Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Midrash Wars ("the waters split")

The post is a continuation of "How Did Midrash Develop." Primarily it discusses a passage in the Mekhilta found here. A variation of this post was first published as a comment here. I've rewritten it and moved it from a comment to a post so that more people can see it, and to reduce the likelihood of it being lost like so many of other comments were lost. 

I'm often accused of bashing Haredim, but when the subject is the interpretation of midrashim, I find myself more likely to bash the approach favored by the Modern Orthodox. I call their approach the "Ad Hoc Allegorization" approach.

As an example of how it works, let's look at the midrash discussed in the previous post. According to the Mekhilta, "All the water in the world was split." when the Red Sea split, including: "water in a well, ditch, cave, pit, pitcher, cup, and flask " And how do we know this? According to the Mekhilta this is based on Exodus 14:1, as the Mekhilta continues:  "The sea was split is not written here, rather "The waters were split"  [meaning] all the water in the world was split."

To me this seems perfectly straightforward. At some moment in history an interpreter encountered Exodus 14:1 and understood it to mean that  "all the water in the world was split." Because our interpreter was someone who believed the Torah to be divine and true he believed what he read, just as he believed what he read when he encountered the verses about long lifespans, manna, or hail mixed with fire.  His reading caught and in the fullness of time it was recorded in the Mekhilta where (see 4 below) it may or may not have been turned into a homily.

Another sort of person finds this unacceptable. Though he believes in the global flood he draws the line at the global splitting of all waters. So he uses the "Ad Hoc Allegorization" approach to make the problem go away:
well - water of sustenance /ditch - water of disuse cave - water in places you explore/ pit - water in places you avoid pitcher - water for the family / cup - water for the individual flask - water on the go. in contrast to the well. All these are split in times of trouble (psalms) for the good or for the bad, remember the story of the sea splitting and gain faith in Hashem. No matter the situation, Gd will bring salvation. From the left or the right, from the local or the global.The Mechilta is not written in "code" it's written in the language of poetry, and to get the listener's attention during a drasha. It's aimed at your gut, not your mind. Try reading with your gut.
My objections:

(1) I don't agree with your approach, which seems to be "any midrash we don't like can be allegorized" Would you do the same with a bible verse? Certainly some of them are more fanciful than this midrash. Should we allegorize the maana? Should we allegorize the long lifespans? Should we allegorize the hail and fire that fell together? How do you decide what should be allegorized and what shouldn't?

(2) The allegorization you propose seems baseless and motivated only by a desire to make the midrash less magical. But the real problem is your approach makes any explanation possible: It's the sharpshooter fallacy. Cup, flask, cave -- they can all mean anything I want them to mean. See this: http://dovbear.blogspot.com/2008/01/recipe-for-scorn.html

(3) When the Rabbis wish to deliver a message, such as "God will always be with you in times of trouble" they say it outright. The aggadic literature is full of such aphorisms. You find them all over the Talmud.  What purpose is served in wrapping this one up in an allegory when so many others are not wrapped up in allegories? None that I can see.

(4) All of this said, I will concede that there is a possibility that the author of the Mechilta was writing a homily. However, the author of the Mekhilta was not the author of the original interpretation. I see no reason (other than modern sensibilities) to rule out the possibility that the original interpreter believed every body of water had split; moreover, even if we say that the author of the Mekhilta was writing a homily, the message of the homily ("God is always with you") is based on what the author of the Mekhilta thought was a real historical event. He isn't making up a story to teach us that God is always with us. He's taking what he considers a real historical event (the splitting of all the waters) and using that to make his homiletic point.

You may find it impossible to believe that all the waters in the world split, but the atheist in the next cubicle finds it impossible to believe in a global flood. Why are you willing to allegorize one and not the other? Because one, thanks to your background, upbringing and education, offends your sensibilities while the other does not? 




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