Midrash, Bible, and Women's Voices

By Rosen, Norma | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Midrash, Bible, and Women's Voices


Rosen, Norma, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


The storytelling aspect of midrash - charming or exasperating, stolidly obtuse or wonderfully insightful - is what we are concerned with here.

In the vast compilation of Bible commentary known as midrash, much of it embedded in Talmud, only one genre, aggadah, is concerned with storytelling. Another, halakhah, addresses scripture with an eye to its legal aspects. It is usual to make this distinction between the two. The Bible was concerned with setting forth an ethical basis for the life of the ancient Hebrews, backed by the force of halakhah, Jewish law. Yet it is not always possible or desirable to make a hard distinction between the halakhic aspect of midrash and aggadot, stories. Both shaped our Jewish sense of ourselves. It is important to see what moral and cultural lessons were taught by Bible stories and their commentaries. Many of the commentaries, particularly those expressing attitudes toward women, became the basis of tradition, carrying legal force. How do those meanings strike us now?

Moral truths - as embodied in the Ten Commandments, for example are eternal. But we have only to read the midrashic scholars to see (if we weren't convinced of it already) how great an effort every generation must make to give morality the necessary irresistible force of revelation, if it is to be a living source of ethical energy and not merely a curiosity of ancient times.

The midrashists - the word midrash comes from the Hebrew lidrosh, to search, to ask, to explain, to draw out, to enlarge upon - seized upon improbabilities, gaps. These spaces lying open in the text set the scholars to dreaming, to imagining answers to their own questions. Often, the ancient commentators invented whole new tales that not only explained but extended biblical narratives.

Midrash that specifically addresses the stories of the Bible - aggadot - does so in various ways. It may use analysis, logical deduction, proofs by comparison, or "prooftexts," passages culled from other texts and interwoven with the passage under study. And often it adds more story to the story. These added-on stories were sometimes invented by scholars in the heat of discussion, sometimes gleaned from legends and embellished with more comment.

Eric Auerbach's Mimesis notes that the Hebrew Bible in its terseness expresses moral teaching above all, in contrast to Homer's storytelling mode in The Odyssey, where details abound and aesthetics predominate over ethics. The Bible offers a detail-less simplicity and almost unbearable tension. This is how Auerbach describes the Akedalz, the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham: "Serving-men, ass, wood, and knife, and nothing else, without an epithet; they are there to serve the end which God has commanded."

For Rebekah, the well; for Isaac, the binding. She was generous and life-giving, he was nearly sacrificed. That is all the background the Bible accords this bride and groom, progenitors of biblical Jews, mother and father to our sacral selves.

It may be because Bible stories are as terse and as given to moral teaching as Auerbach describes that midrash was born. Some traditional midrashim that comment on Bible stories with these narratives, aggadot, elaborate on the stories with an interweaving of astonishing detail.

What is equally astonishing is that these midrashim do not always appear to express moral teaching. Or if they do, not in a way easily come upon. Sometimes detail reinforces the original intention of the Bible story. At other times it pulls the story in some other direction. The results can be seemingly absurd and gratuitous linkings, or marvels of insight.

The medieval Jewish poet Samuel ha-Nagid said, "Each one explained the verse according to his fancy and according to what came into his mind." All the same, says another source, "If you wish to get to know the One by whose word the world came into being - study the aggadah."

To which I add the question, if you not only study the aggadah but write some midrash yourself - what then? …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Midrash, Bible, and Women's Voices
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.