Biblical Criticism: Midrash and Medieval Commentary

From the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, edited by Michael Groden and Martin Kreisworth, 1994

Biblical Criticism: Midrash and Medieval Commentary

Tzvee Zahavy

The text of the Old Testament, known by the acronym Tanakh — i.e., Torah, Nevi`im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings) — for centuries has been subjected to critical scrutiny by Jewish scholars. Rabbinic authorities in late antiquity [called Tannaim and Amoraim] developed some of the best known and most influential forms of traditional interpretive theories of the text of the Bible. The contributions of these scholars has been preserved in numerous volumes of midrash compilations and in the Talmud (the definitive compilation of rabbinic laws, legends and interpretation from the first to sixth centuries).

During the middle ages Jewish scholars developed several types of biblical criticism. These derived from diverse sources: (1) the traditions of conventional rabbinic exegesis; (2) medieval mystical traditions within Judaism; (3) grammatical, syntactical and other critical advances of the middle ages. Many of the commentaries and expositions of that period are eclectic mixtures of these strands of interpretation.


The Hebrew word "midrash" means interpretation. It most commonly refers to (1) classic compilations of Bible interpretation in early rabbinism (first to sixth centuries C.E.), (2) some of the major interpretive styles associated with those compilations, and (3) some types of contemporary interpretations of texts (of Scripture or of fiction) that bear resemblances to the classic rabbinic modes.

Classical rabbinic midrash is a complex and diverse sort of writing compiled and written over a period that spans several centuries and fills many discrete volumes. Midrash most frequently takes the form of a commentary to biblical verses. There are brief narrative segments embedded in midrash compilations. But even the most casual reader of midrash knows that this form of textual expression bears little sustained resemblance to the genres of fiction and poetry common to western literature.

Midrash emphasizes national themes, dwells on religious themes and theological issues, and bears barely concealed political messages. In contrast to the biblical text it seeks to illuminate, one finds in it few of the major themes of literature and verse. As a theological genre, it is rarely interested in human stories of love or hate, war or peace, loyalty or duplicity, or in the personal struggles of individuals in a society of open choices. Nearly all the messages of rabbinic midrash are rigorously controlled within structured religious schemata. Consequently, scholars have yet to apply extensively the general methods of literary criticism to the corpus of midrash texts. More groundwork is now underway employing current literary theory to illuminate the meanings of midrash.

Some critics view the methods of midrash as an early process of deconstructing a text and apply the term to describe more recent techniques of interpretation. The fact that midrash traditions "do not seem to involve the privileged pairing of a signifier with a specific set of signifieds... has rendered midrash so fascinating to some recent literary critics (Boyarin viii)." Nevertheless contemporary theorists mold the term midrash according to their own needs and stop short of inquiring into its diverse implications in late antique rabbinism.

The privilege of rabbinic authority is central to the concept of midrash. Implied in the classical uses of the term is the notion that the results of interpretations of the sacred texts are themselves in some sense sacred. The early rabbis voiced this by suggesting that their writings constituted an oral Torah tradition that had been given to Moses at the revelation at Mount Sinai along with the text of the Israelite written Torah. The dual-Torah-idea signifies that the authority of the text and of the interpretation are correlative.

Many works of classical rabbinic exegesis share common strategies toward the texts of the Bible. Midrash tends to atomize a canonical text and to associate with each segment in order one or more interpretive remarks. These may be alternate or contradictory explanations, expansions or even entirely independent traditions.

In the early scholarship of the nineteenth century, authors tended to search for the specific unifying features of the genre "midrash." They frequently assumed that they could identify and distill the exact rules of midrash and thereby describe a unified paradigm of rabbinic interpretive principles. These efforts did not go far enough into defining the essence and function of Midrash. The features and rules they cataloged were in fact either too general to be meaningful or, in some cases, incorrect and misleading. The study of midrash improved and accelerated in the nineteen-eighties. Recent research in the field builds on novel and more modern paradigms of inquiry.

Accordingly it is useful to provide some examples to illustrate the progress in Midrash-scholarship. It was commonly asserted in earlier work that midrash falls into two content specific categories: halakhic (legal) and aggadic (homiletical). To be sure since many of the texts of Tanakh can be categorized as legal or nonlegal there appears to be some strong basis for this distinction. However the validity of this dichotomy derives from an allegorical-philosophical polemic frequently associated with Maimonides and his successors within medieval rabbinism (see below). By contrast, more modern approaches investigate the hermeneutical moves or motives of the various rabbinic compilers who used midrash-techniques in their compositions.

Scholarship earlier in this century frequently invoked the distinction between styles of exegesis: peshat, i.e., plain meaning, and derash, i.e., fanciful interpretation to define the nature of midrash and its later derivatives in medieval rabbinic Bible commentaries. This division was first articulated by the rabbis themselves. Of course many midrash-moves do fall into the categories of literal or imaginative. Nevertheless this differentiation confines the focus to the micro-exegetical-moves of the processes. Current research attempts to provide a more substantial window into the larger intent of exegete/compiler/author of midrash or of commentary.

