Leave those Midrashim alone!

19 Nov

One of the many Torah leaflets that fill our synagogues here in Israel every Shabbat caught my eye this past week.

The article addressed the questions as to how old Abraham was when he first recognized the existence of God. There are a number of contradicting sources, here are two of them:

1. Said Rabbi Ami bar Abba, Abraham first recognized God when he was three years old…. (Babylonian Talmud Tractate Nedarim 32)

2. Rabbi Chananiah and Rabbi Yochanan both said Abraham was forty-eight years old when he recognized his creator…(Bereshit Rabbah 30:8)

Of course, the difference between these two positions is quite significant?  How are we to explain this serious discrepancy?  The Hagahot Maimoni (glosses to the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah by Rabbi Meir Hakohen , Germany, 13th century), suggests that there is no discrepancy, but rather Avraham’s religious development grew in stages: At the age of three he was already quite advanced and began his search from God.  By the time he had reached forty, he had made great advnaces in his understanding.

While Rabbi Meir HaKohen offers a wonderful way of resolving the contradiction between these two midrashic sources, I suggest that this approach is seriously flawed, and in fact, counterproductive.

Let me explain.

The study of midrash is not comparable to the study of history.  Some will suggest the information conveyed in  Midrash represents specially preserved insider information that was not recorded for one reason or another in the Torah text itself – a type of oral tradition that has accompanied the Torah since revelation on Mount Sinai. That being the case, it would seem that we have here two conflicting traditions of what happened, and so, Rabbi Meir HaKohen, like others of this ilk, search for a way of smoothing over the discrepancy (not to mention that the Rambam in the Laws of Idolatry 1:3 writes that Avraham was actually 40 – Rabbi Meir HaKohen offers a resolution to this as well!)

Franky, I choose to see it differently.

These two midrashic sources ARE in conflict. More importantly, neither Rabbi Ami bar Abba nor Rabbi Chananiah and Rabbi Yochanan were the least bit interested in transmitting to us some sort of orally preserved tradition passed down from Moses.  Rather, each of them wished to tell us something about Avraham.  Not something they knew for certain, but rather, the way they chose to comprehend his greatness.  Each approach actually teaches a different message.

According to Rabbi Ami, the greatness of Avraham was that he was a child genius.  He was an exceptional individual, a child prodigy. His unique intellect and insight is what launched him on his career as founder of monotheism and progenitor of the Jewish People.  Go d chose him in recognition of his superior mind and thoughtfulness.

Onthe other hand, Rabbis Chananiah and Yochanan offer a very different picture.  They offer us the role model of a man for nearly five decades lived as an idolater.  Only in his late 40’s did he come around to the realization that all he had believed in for so many years was a pack of lies – worship based on superstitions and service of gods created through the fears and nightmares of human beings who had come before him.  He reasoned that he had been mistaken, and he came to the realization, as an adult, that there had to be a transcendent God, with unlimited power and not constricted by space and time.  And so, it was based on this mature realization that came after having lived as an idolater that grabbed God’s attention and led Him to choose Abraham as the founding father of the Chosen People.

As long as we don’t try and make these two midrashic sources “fit together,” they stand to offer us two very different ways of understanding Avraham – or even better, of understanding the qualities of a great leader.  Some will argue that excellent leadership is an innate ability that when nurtured can raise a person and his or her followers to the highest of heights. On the other hand it might be the case that the best leaders rise up form the masses, they are people with first-hand mature understandings of what is out there, what people are thinking, what concerns them, what they are lacking.  According to this approach, an Abraham-type leader is a person who as a result of personal experience is able to empathize with the plight of others, and know what it is they are searching for in their lives.

Who is a better leader? There is no need to answer this question!  The excitement of the reading the midrashim in this way is to offer both models as possible options, and opening up channels for discussion and consideration.

Leave those Midrashim alone!  There is no need to make peace between them.  They ARE saying different things, and we are all richer for the diversity found in our tradition.

Have a great “day after Tuesday”,




2 Responses to “Leave those Midrashim alone!”

  1. Yanki Wednesday, November 19, 2008 at 2:21 pm #

    Midrashim are not meant to explain the Torah but to explain the problems the scholars of their times had with either questions posed to them or understandings. I applaud your approach to Midrashim since it does not attest to them qualities beyond what they in fact are, ideas.

  2. Barry Wednesday, November 19, 2008 at 7:55 pm #

    A nice way to approach midrashim that doesn’t dilute the author’s original intent. And a great analysis of the qualities of leadership – I think it also helps explain the Torah’s ambiguity as to when Moshe was aware of his Jewish identity: was it since early childhood, or later as an adult after believing for years that he was part of the Egyptian royal family? The Torah doesn’t say…

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