Judaism and the Interpretation of Scripture: Introduction to the Rabbinic Midrash

Article excerpt

Judaism and the Interpretation of Scripture: Introduction to the Rabbinic Midrash. By Jacob Neusner. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004, 230 pp., $24.95 paper.

One of the world's most prolific writers on Rabbinic literature has written yet another book on the subject. In fifteen chapters, Judaism and the Interpretation of Scripture introduces and selectively illustrates Rabbinic Midrash compilations and their theology.

The preface serves to define "Midrash." Moving beyond a simple definition of "interpretation" (from darash), Neusner acknowledges that in its current usage, the term has three levels of meaning: (1) the process or particular way of reading and interpreting a verse of Hebrew Scripture; (2) the result of the process; and (3) the collection of the results of such a process, namely the compilation of such interpretations. Nevertheless, he differentiates between midrash with a lower case "m" as a "fancy way of saying 'exegesis' or 'interpretation'" and Midrash with an upper case "M," which "belongs to normative Judaism alone," which are evidenced in Rabbinic Midrash compilations (pp. viii-ix).

Chapter 1, "How Does Judaism Read Scripture?" reveals how early Jewish sages transformed the Bible into Torah. Neusner begins by stating what early Rabbinic sages do not do when they read Scripture (pp. 1-6). Unlike contemporary interpreters, who use Scripture to yield historical facts and not necessarily religious truths, early sages evidence a different paradigm. In fact, Rabbinic Midrash is not history in our modern sense of the term because "Rabbinic Judaism is ahistorical" (p. 6). He explains that although Hebrew Scriptures clearly present Israel's life as history with a beginning, middle, and end, "Midrash transforms ancient Israel's history (via paradigmatic thinking) . . . so that past, present, and future meet in the here and now" (p. 6). Paradigmatic thinking, he says, "is like a mathematical model, which translates the real world into abstract principles, and like social science in that it seeks to generalize about particulars" (pp. 6-7).

Neusner further describes paradigmatic thinking by explaining its origins and results (pp. 7-14). While scrutinizing Scripture, where real historical events are recorded, early Jewish sages searched for regularities or patterns, which in turn served as the basis for their paradigmatic reasoning. For them, 586 BC-the date of the destruction of the first temple-presented a sustained narrative of the past into the present. Events of 586 BC were relived by early sages with the Roman destruction of the temple in AD 70. Thus, Neusner suggests that "the present and past formed a single unit of time, encompassing a single span of experience, because to them times past took place in the present, too" (p. 9). Rabbinic sages, therefore, transformed genres of Scripture into patterns that apply to the contemporary world as much as it applied to times past as well as to times yet to come. As a result, classical Midrash compilations turned Hebrew Scriptures into a theological system and structure for Israel's contemporary social order, which in turn dictates and defines the context in which Scripture is studied.

Chapter 2 introduces "An Overview of the Rabbinic Midrash-Compilations." Neusner presents three modes of writing with Scripture. First, there is verse-by-verse exegesis of a given scriptural book, with episodic compositions that set forth propositions as evidenced in Sifre Deuteronomy (ca. AD 200-300). Leviticus Rabbah (ca. AD 450) and Pesiqta deRab Kahan (ca. …