Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Response to Rob Bowman: Midrash

Evangelical writer Rob Bowman recently wrote a post on the Parchment and Pen blog which I feel is worth responding to.
The piece is entitled "Did Joseph Smith Restore Theosis? Part Four: Esoteric Jewish Theology and Joseph Smith’s Doctrine of Exaltation."[1] It is itself a response to a short article by Daniel Peterson in the Desert News[2].
I do find the accusations in the article of misrepresentation unfortunate, but I am not going to deal directly with them here. Rob is intelligent and usually very reasonable, not to mention civil. I want to deal with the substance of his arguments rather than fling mud back and forth.
Before commencing my response I would state that, whatever my personal convictions, I am not making a case for theosis in the modern LDS understanding of it. Such really is beyond the scope of this post. In other words, it isn't necessary to believe in the LDS concept of deification in order to appreciate the criticisms I raise.
A bit of background on who I am. My name is Allen Hansen, and despite the American-sounding name (my Hebrew one is different), I was born and raised in Israel, and have Jewish heritage. I am also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I don't have a formal degree, but I do spend quite a bit of time with Jewish history, both primary and secondary sources, but enough about me.
One of the Rob Bowman's main arguments is outlined as follows.
So, just what text is this? The title is worded somewhat differently from one reference to another, but the Hebrew title is ’Otiyot De’Rabbi ‘Akiva’. In English it would be something like The Alphabet of Rabbi Akiba. (The Hebrew Aleph Bet and the Greek Alpha Beta are equivalent references to the first two letters of the alphabet, and similar in meaning to our idiom “the ABCs.”) This sounds like an impressive text; after all, Akiba, or more properly ‘Aqiva’, was one of the “founding fathers” of rabbinical Judaism, a noted and highly respected rabbi who lived through both of the Jewish-Roman wars of AD 66-73 and 132-35. If the quotation came from Aqiva, as Bickmore implies (without directly making that claim), that would be impressive indeed! Peterson’s description of this source as “an early Jewish midrash” implies that it originates from the same era of history as Aqiva. But does it?
We'll start this off by looking at how Rob Bowman identifies midrash (pl. midrashim).
The term midrash generally refers to a body of Jewish exposition of the Torah that began to be compiled in the second century AD, much of which eventually led to the publication of the Talmud (in two major compilations, ca. 400 and ca. 500). The term also refers to a sizable body of post-Talmudic literature. However, when Peterson refers to the source of his quotation as “an early Jewish midrash,” the use of the term “early,” especially in the context of his argument for the doctrine in question as “ancient,” clearly implies that the text is pre-Talmudic.[3]

For Rob Bowman the main definition of midrash is a specific body of Jewish expository literature spanning the second to fifth centuries CE, with a secondary meaning of a body of post-talmudic literature.
Not only is his definition idiosyncratic it is also misleading.
Reuven Hammer explains a little better what a midrash is.
What exactly is "midrash?" Midrash is both a process and a product.
It is a method of study and interpretation of the Bible and it is the name given to the literary works that emerge from that study. A midrash is both the individual interpretive comment to a work or a verse and also the book into which these individual pericopes have been incorporated.[4]
Midrash primarily refers to a method of scriptural exposition and interpretation rather than collections of it. The latter is clearly a secondary, albeit important usage.
Would midrash generally reffer to a collection of midrash rather than the process of midrash itself? The container rather than the content?
That hardly seems a reasonable position, especially when a good number of midrashim are found in non-midrashic works, such as the Palestinian (or Yerushalmi) and Babylonian Talmuds.
This is somewhat akin to stating that fable generally reffers to literary collections such as Aesop's, La Fontaine's and Krylov's rather than to a literary genre.
It can refer to such, to be sure, but again, it is a secondary meaning not a primary one.
Bowman's definition would be more relevant if we were speaking of the body of works known as halakhic midrashim. What Hammer terms classic midrash. The extant halakhic midrashim consist of the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimeon bar-Yohai (or a good deal of it), Sifra, Sifrei Numbers, and Sifrei Deuteronomy. In addition, there are fragments and portions of lost halakhic midrashim. These are Mekhilta Deuteronomy, Sifrei Zuta Numbers and Sifrei Zuta Deuteronomy.
Eight works in all.[5]
It is a different matter when we come to the body of works known as aggadic midrashim.
The terms halakhah and aggadah require some explanation before proceeding further.
Halakhah is how Jews are meant to live the 613 positive and negative commandments which make up the Law of Moses, or Torah. Halakhah is the practical application of the Torah. For example, the Torah states that every seventh year is to be a sabbatical for the land, and no agricultural work should be done. Halakhah details just how this is to be done- what constitues agricultural work, how are you affected if you work but don't have a field, and so on. Another example would be the biblical prohibition on boiling a kid in its mother's milk. This was expanded to prohibit consumption of all dairy and meat products together, and how long of a wait there should be between eating them.
Halakhah is considered binding, even though many groups differ in the details of a specific halakhah.
Aggadah, on the other hand, is everything not covered by halakhah.
In Midrash Numbers Rabbah 13:15 it is stated that the Torah has seventy faces, or as we might put it, seventy aspects. The number seventy in rabbinic though expressed a totality rather than merely a specific ammount. Thus, Torah covered all aspects of life, past, present and future. Midrash keeps the Torah a living law, relevant for each age. Judah Goldin, one of the great midrashic scholars of our age, had the following to say.
Authority [of the sages] protected exegesis from many possibilities of arbitrariness; but by the same token, so long as it remained sensitive to the requirements of the age, authority had the sanctions to extract from the Written and Oral Law such conclusions as would re-enforce the permanent relevance of Scripture and the legitimacy of the moment's needs for adequate and immediate attention...To paraphrase a remark of the Gaon Saadia: No generation was left without the necessary resources for deriving from the Torah the guidance and the practices which were appropriate to the age.[6]

