By Sala Levin
You may know the story: Abraham, in an effort to convince his father, Terach, that idol worship is wrong, takes a hammer and smashes the idols that his father sells. He leaves the hammer in the hand of the largest idol and tells his father that it destroyed the others in a fight. When Terach says that idols don’t have that kind of power, Abraham asks him why, in that case, he would worship them.
The story is so famous that many believe it comes from the Torah. But it doesn’t. It was written by rabbis to illustrate the depth of Abraham’s conviction that idol worship was wrong. It is what’s called midrash.
Derived from the Hebrew root daled, resh, shin, or drash, meaning “to seek” or “to inquire,” the word “midrash” appears only twice in the Bible but is central to rabbinic thought. By some definitions, midrash is the process of interpretation early rabbis used to explain moments of discrepancy or confusion within a text. David Stern, professor of classical Hebrew literature at the University of Pennsylvania, says that midrash is how rabbis between the 3rd and 6th centuries “studied the Bible, period.” But it’s more complicated than that. Midrash can also be understood as the product of that biblical study. James Kugel, director of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible at Bar-Ilan University, writes in his essay “Two Introductions to Midrash” that “the word has been used to designate both the activity of interpretation and the fruits of that activity.”
Those fruits are typically divided into two categories. One is halachic midrash, which seeks to answer legal questions by suggesting alternative reasoning to the biblical text—the biblical dictate “eye for an eye,” for example, is interpreted
midrashically to mean monetary, not bodily, payment. The other category is aggadah, translated as “legends,” which are narrative tales, such as the one about Abraham and the idols—imaginative attempts to understand biblical stories. Midrash could explore the difference between two versions of a story or the psychological motivations behind the all-too-human behavior of the forefathers and mothers.
Originally an oral tradition, explanatory stories abound in Judaism. Midrashim—the plural of midrash—were gathered into compilations, likely between the 4th and 9th centuries. Dating the compilations precisely is nearly impossible, says Stern. “The original editors don’t leave any indications of when these texts were edited. They refer to Mohammed and his 70 wives, so you know that at least that part of the document dates from after the rise of Islam.”
The question of whether midrashim were meant to be understood literally or as parables divided rabbinic sages. Some midrashim are quite fantastical, such as one that suggests that the arm of Pharaoh’s daughter stretched to 25 feet in order to reach baby Moses on the Nile. “Very early on in the rabbinic period,” says Stern, “there’s a kind of rivalry between different sources of authority in rabbinic tradition, and in order to bolster their own claims of authority, some rabbinic groups disparage midrash as flamboyant baseless interpretations of the Bible that don’t have to be taken too seriously.” The 12th-century rabbinic giant Maimonides, a proponent of an allegorical reading of midrash, disagreed. He maintained that they were not meant to be taken at face value but were, instead, meant to get at ideas below the surface.
After the rabbinic era passed, new midrashim were composed less frequently—that is, until the mid-20th century, when modern scribes adapted the tradition. In the 1970s, aggadah was claimed particularly by feminists, eager to fill in what they perceived as gaps in the ancient texts—places where the stories of biblical women were ignored or the voices of women were muffled by the hegemony of male discourse, where misogynistic viewpoints of women reigned. The story of Lilith, for example, was a rabbinic riff to explain the disparity in creation stories in Genesis. In the first story, in chapter one of Genesis, God “created Man in His image, in the image of God. He created him; male and female He created them.” Later, in chapter two, a different version appears: In it, God sees that man should not be alone, that he would benefit from a helper. He casts Adam into a deep sleep and creates Eve from the flesh of Adam’s side.
Rabbis, looking at the differences between the versions, theorized that the woman in the first story was not Eve, but feisty, independent-minded Lilith. Some midrashic texts say that Lilith merely refused to be Adam’s helpmate, but the circa-11th-century collection of midrashic literature known as the Alphabet of Ben Sira maintains that she refused to lie underneath Adam during intercourse. Either way, Lilith, angry at the prospect of being submissive to Adam, invoked God’s name and flew into the air, away from the Garden of Eden. Settling in the Red Sea region, she became a demon of sorts, killing newborns who weren’t wearing an amulet. In 1972, feminist theologian Judith Plaskow created a new midrash called “The Coming of Lilith,” which re-imagined Lilith as a woman unwilling to be a man’s servant and, instead of a witchy woman, cast her as a lonely soul, desperate for kinship and finally finding some with Eve—a reinvention that celebrated the bonds of female relationships.
Another biblical story inspired Anita Diamant to write her blockbuster 1997 novel, The Red Tent. The novel focused on Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, who, according to Genesis, was “defiled” by the prince of Schechem; in return, Dinah’s brothers slew the city’s men. In Diamant’s re-interpretation, though, Dinah was in love with the prince—their coupling was not a crime but instead, an act of love. Readers and critics were eager to brand the novel as midrash, although Diamant demurred. “I never described it as midrash,” she says. “People read it that way, but I was writing historical fiction.”
The line between midrash and fiction may be an ambiguous one. Perhaps the rabbis who wrote midrashim could be considered the first Jewish fiction writers, using stories to better understand their world and morality. Says Diamant, “The Red Tent owes a lot to the idea that we can and should turn sacred text on its head if that’s what we need to do to make sense of it; that’s what midrash is.”