This Is My God: Midrash and Multiple Interpretations
Rabbinic writings are typically divided into two categories, halakhah and aggadah. In some ways, they are worlds apart from each other. Halakhah is the articulation and elucidation of the 613 mitzvot that constitute the Torah. It was developed foundationally in the Mishnah, Tosefta, and the Talmuds. The Babylonian Talmud continues to be the primary halakhic study text of traditional Jews.
Meanwhile, aggadah concerns subjects that are non-halakhic, such as folk tales, stories about the sages, and ethical and practical advice, but its most important contribution is its biblical commentary, which is largely theological. This literature is called aggadic Midrash (aggadic interpretation) or simply Midrash. It is the rabbis’ commentary on the Bible.
The main midrashic works are the Midrash collections that were completed during the first seven or eight centuries ce. Although Midrash anthologies have been produced over the years, they are not codes. To produce a midrashic code would be contrary to the idea of midrash, which tends to accommodate numerous interpretations, even competing ones, rather than decide which one is correct. Even so, the sages are not reluctant to invalidate interpretations when necessary.1 Although the midrashic sages are passionately interested in God and his relationship to Israel, they seldom require Jews to believe theological propositions.
In a nutshell, halakhah concerns personal and communal norms in areas such as ethics, ritual, and civil and criminal law. Aggadah focuses on biblical interpretation and theology. Although both are meant to shape the way Jews live and think, halakhah is obligatory, but aggadah is generally not. Yet, both process their concerns and move toward their goals by means of religious argument, usually called “disputes.” Disputes enable the sages to address their differences constructively rather than to break up into sects that advocate conflicting approaches to Jewish practice and belief. Without disputes, the Jewish community would have reverted to the sectarianism that divided Jews before the Hurban.
In this article, I discuss two disputes that took place early in the second century ce.2 The first is a halakhic dispute from the Mishnah; the second is an aggadic dispute from the Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael (“the Mekhilta”).
An Halakhic Dispute: Mishnah Shabbat 20.4
Halakhic disputes bring “various halakhic principles into juxtaposition and conflict”3 in the context of commonly held halakhah and procedure in order to define what is commanded, permitted, or forbidden, and to sort out their relationships. Mishnah Shabbat 20.4 exemplifies these characteristics.
This is an abbreviated version of a dispute that brings two halakhic principles, two mitzvot, into play: Jews are not permitted to work on Shabbat and we are obligated to take care of the needs of our domesticated animals. What should be done when these mitzvot conflict with each other? Instead of answering this question in an abstract manner, the sages bring the mitzvot into juxtaposition and conflict in a particular situation.
A. “They clean out [a feeding station] from before a fatted ox.
B. “And sweep to the sides because of [the possibility of being contaminated with] excrement.” These are the words of R. Dosa.
C. But the sages prohibit [it].
D. “They [may] take [fodder] from before one animal and put it before another animal on Shabbat.”4
The fatted ox is presumably a sloppy eater who left some uneaten food, mixed with straw and dirt, on the floor of his station. According to R. Dosa, it is permissible to sweep this mixture to one side and another for the purpose of cleanliness. This action stands for all actions that share the same features. But the sages prohibit it because it is a violation of Shabbat that is not necessary to feed the second animal. All actions that share the same features as the sweeping are declared a violation of Shabbat and are therefore prohibited. However, it is permissible to bring some of the first animal’s fodder from the trough to the second animal, who presumably did not have enough food at his station. Thus, feeding domesticated animals overrides Shabbat, but sweeping “to the sides” for the sake of cleanliness, or any action that shares the same features, is forbidden because maintaining clean fodder is not required, at least in this scenario.
The dispute brings two halakhic principles (that is, the operative rationales of two mitzvot) into juxtaposition, which immediately brings them into conflict. And here, as in all halakhic works, the sages are faced with a decision: Shall I sweep to the sides or not?5 In more complex disputes, there are several related decisions to be made, each of which adds at least a step to the dispute.
