Thursday, October 27, 2005

Bereshit (Midrash)

Introduction to Series on Midrash

Having completed two years of Hitzei Yehonatan, I would like to begin with praise and thanksgiving to the Holy One blessed be He for having kept me alive and well and filled with energy and a mind filled with new ideas—blessings that we usually take for granted, but that are in fact never self-evident. Second, thanks to my readers, for their interest and receptiveness to my variegated musings, as well as for the occasional but invaluable comments, feedback, arguments and criticism. Thanks, finally, to my beloved wife Randy, for her support, encouragement, and for just being there for me.

After devoting two years mostly to peshuto shel Mikra—to delving into the direct, literal, immediate meaning of the biblical text, searching out its overarching structures and implicit assumptions, and trying to analyze the points of confrontation between its values and those of our own day: the first year devoted to reflections on the weekly Torah lesson, or parashat hashavu’a, and the second to the oft-neglected haftarot—I would like this year to turn to the Oral Torah, as it elaborates and interprets the Written Torah. I have decided to focus upon the world of midrash, which elaborates, enlarges, deepens, and enriches the seemingly sparse but infinitely suggestive world of the written word. During the course of the coming year, I plan to present each week a translation, glosses and discussions of at least one piska (section) of the Midrash Rabbah—the “great Midrash,” the collection of five midrashim on each of the five books of the Torah and on each of the five megillot—on the weekly portion.

In addition, I will continue on occasion to present various other materials. At various times I have mentioned here my wish to present some commentaries and reflections on the Siddur, the traditional Prayer Book: the recent Yahrzeit Shiur in memory of my father on the subject of Pesukei de-Zimra was a hopeful start in that direction. I likewise hope in due time to return to my commentary on Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance), a project begun before Rosh Hashana. In addition, there are several essays in the works: the long-promised sequel to the theological essay begun on Shavuot, as well as the third part of my “Kuntres Semikhat Nashim,” my study on the possibility of ordination of women to the Orthodox Rabbinate. With God’s help, I hope to present all these to the readers of Hitzei Yehonatan III one fine day.

I also hope that the material from the first two years will be available on a website in the very near future, both for those who wish to reread them and for newcomers who have never seen them. In the meantime, the material on “Bereshit” is being sent out to those who joined the list since this time last year (or by request to others); in the long run, I also hope to reorganize and edit this material in book form, with the aim of eventual publication.

On the Style of the Midrash

Two introductory remarks. At first blush the world of the midrash seems one of pure imagination, consisting either of stories elaborating the rather spare language of the biblical text, or of fanciful homilies, applying phrases from the individual verses in outrageously non-literal ways. However, as Rav Adin Steinsaltz has recently noted in his Strive for Spirit, it is the nature of Judaism to utilize concrete images to convey complex, abstract ideas. Although Steinsaltz spoke there primarily of Kabbalistic concepts and Talmudic legal categories, the same may be said equally well of the midrash. Often, profound ideas, which in Western culture would be expressed in the language of abstract concepts, are expressed in Judaic texts in concrete, seemingly naive symbols. But this is not the result of lack of sophistication, but rather of the use of a different type of language and, if you like, a sign of the difference between Hebraic and Greek modes of thought. As most of us are nevertheless, for better or worse, children of Western European culture, part of the task of interpreting midrash will involve translation of these concrete images into a language more familiar to us. Second, an important stylistic feature, that appears on nearly every page of the Midrash. A large number of midrashim, particularly the longer ones, begin with a verse from the Writings—from Psalms, Job, Proverbs, or Kohelet—or, on occasion, from the prophetic books, which is then subject to a series of different interpretations by various sages. At times, one is hard put to find the connection between such a midrash and the weekly Torah portion in whose rubric it is included; at times, only the last in a series of three or four such derashot returns us to the original verse from the Torah portion. This formula is known as a petihta: an opening.

Underlying this technique is Hazal’s basic belief in the underlying unity and interrelationship of all the books of the Bible. The Jerusalem Talmud relates that Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua once sat and expounded words of Torah with great intensity, “connecting words of Torah to the Prophets, words of the Prophets to the Writings, and the words [of Scripture] rejoiced as on the day they were given at Sinai.” It adds that they were surrounded by a heavenly fire, for “were not the things given in fire?” (quoted by Tosafot to Hagiggah 15a, s.v. Shuvu banim shovavim)

What is Man?

