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SIDIC Periodical IX - 1976/2
Targum and Midrash (Pages 12 - 18)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Reading the Bible in the Midrashic Tradition
Ariel Rathaus


Midrash: philology and "creative" historiography
Any work on Midrash, even one like this whose sole aim is to suggest to the reader certain incentives to thought, should begin with a brief historico-terminological explanation. We shall start then by saying that the Midrash began and developed during the first four or five centuries of the common era by the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud, and that its latest and final developments continued into the tenth and eleventh centuries.
The root drsh has many meanings in biblical Hebrew; among them the following stand out: “to ask”, € to investigate”, a to search for #, “to study #. Mishnaictalmudic Hebrew presumably superimposed and fused all these meanings. It coined the word derash which designates a particular method of exegesis applied to the interpretation of Scripture; derash is more than a method, it is a particular forma mentis, a way of confronting the sacred book and turning its pages. Before the word of God and its manifold mysteries one cannot be content with an apparently univocal meaning but must rather question, investigate, foster in oneself a perpetual discontent as one interprets. We shall, however, discuss this later; for the present it suffices to point out that the root definitively acquired its exegetical meaning in the talmudic period.
Parallel with derash are the terms midrash and derashah. The first of these is the more common and will therefore be used in this study. It indicates 1) the method in general as a hermeneutical technique; 2) the interpretation or exegetical reading; 3) the numerous extra-talmudic collections of midrashic material (these sometimes contain the term in their canonical titles handed down through the centuries: for example, Midrash Tanhuma, Midrash Tehillim, etc.).
The second term, derashah, has at least two accepted meanings. In the strict sense it refers simply to all interpretation of a non-literal nature; in the broad sense, to a public discourse based essentially on the midrashic interpretation of biblical texts. Hence, its approximate translation should be a sermon # or “homily”. In this instance the homily as such is not our concern, that is to say, all the accompanying rhetorical devices employed in every spoken discourse to charm the listener and capture his attention. Doubtless the preacher's use of the art of oratory affects the techniques and character of the purely exegetical aspect of the homily, yet the midrashic exegesis contained in the homily and that existing independently of it are fundamentally equivalent; we shall not therefore consider further (probably oversubtle) distinctions. (For structure, exegesis and rhetoric of the homily, see Josef Heinemann, Derashot be-zibbur bitkufat ha-talmud [Public homilies in the talmudic epoch], Jerusalem 1970.)
As we know, the entire body of talmudic literature is generally divided into two fundamental streams: halakhah, which is concerned with jurisprudence and ritual; and aggadah, narrative, legend, ethical and theological teaching, popular wisdom, moral allegory. Non-literal interpretation of the Bible relating to halakhah is called in Hebrew midreshei halakhah. This will be dealt with only in passing, since here, even if the interpreter diverges from the literal meaning, he proceeds with great caution. He concedes less to free imaginative re-elaboration but follows the juridical tradition of a particular school and is guided by already codified logical-exegetical rules. On the contrary this article will deal with the interpretations of the aggadah (in Hebrew, midreshei aggadah): the most complete and original achievements of talmudic exegesis of the Bible are in the field of aggadah, and the aggadic Midrash has become, so to speak, the Midrash par excellence.
