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What Sustains the Literalists? My Research Quest in Midrash

For the past few decades or more, I’ve developed a growing preoccupation with the midrashim that tell unusual tales and how they are commonly understood.

I can trace the beginnings of my intensified interest to one particular midrash and one particular event, perhaps eight years ago.

This midrash, from the Midrash Tanhuma, suggests a spirited and harsh dialogue between Judah and Joseph that takes place right after Benjamin is “discovered” as the thief of Joseph’s wine goblet and Joseph declares that he will take Benjamin as a slave (before he reveals himself to his brothers). In the dialogue, Joseph harshly criticizes Judah for his deception of his father and for his actions with Tamar (1).

I presented this midrash at a Friday night class I offered on behalf of a local shul, in the home of one of the shul members. I asked, rhetorically, if we should take the midrash at face value, as if it really happened, or instead treat it as allegorical or symbolic.

I answered that as I understood, this supposed dialogue did not take place, but was rather intended to be understood for its tremendous allegorical value. I based my belief on two reasons:

1) Most traditional commentators agree with the viewpoint that, after he was sold into slavery, Joseph had no contact with his family in Canaan. So he could not know about events that happened in his family after he left.

2) The tenor of the bitter exchange between Joseph and Judah in the midrash contrasts too sharply with the soon-thereafter warm rapprochement that Joseph initiates with his brothers (Bereishit 45:1-5).

At that point, two participants in the class, both respected members of the shul who frequently offer Torah classes or lectures, began to vigorously dispute my premise that the midrash was intended solely for allegorical use. The two men’s view was that the exchange between Joseph and Judah could have taken place and, absent definitive proof that it didn’t, I had to leave open the possibility that it did happen.

I had a vigorous back-and-forth with the two men for a few minutes before I pointed out that I based my view not only on my own deductions, but also on the stated view of Nehama Lebowitz, who wrote in the essay that features this midrash:

“What is the reason for this fanciful interpretation of Judah’s moving speech, this transformation of a skillfully woven emotional appeal and monologue into a bitter denunciatory dialogue? … Joseph, of course, could not have said these words. Who then is the Joseph in the midrash, who plays the role of the accuser? Our Sages wished to personify Judah’s conscience, the inner voice of remorse which plagued him at this turning of the tables.” (2)

At that point, I decided to move on with the class and we discussed other aspects of the midrash.

Yet as I thought back on the class in the days and weeks that followed, I grew more and more intrigued. How could it be that a midrash that presents obvious problems with common understandings of the Torah narrative would be seen as plausible and literally true by some very knowledgeable and learned people?

Concerned about this question, I began to explore how a few of our more respected traditional commentators regard the interpretation of midrash.

I found the following statement of the Ramban in a chronicle of a public debate he was forced to conduct in Spain in 1263 with an official of the government-supported Christian church:

“You should know that we have three kinds of books. The first is the Bible and all of us believe in it in perfect faith. The second is what is called the Talmud, which is commentary on the commandments of the Bible. There are 613 commandments in the Bible and there is not one of them that is not explained in the Talmud. We firmly believe in the Talmud’s explanations of the commandments. We have a third book called Midrash, meaning sermons. It is just as if the bishop would arise and deliver a sermon, and one of the listeners whom the sermon pleased recorded it. With regard to this book of sermons, if one believes in it, it is well and good; if one does not believe in it, he will not be harmed spiritually.” [3]

In placing midrash in the category of sermons, and stressing that they are not essential to proper faith, Ramban appears to negate the views of those who would consider them as literally true [4].

In contrast with the Ramban’s polite qualification of midrashim, Rambam was very direct in denouncing those who accept midrashim and/or Aggadeta with extraordinary stories as literally true.

“You should know that as to [understanding] the words of the sages [here he refers to Aggadeta], people are divided into three groups. The first group consists of the majority of the people I’ve met, those that I read their books or that I heard about. They understand them literally without explaining them at all, accepting impossibilities as facts. They do this because of their foolishness and their distance from the sciences, not having enough perfection to take notice themselves or because no one brought this to their attention … This poor group, a pity on their foolishness, think they are elevating the sages, while they are utterly debasing them without even taking notice. I swear in God’s name that this group destroys the beauty of Torah and darkens its luster, presenting it in a way that is the opposite of what was its intent. …” [5] [6]

There is little mystery to Rambam’s view of those who take Aggadeta and/or midrashim with extraordinary stories—he thinks they are fools!

