Midrash and the Exegetical Mind: Proceedings of the 2008 and 2009 SBL Midrash Sessions 9781611436839, 1611436834

Proceedings Of The 2008 And 2009 Sbl Midrash Sessions

197 86 1MB

English Pages [217] Year 2010

Report DMCA / Copyright


Polecaj historie

Midrash and the Exegetical Mind: Proceedings of the 2008 and 2009 SBL Midrash Sessions
 9781611436839, 1611436834

Table of contents :
Table of Contents
1. Rhapsody in Blue: The Origin of God’s Footstool in the Aramaic Targumim and Midrashic Tradition
2. Biblical Text in Rabbinic Context: The Book of Chronicles in the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash
3. Lessons for Historiographers: Managing the Dynamics of Indeterminacy in Song of Songs Rabbah
4. The Rabbinic Knife: Why and How the Rabbis castrated Noah
5. The Oral Orthography of Mishnaic and Toseftan Interpolation
6. Derashah as Performative Exegesis in Tosefta and Mishnah
7. Sarah Saw a Hunter: The Venatic Motif in genesis rabbah 53:11
8. Hyper-Sexualization in the bavli: An Initial Survey

Citation preview














TABLE OF CONTENTS Table of Contents ..................................................................................... 3 Introduction ............................................................................................... i 1 Rachel Adelman: Rhapsody in Blue: The Origin of God’s Footstool in the Aramaic Targumim and Midrashic Tradition ........................................................................................... 1 2 Isaac Kalimi: Biblical Text in Rabbinic Context: The Book of Chronicles in the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash ............... 21 3 Simon Lasair: Lessons for Historiographers: Managing the Dynamics of Indeterminacy in Song of Songs Rabbah........... 41 4 Erica L. Martin: The Rabbinic Knife: Why and How the Rabbis castrated Noah .................................................................. 67 5 W. David Nelson: The Oral Orthography of Mishnaic and Toseftan Interpolation .................................................................. 89 6 Nehemia Polen: Derashah as Performative Exegesis in Tosefta and Mishnah ..................................................................123 7 Jesse Rainbow: Sarah Saw a Hunter: The Venatic Motif in genesis rabbah 53:11........................................................................155 8 Ishay Rosen-Zvi: Hyper-Sexualization in the bavli: An Initial Survey.................................................................................181

INTRODUCTION This volume contains a selection of articles that are representative of the current state of midrash research. In the editors’ view, midrash is the particular mode of interpreting the Hebrew Bible that was developed by the rabbis of late antiquity in the Land of Israel. Midrash rendered Scripture relevant to the needs of a specific period in time. Definitions of midrash, the scope of midrashic activity, and its applicability to multiple interpretive strategies are widely disputed among scholars. This essay examines inner-Biblical interpretation, definitions of midrash, midrash scholarship, classifications of midrash, the boundaries of the genre midrash, midrasic exegesis and various theological assumptions of midrash. Two passages in the Hebrew Bible that contain the term ‘midrash’ have led to speculation that the Bible contained or utilized interpretations that are comparable to rabbinic midrash: ‘written in the midrash of the prophet Iddo’ (2 Chr. 13:22) and ‘written in the midrash of the Book of the Kings’ (2 Chr. 24:27). The term ‘midrash’ as utilized by the Chronicler refers to an extraBiblical source; however, we have no certainty what type of historical, interpretive source this may have been. InnerBiblical interpretation occurred and was carried out within the Biblical canon; these interpretations did become part of the Hebrew Scriptures in the form of comments, revisions, rewritings of the text from one textual genre (the law codes) into another genre (psalms or prophecies). The editors concur that there is no midrash within the Bible. Midrash is one of the ancient texts that demonstrate an interpretive relationship to the Hebrew Bible. One may note interpretive activity in the community at Qumran as well as the allegorical interpretation of the Bible by Philo of Alexandria. In particular, the genre of rewritten