What kind of exegetical method is Midrash? By what particular elements is it to be distinguished? From what we have already seen it will be understood that it is above all a non-literal method of exegesis; it could be said, by reducing the definition to its most concise expression, that Midrash begins where literal interpretation ends. However, rejection, brusque departure from the letter of the text, do not always occur with the same intensity; there are various stages, various shades of personal re-elaboration on the part of the interpreter. There are, for example, interpretations of a quasi-philological nature, in the sense that rabbinical exegesis (taking into account chronological distance and socio-cultural differences) resembles that of a modern interpreter interested in the “true” meaning i.e. sober and literal reading of Scripture. At the opposite extreme is that kind of aggadab which is only occasionally and tenuously linked (sometimes not at all) with the biblical text. Here the creativity of the midrashic author is pushed to its maximum; it is exercised above all in imaginative reconstruction of biblical, historical or contemporary events. In such instances it is clear that the limits of exegesis have been overstepped and that this material belongs properly to popular legend, fable, folklore and such-like. Mid-way between these two extremes we can place a third type of Midrash which is probably that from which the term itself is derived (being afterwards extended to include both the others). This third type, considered from the point of view of creativity and free re-elaboration, contains exegetical hints somewhat in excess of normal n interpretation inspired by philological criteria. It also contains stories rather less popular than popular legends properly so-called. In other words we are dealing on the one hand with an aspect of “interpretations w which are divorced from every consideration of objectivity and literalness, on the other with so-called exegetical legends, legends that are not merely the product of unbridled and absolutely autonomous phantasy, which gives life and form to a dream world. They are closely linked with the text, like a gloss in its margin whose sole apparent purpose is to explain it. A great contemporary scholar, Isaac Heinemann, offers very pertinent definitions of these two fundamental levels of midrashic exegesis: creative philology and “creative historiography” (Darkei ha-aggadah [The methods of aggadah], Jerusalem 1970; Introduction).
Now that we have reached the heart of the matter it is possible to illustrate these definitions by an example. The two levels, philological and historiographical, areoften superimposed and firmly linked; for this reason an example in which both elements are present has been chosen. We shall try, nevertheless, to distinguish them and to examine them separately. The example here given is a Midrash taken from one of the most ancient extra-talmudic collections.
Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai was teaching: “The Sabbath said to God: lord of the universe, everybody has a companion, and I alone have none.' God answered her: 'The Assembly of Israel is your companion.' And when Israel stood before Sinai God said to him: 'Remember! I have promised Sabbath that you will be her companion.' This corresponds with what is written: `Remember the Sabbath day in order to make it holy' (Ex. 20:8) (Genesis Rabbah 11.8. For the present we translate the verse from Exodus literally, but we shall see later that it takes on quite a different meaning in the context of the Midrash).
This remarkable passage from the aggadah is completely surrounded by a mythical-allegorical atmosphere and a personified Sabbath, specifically feminine (in the Hebrew language Shabbat is feminine). Sabbath receives an assurance from God: one day she too will have a husband: Israel. This mythical prophecy is straight away transformed into a very brief embryonic exegetical story. Why “exegetical story”? Because the encounter between God and Israel on Sinai is an event expressly related in Scripture, but here it is enriched by an additional detail: God reminds Israel of his own promise to Sabbath.
However, this legendary reconstruction of the biblical event is not presented as completely arbitrary, because it is linked to a passage from Scripture. It is supported by Exodus 22:8, part of the official account of the event which it confirms and justifies. The passage not only “demonstrates” the authenticity of the account, but in the account it acquires a new dimension: if it is to demonstrate something it has to be interpreted in an unusual way. Here we have reached the a philological-creative” level which, in this instance, is obviously inseparable from the “historical a. How is the passage interpreted? The first part, n Remember the Sabbath day n, acquires an elliptic and allusive tone; God really means: “Remember the promise I made to the Sabbath day.” The last part, “to make it holy .+, is interpreted as meaning “to espouse it”.
The ambiguity, the exegetical play on words, is made possible by the fact that in mishnaic-talmudic Hebrew the verb used in Scripture, le-kaddesh, has in addition to its basic meaning, “to make holy”, another meaning: “to marry The commentator uses this secondary meaning although it is a late acceptation and substantially foreign to biblical usage. The complete sentence would read thus: “Remember that I have promised Sabbath that you would marry her” Now let us tackle the controversial question of the order of precedence: does the exegetical reading spring from an unusual interpretation of the biblical passage or, conversely, does the interpreter use the biblical passage only to justify an already existing narrative? He exploits the force of ambiguity, at first sight non-existent, but the fact remains that it is precisely the abnormal interpretation of Scripture that is his starting-point, since it is this interpretation that permits and justifies the reading and what precedes it.
