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Whence Does Midrash Derive?
by David Schwartz

Midrash is part of a conversation across time and space that opens up continually changing vistas of awareness of the divine presence. Although the process of drashot begins in the Torah, begins in fact in the oral experiences of the people, it is necessary to start our discussion with the rabbis. Although every person engages in a process of narrative which resembles Midrashim, or some of the tools used by the makers of Midrashim, these rabbis pursued the studies which eventually developed into the distinctly Jewish form of narrative theology.
     Oral Torah, the utterances of sages concerned with understanding, expressing, and developing the intellectual and practical tradition of Judaism, derives from the existence of Torah. This is true in at least two contrasting, but eventually related, ways. First, to be obedient to what Torah requires it is necessary to elucidate and analyze not only what Torah specifically requires, but also in cases upon which Torah has not made pronouncements. Electricity, computers, television, and airplanes come immediately to mind.
     Torah, according to Jewish theology, derives from heaven, which is both the name of the celestial creation and a name of haShem (literally, "the Name," a rabbinic reference to God). In the paradigmatic case of philosophical abstraction which speaks to case law, we see sages who each contribute to the ongoing process when they (a) say something new; (b) say something relevant; and (c) say something based on Torah verses and/or Torah principles. Mishnah rarely mentions but, as the Gemora spends some labor proving, is continually based on Torah. As we shall see, punctilious scrutiny of Torah, either commandments or events, guide the inquiring mind into parable, fiction, hyperbole and a diverse series of forms of utterance which are both relevant and innovative.
     Whereas the Mishnah anonymously elaborates the ways in which Jews observe Judaism, and the Gemora analytically elucidates how the Mishnah is both a development of, and strictly in compliance with Torah, the Midrashim are imaginative leaps through the same process. Mishnah and Gemora have an agenda which is at times oblique and straining. The concern is to "read" the mind of God. Midrashim do not circumvent the process, but take greater liberties with the process.
     Mishnah Baba Kama 3:1, for example, is the brief, occasionally curt, pronouncements of case law. Baba Kama 3:1 is a typical Mishnah, uttered from our anonymous sages from before the year 200 C.E. when collected together and eventually written.
     Mishnah Baba Kama 3:1: Concerning the case of one who leaves a jug in public: Someone stumbles over it and breaks it. He is exempt. If he was injured, the owner is liable.
     The Mishnah is succinct to the point of obtuseness. The case presented might be spelled out in the following manner: We will now look at the case in which person P leaves a jug in public. Suppose another person, person Q, comes along and stumbles over the jug and breaks it. The law is that person Q is exempt from paying damages to person P. If, on the other hand, person Q stumbled over a jug left in a public space and was injured, the owner of the jar, person P, is liable to pay damages to person Q for injuries sustained (and other expenses which may be relevant to person Q; for example, wages if person Q missed some work, and so on).
     The Gemora constitutes the relevant (and sometimes not so relevant) discussions which were raised around the issues discussed in the Mishnah. Together, the Mishnah and the Gemora constitute the Talmud. In the specific section of the Gemora which discusses the above Mishnah, a few peculiar remarks occur and it will be worthwhile discussing what is happening in the text/tradition.
     The Mishnah alludes to the principle of the "bor," the pit, or any object you place in public domain for which one is liable if it causes harm. A person does not expect a jug to be in the middle of a road or way, as one is prohibited from putting such stumbling blocks in the public path. The Gemora responds immediate to this issue by citing an anonymous comment.
     Gemora: It was asked: Why should he be exempt? He should have opened his eyes! This is the only obvious question in our text. It is responded to in the remarks we are now going to investigate, but not really answered until the end when Rabbi Abba says, essentially: but people don't look around. Historically, when the Talmud says "It was asked" or "they said" this indicates either that the remark is deeply historical, i.e. old, or that it was the general consensus of sages. Ancient discussions of this particular issue, we might assume, we not particular concerned with the following kinds of questions: What was a jug doing there? Was it in someone's care? Did the owner simply forget it? The implication is that the anonymous forerunners of the rabbis did not particularly concern themselves with the "why" of the jug being in the street.
     What is curious about the question, then, is that a specific "attitude" is being attributed to an anonymous source; possibly the predecessors of the rabbis. The anonymous source asks a question which is concerned to place the burden of exculpation on the person who stumbled. The first and only overt question of the Gemora in this section is analogous to saying of a victim of rape, "Shouldn't she have worn more modest clothing?" or saying of a victim of robbery, "What was he doing carrying around all that money?" The first and only question of this section seems to partake of what we currently call blaming the victim.
