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? …