Bible (e.g., the Genesis Apocryphon and the Temple Scroll in the Dead Sea Scrolls) has been compared to midrash. In this ‘parabiblical literature’ the line between Scripture and its interpretive reading is fluid and the heuristic construct of ‘commentary’ is needed to unite midrash and the rewritten Bible of the Dead Sea Scrolls under one canopy. The beginning of midrashic activity is marked by a shift from priestly to nonpriestly (i.e., rabbinic) authority. Further comparisons between pre-rabbinic and rabbinic interpretation, on the one hand, and between the so-called ‘tannaitic’ and ‘amoraic’ midrashim, on the other hand, have demonstrated how certain characteristic features of midrash developed at specific times and in specific contexts. For example, the term midrash rarely appears in the Mishnah; on the few occasions that the term appears it denotes a teaching. The problem of distinguishing between the meaning given to an ancient Hebrew term such as midrash and the meaning it may have had in other texts has not been fully explored. The term midrash that denotes the rabbinic method of Bible interpretation has its starting point in the canonical Biblical text, and the Bible is cited or alluded to in midrash; alternatively, midrash may refer to individual exegetical pericopae. Moreover, the term midrash also refers to the anthologies or works containing rabbinic exegetical statements. Thus, we find an ostensible midrash on a Biblical book, such as the midrashic compilation Genesis Rabbah, which is a work that contains a well-structured collection of exegetical rabbinic statements on lemmata from the Biblical book of Genesis. Furthermore, midrash may also be found in works of rabbinic literature that are not called midrash, notably the Targums, the Talmuds and medieval Bible commentaries. The term midrash denotes multiple phenomena; it may refer to the process of interpreting Scripture, the theology of its interpreters as well as the results of the interpretations. Most scholars concur that midrash consists of more than a random application of methods and the products of their application. Midrash is uniquely and distinctively rabbinic, finding its fullest expression in the interpretations collected in the classical midrashic works compiled by rabbis.



A major characteristic of midrash is lemmatization of the Biblical texts; rabbinic interpretation focused upon meaningful parts, such as a word, a letter, or any string of meaning within a verse. Whether the multiple meanings of a sign of Scripture are part of the indeterminacy of the text is a debatable proposition. Additional definitions of midrash resulted from (1) analyses of a specific rabbinic work, (2) specific periods or schools of rabbinic literature, as well as the culturally specific reading practices in the socio-historical context of the emergence of the rabbinic movement, (3) cultural intersections and polemics and (4) the utilization of midrashic strategies by non-rabbinic groups. (5) The definition of midrash has often focused upon the particularity of rabbinic hermeneutics. Nevertheless, midrash is also defined by theological viewpoint and its great creativity in approaching the Biblical text. This prompted us to explore the exegetical mind of the rabbis in the sessions of the Midrash Section of the Society of Biblical Literature and to publish the following chapters. Rachel Adelman focuses upon appearances of the color blue (Lapis Lazuli) and investigates the origin of God’s footstool by investigating the verse describing the theophany at the ratification of the Sinai covenant (Exod 24:10) which is one of the most astonishing and inexplicable verses in the Hebrew Bible. Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and the seventy of the elders of Israel ascended Mount Sinai, where they saw “the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of brick-work of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.” Isaac Kalimi investigates how the Rabbis handled the book of Chronicles. Among several matters he also shows that he Rabbis tried to reconcile the intermarriages mentioned in genealogical lists in Chronicles with the opposition against intermarriage stated in Ezra-Nehemiah. This is apparent because the baraita quoted in b. B. Bat. 15a and the Gemara following it attribute the composition of Chronicles to Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra composed at least some of the lists, including the intermarriages mentioned there, because those intermarriages were acceptable under certain conditions. Simon Lasair studies two passages from Song Rabbah (1:11 and 1:8) using a methodology based on an intersection of literary and political theory. The texts analyzed are sugges-



tive of some particular communal dynamics. But the tensions within the texts themselves do not give any clear indication as to which of these communal dynamics were actually manifested by the people and groups that produced and received them. To solve these problems, therefore, it is necessary to inquire after the meaning of indeterminacy, specifically how textual indeterminacy translates into social realities. Erica L. Martin focuses upon the episode of Noah’s drunkenness in Gen 9:20-25 which is notoriously elliptical; its obscurities generated a flood of exegetical activity, ancient and modern. Questions raised are more forthcoming than answers. 1. What occurred in Noah’s tent? 2. Was Ham or Canaan the transgressor? 3. Why was Canaan cursed? David Nelson states that the text of the Mek. RaShBY is best understood as a written embodiment and representation of the broad and diverse pedagogical and transmissional culture from which it stemmed, and within which it functioned. The diversity of the parallel interpolations of mishnaic and toseftan traditions in Mek. RaShBY Pishҕa is an overt manifestation, in written form, of the different methods of rabbinic transmission of tradition. Nehemia Polen investigates the practice of derashah in the early Rabbinic (tannaitic) period which did not involve the systematic application of hermeneutic rules. It was rather a mode of communion with God through sacred text. To be doresh is to enter into this state of communion. Derashah is a mode of engaging Scripture, of relating to its elements in new and revelatory ways. Derashah always happens in a social context, which includes those who are present and participating actively or passively with the darshan; the verses in play, the Torah herself; and the Divine author whose Presence hovers above the activity and peeks through the words. The process of derashah is ritualized and requires boundary formation and spatial definition. Jesse Rainbow states that in its emphasis on the motif of Ishmael as hunter, Genesis Rabbah 53:11 is informed by a larger typology of the rejected first-born son in Genesis, so that it aptly appeals to the stories of Joseph and Cain and Abel, where older sons “hunt” and abuse their younger brothers. Though he does not figure prominently in the midrash on Gen