This means that here as in numberless other Midrashim the philological-creative element acts as the logical starting point: the legendary material and the narrative emphases flow directly from it (if we consider the internal coherence of the fully-developed discourse and not the uncertain historical phases of its growth). We are not mistaken therefore, in calling it the first element of the Midrash.
We shall therefore devote the following pages to “creative philology”: although the formula speaks dearly for itself, it seems sufficiently unusual to justify some brief clarification.

Philological reading and "creative" reading
We all understand more or less clearly the meaning of the word philology used without any modification: according to experts in the science it is an attempt to make an objective approach to language and to the semantic history of words. It may have at its command ever more ingenious and precise techniques, hut its fundamental concern is to esablish the correct version, the strict linguistic usage. The highest aspiration of the philologist is to fix the meaning and the form of a given word in terms that are univocal. If, after careful research, the word should still prove equivocal, the equivocity itself would be institutionalized. Meanings and usages may be numerous provided each has a very precise place in the great synoptic table of the evolution and infinite variety of language, and that there is no confusion.
On the other hand, creation” and “creativity v are expressions which should not admit of doubt. The most classic and fitting example of creative approach to language is obviously poetry.
However, what follows when “philology i> and “creativity” cooperate within the limits of possibility, working together on the same linguistic material? It is what happens every time a reader who is not totally devoid of life comes upon a text that is not totally devoid of life. This is what takes place in a mare technical sense when a poet translates, particularly if he translates the work of another poet. We are here concerned with a controversial literary production difficult to classify, and the controversy is normally concerned not so much with poetic value as with philological rigor.
Strict philological interpretation is certainly a very recent development in the age-old history of the written word. In medieval times, for example, poetry was available only through the amanuensis, who certainly did not confine himself to being a mere instrument of graphic reproduction; on the contrary he believed that by manipulating, introducing variants, amplifying or abbreviating, he was permitted to intervene as co-author. This is so characteristic of the medieval approach to the text that it provoked drastic opinions like the following: “The notion of textual authenticity as practised by philologists seems in fact to have been unknown, especially where the vernacular is concerned, at least until towards the end of the fifteenth century” (P. Zumthor, Semiologia e poetica medievale, Milan 1973, p. 72).
Thus, re-reading the Midrash quoted above it is immediately obvious that the interpreter, Simon bar Yohai, has in a sense attempted a philological operation; not considering himself bound by the letter of the text, he has gone beyond the limits of “objective v reading and distilled the biblical passage through the philtre of his own exegetical genius. The passage, destructured and rewritten has undergone a process of metamorphosis which superimposes on and interweaves with the literal, canonical meaning (ri Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day») an additional, personal meaning: “Remember to wed Sabbath”. It is unthinkable that Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai intended completely to obliterate the official meaning by his own interpretation, because this passage, one of the most famous, is a legal source of the precept of Sabbath observance. He uses it, rather, to introduce a theological teaching — the mystical marriage of the Sabbath and Israel — thus making of it a new literary production in which the canonical and the personal meanings co-exist; on the plane of meaning it has become bivalent.
It is clear that there are two necessary conditions for the existence of a “creative philology”: 1) that there be a multiformity of licit approaches to the text; 2) that this multiformity should not remain theoretical but be made concrete. This can occur with a text that is itself considered multiform, ambiguous and open to several interpretations.