I would like to begin this year’s studies with Genesis Rabbah 8.1, a section that may best be described as a series of reflections on the nature of the human being. It is unfortunate that Shabbat Bereshit falls so closely upon the heels of Simhat Torah, without even allowing a full week to study this initial portion of the Torah, so rich in material, both midrashic and otherwise. In contemporary terminology, these chapters would be described as providing the fundaments of Judaism: its cosmology (Gen 1 & 2), philosophical anthropology (the story of Adam and Eve in Gen Chs. 2 &3), and ethical philosophy (the story of the snake; Cain and Abel). And indeed, the midrash on the parsha reflects the centrality of this parsha: with the possible exception of Parshat Naso, this is the largest, most extensive parsha in the midrash, and the only one in Mirkin’s 11-volume set that itself occupies an entire volume. We shall now turn to the text of this midrash:

“And God said, let us make man in our image, in our likeness” [Gen 1:26]. Rabbi Yohanan opened: “Aft and fore You have shaped me, and placed your hand upon me” (Ps 139:5).

Psalm 139, an extremely interesting psalm in its own right, being a meditation on God’s omnipresence and ubiquity as experienced by the individual in every aspect of his personal life, and the impossibility of fleeing or escaping from Him. Verse 5, quoted above (ahor va-kedem tzartani), serves as the petihta for a series of ten homilies by different sages. The underlying theme of them all is the paradoxical nature or antinomies of human existence (the polar opposites implied by “aft and fore”) on various different levels. It is interesting that the word tzartani, understood by all these midrashim as “you have shaped me,” in the original context probably means “to beset,” “to beseige” or “to hedge in”—both verbs being cognates from the root zw”r. This is the first of many examples we shall encounter in which the midrash allows itself great poetic license—or shall we call it “midrashic license”—in using its biblical sources.

[1] Rabbi Yohanan said: If a person is deserving, he enjoys two worlds, as is said, “you have formed me aft and fore,” but if not, he is held to a reckoning, as is said, “and you placed upon me your hand.”

We find here the basic idea of human accountability, coupled with the surety of Divine judgment and recompense. The diametrically opposed possibilities reflect the contradictory nature of man’s moral character, with potential for both good and evil.

[2] Rabbi Yermiyah ben Eleazar said: When God created Adam, He created him as an androgynous being, as is written, “And he created them male and female… and called their name Adam” [Gen 5:1].
[3] Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman said: When God created Adam, He created him diprosiphon, with two faces, and He sawed him in half and made him with two backs: one back this way, one back that way. They answered him: But is it not written, “he took one of his ribs [ahat mi-zalotav]…” [Gen 2:21]. He answered them: [this refers to one] of his two sides, as in the phrase, “and for the [northern] side of the sanctuary…” [Exodus 26:20], which the Aramaic translation reads as, velistar mishkena.

These two units deal with the mystery of sexuality, and the great antimony within the human race resulting from the existence of two sexes. On the immediate textual level, these exegetes need to explain the mechanics of fitting their interpretation into the biblical text. Rabbi Yermiyah arrives at his androgynous “Ur-human” by noting that the original male and female were called “Adam,” in the singular; R. Shmuel bar Nahman interprets the word in Gen 2:21, usually explained as “rib,” as being a “side.”; hence, rather than the creation of woman as a secondary, derivative being from one organ of the originally male Adam, we find an equal division of a Janus-like, bisexual being.

What is the outlook on sexuality, on the division of humankind into two very distinct groupings, expressed by each of these midrashim? The first view, which speaks of the primal man as being androgynous, may suggest the intermingling of the two sexes within the human soul (à la Jung?): each man contains something of the feminine within himself, as each woman contains something of the masculine. This view would tend to deemphasize the differences between the sexes, as each person has within him/herself the basic makeup of “human being.” This approach doesn’t explain how the sexes came to be divided, taking that as axiomatic, but seems to assume a basic unity; one might extrapolate from this something like the modern egalitarian, emphasizing more fellowship and camraderie between the sexes, and less pre-determined roles. The second view, in which the original human was diprosiphon or, in the Hebrew form of this Greek word, du-partsufin, having two faces, and was subsequently split in two, the separate creation of the two sexes, and the idea of the polarity between the two, carries greater metaphysical weight.

Interestingly, this debate is echoed in a halakhic discussion. The Talmud, in b. Ketubot 8a, mentions variant customs, in which there were other five or six wedding benedictions (i.e., six or seven, including the blessing over wine). The crux of the issue is whether there was only “one creation” of both, so that the blessing “He who created man in His image… and made from him an eternal building,” is adequate, or whether God first created man, necessitating a separate blessing, Yotzer ha-Adam, “He who creates man,” and thereafter created woman separately.