Some midrashim deal with halakhah, some with aggadah, some discuss specific verses, others biblical narratives and themes. Still others are grouped around the Jewish liturgical calendar.
Halakhic midrash is a group of midrashim focusing mainly on halakhah, but aggadah is also discussed. In agaddic midrash this ratio is reversed. Neither deal solely with one or the other.[7]
The aggadic midrashim we posses (which are numerous) date to no earlier than the fifth century CE, the majority being later than that. For example, in the group of midrashim known by the attachment of "rabbah" to their title[8], the earliest, Genesis Rabbah, dates to sometime after 400 CE. Numbers Rabbah, the latest, reached its final form in 11th c. Narbonne.[9]
When it comes to midrash, "early" and "late" are very relative and subjective, complicated further by the process of textual transmission and repeated redaction.
This problem plagues a good deal of Jewish texts written before the early modern era.[10]
Bowman hasn't discussed this important aspect of Jewish literature in his blogpost. It significantly weakens his case, as will be shown later on.
Apart form older ideas, late midrashim are known to contain entire pericopes much older than the work itself.
A work entitled "Midrash haGadol" illustrates the phenomenon, as well as the dangers of making assumptions based on the date of a work's appearance.
Composed by the Yemenite rabbi David b. Amram Adani in the 14th century, according to Bowman's thinking the "Midrash haGadol" would simply be a late medieval work. This it certainly was, but we would fall into the trap of oversimplifying the issue.
It was written by a medieval rabbi, quoting from indisputably medieval sources such as Maimonides, but it also includes a great deal of extremely old material. The Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimeon bar-Yohai was reconstructed from quotations found in the "Midrash haGadol" and corroborated by findings in the Cairo Genizah which predate Adani's work.
Saul Lieberman provides a specific example of ancient material found in it, from Midrash haGadol Wa-Yegash, p. 688.
And Joseph made ready his chariot (Gen. 46:29). This was not because he lacked slave or servant who could make it ready for him, but to inform you that Joseph rejoiced much and did not take greatness unto himself in that hour for the heart is carried away by joy, etc., and he did not appear to him [Jacob] that selfsame day, but sent five other horses by his first son. Jacob said "Is this him." [Joseph] sent five other horses by his second son. Jacob said "Is this him," and only after that did he appear, so his [Jacob's] soul would not fly away causing him to die.
The Genizah yielded the following, which, if anything, is fuller than Adani's midrash.[11]
It is written And Joseph made ready his chariot and also for the heart is carried away by joy and by hatred a convention is broken, for you find it in Pharaoh as it is written and he made ready his chariot (Ex 14:6), for by hatred convention is broken.
The king does not go out to meet a man, but Joseph honours him, for he went up to meet his father, as it is written and presented himself unto him. Joseph appeared on the third day, he did not appear that selfsame day but sent on the first day five horses. Jacob said "This is Joseph," and on the second day [Joseph] sent ten horses and Jacob said "this is Joseph," but after that he appeared unto him, so his soul should not fly away causing him to die, and thus the Holy One, blessed be He, will do in the future to come, first sending the messenger, as it is written (Isa. 52:7) How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings and afterwards that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!

