Midrash (//; Hebrew: מִדְרָשׁ; pl. מִדְרָשִׁים midrashim or מִדְרָשׁוֹת midrashot) is expansive Jewish Biblical exegesis using a rabbinic mode of interpretation prominent in the Talmud. The word itself means "textual interpretation", "study", or "exegesis", derived from the root verb darash (דָּרַשׁ), which means "resort to, seek, seek with care, enquire, require", forms of which appear frequently in the Hebrew Bible.
Midrash and rabbinic readings "discern value in texts, words, and letters, as potential revelatory spaces", writes the Hebrew scholar Wilda Gafney. "They reimagine dominant narratival readings while crafting new ones to stand alongside—not replace—former readings. Midrash also asks questions of the text; sometimes it provides answers, sometimes it leaves the reader to answer the questions". Vanessa Lovelace defines midrash as "a Jewish mode of interpretation that not only engages the words of the text, behind the text, and beyond the text, but also focuses on each letter, and the words left unsaid by each line".
The term is also used of a rabbinic work that interprets Scripture in that manner. Such works contain early interpretations and commentaries on the Written Torah and Oral Torah (spoken law and sermons), as well as non-legalistic rabbinic literature (aggadah) and occasionally Jewish religious laws (halakha), which usually form a running commentary on specific passages in the Hebrew Scripture (Tanakh).
The word Midrash, especially if capitalized, can refer to a specific compilation of these rabbinic writings composed between 400 and 1200 CE. According to Gary Porton and Jacob Neusner, midrash has three technical meanings:
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The Hebrew word midrash is derived from the root of the verb darash (דָּרַשׁ), which means "resort to, seek, seek with care, enquire, require", forms of which appear frequently in the Bible.
The word midrash occurs twice in the Hebrew Bible: 2 Chronicles 13:22 "in the midrash of the prophet Iddo", and 24:27 "in the midrash of the book of the kings". Both the King James Version (KJV) and English Standard Version (ESV) translate the word as "story" in both instances; the Septuagint translates it as βιβλίον (book) in the first, as γραφή (writing) in the second. The meaning of the Hebrew word in these contexts is uncertain: it has been interpreted as referring to "a body of authoritative narratives, or interpretations thereof, concerning historically important figures" and seems to refer to a "book", perhaps even a "book of interpretation", which might make its use a foreshadowing of the technical sense that the rabbis later gave to the word.
Since the early Middle Ages the function of much of midrashic interpretation has been distinguished from that of peshat, straight or direct interpretation aiming at the original literal meaning of a scriptural text.
A definition of "midrash" repeatedly quoted by other scholars is that given by Gary G. Porton in 1981: "a type of literature, oral or written, which stands in direct relationship to a fixed, canonical text, considered to be the authoritative and revealed word of God by the midrashist and his audience, and in which this canonical text is explicitly cited or clearly alluded to".
Lieve M. Teugels, who would limit midrash to rabbinic literature, offered a definition of midrash as "rabbinic interpretation of Scripture that bears the lemmatic form", a definition that, unlike Porton's, has not been adopted by others. While some scholars agree with the limitation of the term "midrash" to rabbinic writings, others apply it also to certain Qumran writings, to parts of the New Testament, and of the Hebrew Bible (in particular the superscriptions of the Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Chronicles), and even modern compositions are called midrashim.
Midrash is now viewed more as method than genre, although the rabbinic midrashim do constitute a distinct literary genre. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Midrash was initially a philological method of interpreting the literal meaning of biblical texts. In time it developed into a sophisticated interpretive system that reconciled apparent biblical contradictions, established the scriptural basis of new laws, and enriched biblical content with new meaning. Midrashic creativity reached its peak in the schools of Rabbi Ishmael and Akiba, where two different hermeneutic methods were applied. The first was primarily logically oriented, making inferences based upon similarity of content and analogy. The second rested largely upon textual scrutiny, assuming that words and letters that seem superfluous teach something not openly stated in the text."
Many different exegetical methods are employed to derive deeper meaning from a text. This is not limited to the traditional thirteen textual tools attributed to the Tanna Rabbi Ishmael, which are used in the interpretation of halakha (Jewish law). The presence of words or letters which are seen to be apparently superfluous, and the chronology of events, parallel narratives or what are seen as other textual "anomalies" are often used as a springboard for interpretation of segments of Biblical text. In many cases, a handful of lines in the Biblical narrative may become a long philosophical discussion
Jacob Neusner distinguishes three midrash processes:
Numerous Jewish midrashim previously preserved in manuscript form have been published in print, including those denominated as smaller or minor midrashim. Bernard H. Mehlman and Seth M. Limmer deprecate this usage claiming that the term "minor" seems judgmental and "small" is inappropriate for midrashim some of which are lengthy. They propose instead the term "medieval midrashim", since the period of their production extended from the twilight of the rabbinic age to the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment.