21:9, Esau provides the clearest Biblical model of the rejected first-born as a hunter. Ishay Rosen-Zvi claims that Babylonian sources not only show a more complex, or even positive attitude toward sexuality, but multiply and increase sexuality itself. Peering at the world through sexual lenses, the Bavli sees sex all around it. Numerous statements, homilies, and narratives, all over the Bavli, tend to present their protagonists – Biblical heroes as well as sages – in a stark sexual manner, unparalleled in literature from the Land of Israel. We are grateful to the authors for their contributions to this volume. Lieve Teugels and Rivka Ulmer, fall 2010



This chapter focuses on three interpretative trends that address the vision at the ratification of the Sinai covenant. The Israelite leaders ascended Mount Sinai where they saw “the God of Israel: under his feet there was the likeness of brick-work of sapphire [lapis lazuli], like the very sky for purity” (Exod. 24:10). The Aramaic translations gloss over the implication that God can be seen; the leaders only see the “throne of Glory”. One midrashic tradition claims that what or how they saw was forbidden and the leaders were punished. Another links the vision to a horrific, yet pivotal moment in the Israelites’ oppression in Egypt.

PROLEGOMENON The verse describing the theophany at the ratification of the Sinai covenant (Exod 24:10) is one of the most astonishing and inexplicable verses in the Hebrew Bible. Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and the seventy of the elders of Israel ascended Mount Sinai, where they saw “the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of brick-work of sapphire, like the very sky for purity”




(Exod 24:10).1 On par with the vision of Isaiah, who saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, the skirts of His robe filling the temple (Isa 6:1), or Ezekiel’s vision of the Heavenly Chariot on the banks of the Chebar Canal (Ezek 1), the verse beckons interpretation.2 As Nahum Sarna points out, “The language is circumspect. There is no description of God Himself, only of the celestial setting beneath the visionary heavenly throne.”3 The verse only conveys what they saw under God’s feet, while He [God] did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank. (Exod 24:11, NJPS). Does this divine restraint, not “raising His hand against [them],” imply that there had been a transgression? How does the exegetical tradition circumnavigate the experience of direct sight and the anthropomorphism implied in the reference to God’s “feet”?4 In reflecting on the experience at Sinai, Moses claimed that the nation perceived “no form” and saw “no shape”, but only heard the voice of the Lord speaking out of the fire at Horeb (Deut 4:12, 15). In the scene following the prophet’s request for direct revelation after the Sin of the Golden Calf, God tells Moses: You cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live (Exod 1 All translations of primary texts are the author’s unless otherwise indicated. 2 In addition to Ezek 1:26; 10:1, 20, Ibn Ezra refers to 1 Kgs 22:19: “But Micaiah said, “I call upon you to hear the word of the Lord! I saw the Lord seated upon His throne, with all the host of heaven standing in attendance to the right and to the left of Him” (cf. 2 Chron 18:18, Ibn Ezra, Perush ha-’arokh on Exod 24:10). 3 Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus (Philadelphia: JPS 1991), 153. 4 Elliot Wolfson argues that the corporeal representation of God prevalent in kabbalistic sources is continuous with the biblical sources, using this text in particular as his springboard. See Elliot Wolfson, “Images of God’s Feet: Some Observations on the Divine Body in Judaism,” in People of the Body: Jews and Judaism from An Embodied Perspective (ed. Howard Eilberg-Schwartz; Albany: SUNY Press 1992), 143-81. I am less equivocal about the sources; it seems that the Aramaic Targum tradition strains at this understanding. Commenting on the disappearing act of God’s feet (in Pirqe R. El. 42), Wolfson suggests: “Although God’s presence is surely felt...the feet must nevertheless be hidden: at the point of divine disclosure something remains concealed” (ibid., 146). It is the elusive hide-and-seek at moments of revelation that most intrigue the rabbinic imagination, and exegetical expansions on this verse prove to be no exception.