Adani's work is medieval, but many of his sources and quotes are far older. He compiled and redacted them, resulting in a new work, but it would be folly to judge all the parts based on the date of the work's composition.[12]
Deuteronomy Rabbah is another case in point.
It was thought to have been a medieval work from the 10th century. On the basis of many Greek loanwords and the lack of any references to the Babylonian Talmud this has been shown to be an early work, but as Strack and Stemberger have noted, "due to its turbulent textual history... a more precise dating between c. 450 and 800 is extremely difficult."[13] There is also material in it which is demonstrably old.
One of the midrashim in that work relates to a cunning plan by Hiel, an Israelite collaborating with the prophets of Baal.
And the prophets of Baal knew that Baal as unable to cause fire to come forth of its own accord. What did Hiel do? He stood before the Prophets of Baal and said to them, "Take courage and oppose Elijah and I will make it seem to them that Baal sent fire for you." What did he do? He took two stones in his hands and hatcheled flax and entered inside of Baal, because he was hollow. And he struck the stones one against the other so that the flax was ignited.[14]

This fresco is from the synagogue wall at Dura Europos, a town on the right bank of the Euphrates, and dates from the middle of the 3rd century CE.
It depicts the prophets of Baal around a hollow altar with a man inside it. A snake is about to bite the man in the altar. This detail is found in the continuation of the same midrash.
Elijah, enlightened by the Divine Spirit, said to God, "Lord of the Universe, I asked a great thing of you and you did it—to restore the spirit of the woman of Zarfat`s son. But now I ask that you `raise up` this villain within the Baal." God immediately ordered a snake to bite Hiel in his heel, and he died. Thus it is written: If they should hide at the summit of Mt. Carmel (Hosea 9:3).

As I said above, "late" and "early" are relative terms when it comes to midrash. When compared to halakhic midrash, the "Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva" would be a late midrash. If compared to an aggadic midrash it is neither particularly late nore particularly early, but it is early for a mystical midrash. A late date for a midrash does not necessarily mean that the individual concepts and components contained in it are as late.
There is an important aspect of the Oral Torah which we haven't discussed yet- the strong aversion to writing it down.
The Oral Torah was the counterpart of the Wriiten Torah, or the Pentateuch. It consisted of the teachings of the sages, passed down by the authority of tradition.
One of the aversions to writing it down had to do with the function of memory and oral recitation in ancient society, which might seem counterintuitive to us.
There is a famous story in Plato's "Phaedrus" illustrating the difference between true memory and mere reminders.[15]
The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess.
For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.
You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

