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Monday, June 25, 2012

What’s the deal with Midrash?

How should we teach midrash as Jewish parents and educators???

Someone posted a great question in the comments section of this post.  Perhaps she had noticed that in the parsha overviews, I generally introduce midrash and other non-pshat elements (NPEs?) with the words the words “some people think” or something similar. 

Here’s what she wrote:

Can you explain to me the issue with Midrash? I keep seeing this amongst a lot of homeschoolers and I don't understand. When you say "some people say" it sounds like you are negating the authenticity and value of those Rabbis who wrote these texts as well as what those texts say. Rashi often uses Midrashic texts to elucidate the pshat.

I answered this briefly in the comments section, but honestly, there are a couple of interesting parts here:

  1. What’s “the issue” with MidrashBy which I assume she means, why not just include it so it flows along with the story like some other parsha books and websites do…?
  2. Is this an issue among homeschoolers in particular?
  3. By introducing midrashim with a caveat, are we negating the authenticity and value of those Rabbis who wrote these texts as well as what those texts say?

Now, I’ll be the first to tell you I’m not a rabbi.  In fact, I keep hinting that I’d like a sweatshirt printed with those very words, and I do have a birthday coming up this winter… something like this:

image

It would be arrogant to suggest that I know everything about everything, or that I know better than anyone else.  But I have been sitting quietly and watching the frum world for some time.  And I have had kids in every level of Jewish education, so I’ve also seen what goes on in yeshivas, bais Yaakov schools, day schools, and elsewhere.

So here’s where I begin answering Question 1:

There’s no “issue.”  Happily - just like Rashi, I love Midrash (if you don’t know what midrash is, please click the link and read a bissl before going on…!) (if you haven’t time for that article, you can read this definition

I was so excited when, after growing up Conservative and thinking I knew what Torah was all about, I realized I had no clue.  In the religion I was brought up in, we sat in our seats and read along with the pshat, and the divrei Torah would either be about the text itself (shallow, but tied into the modern world and made relevant to our lives) or about something midrashic (ie elite rabbinical knowledge that most of us couldn’t even begin to fathom).  Finding books and books and BOOKS of midrashim was both eye-opening and liberating in the extreme.

However, unlike Rashi, I can’t even begin to claim to know and understand ALL of the midrashim on a particular word or passuk. 

And the trouble is that many of the midrashim contradict each other - for instance, how old was Rivka was when she married Yitzchak?  Any yeshiva kid these days will quote the midrash that Rashi brought and tell you she was three!  Which is a great understanding of ONE particular midrash, but which overlooks others which may be equally authoritative. (see DovBear for details)

Look at the story of Pesach Sheini a few weeks ago.  A midrash says that the men who were tamei and approached Moshe were Eltzafan and Mishael, the cousins who’d removed the bodies of Nadav and Avihu from the Kodesh HaKodashim.  Now, maybe they were, but there’s another midrash that says the men were the bearers of Yosef’s bones. 

I suppose I could include ALL the midrashim… um, no, I couldn’t.  There are too many, the conflicts would be confusing, and my goal with the parsha overviews is to keep every single one down to a single 8.5 x 11 piece of paper.  (that’s very, VERY hard sometimes!)

Another example might be the story of the Mekoshesh Eitzim (wood gatherer) in parshas Shlach.  There’s a midrash (I think it’s actually in Pinchas) that he was Tzelofchad, father of the righteous daughters.  This is NOT as authoritative as the actual Torah text, but I don’t want to be one of these people who dismisses something as “only” a midrash, either.

Which sort of brings me to Question 3.

I’ve heard many people use the expression “that’s only a midrash.”  I don’t like it.  Only???  For an interpretation that’s been preserved for thousands of years: transmitted orally, written down (before the printing press, this was a HUGE deal – people were very selective about what they recorded and only the very best and most important was preserved), studied, quoted by Rashi and other giants.

Midrash is part of Torah she b’al peh, Oral Torah, which I believe was received on Har Sinai and transmitted to every generation since.  So there’s no “only” here.

But while Rashi had the skills to pick and choose midrashim to support his views; I don't, and neither do most baalei teshuvah - frankly, neither do most FFBs I've met. 

On top of which, there is a movement afoot within the frum world to say "the midrash" and mean “a single indisputably authoritative set of comments and stories-behind-the-pshat that precisely supports our current worldview and practices.”  Just as there is a trend toward blurring in matters of halacha vs minhag vs chumra (which is the subject of a whole ‘nother potential post), most people teach (especially to kids and baalei teshuva!) pshat and midrash interchangeably.

I don’t like that.  I have no disrespect for Rashi or (chas v’shalom!) for the earlier rabbis who transmitted these midrashim, yet I have trouble respecting educators who don’t mention sources and teach single midrashim as if they are the only ones students need concern themselves with.

Of course many of these traditional midrashim are valuable - for kids and adults - and I also believe that in some cases, the pshat is very hard or even impossible to understand without them.  So I don't AVOID midrash, but I want my kids to understand as well the idea of "eilu v'eilu divrei elokim chayim." (these AND these are the words of the living G-d, in case anybody's still reading), in other words: "Some people believed this, others, it's implied (I think), do not."

I do try to bring in many major, ie "popular" midrashim (or, as DovBear would call them, "lucky" midrashim).  But I DO want my kids to know that few of these have the same authority as the pshat and that, in fact, some are quite puzzling (Rivka was 3 years old?!?).

