Thursday, October 01, 2009

Did Rambam's Attitude To Aggadah Evolve? - A review of Professor Loberbaum Article (Part 4).

In apparent digression, Rambam in MN 3:43, in the midst of discussing reasons for the different festivals and specifically the reason for taking the Lulav and Etrog on Sukkot, discusses a certain type of Midrashic exegesis. Professor Loberbaum uses it to further develop his theory about Rambam’s supposed change of opinion regarding Rabbinical Aggadot.
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 Aggadic interpretation, the method of which is well known to those who are acquainted with the style of our Sages. 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. As to the value of these Midrashic interpretations, we meet with two different opinions. 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. Neither of the two classes understood it, that our Sages employ biblical texts merely as poetical expressions, the meaning of which is clear to every reasonable reader. This style was general in ancient days; all adopted it in the same way as poets [adopt a certain style]. Our Sages say, in reference to the words, "and a paddle (yated) you shall have upon your weapon" [azeneka, Deut. xxiii. 14]: Do not read azeneka, "thy weapon," but ozneka, "thy ear." You are thus told, that if you hear a person uttering something disgraceful, put your fingers into your ears. Now, I wonder whether those ignorant persons [who take the Midrashic interpretations literally] believe that the author of this saying gave it as the true interpretation of the text quoted, and as the meaning of this precept: that in truth yated, "the paddle," is used for "the finger, "and azeneka denotes "thy ear." I cannot think that any person whose intellect is sound can admit this. The author employed the text as a beautiful poetical phrase, in teaching an excellent moral lesson, namely this: It is as bad to listen to bad language, as it is to use it. This lesson is poetically connected with the above text. In the same sense you must understand the phrase, "Do not read so, but so," wherever it occurs in the Midrash.”

Rambam is referring to a series of Derashot recorded in Vaykra Rabah 30:8-16 about the reason for taking the four kinds – Arbe’a Minim. The first derasha explains how Etrog is connected with the words used to describe it in the Torah, Pri Etz Hadar, and the same for the remaining three. Thereafter, the Midrash discusses possible symbolism in the Mitzvot, such that the four Minim represent different aspects of God, the three patriarchs and Yosef, the four matriarchs and so on. All the Midrashim use the verse as an exegetical device for their ideas. All these references are far from Peshuto Shel Mikrah, the plain meaning of the text. Rambam explains that these types of Midrashic texts are recordings of sermons or sermon types of Aggadot that use a poetic type of presentation. The Rabbis wanted to teach how one should look at Mitzvot and use them for connecting with the transcendental, get in touch with Judaism’s basic tenets and in general teach Hashkafic and ethical concepts, using the text as a tool to impress or as a mnemonic device. The rabbis are not explaining the text but use it as a tool to make their point, which may have nothing to do with the text. As an extreme example, much more distanced from the text than the ones in Vaykra Rabah, Rambam quotes the one about stuffing your fingers in your ears when confronted with prohibited talk. Clearly, the verse is not talking about it and the Rabbis just used it as a device to make a totally unrelated point. Rambam uses this opportunity to describe and explain a certain common type of Midrashic text amongst many other types of such texts.

YL however wants to take this a step further. In the Pirush Hamishna in the introduction to Chelek Rambam also presented three opinions about Derashot: Those who insist on literalness, those who denigrate and the third group, the correct ones, those who see in them great depth and philosophical teachings. If we set them parallel with the three groups Rambam enumerates here, the third correct one is parallel to the ones who understand the exegetical method of teaching unrelated issues using the verse. YL contrasts Rambam’s description of the correct approach in Chelek as philosophical and of great depth while here he describes it as poetical and not the real meaning of the text. In other words in Chelek the Rabbis teach a deep and true concept as opposed to here, where they distort the true meaning of the text. Furthermore, Rambam describes them as “derashot”, public sermons, that are directed to the masses and not of great depth. He therefore claims that again we see a change of heart about Aggadah that is consistent with the supposed change in the introduction to MN we discussed in the previous post. YL does note that the presentation here is milder than the one in the introduction. There, according to YL’s understanding, Rambam was quasi insulting to the Rabbis while here he seems to praise their “poetical talent”. He therefore discovers a “Halachik” impact in these Derashot, which are the reason Rambam is more careful. He does not want to weaken our regard to Halacha! He is also trying to protect Halachik exegesis which when one would insist that it is the meaning of the text, would lose its legitimacy.

