Monday, June 05, 2006

Ranking system for midrashim

The serious scholars who make up the Jesus Seminar have a system of color-coding the New Testament. It goes something like this.

Red: Jesus undoubtably said this or something very much like it. ("That's Jesus!")
Pink: Jesus probably said something like this. ("Sure sounds like Jesus.")
Gray: Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own. ("Well, maybe.")
Black: Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition. ("There's been some mistake.")

The point is that these scholars recognize that, over time, new information can creep into a tradition. No doubt something similar happened in Judaism. In honor of Shavuos, I'm proposing a similar ranking system for midrashim:

Blue: I've established to my own satisfaction myself that this midrash should be taken literally. ("That happened!")
White: This probably didn't happen, but maybe it did. ("Shrug")
Black: I've established to my own satisfaction myself that this midrash should be taken figurativly. ("Didn't happen!")

Let's give it a whirl:

When the daughter of Pharoh stretched out her arm to reach the baby Moses it grew long enough to reach him.
Ranking WHITE

Discussion: I usually don't like magical midrashim, but this one hangs on a pretty solid scriptural peg. The word AMA, as Rashi notes, is a pun: It means maidservant, but it also means arm. The (divine) author chose this word deliberatly, but how would it have been understtod by the first audience? Did the ancient Hebrews have a propensity for punning? Would they have recognized the double meaning, and understood a hidden intent? Though I'm reluctant to accept miracles that aren't described in the Torah itself, an argument can be made that this is the plain meaning of the verse. It all depends on how the ancient Hebrews were likely to read it, and without a time machine, I can't say for sure.

When the Egyptians hit the first frog that emerged from the Nile, it split into streams of smaller frogs.
Ranking BLACK

Discussion: One frog is a "tzefarday-ah." Many frogs are "tzefardah-im." In Exodus 8:6 we're told that the "tzefarday-ah" (ie: one frog) covered the land. In the second part of his comment on this verse, Rashi says (I'm paraphrasing) "You know what? Maybe the use of the singular isn't so strange. After all, the singular is used to identify the swarm of lice (keenom, not keenim) that overtook Egypt in the very next plague, and the singular is used for the fish (daga, not dagim) who die in the river during the plague of blood. So perhaps the singular in our verse simply refers to one swarm of frogs. Yes, thank you, I'll buy that for a dollar.

Ishmael once tried to kill Issac, after also worshipping idols in his presence.
Ranking BLACK

Discussion: The Ramban makes the slam-dunk argument: "God forbid that such heinous sins should have gone on in Abraham's house." After all, the Torah says that Abraham was singled out to instruct his children in what is just and right (18:19).


I'm having some trouble thinking of a "blue" midrash. (I know: Surpise.) Any suggestions?

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