     The rabbis, on the other hand, were concerned to elaborate the situation in terms which removed guilt. At least in this section of the Talmud, the rabbis are not concerned to discuss liability or blame. What strikes me odd about this case is that a terribly abstract possibility is placed in excruciatingly concrete terms dealing with jugs and shards, market-places and skinned shins, and so on.
     The Gemora continues by citing the names of rabbis, and their perspective on this particular issue. It was said in the name of Rab: We are dealing with a case where the whole of the public realm is filled with barrels. Samuel said: We deal with a case where the jugs are in a dark place. R. Yohanan said: We deal with a case in which the jug was placed at a corner.
     Then the rabbis begin criticizing each other's perspective... R. Pappa rejected Rab's position: If he were correct, there would be no difference between accidental and intentional breakage. R. Zebid (paraphrased) said: The very clause of the sentence says "stumbled," so we know that the act was not intentional. Therefore, R. Pappa's objection to Rab does not apply.
     Notice the rejection and the reintroduction of Rab's considerations. In either case, each rabbi who defends against the statement that the stumbler should have been looking where he was going, and his subsequent defenders or detractors, seems to respond to attempts to explain not the placing of the jug, nor even issues of exemption or liability, but the condition wherein one might find someone stumbling. Their questions are thoroughly inadequate to the Mishnah and case law, but thoroughly adequate on other issues: How can we exempt the stumbler?
     Finally, as if a direct answer to the question asked by the anonymous Gemora, we are told that, in fact, people do not typically look when walking. "Rabbi Abba said to Rabbi Ashi, 'It is not the habit of men to look around when walking.'" So there you have it. A certain situation occurred. The situation is described briefly. The question is asked: Shouldn't the person who stumbled have looked where he was going? No, that's not the way people behave.
     While this might seem odd to curious folk like you and I, one can imagine a sage immersed in a discussion or thought, or a pious person not to look upon anything untoward. But neither the Mishnah nor the Gemora tell us the stumbler was either a sage or a particularly pious person. The stumbler was, simply said, a person who stumbled. We do not know why he or she stumbled except for the fact of the jar being in the vicinity (and we do not know why the jar is in the vicinity).
     Now, given the fact that the Mishnah is case law, we would expect the rabbis concerned to elucidate the issue around the question of whether person Q, the stumbler, would be liable for intentionally breaking something that appeared to be abandoned on the road. Was it or was it not ownerless? It would seem from the lack of liability for its destruction, that it might have been legally ownerless and therefore irrelevant in respect to liability. We do not, however, know if it was ownerless or not. There is no discussion which asks why the jar is there. There is no question about liability for intentional destruction. The rabbis seem to compete with themselves to explain how they can excuse the stumbler.
     A student of rabbinic logic or argument, having followed the discussion to this point, might say: excuse the stumbler? Is this not like the issue of a parapet around a roof in a way? In that case, the one who was negligent by not putting up a parapet is liable when the faller falls. Is not the leaver of the jug being negligent? Or does the case have a different kind of status as implied by the type of object, a jug, as opposed to say an ox that can be identified. Unless the jug had a seal indicating its owner--a rare thing unless it belonged to the king. It is an archeological fact that jugs in general were not labeled.
     Even if the public is full of jars, is it the business of the walker to attend to someone else's business before his own? To ask this question is to make a distinction between safety issues and attending to other people's property issues. This changes the initial emphasis of the opening remarks of the Gemora. The Gemora's anonymous question assumes blame for the stumbler!
     What is interesting, though, is that the rabbis are not concerned with a mere moral point. They do not say in this particular section: Do not leave jugs in the market! They are concerned with consequence of an act. The rabbis are addressing why the stumbler is not to blame! The rabbis are more concerned to remove guilt than discuss liability.
     What I want to point out, if it is not already obvious, is that in the process of even trying to decide what the rabbis were concerned to do with "the law," they compel the on-lookers themselves to discuss all sorts of related issues the rabbis themselves did not discuss! Students are typically encouraged not to accept the arguments as they stand, but to question them, and especially to ask questions which should have been asked by the rabbis but were not asked. If there are questions yet to be asked, the student joins the historical debate. This is the very genesis of Midrashim.