[4] Rabbi Tanhuma in the name of Rabbi Benayahu and Rabbi Berekhyah in the name of Rabbi Eleazar said: He was created as lifeless matter, and was thrust down from one end of the world to the other, as is written: “my form was seen by Your eyes” [Ps 139:16].

This section notes that man was first created as inert matter, possibly to reassert the basic antinomy in man between matter and spirit: that the human body, before being animated by the Divine spirit that is “breathed” into it, is just so much raw material.

[5] R. Yehoshua bar Nehemiah and Rabbi Yehudah bar Simon said: He created him to fill the entire world. From east to west from whence: “aft and fore you have formed me”; from north to south from whence, as said “and from the end of the heavens to the end of the heavens” [Deut 4:32]. And from whence that even in the hollow of the world? As is said, “and You placed Your hand upon me”; as is said, “Keep Your hand far away from me” [Job 13:21].

This derasha suggests an almost Promethean motif: of man as a superhuman, preternaturally large being, dominating the entire world, possibly even representing a challenge to God’s hegemony. Although this motif is couched in physical terms, of Adam’s body extending everywhere, it may be read as a metaphor for the unique qualities of the human race, and the ability of civilization to develop techniques that do in fact subdue and dominate almost all aspects of the natural world—a fact whose darker side we have just begun to realize in the last century. The ability of human beings to live almost anywhere on the globe, unlike other species, each of which has its specific “natural” habitat, is a concrete manifestation of this quality. The final phrase, in which God places his hand’ upon man, according to some (Mirkin, citing b. Sanhedrin 38b) suggests God diminishing the stature of man.

[6] Rabbi Eleazar said: “after” the creations of the first day, and “before” the creation of the final day. And this is the opinion of Rabbi Eleazar, for R. Eleazar said: “let the earth bring forth a living spirit” [Gen 1:24] —this is the spirit of Adam.
[7] Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish aid: “After” the acts of the last day, and “before” the acts of the first day. This is the view of Resh Lakish. For he said, “and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water” (Gen 1:2). This refers to the spirit of King Messiah, as is said, “and there shall rest upon him the spirit of the Lord” [Isa 11:2] If man is deserving, they say to him: you preceded the ministering angels. And if not, they say to him: A fly precedes you, a mosquito precedes you, a gnat precedes you.

These two sections reflect the ambiguity of humankind’s position in the moral order of the universe, again alluded to in the Creation text. On the one hand, humanity is seen as the telos of the entire cosmos, with even the eschatological plan for Messiah woven into the predetermined fabric of creation; history, including its end, is seen as already planned in Six Days of Creation, indeed, at their very beginning. On the other hand, man’s actual creation was postponed to the very end, suggesting on the one hand that he is the “jewel in the crown” of creation but, on the other, if he fails in his task, he is seen as the least significant of all creatures. Once again, we find the motif of man’s free will and his choice as to whether or not to choose the good, and the resultant moral extremes that mark his behavior; he is capable of great good, and of equally great evil.

[8] Rav Nahman said: “After” all actions, and “before” all punishments.

The same idea is continued here, this time in relation to man’s greater responsibility, hence his being subject to punishment and sanctions before all other living things.

[9] Rav Shmuel said: Even in the praises he only comes at the end, as is written: “Praise the Lord from the heavens” [Ps 148:1], and he recites the entire chapter, and thereafter it says, “Kings of the earth and all nations… young men and maidens…” {ibid. vv. 11-12]
[10] Rav Simlai said: Just as his praise only comes after animal, beast and bird, so is his creation: it only occur after animal, beast, and bird. Why? It says: “And God said, Let the water crawl with living things” [Gen 1:20] and thereafter “and God said, let the earth bring forth a living spirit” [v. 24] and only thereafter, “and God said, Let us make man.” [v. 26].


Blogger David Lee said...

I enjoyed reading this portion of your blog. I have come to the conclusion that Yeshua is Messiah and I try to abide in Him and yet I am sad to say that the scholarly work in the so called "Christian community" is at it's worst. I have started spending much more time learning about the "Hebrew mind" and writing style and I pray to the one and only God that you will continue to feel inspired to glorify His name in your work. Thank you for your recent work and Peace be upon you through His Love. or

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