Written reminders are useful but there is the distinct risk that they will become crutches to students who rely on them too much. Oral teaching required a teacher and this would ensure the proper transmission of tradition and wisdom.
This attitude was shared by at least some Jews, as seen in a group of texts known as the Sar Torah texts. They relate how a student is unable to retain anything in his memory may summon an angel known as the Sar Torah, or prince of the Torah.
Here is one example.
He adjured me by the great seal, by the great oath, in the name of Yad Naqof Yad Nakuy Yad Heras Yad Suqas; by his great seal, by Zebudiel Yah, by Akhtariel Yah, by heaven and by earth. As soon as I heard this great secret, my eyes became enlightened. Whatever I heard- Scripture, Mishnah, anything else- I forgot no more. The world was made new for me in purity, and it was as if I had come from a new world. Now: any student (talmid) who knows what he learns does not stay with him should stand and say a blessing, rise and speak an adjuration, in the name of Margobiel Giwat’el Ziwat’el Tanariel Hozhayah Sin Sagan Sobir’hu, all of whom are Metatron.[16]
According to Michael Swartz, "these texts are an indication of the centrality of memorized knowledge in the scholastic society formed by rabbinic Judaism."[17]
This being said, there was another reason why it was better that the Oral Torah an oral, rather than a written teaching.
In the Pesiqta Rabbati 14b we encounter the following.
The Holy One, blessed be He, knew that the Nations would translate the Written Torah and read it in Greek. And they would say: 'The Jews are not Israel!' Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Moses: "O, Moses! The Nations will say, 'We are Israel! We are the children of the Omnipresent!' And Israel, too, will say, 'We are the children of the Omnipresent!' And the scales are in balance!"
Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to the Nations: "You claim to be my children, but I recognize only the one who holds my mystery in his hands! He alone is my son!" They said to Him: "What is this mystery?" He said to them: "It is the Mishnah!"[18]
You weren't Israel if you did not participate in God's mystery- the Oral Torah.
Jaffee looks a little closer at written vs. oral authority.
The rabbinic insistence upon oral, memorized mastery of learned tradition is part of a larger cultural discourse about the nature of books and learning that occupied both pagan and Christian intellectuals of the late Roman and early Byzantine East. All granted that books contained important knowledge. At issue was whether the book was the essential vessel of knowledge or, to the contrary, the
book's knowledge was most authoritatively represented in the person of the teacher of the book... In some settings, the book was clearly the key and the teacher merely the occasion for opening the mind of the student to the venerable words of the author.
In others, the book was but a stepping stone to the living teacher, who authoritatively embodied the teaching of the book. In the former setting, the student was the disciple of the book's (often long-dead) author, and only through convenience associated with the living teacher who taught the book.
In the latter, the student was the disciple of the living teacher; the author of the book effectively effaced by the authoritative embodiment of the book in the Master.
Rabbinic discipleship in Roman and Byzantine Palestine, as it is reflected repeatedly in texts generated from Galilean discipleship circles, is clearly at home in the latter camp. Torah was certainly found in the Book authored by Moses. And all rabbinic Sages and their disciples were, in this sense, disciples of Moses who knew him through his book. But mastery of Moses' written Torah was preliminary to the mastery of an unwritten Torah, knowledge of which was possible only by immersing oneself in a web of human relationships constituted by the discipleship circle of a particular living Torah Master.
The traditional embodiment of Torah was not found in a written collection of wise teachings offered by Sages, although there is growing reason to suspect that such written collections existed at an early stage.
Rather, real Torah was found in the mouth of the Teacher, the Sage whose own discipleship to a previous master now entitled him to represent himself as an authoritative teacher.[19]
If an oral tradition took precedence over a written one, then not just anyone could lay claim to it like they could with a written text. Of course the traditions were written down in private notes, but these had no authoritative status.
Lest Rob Bowman accuse me of using a late source, here is a quote from the Babylonian Talmud, t. Sanhedrin 59a, which indicates that the Torah was a mystery in the techinal sense.
How do we know that even an idolator who studies Torah is like the high priest? The verse says, "Which if a man do them, he shall live by them." It is not said priests, levites, Israelites—but man. Hence you learn that even a gentile who studies Torah is like a high priest.

If the reluctance to commit the Oral Torah to writing was strong, all the more so its avowedly esoteric teachings. Even their oral teaching followed certain restrictions among sages.
This is stated in the Mishnah, t. Hagigah 2:1.
The laws of incest may not be expounded before three persons,
nor the Account of the Creation before two, nor the Chariot before one unless he is wise and able to understand on his own.

There is one more point that Rob made regarding midrash which needs correction. The talmuds didn't grow out of midrash per se. They revolve around the Mishnah, the ancient codification of halakhah, and discuss it and its applications and implications in more detail.
My next post will examine the Ottiyot de-Rabbi Akiva and its central concepts, as well as deification in ancient Judaism.
To sum up this post, Rob Bowman is incorrect in stating that midrash generally reffers to a body of Jewish literature rather than the process of relating the biblical text to the needs and mood of the age (and vice-versa). Midrash has never really died out.[20]



[3]Rob Bowman corrected his statement after some criticism from Bill Hamblin and myself. The original read as follows.
"The term midrash is usually (though not always) used in religious scholarship to denote a body of Jewish exposition of the Torah that dated before and around the time of the Mishnah (compiled ca. AD 200) and thus well before the Talmud (compiled in two editions centuries later). When Peterson refers to the source of his quotation as “an early Jewish midrash,” this context of pre-Talmudic Jewish teaching is clearly indicated."
That statement was then corrected to this. "The term midrash generally refers to a body of Jewish exposition of the Torah that began to be compiled in the second century AD, much of which eventually led to the publication of the Talmud (in two major compilations, ca. 400 and ca. 500). When Peterson refers to the source of his quotation as “an early Jewish midrash,” this context of pre-Talmudic Jewish teaching is clearly indicated."