     The Talmud continually asks: Why? and What if? Notoriously, the Why? and What if? questions do not concern themselves with temporal fact. The very case of one who leaves a jug in public begins out of nowhere, so to speak. No prior issue or question prepares us for the statement: One leaves a jug in the marketplace; someone else comes along and stumbles over the jug and breaks it. We do not know, and are not particularly concerned with the one who left the jug. We do not know if it was left by accident, if the person P can be located and/or identified, if person P left the jug in the care of someone else, or any other particular.
     There is a jug. Suppose someone tumbled over the jug. One of two things can be said over these bare bones. Either he was hurt or he was not hurt. If he was not hurt, there is no question of his being liable for damage to the jug. If he was hurt, the owner of the jug is liable. But the rabbis do not go on to discuss who owns the jug, or where to locate the owner, or how to identify the liable person! The case seems entirely concrete, concerned with jugs and the public market, stumblers and broken things. But in the end, it is simply an abstract case which generates discussions. To be sure, the results of those discussions are applied to determining guilt or innocence (liability or culpability) in a court of law; but as we have it, the case is simply interesting as a point of discussion. There is, for all intentions and purposes, no concern whatsoever for the owner of the jug, even if the owner is (in the abstract) liable for damages.
     As suggested above, by the time the student is this far along in the process of analytic scrutiny, he or she is ready for some startling leap of imagination. II
     In the process of Talmudic discussions, we see one rabbi criticizing his opponent, and advancing different arguments. One way in which we see this occurring is that the rabbis preserved the comments of their opponents, and revised arguments. A quick observer might think that the rabbinic process was akin to the Socratic method. Socrates, however, was trying to know himself. The rabbis were in the process of knowing haShem.
     Rab lived in Babylonia in the 4th century. Samuel lived in Babylonia between the 2nd and 3rd century. Yohanan lived in Israel between the 2nd and 3rd century. R. Pappa lived Babylonia at the end of the 3rd century. What looks like a dialogue taking place face to face is actually a conversation which extended across three centuries, and took place in two different lands, in two different communities. But when we do know the dates of the authorities, a very odd thing occurs. R. Pappa turns out to have rejected Rab's opinion ... before Rab rendered an opinion!
     According to Jewish theology, historical perspective is irrelevant only when two things occur. The first is when the dialogue continues no matter what happens. Historically, we have seen this to be the case in Jewish tradition insofar as issues discussed by sages before the destruction of the Temple are yet being discussed and debated today. Nor is this simply an abstract discussion to heighten the decisions of an individual's favorite sage. Discussions which have no concern for historical issues represent a practice of delving into the abstract discussions between sages in order to add qualifications and provisos and determine case law to this very day.
     In a sense, the rabbis are doing something similar to the philosophical endeavors of the Greeks. But Greek philosophers, from the earliest thinkers through the very latest, are concerned with clarifying ideas and espousing their own perspectives, to the point that the two seem to merge. The rabbis, on the other hand, were not simply concerned with clarifying ideas, but with adding to the general treasury of things to be discussed. Further, the rabbis were extremely concerned not to leave the impression that they were pursuing different agendas or different "perspectives" of the world. Philosophers are eager to say that their opponents both do not understand the questions they are dealing with, and cannot have made proper arguments. This typically is said in such a manner to suggest there is something wrong with the person making the statement.
     The rabbis, on the other hand, forthrightly admitted their opponents knew the proper questions to be raised and the proper perspective to be pursued; their only criticism was of the manner through which a sage portended to achieve expression of that perspective or question. Even more subtle, as Jacob Neusner argues in several works, the rabbinic practice shows that numerous case studies point to a single principle, and if rabbis disagreed in their utterances, it was because they were speaking about two different cases, each of which, however, ultimately argued the same principle.
     What is at stake is a profoundly "metaphysical" point: the "law" is one. Torah, written and oral, is one. In fact, through Torah, all of creation (in hierarchal succession) is one: the design of the mind of God.
     Notably, criticism of an opponent's manner of pursuing thought is evidenced in the Talmud, and distinctly lacking in the Midrashim. Midrashim might state the most bold thoughts without a "yes, but" or a "no" attending to their utterance. Of course, there may be an entirely different rendering of a perspective, but in the Midrashim the multiplicity of expression was not only permissible but enjoyed.
     Narrative in Midrashim was allowable and enjoyable whereas the necessity of discourse proper (debate) utilized in the Talmud seems reasonable for two related reasons. In the first place, according to the rabbis, there was a single perspective: that of Torah. It was a perspective which derived from the mind of God, was the essence of God's thoughts, and was amenable to contemporization. When Torah was made to apply to things necessary to earthly behavior, rigor was necessary. When Torah was being made to apply to the mind of God, joyful appreciation of diversity was engaged.