Let us begin with the first point. It is a known fact that in what concerns the juridical-ritualistic sphere of the balakha (especially at certain times when the obviously dominating tendency was to establish a unified norm, valid for all), varied or directly opposed talmudic traditions survive. At certain periods the profusion of heterogeneous juridical and ritual “systems” became such a source of confusion and perplexity that it led to the desire for codified norms of behavior; but nonetheless, this did not mean that the principle of a plurality of approaches to a text was rejected or that the intention was to establish univocity also on the exegetical level. The whole cycle of controversy between Shammai and Hillel, for example, was juridically settled in favor of the latter (with rare exceptions), yet the Babylonian Talmud paradoxically affirms that “the words of both are equally words of the living God” (Eruvin 13b). In other terms, there is one norm, that fixed by Hillel, but the “words of the living God” from which this norm has been extracted can never be exhaustively explained and catalogued by means of a single interpretation. It was not by chance that one of the most representative mishnaic schools — that of Rabbi Akiva — decided in favor of complete exegetical freedom, being convinced that the Law is daily revivified through the continual labor of reading and explaining it (see E.E. Urhach, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs, Jerusalem 1975, pp. 299-300).
Study was carried on in an atmosphere of complete intellectual autonomy. Young disciples surpassed, on occasion, their own masters in subtle exegesis, and decisions in favor of one or other interpretation were not reached on a basis of hierarchy, age or authority, hut on honest recognition of the value of evidence. Moreover, in the first place what was considered to be really deep and significant study originated in a certain disquiet, a dissatisfaction rather than in the lamentable consequences of “agreement”, of “convergence of opinion” guaranteeing peace of mind and soul (Urbach, op. cit., p. 624).
An example of this is found in the Babylonian Talmud. It concerns Rabbi Johanan and his new fellow-student, Rabbi Eleazar hen Pedat. When they began to study together Rabbi Eleazar confirmed and supported by woofs whatever Rabbi Johanan said. Finally Rabbi Johanan became annoyed with his companion and rebuked him harshly, saying that the true scholar can bring twenty-four objections to every statement and give twenty-four Answers to his own objections. “And as for you”, concluded Rabbi Johanan, sarcastically reprimanding his amazed interlocutor, “all you can do is to offer one proof in my favor” (Sava Mezia 84a),
All this, I repeat, refers first of all to the halakbah (which allows every student a relatively limited autonomy) and is therefore all the more applicable to aggadic exegesis: here the characteristic tendencies of talmudic Weltanschauung which we have just examined are even clearer. The interpreter has almost complete linguistic freedom; the meaning of the text is flexible and personal and the exegesis is conducted more on the lines of freeimaginative re-elaboration than on the rational and convincing model of a philological hermeneutic. With regard to the second point alluded to above, the openness of the text to receiving several interpretations as a necessary condition for the existence of a “creative philology”, it is valid to expect that any reader of the Talmud and Midrash, even a beginner, will be able to tackle this question for himself and to solve it empirically. The reader is, so to speak, assailed by a mob of hypothetical readings and different interpretations of the same biblical text. It is thus evident that the compilers of the Talmud considered that to make a rigid selection of the material handed down was an undertaking not only difficult but also definitely unjust and mistaken. All interpretations were presumably judged to be “true” provided that each enriched the text with a new tessera to be inserted in the infinite mosaic of possible meanings; thus, not infrequently, the same commentator did not hesitate to give more than one interpretation of the same verse.
According to the talmudic rabbis the Bible is not simply a book, but the Book, the archetypal biblion proceeding from a world pregnant with the sacred. It certainly cannot be compared with just any sort of written testimony in which language is used without care or thought.
By its very nature the divine word hints. Its meaning cannot be exhausted after the manner of a dictionary or an objective grammatical syntax; it rather suggests a hidden and intangible content. It is the total and primal word resuming in itself all the fragmented sounds, all the elided syllables, all the splintered words which men mistakenly call “language”, Of this word philologists and linguists catch only the remote echo: the part of it that coincides with the semantic value of their finite daily speech.