A Midrashic Argument: Mekhilta Shirata 3.10–18
To distinguish between halakhic and midrashic disputes, I designate aggadic disputes as arguments. Halakhic disputes and midrashic arguments both bring principles into juxtaposition and conflict. Since their goals are different, however, their emphases differ: halakhic disputes emphasize conflict in order to pressure the text to reveal logical inconsistencies; then the sage or sages can settle the dispute or continue by adding clarifying steps. Meanwhile, midrashic arguments emphasize juxtaposition in order to allow for two or more acceptable interpretations. In this passage from the Mekhilta, the sages accommodate six interpretations.
God has just delivered Israel from Pharoah’s army and Israel stands free on the far shore of the sea. As promised, God has brought them out of the slave house. How shall Israel respond to the epiphany of God appearing to them (as R. Eliezer claims)? Mekhilta Shirata 3.10–18 reports six interpretations or comments about the meaning and application of a line of poetry in Exodus 15:2: This is my God, and I will praise him.
The argument turns on the meaning of a single Hebrew word, v’anvehu, which is rendered and I will praise him in almost all current translations. The sages, however, rendered it and I will beautify him or and I will enshrine him (I will build a Temple for him). The argument turns on these two renderings.
10. This is my God and I will beautify him. R. Eliezer says: From [this] source you say that a maidservant saw by the sea what Isaiah6 and Ezekiel and the rest of the prophets did not see, as it is said: By the hand of the prophets I have given similes (Hos 12:10). And the heavens were opened and I saw visions [or, appearances] of God (Ezek 1:1).
They related a parable. What does this resemble? [This is] like a king of flesh and blood who enters a province surrounded by a circle of guards; mighty men on his right and his left, and armies/soldiers before him and behind him. And everyone asks: Which one is the king? Because he is of flesh and blood like those [who surround him]. But, when the Holy One, blessed be he, revealed himself at the sea, not one of them one had to ask: Which one is the king? But as soon as they saw him, they recognized him, and they all opened their mouths and said: This is my God and I will beautify him.
As Daniel Boyarin explains, in Midrash the deictic pronoun “this” [Heb., zeh] generally signifies something visible that a person is pointing toward, something that they can see.7 This was an epiphany, an appearance of God, when everyone among Israel saw the singular beauty of the One who just delivered them, and pointed, singing This is my God. God was visible to every Israelite, even someone of as low a status as a maidservant. Yet, even the least in Israel saw something that the prophets were not shown. The prophets saw him truly, but somewhat obscurely, while Israel at the sea saw him truly and clearly.
The parable adds that Israel recognized him when they saw him, even though they had not seen him before. No explanation is offered for this phenomenon.
This sets the scene for the midrashic argument that follows, in which five named sages and a group of unnamed sages interpret the Hebrew word v’anvehu, which is typically rendered as, and I will praise him. The passage is an argument in the sense that sages advance reasons for their interpretation. The idea that underlies arguments like this is that sages, and perhaps others, will continue to discuss and develop a variety of different interpretations from generation to generation.
Given the greatness of this epiphany, what shall Israel do? R. Ishmael, Abba Shaul, R. Yose, and R. Aqiba interpret it, I will beautify him; R. Yose of Damascus and a group of unnamed sages read it, I will enshrine him.
11. [First interpretation] And I will beautify him. R. Ishmael says: And is it possible for flesh and blood to beautify his Maker? But I shall be beautiful for him by observing the mitzvot. I shall prepare before him a beautiful lulav, a beautiful sukkah, beautiful tzitzit, and beautiful tefillin.
[Second interpretation] And I will beautify him. Abba Shaul says: Please be like him! Just as he is gracious and compassionate [or, merciful], so you also be gracious and compassionate.
In the various opinions offered by the sages in this argument, the first person singular “I” signifies Israel as a whole. As Samely comments, “Aggadic midrash . . . constructs the biblical past as if it were first-hand personal history.”8 All of the interpretations operate under the assumption that individuals participate in the experience of Israel and the sages speak for Israel in whatever timeframe(s) the interpretation has in view.
