Monday, February 04, 2013

How did Midrash develop? A case study ("And the Waters Split")

Our sages tell us that when the Red Sea split for the Children of Israel, all the waters of the world split as well. The waters of the Amazon split and the waters of the Mississippi split, as did the waters in all the swimming pools in the Hamptons and all the hot tubs in California, all the watercoolers in Manhattan and all the teakettles in China. The great murky sea of heaven split open to reveal its secrets to all. And the deep, deep sea of the human soul split in two, and for a brief moment all its contents were exposed to the light of day. - By Yanki Tauber at
This idea -that every drop of water in the world split together with the Red Sea- is a famous one. What is the  origin of this idea?

In what follows, I'll provide one piece of source material and then present and discuss three possible origins for this famous midrash.

The Source Material 

To the best of my knowledge this idea is first found in the Mechilta de Rabbi Shimon. Here it is:  (Edward E. Elson translation)
A. "The waters were split" (Ex. 14:21)
B: All the water in the world was split.
C: How would you say from Scripture that [even] water in a well, ditch, cave, pit, pitcher, cup, and flask [was also split]?
D: The sea was split is not written here, rather"The waters were split" (Ex. 14:21), [meaning] all the water in the world was split. 
A. Rabbi Nathan says, "How does one know from Scripture that the waters above and below were split?"
B. As it says in Scripture, "The waters saw You, O God (Ps. 77:17) - these are the upper waters. "The waters saw You and were convulsed" (Ps. 77:17) - these are the lower waters.....
C. And when [the waters of the sea] returned, all the water in the world returned.
D. "The water turned back is not written here in Scripture, rather, "The waters turned back" (Ex. 14:28, [meaning] all the water in the world returned."
As you can see, the idea that all the waters in the world split at the same time that the Red Sea split is based on the straight reading of two Bible verses. It says, the WATERS split. Later, it says the WATERS returned   If we read these passages  (hyper) literally, their meaning is crystal: All the waters in the world split. 

But what actually happened here? 

Possibility #1: All the waters in the world actually split. 

This is the perspective favored by members of the far right wing of Judaism. They believe that all the waters in the world actually split, and that God recorded the event by stating it planing and clearly in Scripture. According to this perspective, the idea that all waters split is not midrash/interpretation but pshat/the simplest way to read the verses.

People who think this possibility is correct include:
Chaim Bray, your RWLOR, all of Lakewood, Williamburg, Monsey, Boro Park and Kiryas Joel.

How they would say the idea developed. Steps: 

  1. It actually happened
  2. God wrote the Torah,and let us know that it happened via His use of the word "waters" rather than "sea" in Exodus 14:21 and Exodus 14:28
  3. The sages knew it actually happened via their person-to-person tradition and via their ability to read Exodus 14:21 and Exodus 14:28.
Problems: No other culture records that their local body of water split. 

Points to recommend it: The verse does say "the waters" split; this is undeniable.
Why is "every body of water in the world splitting" so much more miraculous then "one body of water splitting"? If we believe the verse that says one split, why not believe the verses that say they all split?

Bottom line: It gets no support from any extra-biblical sources, but if you're going to accept the historicity of the Torah, why not accept the historicity of the Torah?

Possibility #2: Only the Red Sea split, but there is a lesson here

When faced with a rabbinic teaching that seems to defy common sense, some people respond by declaring that the teaching is not meant literally.

For instance, I knew someone who rejects Possibility #1 on the basis that no other culture reports that their local river or lake suddenly split. Instead, he suggests that the Mekhilta is actually trying to convey that the whole world heard about the Red Sea miracle, but rather than outright saying "The whole world heard about the Red Miracle" the sages concealed the message in the sentence "All the waters in the world split." 

Someone else I know says that this is merely "Rabbinic hyperbole" and the real intention is simply to let us know that the Red Sea crossing was a big miracle.

Though there is certainly legitimate basis in the tradition for this approach, its dishonestly silly to apply it to a case like this one. For starters, its clear from the Mekhilta that the teaching is based on two verses, verses that the Sages appear to be reading in a straightforward fashion. Though I don't deny that some midrashim are hyperbole or metaphor or even written in something like an actual code, I don't think this is one of them. 

People who think this possibility is correct include:People who don't understand how midrash works, people who don't check midrashic sources before attempting to explain them, people who think that they are protecting the honor of the sages by misrepresenting their ideas

How they would say the idea developed.Steps:

1. The Sages either knew from their person-to-person Mesorah or believed due to their own reasoning that the whole world was impressed by the Splitting of the Sea miracle.
2. They wanted to make sure everyone else knew this, too.
3. So they wrote a midrash introducing this idea of "All the waters splitting" expecting their sophisticated readers to recognize that what they actually meant was "the whole world was impressed by the Splitting of the Sea Miracle."

Problems: Its dishonestly silly. It strips the discussion in the Mechilta of all meaning.

Points to recommend it: It allows us to solve a problem, by giving us a way to eliminate a rabbinic teaching that has no extra-biblical basis. 

Bottom line: This is a possibility that appeals to people who have interpretative agendas that don't include determining what the Sages actually intended. 

Possibility #3: The Sages Interpreted the Torah 

The third approach makes no claims about what actually happened in history. Instead it confines itself to claims about what the Sages believed had happened in history. It suggests that at some point, a particular Sage read Exodus 14:21 and Exodus 14:28 and, after noticing that the verse mentions  "waters" and not "the Sea", provided an explanation..

This approach does not rule out the possibility that all the waters in the world actually split, nor does it insist that it happened. What it does is concede that the particular Sage who developed the interpretation believed every water in the world split, and that he believed it because this is what the verse told him.

People who think this possibility is correct include:James Kugel, and others who study the Rabbis academically.

How they would say the idea developed. Steps:

  1. Something happened in history. Or perhaps nothing happened in history. But at some later date:
  2. A Sage encountered the verse and interpreted it according to what ever interpretive principles he knew and favored.
  3. Believing his interpretation to be correct, he taught it to others
Problems: None that I can see.

Points to recommend it It allows us to respect the Sages and their perspectives without also compelling us to accept facts of science or, in this case, history we know are not correct. 

Bottom line: This is the possibility that appears most reasonable to me,

Search for more information about the development of Midrash 

1 comment:

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