Rabbi Joshua, according to the Babylonian Talmud, said one day to his disciples: «A school cannot survive unless it teaches something new every day.» The pupils answered that on that very Sabbath Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah had taught something new: “The words of Scripture,» he had said, “are like the roots of a plant: they grow and multiply” (Iiagigab 3a-13). There is perhaps no more incisive description of the linguistic prodigy of a book which. though crammed with signs, hollowed out and corroded with words, nevertheless retains the purity and the disposability of a blank page. Because of the tradition of meticulous codification even of the pointing of its letters, Scripture has remained for centuries unchanged, yet it shares surprisingly in the dynamic of a growing organism. Its existence in the world is substantiated not so much by ink, parchment, and silent motions of the scribe, as by the confused and polyvalent exegesis of the talmudic schools, by the superimposed and contradictory opinions of those who read it. It is not by chance that the classic expression used in the Talmud for the Scriptures is mikra, reading».
What we today define in lay terms as the openness of the text to receiving several interpretations, would be defined by the rabbis, wherever it clearly refers to the Bible, as linguistic infinity. e “The whole world is only the three thousand two hundredth part of Scripture,” declares Rav Hisda, in the name of Mari bar Mar, in the Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 21a). We must presume that this paradoxical aphorism is not intended to inform unlettered and credulous readers of the exact dimensions of the world but rather to emphasize vigorously the immensity and infinity of Scripture. However strange it may seem, in the rabbinic perspective it is not the boundaries of the world that are limitless but the boundaries of a sacred alphabet.

“Pseudo-literal” interpretation and “ex-nov” writing of the text
Having reached this stage it might be useful to quote some midrashic passages to give concrete illustration to what has already been said by way of theory. Any exhaustive selection of examples is here impossible, so we have been obliged to adopt a make-shift solution. The examples chosen will be atypical, or rather, examples in which certain opposing tendencies of midrashic exegesis will clearly be pushed to their limits. In other words, we shall try to indicate the opposing extremes between which the midrashic method fluctuates: on the one hand there is the quasi-philological reading, the apparently literal interpretation; on the other, free re-elaboration carried to its extreme and definitive consequences, to what we can call “ex-novo writing of the text”. The careful reader will understand that the typical method lies between the two extremes, that the great majority of midrashic material really originates in a fusion, a compenetration, not devoid of tension, between two such opposing tendencies.
Our first example is taken from Rosh Ha-Shanah 166 (Babylonian Talmud). Rabbi Isaac said: “Man is judged solely by his actions at the time of judgment, since it is written: Tor God has heard the voice of the lad where he is' (Gen. 21:17).» In this succinct Midrash Rabbi Isaac is expressing a theological opinion which he deduces from a verse of Genesis. The theological opinion seems to be more or less this: God judges men by their present merits and demerits with no reference to their past and future actions. The essential object of the statement is to stress the fact that even he who in mente Dei will infallibly sin is, meanwhile, judged according to his present (even if ephemeral) innocence. The passage from Genesis cited by Rabbi Isaac in support of his own thesis is taken from the dramatic account of Abraham's expulsion of his concubine, Hagar, and their son, Ishmael. Hagar and the boy Ishmael are wandering in the desert; their supply of water is exhausted and they are resigned to death. An angel then appears and reassures Hagar: God has had pity on them and will save them. It is in fact the angel who utters the words used in the Midrash: “For God has heard the voice of the lad where he is.”
Thus far the biblical account. How does the Midrash re-elaborate this material? It is to be noted in the first place that in the Bible Ishmael, son of Abraham, is a completely neutral and indefinite personality. In rabbinic literature, however, he assumes the characteristics of a real # negative hem *, symbol and prototype of degeneration and deviation from the straight path. When, therefore, Rabbi Isaac reads in Genesis that God intervenes to save Ishmael he has proof of the fact that men are judged hit et nunc, since the innocent boy of today will be the recidivist sinner of tomorrow. Rabbi Isaac arrives at this conclusion, however, by interpreting the passage in an unusual fashion: the last words of the verse, “where he is”, seem in fact totally superfluous. The reader knows perfectly well where the boy is: were he not in the desert he would be in no danger of dying of thirst. What then is the purpose of this useless precision? The question may seem captious, but we must remember that in the mind of the talmudic rabbi no comma in Scripture is superfluous, that in any account there is much to be learnt from the shades of meaning. Rabbi Isaac answers that the words refer to a very precise position in the scale of moral values. “Where he is” is not a geographical indication, nor even an emphasis on the dramatic vicissitudes experienced by the hero to further the aims of the story. It alludes to one of the many stages in a moral journey, to Ishmael's ethical position at that particular time: he is then in a state of innocence, and because of this God saves him. Rabbi Isaac thus draws out of the verse the teaching he wishes to transmit to the reader: God judges men according to the state they are in at the time of judgment.
