Is the Midrash Literal?

I respect the Torah greatly and try to observe its commands. One thing that bothers me, however, are the Midrashic texts which describe things in a very far-out way. I recently saw something about Moses being 10 cubits tall. Is that to be taken literally? Because if so, I have a hard time accepting it.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

You have touched on a very fundamental topic in Jewish thought.

Writing in Jewish Action magazine, Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein explains:

There are a number of different ways of dealing with passages that seem to elude our grasp. The simplest is to ignore the problem. If that's what it says, then that's what it means – and let the chips fall where they may.

Many of our rabbis, though, would not concur with such an approach. The twelfth century Maimonides, for instance, wrote about three different attitudes in his day toward the Midrash (aggada). One group felt it an exercise in piety to simply accept everything in the works of the Talmudic rabbis, no matter how far-fetched. But rather than demonstrate their loyalty and tenacity, says Maimonides, these people cause much harm. Rather than praising us as a "wise and discerning people," the non-Jewish world reacts to this stance by thinking of us as "debased and foolish."

And that they did. In the infamous polemical debates of medieval times, a frequent target of the venom of both the Church and the Karaites was the philosophical aggada. Passage after difficult passage was paraded out to show the foolishness of the Jews in believing in this kind of stuff (or their arrogance in elevating Man above God, or assigning human properties to Him, or, at a later time, to demonstrate from the aggada itself that the Jews should really accept the Christian messiah.)

Another approach, if it can be called that, is to assert that the rabbis were simply wrong about many things. This creates a frightful dichotomy in our relationship with the Talmudic rabbis. Is it tenable to see them as incredibly profound when it comes to Jewish law, and incredibly naive and shallow when it comes to the philosophical topics treated in aggada?

There is an alternative, one that accepts without reservation that every syllable of the rabbis resonates with brilliance and profundity. It approaches the words of the Talmudic rabbis with unqualified acceptance and regard. It assumes that every epigram, every passage, every remark flows with the Divine wisdom that is vouchsafed to those who immerse themselves in Torah. At the same time, it refuses to concede any irrationality to the words of these Sages. God himself is the ultimate Source of this wisdom; His Torah cannot be irrational nor even arbitrary.

One figure stands out as a master of this approach. He is Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, usually identified by the acronym Maharal.

Take the Midrash which says that Vashti, the original queen in the Purim story, had a “tail." According to Maharal, we should not be slaves to the literal meaning of words. The Sages employed a richness of expression, just as we today use our own idiomatic form for a functionless growth. We call it "spare tire." (Will future anthropologists, noting references to "spare tire" but unfamiliar with contemporary usage, assume that people once propelled themselves on two axles?) In explicating the words of the Sages, we must always look for symbolism, allegory, idioms, and the clever turn-of-the-phrase that can say so much in so few words.

Maharal does not reject the miraculous. Rather he rejects a superficial reading of the words of the rabbis, words he is convinced almost always disguise more than they reveal. When we probe the true intent of the rabbis, we discover that they saw Divine intervention occurring in ways that may be more profound than the simple miracle that the text suggests.

To properly understand these Midrashic passages, it is essential to have a learned and wise Torah teacher. If you tell me what city you're located in, I'll be happy to recommend someone that you could contact.

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