The MaHaRal Mi Prague (Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague in the late 16th and early 17th centuries) also focused in his writings on how we should relate to the extraordinary tales in Aggadeta and Midrashic passages. As Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein describes the MaHaRal’s philosophy in this regard:

“What the MaHaRal teaches us … is that we should not be slaves to the literal meaning of words. The Sages employed a richness of expression, just as we today use our own idiomatic form … In explicating the words of the rabbis, we must always look for symbolism, allegory, idioms, and the clever turn-of-the-phrase that can say so much in so few words … The MaHaRal … rejects a superficial reading of the words of the rabbis, words he is convinced almost always disguise more than they reveal.” [7]

In our own era, Rabbi Yissocher Frand, a maggid shiur at Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, has stated periodically in his talks about the need to take Aggadeta and midrashim as illustrative, symbolic or figurative devices. For example, he stated in a talk about Purim, in which he discussed the Aggadic story of Vashti growing a tail:

“Often, when the Talmud relates an incident of Aggadic nature such as this, the Gemara is not to be taken literally. The Gemara is teaching a message with this story. We do not need to assume that Vashti literally grew a tail. The Chofetz Chaim suggests that the Gemara means something else.” [8]

Despite a thorough search online, a review of literature within my reach, and conversations with a few learned Torah teachers, I have (as yet) not been able to track down a clear statement from any Torah authority (from either the Talmudic or post-Talmudic era, or in our current era) who makes a strong case for why we should, by default, treat Aggadeta and midrashim as literally true. [9]

With such strong statements against Aggadic/Midrashic literalism, and a seeming absence of support for such literalism, why has it nonetheless become the approach of a number of our contemporaries in the observant world?

I believe that the wise Sages who wrote the Aggadeta/midrashim had faith in future generations’ ability to grapple with unusual stories and tease out their symbolism. And absent any traditional source arguing strongly for literalism, I regard it more as a simple way out of confronting difficult texts than as a viable, thoughtful alternative.

So I continue my quest to find out what other teachers and commentators have to say about how to using Aggadeta and midrashim to add meaning to our Torah study and mitzvah observance. And I welcome suggestions for other sources to consider.


1) See Nehama Leibowitz’s New Studies in Bereshit, pages 490-493.

2) Ibid, page 493.

3) Page 15 in Ramban: The Disputation at Barcelona, by Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel, published in 1983 by Shilo Publishing House, Inc. in New York, NY on behalf of Yeshivath Beth Moshe, Scranton, Pennsylvania.

4) In his footnotes on this passage, Rabbi Chavel comments that Ramban made this statement to deflect his Christian opponent’s criticism of certain midrashism that appear to be critical of Christianity. His comment implies that Ramban might have phrased his view of Midrash differently if he were in a less contentious and threatening setting.

5) The source for this quotation is the 11th perek of Rambam’s introduction to tractate of Chelek in the Gemara (Talmud).

6) I’ve used a translation of this passage provided by David Guttmann, which I found on the Jan. 18, 2008 posting on his blog, Believing is Knowing. This posting can be accessed at: http://yediah.blogspot.com/2008/01/foolishness-of-literalists-rambam-on.html I am very grateful to Rabbi Eli Reissman, a member of the Highland Park (NJ) Community Kollel and my teacher, who verified the source and the translation for me.

7) The source for this quotation is “Did Vashti Really Have A Tail? Unraveling The Mystery of Talmudic Stories,” by Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein in the summer 1991 issue of Jewish Action magazine, published by the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America. I found the text of this article at this website: http://heritage.org.il/innernet/archives/aggada.htm.

8) The source for this quote is the weekly email sent out from ‘[email protected]’ for Parshat Tetzaveh on February 21, 2013.

9) To be fair, my search is severely constrained by the fact that I do not speak Hebrew fluently (or Aramaic).

Harry Glazer offers periodic classes or talks in the Highland Park/Edison community on midrash, Pirkei Avot, Parshat HaShavua, and other topics. He welcomes feedback on this essay, which can be sent to [email protected]

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