Thus, from one point of view, Rabbi Isaac's interpretation is literal. In order to understand this properly it would be useful to recall the example given in section two where the departure from the letter is on a completely philological level. There is play on the word used in the Bible which in Talmudic Hebrew has a double
meaning, and by using the less acceptable philological meaning the phrase is linguistically restructured. Here, on the contrary, the phrase is understood semantically as it is, but read from an ethical-allegorical point of view. Rabbi Isaac manipulates the verse in masterly fashion, with lightness of touch, without violation of syntax, grammar or lexicographical usage; nevertheless, nobody will fail to notice that the Midrash has been pushed very far and that in what concerns its probable literal sense, the biblical passage has been enriched by the interpreter with a new garment, a fresh and unusual meaning.
Thus, much has obviously been said to indicate the limits of a pseudo-literal interpretation”; we shall now try to illustrate briefly what we have defined as ex-novo writing of the text”.
Before giving examples we must expect the material of this kind of exegesis to be (from the point of view of a philological hermeneutic) among the most unusual and original that Midrash offers. Here the interpreter is no longer content to approach the text at the semantic level; he intervenes at the graphic level by rewriting it, and this ex-novo re-elaboration is done openly, intentionally, with no half-measures.
The interpretation is introduced by the canonical formula: # Do not read .. . , rather .. . u, with which the interpreter changes the reading and presents an alternative (the most untenable, obviously, at the philological level). Midrashic manipulation is thus effected with all the blessings of officialdom.
Here again, it is not a question of substituting for one reading another more correct, as a modern commentator operating by scientific criteria would do. The text is changed, but at the same time preserved in its original form which is always quoted before the introductory formula. Such quoting is not purely instrumental (in so far as it is necessary to show the variant readings); it almost seems to have the task of reminding the reader that the authentic reading is, all the same, inviolably present. The new reading represents, so to speak. a different inflection of voice with which the passage can be read. It is clear that the sole purpose of the new interpretation is to add to the expressive potential of the text.
Here is a famous example from the Mishnah of this kind of exegesis. a 'The tables were the work of God and the writing was the writing of God graven upon the tables' (Ex. 32:16). Do not read: 'graven noon the tables', but rather: 'freedom on the tables'. He who is not occupied in studying the Law is not free” (Avot 6.2).
The verse from Exodus explained in this Midrash refers to the tables of the Law. Moses has scarcely received them from God when he smashes them in viewof the Hebrews who are adoring the golden calf. The interpreter fixes his attention on the last words of the verse, a (writing) graven on the tables It is here that he intervenes to change the reading: for the word harut (graven) he substitutes berm (liberty). Such is the assonance between the two terms that we can rightly classify the Midrash as a play on words. Nevertheless, here, as with all the more felicitous of such verbal devices (in every language and in every age), a density of thought decidedly to be envied is expressed with the greatest economy of words. Those who care to do so may amuse themselves by unraveling the tangle of superimposed teachings concentrated in the imperceptible change of reading. They will then understand that the themes: faith in the spiritual autonomy attainable by study of the sacred writings, the paradoxical link between law and liberty (many centuries later this problem, translated into purely ethical terms, will fill many celebrated pages of Kant), an implicit polemic against the antinomianism of Paul which sees in the Jewish Law only a burden imposed upon men — all these are condensed in a play on words, futile in appearance only, and summarized in the terse judgment given immediately afterwards: only he who studies the Law is truly free.
