No, We Shouldn’t Start Writing Midrash Again

R. Eliyahu Fink of the Pacific Jewish Center argues for just that, calling the recent movie about Noah directed by Darren Aronofsky a modern midrash for its filling in of gaps in the narrative and its addition of new shades of meaning to an old story.

The core of R. Fink’s concern is that the body of interpretations called “The Midrash” in the Modern Orthodox world has gotten too small and hidebound. I agree with R. Fink that there is a problematic tendency to treat as effectively canon medieval and earlier biblical commentaries. I am not, however, sure that the proper remedy is to write new midrash. (Setting aside that his suggestion implies that the spinning of midrash has somehow stopped; I don’t think he means that, and I don’t think that has happened in any event.)

(Warning: this is a bit of turgid post, language-wise. It’s a lot of thinking “out loud” about relatively wonky stuff. Just, you know, hold tight. Inspirational stuff comes at the end.)

I don’t disagree with R. Fink’s assertion that the Noah movie is a midrash, where we take midrash to mean the explication or creative filling of gaps in a laconic text. There are plenty of other kinds of midrashic interpretive moves, too: using irregularities in the text to venture guesses as to the nature of the creation of the world, as in many commentaries on the first two chapters of Genesis, where such ideas as the primal androgyne and several apparently imperfect creations (one with mercy, one with justice, one with both) find homes.

I don’t think there’s really a serious argument to be made that new examples of these kinds of interpretations have ceased to be rendered; they have not. (Whether and how they are happening within Modern Orthodoxy is a different question. More on that in a bit.)

The tendency R. Fink laments is the freezing in place of early midrashim as The Midrash, writ large.  Midrash is much more process and product than it is collection. R. Fink is not primarily lamenting the loss of midrash as process-and-product. Rather, he worries that the influence of major and old midrashic collections (particularly Rashi, who he notes is largely a kind of cipher for prior material) is essentially freezing into place what Jews think of when they say “midrash,” that these texts form not simply midrash but The Midrash.

I appreciate where R. Fink is coming from; he is concerned with the continued vitality of Modern Orthodox Judaism (the founding concept of which is torah im derekh eretz, Torah combined with worldliness). Modern Orthodoxy faces an ever-narrowing bridge across the ever-widening gulf between increasingly strict halakhah on the one hand (torah) and the requirements for being in the world on the other (derekh eretz). Without doubt, midrash that revitalized that project would necessarily be part of the work involved in making it easier to walk that narrow bridge.

But new collections–a concerted effort at creating a new midrashic literature–might be exactly the wrong thing to try to do, because it is alien to our time as a literary matter. I don’t take R. Fink to be arguing that the ability and production of midrash is simply not happening, as much as that he’s concerned about the relative weight given to modern midrash vis-a-vis “classic” midrash–that is, that certain parts of the broad range of midrashic literature are now The Midrash, which is stifling other, later texts from taking on a central place.

Midrash as process-and-product of interpretation is not out of place in our time. But consider what “The Midrash” (as in the collections) allowed for in classical rabbinic Judaism: it was the literary means for collecting the output of biblical interpretation, aggregating into itself stories, metaphysical speculation, amended readings of the underlying text, ethical instruction, sermonic materials, and other raw creative output. These were (sometimes) supplements to the biblical texts, but they were themselves texts assembled with ideological and literary purposes: Pesikta d’Rav Kahane is different in literary form from Genesis Rabbah, which though it shares a formal nature of verse-by-verse commentary with the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael on Exodus nevertheless is quite a different work. They were genres that made sense in their times and places for collecting and organizing this material.

But those kinds of midrashic collections don’t make tremendous sense in our present context because they are foreign to our present aesthetic senses, and they don’t seem to have made sense to many Jews outside the rabbinic context. Hellenistic Jews do not appear to have produced very many verse-by-verse commentaries on biblical texts (to be fair, the amount of material available is pretty small). Even many Jewish groups located within the land of Israel during the Hellenistic period produced relatively few such texts–the pesher literature from Qumran and the much later rabbinic texts are somewhat exceptional in this regard. And if we’re really honest, even the interpretive methods used by “classic” midrash are alien to how most modern persons approach texts.

Midrashic collections in their various forms made sense as genres of their cultural locations. Take a spin through early commentaries on the Koran and the collections of the Hadith–traditions about Muhammad–and this becomes more apparent, as these works share some characteristics. Much of the material in the Koran that overlaps with biblical material is, as it turns out, often adaptation or repetition of materials found in Jewish midrashic texts. (Take a look, for example, at much of James Kugel’s work over the last twenty years on this–in particular, his book In Potiphar’s House traces the development of much of this with respect to familiar stories. And yes, Virginia, the final redaction of many midrashic collections occurred in a period of Islamic ascendancy over the areas where the rabbinic academies were located, and it’s a mistake to think that Jewish communities were somehow hermetically sealed from the influences of the surrounding cultures.)

