Monday, October 20, 2008

The Relationship Between Midrashic Exegesis and the Written Text.

The Rabbis in Midrash Rabah Vaykra (Margulies Edition pages 706 - 30:8-15) present a multitude of explanations for the Mitzvah of taking the four Minim on Sukkot, giving many reasons for the grouping as well as for each individual component. Rambam takes the opportunity to make a statement about these types of exegesis.

“As regards the four species [the branches of the palm tree, the citron, the myrtle, and the willows of the brook], our Sages gave a reason for their use by way of Midrashim, the method of which is well known to those who understand their discourse. They use the text of the Bible only as a kind of poetical language [for their own ideas], and do not intend thereby to give an interpretation of the text. Accordingly, with regard to the Midrashim, people are divided into two classes. For some think that, the Midrash contains the real explanation of the text, whilst others, finding that it cannot be reconciled with the words quoted, reject and ridicule it. The former struggle and fight to prove and to confirm such interpretations according to their opinion, and to keep them as the real meaning of the text; they consider them in the same light as traditional laws.”

In his discussions about Torah She Ba’al Peh, the oral tradition that we received at Sinai as interpretation of how to perform the Mitzvot, Rambam uses the “Four Species” frequently as an example. In the introduction to the Mishna, he uses Etrog as an example of a received tradition as well as how the Rabbis looked to find clues in the text to confirm that tradition. When the Torah tells us to take a “fruit of a stately tree”, it should not contradict the received tradition and it should be possible to include the Etrog under that rubric. The Gemara goes even further and tries to find logical reasons why Etrog is the most probable choice of all possible fruit that would have the conditions laid out in the text. That is not the type of Derashot Rambam refers to here but rather those that compare the Four Species, to God, the patriarchs, the Sanhedrin, the different types of personalities that compose the Jewish community etc… These exegeses deal with the “why” rather than the “how”. Some literalists will try to read these Midrashim literally into the text at times using embarrassingly forced interpretations while others will ridicule and argue that the Rabbis distort the text to fit their own biases, a common argument found among modern Biblical scholars.

Neither of the two classes understood it, that our Sages employ biblical texts merely as poetical expressions, the meaning of which is not obscure for someone endowed with understanding. This method was general in ancient days; all adopted it in the same way as poets use poetical expressions.”

In other words, these Midrashim stand alone as speculation by the rabbis on the reasons for the Mitzvah and the text is used as a tool to present the idea tying it to that particular Mitzvah, possibly as a mnemonic device. Rambam then analyzes another case where the Rabbis use a verse to teach a moral lesson. It is quite clear that not only does the idea have no relationship with the text; the idea itself is presented in a non-literal format. Rambam wants to disabuse us of the idea that this is unique to these specific cases by making a more sweeping statement -

In the same sense you must understand the phrase, "Do not read so, but so," wherever it occurs in the Midrash.”

Chag Sameach.

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