However, in this example, there is no real and specifically graphic change: written classical Hebrew has no vowel signs, these were introduced relatively late; hence harut and herut have the same graphic symbol hrt. The interpreter was apparently able to change the reading without changing anything else: manipulation of vowels pronounced but not written is a stratagem often used in this kind of Midrash.
In the following midrashic passage the change of reading is, on the contrary, graphic in the true sense of the word: “The law which Moses commanded us is a heritage for the assembly of Jacob (Deut. 33:4). Do not read 'heritage', read 'affianced bride'; the Law is the future bride of Israel”(Exodus Rabbab 33.8).
The theme of the mystical marriage of Israel (“the assembly of Jacob”) and the allegorical personification of an idea or a religious norm is, as we have seen, quite usual in talmudic culture; the reader will recall the other ideal marriage encountered during the course of our research: the union of the Sabbath with Israel. In this Midrash the Law is the affianced bride.
The interpreter uses a verse from Deuteronomy and changes its reading: the word morashah (heritage) is changed to meorashab (betrothal), and thus the Law becomes the promised bride of the “assembly of Jacob w. Here the difference between the two readings is striking: the structure of the sentence is syntactically unchanged and the sounds of the two words are sufficiently alike. The interpreter has however gone beyond the confines of his art (by definition that of reading) by rewriting the words and making a graphic re-elaboration of the text; he has in fact risen to the rank of co-author.
Midrashic exegesis, strong in its desire to be creative writing, rather than being richly imaginative interpretation, thus nears its ultimate goal, a goal situated inregions where it will no longer be able lawfully to advance. Such boldness, envisaged or not in the handbook of the good exegete, is undeniably fruitful both at the level of linguistic inventiveness and at that of ever new approach to the experience of the divine.

As an epilogue to these brief notes let us resume the fundamental points of the theses expounded above.
Midrash can be defined as linguistic research, an examination to which some people submit certain words whose meaning is dubious or only apparently clear. With regard to the linguistic code of the Bible, a Midrash is always an infraction, but this infraction retains within itself the violated norm: were the interpreter to deviate radically from the norm and not refer back to it in any way, the linguistic deviation would be an end in itself and, from the exegetical point of view, fruitless.
The midrashic interpreter takes the word, the sacred word, written yet always fluid and undefined, into the sphere of his own creativity. He departs from its ordinary meaning and seeks another, a meaning that will bring about an enrichment.
In the rabbinical conception, therefore, the Bible is, in a sense, an inexhaustible collection of signs with shadowy outlines, words entrusted to the permanent corporality of graphic symbol, which even when pronounced are never completely said. Like certain imaginary lines in the minds of geometricians, the lines of the Bible aspire to infinite prolongation; they urge the readerto look at the procession of possible meanings, the entire alphabet hidden in each letter. These are the alphabets that the midrashic exegete uses to compose his sacred commentaries, in perfect liberty and in complete and loving respect for the text.
All this does not, however, mean that we are here advocating an exclusively linguistic-immanent conception of Midrash; this, as we have said many times, would be only research into the language, exploration of words. The writer believes that on the contrary midrashic exegesis transcends the linguistic element. As poetry by standing out from everyday language seeks to rediscover certain realities which, blotted out by the anemic light of this language, lie buried and unexpressed, so Midrash traverses language and reaches out to things beyond itself. These things are the theological, ethical and human contents hinted at and hidden in that book which is the ideal compendium of all theology, all ethic, all human wisdom.
Midrash is the art of revealing what is implied, understanding vocal inflections, attaining the most hidden region of language, and by this means of grasping the most elusive aspect of divine and secular reality.

Dr. Rathaus, who University of Rome language and Jewish now teaching in the and Literature at the wrote his doctoral thesis at the on “The ambiguity of poetic hermeneutics in the Bible”, is now teaching in the Department of Italian Language Hebrew University, Jerusalem.


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