Last night I saw a Midrash on Psalms that helps to illustrate some of what I wish my fellow Jews would understand about Midrashim.
The issue isn't whether or not the Midrash's teaching should be taken literally. Readers know that my thinking on this question has evolved and I now agree that some Midrashim, however far-fetched they might seem, were written to be descriptions of events that their authors' believed actually occurred.
I'm also not intending to rehash the question of historicity. Though some Midrashic authors thought that they were describing literal events, they weren't necessarily correct. As I've argued, the anonymous Amorah or Sevorah who suggested that Pharoah's daughter's arm got longer when she reached for the baby Moses's basket likely thought that this event had actually happened... but we're not bound to agree with him. (or her; the writer is anonymous, right?) Aside from the common sense issue, ie, how can conflicting midrashim all be true, we've been given license by our Rabbis to disbelieve in Midrashim.
Instead, I want to discuss chains of custody. Here's the Midrash I saw last night:
When Rabbi Jose ben Halafta was a boy and used to play with other boys, a man said to him "Your father should be told that you play with the boys!" Rabbi Yose answered: By your life, what does it matter to you?! If you tell my father he will strike me, and you will accustom your tongue to speak slander. Hence, "פיך שלחת ברעה ולשונך תצמיד מרמה" or "You use your mouth for evil and harness your tongue to deceit"The people who think about Midrashim incorrectly will tell you that young Rabbi Yose actually answered a busy-body grownup with a smart remark, while the people who think about Midrashim incorrectly in a completely different way will rule this out entirely. Meanwhile, the historicity question is the least interesting question of the dozens of question this midrash raises.
Let's pretend this is a true story, and take it step by step
- Who witnessed this event?
- Is the witness also the reporter, or did the story become common knowledge until it was eventually written down? If so, how accurate is the account?
- Who finally wrote it down - and why?
- When was it written down?
- Was it originally part of a Rabbi Yose biography? If so, who collected it into the midrash anthology?
- Is this even a Midrash? Does a little kid's textually based rejoinder count as a Midrash?
Now, let's pretend its a fabrication, and take it step by step
- Is the fabrication based on anything? Is it just a report on the kind of things kids in Tzippori used to say when a grownup got all into their business? Then why was it attributed to Rabbi Yose?
- If its not based on anything, why would someone invent this and attach it to Rabbi Yose?
- What is the author trying to tell us about Rabbi Yose? Is it a positive or negative caricature?
- For that matter what does this Midrash tell us about the Pslam? How does this anecdote add to our understanding of the text?
Now, let's look at the details of the story?
- Who are these boys? Why can't Rabbi Yose play with them?
- Whoever they are, playing with them didn't prevent Rabbi Yose from becoming Rabbi Yose. That's a nice lesson, but is it what the author intended?
Oh, how I wish I had access to Facebook, and the crowd wisdom there... :(
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