If I am correct, and I am convinced I am, that YL misread Rambam in the introduction to MN, as I have shown in the preceding post, this whole argument has no leg to stand on. In addition, my read of the Rambam above is unquestionably correct. Rambam, typical and true to form, sees the complexity of the Derashot. Aggadah is a term that covers many different non-Halachik writings of the rabbis. Some have deep philosophic import and teach very complex issues from observations about our universe and environment to the ontological and metaphysical. They however also contain many ethical and moral teachings; these probably make up the great majority of the Aggadic texts. Some of these were indeed public sermons and used different types of devices to impress upon the listeners. To impress and make sure the teaching is absorbed and remembered they used the text in a non-literal way. To insist that Rambam is monochromatic and his comments are generalized to all Aggadot is disingenuous. I believe that Professor Loberbaum’s reading of this Rambam is faulty and does not prove his point.

However, YL has still more proofs and I want to address them. At the end of this series, I plan a post to explain why I decided to address this article and a general comment on the importance of academic work on Rambam.


  1. I'd be inclined to agree with you, quite instinctively. When Rambam says the aggadot are poetry and fail to reveal the true meaning of the text, he doesn't mean that the aggadot are therefore shallow and lack depth. He means only that while the aggadot are true in and of themselves, and possess great depth, they aren't the true meaning of the text to which they are attached; the base text would presumably have its own great depth and meaning quite independent of the aggadah's.

    I believe Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits put it excellently, even if he didn't say the following in the name of the Rambam: "In such [midrashic] explanations, a text is used in varied interpretations as a means to convey an idea which is valid independently of the text and which is to be expressed and emphasized because of its validity." (With God in Hell, chapter 9 ("Now We Know"), pp 140ff.)

    Similarly, according to Professor G. F. Moore: "The Scriptures were conceived not only to be as a whole a revelation from God, but to be such in every single word and phrase, and to be everywhere pregnant with religious meaning; for religion, by precept or example, is the sole content of revelation. This led, as it has done wherever similar opinions have been entertained, to a fractional method of interpretation which found regulation, instruction, and edification in words and phrases isolated from their context and combined by analogy with similar words and phrases in wholly different contexts, and to subtle deductions from peculiarities of expression. To a student indoctrinated in modern philological methods, the exegesis of the rabbis and the hermeneutic principles formulated from their practice and as a regulative for it often seem ingeniously perverse; but we must do them the justice to remember that not only their premises but also their end was entirely different from ours. We propose to ourselves to find out what the author meant, and what those whom he addressed understood from what he said; and to this end we not only interpret his words in their relation to the whole context and tenor of the writing in which they stand, but endeavor to reconstruct the historical context – the time, place, circumstance, and occasion of the utterance, its position in the religious development, and whatever else is necessary to put ourselves, so far as possible, in the situation of contemporaries. The aim of the rabbis, on the contrary, was to find out what God, the sole author of revelation, meant by those particular words, not in a particular moment and for particular persons, but for all men and all time. What they actually did was, speaking broadly, to interpret everything in Scripture in the sense of their own highest religious conceptions, derived from the Scriptures or developed beyond them in the progress of the intervening centuries. [Emphasis added.] Thus they not only deduced piles of halakhot from every tittle of the Torah, like Akiba, with a subtlety that was quite beyond Moses' comprehension and almost made him faint, but found everywhere in the enlightening truths and edifying lessons which they put into the text to take it out again. [Emphasis added.] But that has always been the method of religious exegesis as distinguished from historical." ("The Idea of Torah in Judaism", from The Menorah Treasury, ed. Leo W. Schwarz. Philadelphia: JPS, 1964. (Selections of essays from the Menorah Journal, a journal from 1915-1962.) This particular essay found online here.)

  2. Mike, thank you for your support.

    Chag Sameach.