Generally speaking, rabbinic midrashim either focus on religious law and practice (halakha) or interpret biblical narrative in relation to non-legal ethics or theology, creating homilies and parables based on the text. In the latter case they are described as aggadic.
Main article: Midrash halakha
Midrash halakha is the name given to a group of tannaitic expositions on the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. These midrashim, written in Mishnahic Hebrew, clearly distinguish between the Biblical texts that they discuss, and the rabbinic interpretation of that text. They often go well beyond simple interpretation and derive or provide support for halakha. This work is based on pre-set assumptions about the sacred and divine nature of the text, and the belief in the legitimacy that accords with rabbinic interpretation.
Although this material treats the biblical texts as the authoritative word of God, it is clear that not all of the Hebrew Bible was fixed in its wording at this time, as some verses that are cited differ from the Masoretic, and accord with the Septuagint, or Samaritan Torah instead.
With the growing canonization of the contents of the Hebrew Bible, both in terms of the books that it contained, and the version of the text in them, and an acceptance that new texts could not be added, there came a need to produce material that would clearly differentiate between that text, and rabbinic interpretation of it. By collecting and compiling these thoughts they could be presented in a manner which helped to refute claims that they were only human interpretations. The argument being that by presenting the various collections of different schools of thought each of which relied upon close study of the text, the growing difference between early biblical law, and its later rabbinic interpretation could be reconciled.
Main article: Aggadah
Midrashim that seek to explain the non-legal portions of the Hebrew Bible are sometimes referred to as aggadah or Haggadah.
Aggadic discussions of the non-legal parts of Scripture are characterized by a much greater freedom of exposition than the halakhic midrashim (midrashim on Jewish law). Aggadic expositors availed themselves of various techniques, including sayings of prominent rabbis. These aggadic explanations could be philosophical or mystical disquisitions concerning angels, demons, paradise, hell, the messiah, Satan, feasts and fasts, parables, legends, satirical assaults on those who practice idolatry, etc.
Some of these midrashim entail mystical teachings. The presentation is such that the midrash is a simple lesson to the uninitiated, and a direct allusion, or analogy, to a mystical teaching for those educated in this area.
An example of a midrashic interpretation:
"And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day." (Genesis 1:31)—Midrash: Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Samuel's name: "Behold, it was very good" refers to the Good Desire; "AND behold, it was very good" refers to the Evil Desire. Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the Evil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: "Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man's rivalry with his neighbour." (Kohelet IV, 4).
See also: Rabbinical literature
A wealth of literature and artwork has been created in the 20th and 21st centuries by people aspiring to create "contemporary midrash". Forms include poetry, prose, Bibliodrama (the acting out of Bible stories), murals, masks, and music, among others. The Institute for Contemporary Midrash was formed to facilitate these reinterpretations of sacred texts. The institute hosted several week-long intensives between 1995 and 2004, and published eight issues of Living Text: The Journal of Contemporary Midrash from 1997 to 2000.
According to Carol Bakhos, recent studies that use literary-critical tools to concentrate on the cultural and literary aspects of midrash have led to a rediscovery of the importance of these texts for finding insights into the rabbinic culture that created them. Midrash is increasingly seen as a literary and cultural construction, responsive to literary means of analysis.
Frank Kermode has written that midrash is an imaginative way of "updating, enhancing, augmenting, explaining, and justifying the sacred text". Because the Tanakh came to be seen as unintelligible or even offensive, midrash could be used as a means of rewriting it in a way that both makes it more acceptable to later ethical standards and conforms more to later notions of plausibility.
James L. Kugel, in The Bible as It Was (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997), examines a number of early Jewish and Christian texts that comment on, expand, or re-interpret passages from the first five books of the Tanakh between the third century BCE and the second century CE.
Kugel traces how and why biblical interpreters produced new meanings by the use of exegesis on ambiguities, syntactical details, unusual or awkward vocabulary, repetitions, etc. in the text. As an example, Kugel examines the different ways in which the biblical story that God's instructions are not to be found in heaven (Deuteronomy 30:12) has been interpreted. Baruch 3:29-4:1 states that this means that divine wisdom is not available anywhere other than in the Torah. Targum Neophyti (Deuteronomy 30:12) and b. Baba Metzia 59b claim that this text means that Torah is no longer hidden away, but has been given to humans who are then responsible for following it.