Recent scholarship on the subject of midrash insists that because rabbinic Judaism was not a monolithic movement we ought not limit the academic exploration of Midrash to searching for independent principles of Jewish hermeneutics. Instead we now ought consider how each of its major works of interpretive textual study contributes its own substantive methods of text study. Each author or compiler, it is argued, responds in some way to his particular inner dynamic and to his social and historical circumstance.

Unfortunately, little is known of the lives of the authors and compilers of the midrash books. What can be retrieved inductively from the texts themselves demonstrates a diversity of both style and substance within the various works. The recent work of Jacob Neusner and his students embodies various productive functional approaches to text found in the classic midrash compilations. I summarize here a few of the basic points of Neusner's research into Midrash.

Neusner identifies three trends in classical rabbinic Bible interpretation: exegetical, propositional, and narrative. In the classic work Sifra, the Tannaitic midrash to Leviticus, and in Sifré to Numbers, Neusner finds the interpretation as a form of exegesis yielding propositions. The discourse of such texts is sustained by the anchoring of each of the brief excurses to a successive verse in the text of Torah.

The second form of midrash-interpretation starts with propositions and yields exegeses. From the texts of Genesis Rabbah, Leviticus Rabbah, and Pesiqta derab Kahana we can easily observe the "overriding themes and recurrent tensions that precipitated Bible interpretation among their authorships (Neusner viii)." The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan exemplifies a third trend, the narrative task of midrash that extends and rewrites the themes and stories of the canonical text.

The classic works of rabbinic midrash include the following. The Tannaitic Midrashim, those that cite the rabbis of the Mishnah, include Mekhilta Attributed to Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus 12:1-23:19, Sifra for Leviticus, Sifré to Numbers, Sifré to Deuteronomy. These are generally thought to have been completed by 400 C.E.. Mekhilta has been described as a scriptural encyclopedia joining together propositions engendered by the biblical text. By contrast, other early Midrash-compilations have been found to set forth an agendum of questions and proceed to answer them through its discourses.

Sifra sets its distinctive approach by adhering to a three pronged polemical inquiry. The compilers asserted that all taxonomy must derive from Scriptural classifications. They presented these discussions in a dialectical form of discourse. They also undertook to recast the rabbinic oral Torah in the context of the original written Torah. For this aim they utilized the citation-form of expression. They finally sought to revise the Torah itself and did so through their use of commentary-forms.

The earlier rabbah midrash compilations are thought to have been completed in the fourth and fifth centuries. Genesis Rabbah makes a coherent claim that the origins of the world and of the tribes of Israel reveal God's plan and portend for the future of Israel's salvation. Neusner argues that this midrash-book was issued as a response to historical trends, most likely to the conversion of Constantine and the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Accordingly narratives like that of Jacob's struggle with Esau are turned into accounts of the strife between Israel and Rome. Rabbinic commentators in this work use verses from the Torah to write about the history and destiny of Israel.

The later rabbah midrash compilations are said to derive from the sixth and seventh centuries. Ruth Rabbah makes clear through its comments that opposite entities may be united under God's will. The editors of this book dealt with the issues of Gentiles becoming Jews and the distinction between men and women. The proposition that from a Moabite woman comes the Israelite messiah is repeatedly conveyed by means of a symbolic vocabulary of verbal images embedded in the midrash-materials.

Song of Songs Rabbah understands the biblical text as a metaphor for the love of God for Israel. The compilation furnishes us with list-like comments that systematically connect the poetry of the Song with the symbols of rabbinism. Thus this work forms for us a discourse not of narrative or of polemics or propositions, but rather of the symbolism that defines the religion. These latter two compilations make crucial theological claims in the distinct rhetoric of the rabbis.

Mishnah and Talmud

The supposition that methods of midrash analysis are largely replicated in the Talmud of the Land of Israel and in the Babylonian Talmud has largely been refined or refuted. Neusner found that Mishnah rarely engages in scriptural exegesis. The Talmud of the Land of Israel does engage in scriptural investigation mainly assuming that Mishnah needs support for the purposes of its authority and scriptural basis for its norms. Thus this links oral and written Torah in accord with that the theological point of reference of the editors of that latter corpus. In contrast, extensive studies show that the Babylonian Talmud builds equally on the texts of the oral Torah, the Mishnah, and on verses of the written Torah, Scripture.

Medieval Bible Exegesis

Current scholarship argues that it is not sufficient to describe the growth of Bible criticism in the middle ages in terms of the clash between the literal and homiletical interpretations of Scripture. Rather, as is the case for earlier Midrash, it is more urgent to examine the materials in a broader cultural context. Hence we now seek to determine how medieval rabbis transformed and extended earlier rabbinic midrash into a commentary form of exegesis, how they melded it together with newer mystical speculations on the Torah, and how they integrated into their glosses and expositions the fruits of linguistic explorations and discoveries.

