studies—of whether aesthetic or literary intentions can properly be ascribed to writings that were motivated first and foremost by other considerations.

It is no doubt the case that kinus implied for Bialik the “literarization” of a religious tradition which he no longer believed to be viable in itself; but just as we understand while standing in a Gothic cathedral or listening to a Bach oratorio that there is no contradiction between doing something for the glory of God and doing it as gloriously as possible, so there need be nothing false about our awareness that the ba’alei aggadot took justifiable pride in crafting their religious message with all the literary skill at their command. Long before the modern rediscovery of it, they invented the short-short story, and The Book of Legends is more than enough proof that they have yet to be equaled in their mastery of the form.

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It is perhaps in part because until now so few midrashic texts have been available in translation that literary critics have related to the Bible and to the Midrash in two such different ways. To state the matter succinctly, the Bible has been widely written about in recent years as if it were a form of literature, the Midrash—less widely, but with a growing amount of attention—as if it were a form of literary criticism.

It is easy to understand why certain contemporary literary critics, especially those associated with what has come to be known as literary deconstruction, have clasped the authors of midrash to their bosoms like a traveler unexpectedly coming across close kin in a distant land. For not only is the Midrash a body of writing systematically organized around a previous body of writing, upon which it is in large measure a commentary, but the methods and assumptions of this commentary can strike one as having a modern ring. Like a Jacques Derrida, the rabbinical midrashists saw the object of their criticism, the Bible, as a legitimate arena in which to display all their virtuoso powers of interpretation, even if this meant overwhelming and in a sense defeating the text itself; and in the words of a Harold Bloom, their achievement is thus a perfect example of “strong misreading,” the simultaneous elevating and undermining of a work by first claiming it as a canonical authority and then systematically substituting revisionary meanings for its own.

Indeed, these substitutions, or “displacements,” in the language of deconstruction, were often so blatant that it is hard to think their perpetrators were not aware of them. Did the rabbis really believe that a verse in Psalms could refer to Abraham, even though he is not mentioned once in that entire book? That Shem and Ever attended the funeral of Sarah? Or that thousands of others of their interpretations of the Bible could have made any sense to the men and women written about in its pages?

There is actually some evidence that not all of them did so believe, at least not in the ordinary sense of believing. For example, another well-known aggadah about Rabbi Akiva tells us:4

Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rav: When Moses ascended on high, he found the Holy One affixing crowns to letters.5 Moses asked, “Lord of the universe, [why use crowns to intimate what You wish]? Who hinders Your hand [from writing out in full all of Torah’s precepts]?” God replied, “At the end of many generations there will arise a man, Akiva ben Joseph by name, who will infer heaps and heaps of laws from each tittle on these crowns.” “Lord of the universe,” said Moses, “permit me to see him.” God replied, “Turn around.” Moses went and sat down behind eight rows [of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples and listened to their discourse on law]. Not being able to follow what they were saying, he was so distressed that he grew faint. But when they came to a certain subject and the disciples asked Rabbi Akiva, “Master, where did you learn this?” and Rabbi Akiva replied, “It is a law given to Moses at Sinai,” Moses was reassured. He returned to the Holy One and said, “Lord of the universe, You have such a man, yet You give the Torah [not by his hand but] by mine?” God replied, “Be silent—thus has it come to My mind.” Then Moses said, “Lord of the universe, You have shown me his Torah—now show me his reward.” “Turn around,” said God. Moses turned around and saw Rabbi Akiva’s flesh being weighed out in a meat market.6 “Lord of the universe,” Moses cried out, “such Torah, and such its reward?” God replied, “Be silent—thus has it come to My mind.”

Not the least startling thing about this truly audacious story is the protest it ends with, but this is not why I have cited it. In fact, what precedes the bitterly cynical depiction of God’s justice is hardly less astonishing, for it amounts to an open confession that rabbinical hermeneutics read meanings into the Torah that are not there. Not that Rav, the author of this aggadah, would have put it that way. What he presumably would have said, had he spoken in modern language rather than ancient parable, is that all the legitimate meanings that can be attributed to the Torah are there, but that not all of them would have been comprehensible to Moses or to anyone of his or many later generations, since uncovering the full contents of Scripture is the unending task of Jewish interpretation that unfolds from age to age.