33:20). To all prophets, God appears in visions, riddles or dreams, but to Moses alone He speaks mouth-to-mouth (Num 12:5-8). All of these instances suggest that God deliberately presents Himself in a non-visual mode, elusive of form and image. As George Steiner eloquently penned, the Israelite God is as “blank as the desert air…. The memory of His ultimatum, the presence of His Absence, have goaded Western man”5 ever since Sinai. These biblical verses in Exodus 24, in all their-concrete yet elusive lure, likewise goad the exegetical imagination. The Septuagint and the Aramaic Targum tradition tread with mincing steps, assiduously avoiding anthropomorphic language. Yet the ‘aggadah in the Babylonian Talmud and the later midrashic traditions (namely the Tanʚuma) suggest that, in feasting as they saw God (or feasting upon what they saw), the elders and Nadab and Abihu breached a boundary between earth and heaven on par with the sin of the Tower of Babel. So the vision was precisely what the text implies; they did see the semblance of God’s “body” (but let’s not suppose what we dare not suppose), and what they saw was absolutely forbidden! In this paper, I explore the narrow path the rabbinic tradition and Aramaic Targumim navigate between the claims for an apocalyptic vision and an outright rejection of such claims. There is, however, a third way that harmonizes the idea of a formless God, of-no-image and transcendent, with a direct experience, in this context, of the divine presence in history. Both Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer and the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan attach a narrative to the vision that entails neither exegetical prevarication nor an implied transgression, while suggesting a radically redemptive moment. How does this midrashic narrative “rescue” the biblical text from the charge of anthropomorphism, and salvage the God-ofno-form-and-of-no-image for an immanent engagement in the vicissitudes of history?


Let us begin with a close study of the biblical verses and their intertextual resonances. 5 George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press 1971), 39.


MIDRASH AND THE EXEGETICAL MIND Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; And they saw [K:’ –Q ™#] the God of Israel: And under His feet [#'+š ’:™ =%™ =™ ’#] there was the likeness of brickwork of sapphire [:'a– _™ !™ = ™1’ +– !g— 4” /™ V], ’ like the very sky for purity [:!œ™ &+š - –'/™ iš !™ -8˜ 4˜ )K]]. ’ Yet He did not raise His hand [ œ+ # š' %+™ f]] š against the leaders of Israel; they beheld [K$%“ ˜Q ™#] God, and they ate and drank (Exod 24:9-11, NJPS).

Two expression for seeing the deity are used in this passage -K:’ –Q ™# and K$%“ ˜Q ™# – both rendered by Tg. Onq. as “#$%#” [and they saw]. According to the Targum, the leaders had a distinct visual experience, but not of God’s “bodily” presence; rather the anthropomorphic expression “His feet” is understood to be a euphemism for the “the Throne of Glory” [!':9' '2:#)].6 Tg. Onq. is known for his close adherence to the plain sense of the biblical text, with the exception of direct anthropomorphic language. Any expressions in the Hebrew Bible that allude to God as having a physical form, such as “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” or “the finger of God” are usually subject to circumspection. The tannaitic literature, in fact, justifies this principle: too exact a translation would be considered badai [deception].7 A literal translation, in this case, is a kind of betrayal, as the Italian expression goes: “traduttore, traditore!” (the translator is a traitor). Ironically, divergence from a literal understanding when it comes to anthropomorphic language is considered to be a more faithful rendition of the biblical text. Onqelos then translates the complete verse as: “They saw the glory of the God of Israel. Under His Throne of Glory was the likeness of a good stone and like the appearance of the heaven for purity [ :9' =' #$%#

See the discussion in Avigdor Shinan, Mikr’a ‘ahad ve-targumim harbeh (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad 1993), 26-31. 7 This verse serves as the paradigmatic example in rabbinic discourse on anthropomorphic language. According to a teaching in the name of R. Yehuda, there are two types of inappropriate translation: one that is too literal – “ha-metargem pesuq ketzurato harei zeh badai”; and one that adds – “hamosif alav harei zeh megadef” (m. Qidd. 49a; t. Meg. 3 [4], 41). See the discussion in Shinan, ibid., 26-28, and Roger Le Deғaut, Introduction a̖ la litte̗rature targumique (Rome: Institut biblique pontifical 1966), 43. 6



'/< '$%/)# & 0 #3) !':9' '2:#) =#%=# +: