Thursday, September 10, 2009

Who is the Aramean in Deut 26?

-This post is a little boring at first, but gets interesting. Sorry, but the dull backgrounder is necessary. I don't want to leave anyone behind.- 

Mikrah Bikurim, the only liturgy prescribed by the Torah, is described in Deuteronomy, chapter 26, where we are given a set of words to say upon the occasion of the delivery of our first fruits to Jerusalem.

Later, these same sentences were incorporated into the Passover seder, perhaps because they were understood to be a divinely composed synopsis of Jewish history intended for people, like us, who had not personally experienced the Exodus, but needed to be reminded of its lessons. [See the text of Mikra Bikurim in Hebrew]

Included in this liturgy is the following verse: אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י וַיֵּ֣רֶד מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וַיָּ֥גָר שָׁ֖ם בִּמְתֵ֣י מְעָ֑ט וַֽיְהִי־שָׁ֕ם לְגֹ֥וי גָּדֹ֖ול עָצ֥וּם וָרָֽב׃

As aptly stated on ParshaBlog, the meaning of this verse is less than perfectly clear. It mentions an אֲרַמִּי֙, an Aramean, but who is he?

According to Sifrei (cited by Rashi, and therefore the official Torah True reading nowadays) the Aramean is Lavan, brother of Rebecca, and biblical lout. To Sifrei, the first three words of the verse mean: An Aramean (Lavan) destroyed my father (Jacob). (Ah, you'll say but Lavan didn't succeed? See below.)

This reading is rejected by Radak and Ibn Ezra, two medieval Jewish interpreters who were also expert grammarians. They argue that per the actual words as they appear on the actual page, the Aramean has to be be Jacob. As they read it, the first three words are: "My father (Jacob) was a wandering (or ruined) Aramean."

[As you can see here the various English translators are deeply divided about this. Some read like the Sifrei, others like Radak and Ibn Ezra]

Rashi's best known wingmen, the Maharal and the Mizrachi, come to his rescue and declare the Radak and Ibn Ezra impossible to accept. In part, this is because they hold the Sifrei is straight from Sinai, unadulterated, and forever true.(1) Along with attacking Ibn Ezra for daring to second-guess Sifrei (2), they advance grammatical counterarguments Parshablog dismisses as "farfetched and implausible" and about which he says ""I think that Radak and Ibn Ezra would laugh at many of the suggestions raised by Mizrachi and Maharal."(!)(3)

- End Boring Background -

Today, on Twitter I provoked a little argument about this passage, asking (edited): If the Hebrew language and its grammar are from Sinai [meaning unchanged, authentic, and ancient] and Midrash is from Sinai [ditto] who wins when they conflict?

Responses came from Gil Student (thanks!) and some others (thanks!) but on the whole I found the answers unsatisfactory. Most relied on the familiar idea that Midrash is a different kind of commentary, one concerned with ideas, and not the plain meaning of the passage.

I'm not sure I agree with that understanding of the ancient interpreter's approach in general (4)  but in this case its certainly inapplicable.

Sifrie is telling us who the Aramean was, in the literal, plain, face value sense. He's not identifying the Aramean as Lavan for some philosophical reason; rather he believes that Lavan was the Aramean. Moreover, he sees the same grammatical anomaly the medieval grammarians saw. Sifrei knows that a straight reading of the passage fails; what he's doing is smoothing it out. His underlying assumption, however, seems to be that sometimes the Torah's language is confusing and its meaning is cryptic for the purpose of teaching some lesson. (In this case, the lesson is that for Laban (and indeed all non Jews) intending to commit an evil deed is the same as actually perpetrating it, should God intervene and rescue his people.)

Radak and Ibn Ezra operate from different assumptions. Though they may agree that lessons are hidden in the text of the Torah, they do not accept that the Torah's language is ever deliberately cryptic. They hold that the straight reading always has to be comprehensible on its own terms. This is why they permit grammar to overrule a Midrash (and also they're not married to the idea that Midrash is always right. See (1) below)

In short, I'm proposing something like this happened.

The Sifrei saw the verse and said: Ok, we know the Arami has to be Lavan because he's the only one who actually lived in Aram, and spoke Aramaic; also he's referred to everywhere in Rabbinic literature as the "Arami"; but this text is strange. Hmmm. Because it's my assumption that when the language is cryptic it must be for the purpose of teaching us something I propose [the lesson described above.]

Ibn Ezra and Radak on the other hand, responded to the verse like this: We can't say that the Arami is Lavan because the verse has to make sense. It can't be cryptic. It has to be clear. And if we read it clear, according to the rules of grammar, as we understand them, the Arami can't be Lavan.

What's undeniable is that its impossible for the Aramean to simultaniously be Lavan and Yaakov (5). Its either one or the other. Moreover, this matters. The verse is found in a passage that we are meant to say whenever we deliver first fruits to Jerusalem. Presumably, we're told to say those precise words, for some precise reason and, (presumably) that reason hinges (to some degree at least) on the meaning of the words. If we recite the liturgy thinking the Aramean is Jacob when really he is Lavan, well, something, on some level, is wrong.

[Update: See Luker's excellent comment, and the discussion that followed]

(1) As argued by Rabbi Chaim Eisen, the idea that midrashim (like the Sifrei) are from Sinai and canonical was not accepted by many Rishonim, and especially not by those from the same time and place as Radak and Ibn Ezra. Some quotes here
(2) This, as I hope the rest of the post will make clear, is an ahistorical line of attack. M & M are attacking IE/R for rejecting Midrashim, but IE/R came from a time and place in which rejecting Midrashim was expressly allowed.
(3) I'm in no position to discuss the grammar issues raised by M & M. Take it up with Josh.
(4) The ancient and medieval interpreters had different exegetical goals, and sometimes operated from different assumptions (as the post goes on to explain) yet I still think that in most cases, the ancient interpreters were explaining the text at face value, but based on assumptions that later interpreters did not share.
(5) Complicating matters, Rashbam says the Aramean is Abraham

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