     A second, and quite related reason for the permissibility of exorbitant utterance in Midrashim was a consequence of the rigors of case law and abstraction. The Aggadic (narrative) elements contained in the Talmud are more often than not placed in a context where rigor and abstraction simply unfold into sheer playfulness and delight. The play and delight of the rabbis when doing midrash, especially Aggadic Midrashim as opposed to halachic Midrashim (those Midrashim designed to express or lobby for a legal point) was release. Midrashim was a form of utterance which not only did not allow for tensions, but was willing to leap across otherwise tense images for the sheer sense of play or, if you prefer, verbal tricksterism on earth.
     As we saw above, if there are questions yet to be asked, and the disciple or student is encouraged to ask the questions he or she can discern, the student joins the debate. They join, in a word, the elucidation of the mind of God. Given the rabbinic conviction/mythos that oral Torah derived from Sinai, the expounding of concerns from case law through narrative of a less abstract (philosophical) and concrete (applicable to case law) manner is the expounding of the concerns of God in the world today. If so, hyper-reality is not simply a delightful end of the process; it is the process of elucidation itself. This "reading" the mind of God is suggested in the comment of Ben Bag Bag (Pirke Avot 5:26): "Turn it and turn it again for everything is in it." The most immediate reference is to the seventy voices of Torah (the multiple interpretations of Torah; one for each of the seventy nations?) and Ben Bag Bag's proposition that we labor long over Torah to derive more than the obvious, more than the literal, and then labor even longer to derive self-criticism of our own winnings. Only a single phenomenon has such superfluousness and abundance.
     In Jewish thought, Torah corresponds to the totality and is, after all, the eternal word of God. If so, Torah must have seen, in one way or another, computers and airplanes, electric guitars and spacecraft. The rabbis, in practice if not in theory, suggest that if human beings are to have a proper voice in the world, it ought to be as a wrestler with, and expounder on, Torah as the mind of God.
     Precise historical acumen is irrelevant when assembling the words of sages concerned to elaborate the contemporary concerns of God by both preserving and defeating, heightening and criticizing their opponents expressions "for the sake of heaven." This is the first instance of historical irrelevancy. The second instance might be spoken about when the discussions occur in, or as, the very mind of God. We are dealing with oral Torah, given at Sinai. We are reporting rabbinic utterances which, as part of Torah since Sinai, were in the mind of God and have now to be elucidated. The goal of Midrashim is to find and tell those eternal insights which do only now, perhaps, find need of expression.
     Yet would this indicate that God was dual-minded? No. The practice of the sages indicate that God is, however, multi-minded insofar as a commandment or an insight at one time or place can be observed or "observed" differently at a different time or place is it was and is the will of God that the difference be affected. Just as the system of live sacrifice was useful in the economy of God throughout the early history of Israel and has been, since the destruction of the second Temple, irrelevant, so the defeated proposition of a sage is yet preserved in Talmud in case a later generation is able to make good use of it. The questions "What constitutes good use of a previously invalidated thought?" and "How do we discern what God currently finds necessary for us to know?" are analogous questions. The reason they are analogous questions is that one asks what occurs in the minds of debating sages and the other asks what occurs in the thoughts of the divine presence. The answer, when we are sufficiently studied, sufficiently wise, and have therefore sufficiently allowed our will to become God's will, is that the one is the same as the other. (Saying the result of the debate which is for the sake of heaven, and the current insights which are applicable to the current situation are identical with the dispensed wisdom and grace of the divine presence is surely not the same thing as saying that the sage, or sages debating, is, as it were, God.)
     Belonging to an argumentative tradition teaches not only that learning occurs through interaction, but that the consequences of learning ought to be further action. Bickering over minute points, rousing criticism, and arguing is a form of saying: "I like what you are saying. Give me more information. Convince me." If, indeed, Eleazar needs Yonatan, or Hillel needs Shammai, the criticism of the Israelites (or their leaders as representatives of the people) is a sign of God's need for the debating sages. Were it not for the criticism, the give and take, there would be no Tanach, and no Torah. There would be, to use the rabbis' circumlocution, no wisdom.
     Torah, written and oral, is a love song sung between Israel and God. When this is so, God, too, must "weary" of study and contending over logical points and abstract issues purportedly speaking to the most concrete behavior of human society. That is why, at the end of the day, Torah had begun in Scripture and erupts into Midrashim. That is why, to cite Elie Wiesel, God loves stories.  




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