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Midrash (מדרש; plural midrashim) is a Hebrew word referring to the exposition, or exegesis, of a biblical text. The term can also refer to a specific compilation of midrashic teachings.
The two basic types of midrash are known as Midrash Aggadah, regarding the ethical or spiritual exposition of a text, and Midrash Halakhah, referring to the exegesis of biblically-related Jewish law. Jewish tradition allows a broad range of midrashic opinion, and interpretation from an aggadic point involves a greater freedom of speculation than expositions aimed at determining of legal maxims.
Midrashic material is now known to have been set to writing as early as the first century B.C.E., having been discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, written collections of rabbinical midrash first began to emerge in the late second century C.E. Since then, a vast corpus of midrash has been preserved, covering virtually every subject, from the creation of the world to the coming of the Messiah.
In midrashic tradition, many different exegetical methods are employed to derive deeper meaning from a text. Traditionally, 13 textual tools are attributed to the early sage Rabbi Ishmael, which are used in the interpretation of Halakha (Jewish law). However, aggadic (non-legal) midrash is not limited to these. Indeed, a wide range of speculation and interpretive freedom is evident in the midrashic tradition.
In many cases, a midrashic passage is expanded manifold: Handfuls of lines in the biblical narrative may become long philosophical discussions, with the opinions of various rabbis juxtaposed to one another. Midrashic tradition sometimes presents these opinions as actual dialogs that took place in early rabbinical academies or courts, but many such "discussions" are clearly the creation of later redactors.
Some midrashic passages contain fantastic legends about previous rabbis or biblical figures. Some passages reach the heights of mystical ecstasy and theological speculation, while others concern the minutiae of everyday life, fine legal distinctions, and arguments about the proper interpretation of various certain biblical statements.
Beyond the basic division of halakhic and aggadic forms, midrashic tradition may be further divided into four interpretive categories: Peshat (simple meaning), remez (hints, clues), derash (interpretation), and sod (mystical or "secret").
Collections of midrashim (the plural form of midrash) often contain two or more rabbinical opinions on the same subject, sometimes diametrically opposed to one another. For example, a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud preserves a midrashic debate over the question of what is the most important verse in the Torah:
Rabbi Akiva said: "'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' This is a great principle of the Torah." Ben Azzai disagreed: "The verse 'This is the book of the descendants of Adam… the human whom God made in God's likeness' (Genesis 5:1) utters a principle even greater" (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4, 41c).
Both halakhic and aggadic midrashim were at first preserved only orally. The written compilation of rabbinical midrashic tradition commenced in the second century C.E.
Halakhic midrashim were first collected in the Mishnah, traditionally ascribed to Rabbi Judah haNasi in the late second century. Here, biblical verses function as a proof-text of a law's authenticity. However, many such rabbinical laws have no direct biblical source, but are believed to be part of the Oral Law revealed to Moses at Sinai simultaneously with the written Torah. The Mishnah itself does not generally cite a scriptural basis for its laws, but bases them on the opinions or the early rabbinical sages known as the Tannaim. However, later rabbinical tradition in the Talmud and other halakhic texts often connects Mishnaic law with the scriptures through the tradition of midrash.
The non-legal midrashim are also referred to as aggadah or haggadah, a loosely-defined term describing any non-halakhic discourse in classical rabbinic literature. Aggadic exegesis involves a much greater freedom of exposition than its legal counterpart, often including highly speculative and legendary material. All kinds of biblical subjects are covered in aggadic midrash, such as the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, angels, demons, paradise, hell, the Messiah, Satan, feasts and fasts, parables, legends, miracles, and satirical assaults on those who practiced idolatry.
The following is a typical example of a midrashic interpretation:
"And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day." (Genesis 1:31)—Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Samuel's name: "'Behold, it was good' refers to the inclination to good; and 'Behold, it was very good' refers to the inclination to evil. Can then the inclination to evil be 'very good?' That would be extraordinary! But without the inclination to evil, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children." (Genesis Rabbah 9).
This, of course, is not the final midrashic word on the subject. Genesis Rabbah earlier provided a halakhic midrash which seems to place Rabbi Samuel's speculation out of bounds: "'Ask now of the days that are past which were before thee, since the day God created man upon earth' (Deut. 4:2). Thus, the scope of inquiry is limited to the time since the Creation (of man)" (Gen. Rabba 1). Moreover, while Rabbi Samuel calls the the tendency to evil (yetzer harah) "very good," other rabbis claimed that it was among the four things which God regretted having having created (Suk. 52a, b) and identify it with Satan (B. B. 16a).
Widely studied are these great midrashic commentaries on the various different books of the Bible. The Midraish Rabbah is not a cohesive work, but a collection from different authors, in various locales, in different historical eras.
The tradition of midrash is by no means limited to the above collections. For example, the Talmud contains many midrashic passages, not all of which are specifically halakhic. The vast literature of later rabbinical commentaries is replete with midrashim on every variety of biblical subject. Indeed, any rabbinical (or even non-rabbinical) exegesis of a biblical text may be said to be a midrash, and the term can even be applied to non-Jewish interpretations of a text from the Hebrew Bible.
In Christian tradition, Saint Paul frequently engaged in midrashic argument in his letters by justifying his views with the words "as it is written," followed by a verse of Jewish scripture (Romans 9:13, Romans 11:26, 1 Corinthians 1:19, and so forth). Jesus engaged in a halakhic midrashic exercise in his famous Sermon on the Mount when he said, for example: "It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery." (Mt. 5:31-32) Later and contemporary Christian commentators on Old Testament texts may also be said to be engaging in a "Christian midrash." For example, the traditional Christian midrash on Isaiah 53 interprets the Suffering Servant as Jesus, while the Jewish midrash of the same chapter sees the servant as Israel.
A wealth of literature and artwork has been created in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by people aspiring to create "Contemporary Midrash." Forms include poetry, prose, bibliodrama (the acting out of Bible stories), murals, masks, and music.
All links retrieved October 27, 2014.
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