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It is precisely this about the Midrash that most speaks to the deconstructionists, who hold that all reading is historically and socially conditioned interpretation, and that there is no such thing as “objective meaning” in a text, since literary meaning is something generated only in the written word’s encounter with a reader. As stated by Susan Handelman, one of the leading proponents of the view of midrash as a kind of proto-deconstruction,

As a mode of reading, midrash takes delight in precisely those aspects of language to which post-structuralist criticism has alerted us. It is acutely sensitive to the semantic overflow of language and the rhetorical nature of Scripture as something to indulge . . . [and as] a field of play . . . for the extreme puns, transpositions, acontextual readings, reversals of meaning, [and] “free association” which [it] accomplishes.

Of course, there are fundamental differences between a Rabbi Levi “playing” with a verse from Genesis to make it mean something that no one but he would ever find in it and, let us say, a Jacques Derrida “playing” similarly with a poem by Paul Celan. For one thing, although midrash can indeed exhibit a high degree of playfulness in its treatment of biblical texts, underlying this is a serious assumption. The rabbis held that God’s mind was infinite and that the Torah was His Word; therefore, it was not illogical for them to believe that this Word could be endowed with infinite meanings which the unique perspectives of individual readers could reveal. By contrast, Celan, poetic genius though he may have been, was a finite being, and there is therefore a sense in which it is quite possible to say, “This is not Celan but Derrida,” and frivolous to deny the distinction between the two.

Nor is it remotely true that the midrashist was the absolute sovereign of the biblical text and could do whatever he pleased with it. As in all meaningful play, the formal constraints or “rules of the game” imposed on him were many, and included an allegiance to all the main dogmas of rabbinic Judaism. Thus, when the New Testament and the Church Fathers proposed their own “midrashic” reading of the Bible, the rabbis fought it tooth and nail, without stopping to ask whether the differences between the Jewish and Christian interpretations of Scripture might not be, after all, merely subjective.

Still, genuine parallels between midrash and deconstruction do exist, not the least of which is their sharing a similar etiology. There are many reasons why midrash developed, among them the fact that the spare style of the Bible leaves “spaces” between the words which all but compel the reader to occupy them interpretively. But in addition, Handelman is surely right when she observes that

The rabbis had to get around the problem of closure of the canon, the loss of the direct, oracular voice of God. . . . They had, then [in the words of the mishnaic sage Ben Bag-Bag], to turn and turn Scripture, reopen it by turning it over on itself.

Given a situation, in other words, in which there were more and more generations of rabbis but always the same, unexpandable sacred text, something like midrash was unavoidable if rabbinic Judaism were not—as happened with many other ancient religions—to stagnate and petrify.

It is a pity that Handelman does not extend this analysis to her own milieu, for it would seem obvious that a major reason deconstruction and its attitudes have spread so successfully in literature departments of universities is the existence of a parallel situation. Since the number of important literary texts deserving serious study is limited and grows extremely slowly, while in recent times the number of literary critics, English professors, and Ph.D.’s has increased by leaps and bounds, is not deconstruction as self-interested an enterprise as midrash? Shakespeare will write no new plays, but Shakespeare scholars will continue to be turned out, and sooner or later the last word will have been said on every “objective” meaning, nuance, and subtlety in the corpus. If a permanent moratorium on Shakespeare studies is not to be declared, what choice is there but to pass from the realm of the ostensibly objective determination of form and content in the plays to that of “transpositions, acontextual readings, reversals of meaning, and free association,” in which these same texts can be “reopened” by “turning them over on themselves”?

_____________

 

This is not to say that because de-construction can itself be deconstructed it does not rest upon some valid assertions. But although its practitioners may sometimes be excellent critics of criticism, they tend to be poor critics of texts, which they are too busy trying to misread strongly to read attentively. In this respect, too, they bear a resemblance to the rabbis of the Midrash, for perhaps the greatest paradox of the Midrash is that this remarkable edifice of commentary built around the Bible often seems to miss the Bible’s point completely. And this is especially true when it comes to biblical stories that are morally ambiguous, for the same rabbis who eagerly ferreted out every verbal ambiguity in Scripture as an occasion for exegetical resolution had, in a larger sense, little tolerance for ambiguity in the Bible.