[4]Reuven Hammer, "The Classic Midrash: Tannaitic commentaries on the Bible,
Classics of Western spirituality (vol. 83)," (Paulist Press, 1995), p. 14.

[5]Hammer, "Classic Midrash", pp. 20-21.

[6]Judah Goldin, "Studies in Midrash and Related Literature," eds., Barry L. Eichler and Jeffrey H. Tigay; (Philadelphia: JPS, 1988), p. 237.

[7]Hananel Mack "The Aggadic Midrash Literature," (Heb.) (M.O.D Publishing House: Tel-Aviv, 1989), pp. 10-15. There is also an English translation available, but I haven't read it.

[8]An Aramaic word meaning "great" or "large" or "major."

[9]See H. L. Strack and G. Stemberger, "Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash," trans. Markus Bockmuehl, 2d ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992), p. 279.

[10]There are many examples. To name but one, the Sefer Yetsirah had five major recensions, the last as late as the 18th century,, and a bewildering array of variant readings.

[11]Saul Lieberman, "The Yemenite Midrashim: Their Character and Value," (Heb.) (Jerusalem, 1940), p. 4.

[12]For more examples, see Lieberman's monograph "Yemenite Midrashim," pp. 5-7 in particular.

[13]Strack & Stemberger, "Introduction," p. 308.

[14]Midrash Numbers Rabbah, 11:20, Lieberman's edition. .
See also H. Kraeling, "The Synagogue: The Excavations at Dura Europos, Final Report VIII, Part 1" (Ktav, 1979), p. 140.

[15]Plato, "Phaedrus," 274e-275a. The translation is from "Plato in Twelve Volumes," Vol. 9, trans. H. N. Fowler. (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925).

[16]David J. Halperin, "The Faces of the Chariot," (Mohr Siebeck, 1988), pp. 378-379. Swartz says of the Sar Torah traditions that “the earliest explicit indications of the Sar-Torah phenomenon, then, date from the tenth century. However, there are other elements of the phenomenon that have earlier origins. The archangel figure of Metatron appears in the Talmud and in the seventh–century Babylonian incantation bowls, although not as the Sar-Torah.” Swartz, "Scholastic Magic: ritual and revelation in early Jewish mysticism," (Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 213.

[17]"The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature,"
Ed. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, p. 212.

[18]Martin S. Jaffee "Oral Transmission of Knowledge as Rabbinic Sacrament: An Overlooked Aspect of Discipleship in Oral Torah" in "Study and Knowledge in Jewish Thought," Vol. 1, ed. Howard Kreisel (Ben Gurion University of the Negev, 2006), p. 71. Jaffee goes on to say this.
"While in its other rabbinic contexts it seems to bear the meaning of a hidden or secret message, its usage in the present polemical context suggests another dimension of its meaning. Here Mishnah, rabbinic oral tradition, is raised to the
theological level of a ritual mysterion, a sacramental medium the incorporation of which secures a participation of the believer in the life of the Church, the Mishnah has the power to convey transformative blessing to the individual."

[19]Jaffee, "Oral Transmission," pp. 72-73.

[20]See "Modern midrash: the retelling of traditional Jewish narratives by twentieth-century Hebrew writers" by David C. Jacobson, 1987. Israeli writer Meir Shalev had a column in which he examined contemporary events through biblical narrative and vice-versa. In 1985 they were published in book form as "Tanakh Achshav!" (Bible Now!). As an example, Shalev relates Isaiah's naming of his son Mahershalalhashbaz to a Bedouin in 1979 who named his newborn twin sons Begin and Sadat. Midrash also has a strong presence in the pop culture of my generation of Israelies. To name but a few, the songs of Meir Ariel, Ehud Banai and Idan Riachel are often very midrashic. I intend on posting in the future about severalof them, a glimpseinto traditional modes of expression in modern garb.

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