In other words, midrashic collections are not, on a broad view of Jewish history, the best means of transmitting what we would call midrash–they may be the default means of doing so, but that’s not the same question. Rather, midrash are historically best conveyed in the form of the prevailing literary genre of their time and place. Judah Ha-Levi’s poetry made sense conveying midrashic-style interpretations in his time. The Greek interpolations of prayers and narratives into the text of the Septuagint made sense in their time. The traditions preserved in Pesikta DeRav Kahane made sense in their context, and the sermons of the darshanim included midrashim that made sense in their context, too. Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed also employed midrashic interpretations of verses of the bible, but in a philosophic mode that made sense in the intercultural exchanges of the 12th and 13th century in the Arab-dominated Middle East.

Why, then, lament The Midrash (that is, those classic works and traditions compiled themselves or preserved elsewhere)? Because, as R. Fink notes, there has been a kind of canonizing of these works, granting them very significant authority in contemporary Orthodox Judaism.

Yet the ossification of Orthodoxy around certain fixed texts is not a sign of unproductive midrashic process; it’s a question of how Orthodoxy has developed ideologically. R. Fink, then, is rightly worried about the power of what may best be called the midrashic canon. But his worry is misplaced, and that misplacement is a sign of something else.

It’s a sign of the displacement of Jewish authority more broadly. Talk as one may of the process of paskening (deciding) halakhic issues, Orthodox Judaism largely follows already-set rules placed in halakhic codes, and the choice of code has gotten more strict over the last few decades (a result likely heavily influenced by the large role taken by haredi Jewish teachers in the Orthodox educational establishment). The increased focus on codes and preservation of the authority of codified law over and against the results of a broader halakhic process was accompanied by a similar narrowing of where midrash could come from, and the very formatting of the usual “rabbinic Bible”–the Mikraot Gedolot–shows the most important commentary is Rashi: in the middle of the volume next to the binding, just below the biblical text and Targum Onkelos.

R. Fink acknowledges this to some degree: he links to a prior article he composed on the question of the strictures of the halakhic process, and on composing taamei mitzvot–elucidations of the reasons for the commandments. And, yes, there is room for flexibility in the halakhic process. But the more one codifies, the more one transfers power to the text and away from the process. It’s natural to expect that a similar ossification would happen with respect to interpretive traditions.

There is at least one effort to continue the production of midrashic commentaries. The Chumash Mesoras HaRav project, which creates a collected set of comments on biblical verses from the various writings of R. Joseph Soloveitchik, remains (so far as I can tell) an ongoing project, though one that is producing its volumes only gradually (as far as I can tell, there is no second volume yet). I’ve reviewed the first volume of that project here; but it, too, is mostly a collection of already-published materials. So Chumash Mesoras HaRav probably proves the rule that there will be no significant new verse-by-verse midrashic commentary that gains a real foothold.

Our modern midrash is creative production in culturally attuned forms: plays, movies, poems, stories, sermons, and–yes–blog posts. (Not this one. Maybe the next one.) They may not be “written” at all–performance isn’t necessarily written, and isn’t necessarily recorded or otherwise preserved. Midrash has never stopped, though it undergoes constant change in form and genre.

Yet Modern Orthodoxy may have stopped developing; R. Fink isn’t the only one worried about this. The approach to studying the Torah–twice text, once Onkelos, then Rashi–may have dictated the place of Rashi and the older traditions he preserves, though one has to wonder whether some of the problem comes from Rashi having been so good at predicting where a reader might have a question (as in his Talmud commentary).

But the ossification that R. Fink laments is a bigger problem than the canonization of Rashi. Modern Orthodox Judaism (and, for that matter, more haredi forms) has lost sight of the unique role of the Jewish people in shaping whatever it is Judaism will become, and has elevated text too high.

What do we need, then? I think we need to continue to relate and work with the biblical texts–all of them. We will continue to generate new interpretations in genres and forms that speak to us. Because that’s how Jews have always done it: sometimes it’s through midrash (lots of us still love the clever little interpretations that spring forth from subtle features of the texts), sometimes it’s through drama, sometimes it’s through historical investigation, or through science, or through experience. Often it happens in ways we don’t expect–that’s part of the mystery and wonder of human creativity. (For what it’s worth, I think Humanistic Judaism has the best opportunity to do this because we don’t canonize text and ossify interpretations the way Orthodox Judaism has tended to–and we don’t do the oddly derivative dance to that drum that sometimes characterizes the other modern Jewish movements.)

All areas of Jewish life have their problems. Spinning a few new midrashim won’t fix them. Harnessing our raw creativity in new ways? That’s a start.