Consider the typical-enough midrash in Sefer Ha-Aggadah on Genesis 27:30-34, which relates the story of Jacob’s stealing of Esau’s blessing. In the Bible itself, while the wily Jacob, the eponymous ancestor of Israel, is portrayed as doing what his destiny requires, the tragic figure of Esau is drawn with great sympathy:

And as soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob, when Jacob had scarcely gone out from the presence of Isaac his father, Esau his brother came in from hunting. And he also prepared savory food, and he brought it to his father. And he said to his father, “Let my father arise, and eat of his son’s game, that you may bless me.” And his father Isaac said to him, “Who are you?” He answered, “I am your son, your first-born, Esau.” Then Isaac was seized with great terror and said, “Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came, and I have blessed him? Yes, and he shall be blessed.” And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!”

Yet here, from the new English translation of Sefer Ha-Aggadah, is the commentary on these lines from Midrash Tanhuma:

When Esau finally entered the house, he called to his father in a rude tone, “Let my father arise and eat of his son’s venison.” . . . Jacob, however, had not spoken in the same tone, but said, “Arise, I pray thee, sit and eat”—both “I pray thee” and the three verbs implying respectful entreaty, humility, and submissiveness. . . .

At that moment, Isaac recognized Esau’s voice and, seized with fear, asked Esau, “Who are you?” For when Jacob had come in, the fragrance of the Garden of Eden, a sweet savor, came in with him, and Isaac, feeling refreshed, exclaimed, “See, the smell of my son is as the smell of the field [of Eden] which the Lord hath blessed,” as he proceeded to bless him. But when Esau came in, Gehenna gaped wide before Isaac, so that “Isaac was seized with great terror.” Perturbed in his heart, he said to himself: I see Gehenna with Esau’s body kindling the fire therein.

Linguistically, it should be pointed out, this midrash has not a leg to stand on. Esau’s “Let my father arise and eat” (yakum avi ve’yokhal) is actually more, not less, respectful and tender than Jacob’s “Arise, I pray thee, sit and eat” (kum-na shva ve’okhla), and indeed, the Bible has already told us that Esau is closer to his father and Jacob to his mother. But the rabbis liked their biblical heroes white and their biblical villains black; and Esau’s having been considered a symbol of Christianity—talk of acontextual readings!—did nothing to further his standing with them.

_____________

 

The Midrash, then, tells us little of value about the Bible, which—to the extent that we wish to understand it on its own terms rather than have it mediated for us by the rabbis—is best read without aggadic commentary. What it does tell us an enormous amount about, and masterfully, is the rabbis themselves: their world, their thoughts, their lives, their struggles, their fears, doubts, rivalries, ambitions, their fierce pride in their accomplishments. Like the Bible, which it often challenges and next to which it is the greatest collective creation of the Jewish imagination, the Midrash deserves to be read not for its techniques of reading but for its superb writing. By making a vast body of it available in its original form, The Book of Legends, well-translated by Rabbi William Braude, who died in 1988 shortly after completing the herculean task he took upon himself, opens a new continent to English readers that they will not quickly finish exploring.


Footnotes

1 Translated by William G. Braude, introduction by David Stern. Schocken Books, 897 pp., $75.00.

2 Construed strictly, these two words are overlapping but not congruent. The Hebrew term midrash (from the verb darash, “to seek [meaning]” or “to expound”) refers to any rabbinic commentary on a verse or group of verses in the Bible, while aggadah (from the verb higgid, “to tell” or “to relate”) refers to any rabbinic legend, narrative, or parable. Thus, while a great deal of Midrash is Aggadah, there is Midrash that is not Aggadah—midrashei halakhah, for example, which are concerned solely with exegetical interpretations of biblical laws and commandments and have no narrative component at all—and there is Aggadah that is not Midrash, such as the many tales told by the rabbis about other rabbis that do not have a biblical verse as their point of departure. In nontechnical discussions of the subject, however, the two words are often used synonymously, and I will sometimes follow this practice here without worrying overly about consistency.

3 Unless indicated otherwise, all translations below are my own. The entire Midrash Rabbah is available in English in an edition published by the Soncino Press.

4 The translation here is William G. Braude's, in the new Schocken edition.

5 The crowns (tagin) are three small strokes that are added to the top of certain letters in a Torah scroll (Braude).

6 Rabbi Akiva died a martyr's death at the hands of the Romans during the Hadrianic persecution (Braude).

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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