Which is how we come to the hidden question, number 2, which I didn’t even NOTICE when I was replying initially:

Question 2) Is this a homeschool thing???

Darn tootin’ right it is!  If you are seeing this phenomenon “amongst a lot of homeschoolers” it’s because the Jewish education system out there is substandard, not just at transmitting secular education, which it is, often woefully so (though of course there are exceptional schools that DO get it right!), but at transmitting the nuance and richness of Jewish tradition itself.  Ironically, since this is their presumed purpose.

As a homeschooler, I often think about what hard work it is (okay, cynically, I wonder to what extent I’m wasting my time and energy), reinventing the wheel, so to speak, when folks have been educating children Jewishly quite nicely for millennia.  We were literate through the middle ages, at a time when nobody but a few Irish monks knew how to read and write – right?  We set up a system of yeshivos at the very earliest dawn of our present galus – right?  And at a time when women barely had any rights, Sarah Schenirer – right?  We have it all, educationally… right?

My personal theory is that in modernizing Jewish education and attempting to embrace the best of secular education (in the name of accreditation, high school diplomas, etc., which are not in themselves bad things), Jewish schools, which did indeed have a time-tested and reliable model, began emulating non-Jewish schools and perhaps also cutting corners, Jewishly, to make room for all the “new” subjects that had to be included.  They’ll tell you they haven’t, and indeed, the secular programs may be great or terrible – either way, I believe Jewish education has suffered – or should I say, become more streamlined and efficient.

If you’re looking for efficiency, it’s definitely quicker to say, “here’s the midrash.”  Later on, there are courses in Mikraos Gedolos (if you’re a girl, and good enough in chumash) so you can get a sense of the nuance behind it, if you’re lucky. 

Of course, that part is just my theory about where things started to go wrong.  If you have a different theory, I’d love to hear it.  I’m not a rabbi, not a mechanech, I’m just one view from the trenches of Jewish parenthood – among many more qualified, I’m sure.

What I do know is this:  one of the nice things about homeschooling, if you do it right, is that there’s TIME.  Sometimes, lots and lots of time.  Efficiency isn’t the idol it has become in modern education.  I don’t care much that Naomi Rivka and I won’t finish Lech Lecha next month – or that it’s taken us nearly a year to learn the 17 pessukim we’ve covered so far.  What makes me happy is that she has REALLY learned them, and that we don’t move on until she has. 

Same with parsha.  I’ve seen kids in schools rush through parsha in half an hour on a rushed winter Friday.  We have had schools and teachers that do better – that visit it maybe twice a week; if they get to it early enough that kids can think about it for a day or two before Shabbos, that’s wonderful.  But we’ve also had weeks, many of them, when it didn’t get done. 

And that’s just parsha, which is most kids’ introduction to chumash, and perhaps the friendliest way to begin inching through the thing, 1/54th at a time.  There are other huge gaps I won’t even go into right now, like the halacha teacher who told me there was no time in his year’s schedule to cover hilchos Pesach.  I believe it; that totally wasn’t his fault, but it is sad that kids don’t learn hilchos Pesach past the age of, say, eight.  Oops – did I say I wasn’t going into it?

So yes, it’s true.  Saying “some people believe” to introduce a midrash is definitely a can of worms.  It implies that some people DON’T believe whatever the midrash is that you’re teaching, which is true.  But those aren’t just ANY people.  Like the Ibn Ezra, they were gedolim and tzaddikim of their eras, and they disagreed with each other but still preserved each other’s words, in the same way that we eat the “Hillel sandwich” at the seder – because of Hillel’s gadlus even though we don’t, in this case, pasken his way.  I believe this helps give our kids a sense that our path, when we learn Torah, is a well-worn and trustworthy one.  Though there are twists and turns, we are all walking in the same direction, together.

It sure does take longer to learn parsha this way.  Potentially, a lot longer.  Because sooner or later, a kid is going to ask about the people who DON’T believe Yitzchak was 37 at the akeidah, or who aren’t sure whether Avraham Avinu followed all the mitzvos as we know them today. 

Personally, I’d rather open that can of worms – though worms is a bad analogy.  Rather, I see it as opening a door for discussion, rather than closing the door by presenting a single-midrash view of the world that is unstable and easily ridiculed by the uneducated.  Choosing to homeschool means, in addition to supporting your child’s education in any way possible, rejoicing in opening doors to the bigger, broader world of Yiddishkeit beyond your home, school, shul, and community.

As I said in the comments section:  I hope this approach makes sense to at least a few people who are not me.  ;-)

Agree or disagree?  I’d love to hear from other parents.  How do YOU share midrash with your kids???

2 comments:

AztecQueen2000 said...

Quite frankly, there are a number of midrashim that just don't make sense. For example, Yitzhak following the Torah before it was given. Didn't he eat the meat that Esav brought? Esav was a hunter, not a farmer, which meant he was bringing in wild game. The only way to render wild game kosher is to trap the animal in such a way that you don't harm it, Walk up to it without spooking it, and then carefully shecht it. And that's BEFORE the slating and soaking. Considering that Esav could't wait an extra hour for lunch (the whole "birthright for lentil stew" scene), I don't think he had that level of patience.

Dina Roth said...

I appreciate the time and thought you put into writing this post. It was quite informative; you gave me a lot of food for thought. We used the Pitspopany Jewish Children's bible, which does separate out midrash. However, my son also listens to the Rabbi Juravel parsha tapes and they include a lot of midrash.