The pradigmatic master of medieval rabbinic commentary was Rashi (Rabbi Solomon b. Isaac, 1040-1105) a scholar from the north of France. While he is often credited with the move to "literal commentary" in medieval times, even a cursory study of his commentaries reveals how indebted he was to the rabbinic exegesis of the earlier classical compilations. With Rashi we witness the mature development of a new paradigm of interpretation. He delicately balances his interpretations between gloss and exposition. He picks at and edits the earlier midrash materials and weaves together with them into his commentary the results of new discoveries, such as philology and grammar. His main proposition is hardly radical within rabbinism. He accepts that there is one whole Torah of Moses consisting of the oral and written traditions and texts. In his commentaries he accomplished the nearly seamless integration of the basics of both bodies of tradition.

During the middle ages, especially in the tenth century, the new methods of the lower criticism of the Hebrew text make their way into medieval interpretation. These derived mainly from the authorities in Spain: Menahem b. Jacob ibn Saruq, Dunash b. Labrat, Judah b. Hayyuj, Jonah ibn Janah. The eclectic commentaries of Abraham Ibn Ezra (1090-1164) are sometimes depicted as indications of the beginnings of more independent and radical critical examinations of the canonical text. Ibn Ezra appears to move more freely away from the standard theological postulates of rabbinic interpretation and treat the text of the Torah as more of an independent entity. The so-called "synthetic commentaries" of David Kimhi (1160-1235) and Nahmanides (1195-1270) range farther from the received traditions of earlier midrash compilations. Nahmanides wrote a more expositional commentary and frequently interjected mystical references and allusions.

Alternatives in Jewish Bible interpretation

Some important Jewish interpretation did not adhere to or derive from the paradigmatic styles or agenda of midrash. The early Hellenistic allegory of Philo of Alexandria (born c. 10 B.C.E.), for instance, is seen by some as a precursor of rabbinic midrash that represents a distinctive Hellenistic Jewish cultural context dealing in its way with the same authoritative texts. Philo's allegory exemplifies the application of Hellenistic techniques to the Greek translation of the Torah. Another collection of exegetical texts, the Dead Sea Pesharim from Qumran (first century B.C.E.), contains examples of an apocalyptic Jewish group's interpretations of the Prophets out of their view of messianic eschatology. These materials are for the most part disjointed from prior and later Jewish bible interpretation.

A less radical disjuncture can be identified in medieval Jewish thought. Some leading medieval rationalists de-emphasized the fruits of the midrash and aggadah and lauded at its expense the processes of philosophical analysis. Maimonides' (1135-1204) philosophical allegory in the Guide for the Perplexed is seen by some critics as an illustration of the process of cloaking semi-esoteric philosophical precepts in an interpretive garb to be passed on to the newly initiated disciple. Some Maimonideans saw philosophy as inimical to the process of midrash.


Daniel Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, Bloomington, 1990

Roger Brooks, The Spirit of the Ten Commandments: shattering the myth of Rabbinic legalism, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990

Jose Faur, Golden Doves with Silver Dots: Semiotics and textuality in rabbinic tradition, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986

Michael Fishbane, Biblical interpretation in ancient Israel, Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Clarendon Press ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Moshe Greenberg, Parshanut ha-Mikra ha-yehudit : pirke mavo, Yerushalayim: Mosad Byalik, 1983

David Halivni, Peshat and Derash: Plain and applied meaning in Rabbinic exegesis, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991

B. Holtz (ed.), Back to the Sources: Reading Classical Jewish Texts, New York, 1984

James Kugel, In Potiphar's House: the interpretive life of biblical texts, San Francisco: Harper, 1990

J. Kugel and R. Greer, Early Biblical Interpretation, Philadelphia, 1986

Ezra Zion Melamed, Mefarshe ha-Mikra : darkehem ve-shitotehem, Jerusalem: Hotsaat sefarim al-shem Y. L. Magnes, ha-Universitah ha-Ivrit; Tel Aviv: ha-Mekhirah ha-rashit, Yavneh, 1975.

Jacob Neusner, The Midrash: An Introduction, Northvale: Aronson, 1990

Gary G. Porton, Understanding Rabbinic Midrash, New York, 1985

_____, "Midrash," Anchor Bible Dictionary, New York: Anchor Books, 1992, vol iv, pp. 818-822

David Stern, Parables in Midrash : narrative and exegesis in rabbinic literature, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

J. W. Rogerson and Werner G. Jeanrond, "Interpretation, history of," Anchor Bible Dictionary, New York: Anchor Books, 1992, vol. iii, pp. 424-443

M.H. Segal, Parsanut HaMiqra, Jerusalem, 1952

Burton L. Visotzky, "Hermeneutics, early rabbinic," Anchor Bible Dictionary, New York: Anchor Books, 1992, vol. ii, pp. 154-155

_____, Reading the Book : making the Bible a timeless text, New York: Anchor Books, 1991.