On the surface, R. Ishmael’s interpretation rests on human inability, but I suggest that this is a reflection of his awe at the singular beauty (or the beautiful singularity) of the One who made him, who appeared at the sea, to whom nothing can be added by a human creature. If one could add to God’s beauty, one would be a greater than God. Israel, however, can garnish God’s beauty by making themselves more beautiful for God by beautifying ritual objects that are associated with specific mitzvot. Thus, they make ritual objects such as the lulav, the sukkah, tzitzit, and tefillin more beautifully than the mitzvot themselves require. The practice of enhancing a mitzvah aesthetically (hiddur mitzvah) derives from this verse.9
Abba Shaul apparently concurs with R. Ishmael’s view that human beings cannot add to God’s beauty. His alternative is for Israel to reflect God’s beautiful character by being beautiful of character themselves. Emulating God, or hiddammut in Hebrew,10 is possible only when Israel draws near to God and express his graciousness and compassion to others.
12. [And I will beautify him.] [Third interpretation] R. Yose says: I shall proclaim the beauties and the splendor of Him Who Spoke and the World Came into Being, before all the nations of the world.
[Fourth interpretation] R. Yose of Damascus says: [The word v’anvehu means, and I will enshrine him.] I will make for him a beautiful Temple. Naveh is nothing but the Temple, as it is said: And laid waste his habitation [navehu] (Ps 79:7). And it says: Gaze upon Zion, the city of our appointed feasts; your eyes shall see Jerusalem a habitation [naveh] that is at ease (Isa 33:20).
R. Yose offers a third alternative: since human beings cannot add to God’s beauty, Israel shall proclaim his beauties and splendor to the nations, who would not otherwise know of them. Like Abba Shaul’s interpretation, this requires drawing near to God to behold his beauty while also speaking of it to the nations. Since no other nation was there at the sea, this is likely a reference to Israel’s mission to make God known among the nations.11
An underlying principle here is the distinction between the nations, which are ethnic groups in their political and military arrangements, and individuals who are born into this world (Mekhilta Shirata 3.3 and 3.9). The nations are typically aligned against Israel and therefore against God, while individuals share in God’s goodness from birth.
R. Yose of Damascus introduces a new line of thought that is based on a different understanding of the word v’anvehu. While he implicitly agrees that human beings cannot add to God’s singular beauty, Israel should fulfill their mandate by making a beautiful Temple for him.12 This interpretation will be spelled out at length by the group of unnamed sages, whose interpretation is last in the argument.
The last two interpretations, by R. Aqiba and the sages, are more detailed than the four that were spelled out in §11 and §12.
13. [Fifth interpretation] R. Aqiba says: I shall speak of the beauties and the splendor of Him Who Spoke and the World Came into Being, before all the nations of the world. For all the nations of the world ask Israel, saying: What is your beloved more than [another] beloved, most beautiful among women? (Song 5:9). What is your beloved more than another beloved that thus you die for him, you are killed for him? As it is said: Therefore the maidens love you (Song 1:3). [This means They love you as unto death. And it is written: For your sake are we killed all the day (Psa 44:22).] Look—you are handsome; look—you are mighty; come and mingle with us.
R. Aqiba begins with a word-for-word repetition of R. Yose’s interpretation. Although we have no way to know which sage first said it, in the context of this argument, R. Aqiba’s interpretation is an elucidation of R. Yose’s. However, instead of Israel taking the initiative, as in R. Yose’s interpretation, they respond to a question put to them by the nations in words quoted from the Song of Songs! They ask Israel, What is your beloved more than [another] beloved, most beautiful among women? In what way is your beloved so far superior to any other beloved (that is, any other god) that you are willing to suffer for him, even unto death? R. Aqiba’s interpretation is an expression of Israel’s utter devotion to God at the sea, in R. Aqiba’s time, and in the future, when Israel will refuse the nations’ request to come and mingle among them (see §15).
14. But Israel says to the nations of the world: Do you [even] recognize him? Let us tell you [even] a little of his glory: My beloved is white and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand (Song 5:10).
The quotation of Song 5:10 refers to the Song’s metaphorical description of the beloved in 5:10–16. If the nations had seen God’s singular beauty, they would not have challenged Israel to explain their love for God.
15. As soon as the nations of the world hear [even] a little of the glory of Him Who Spoke and the World Came into Being, they say to the Israelites: Let us go with you (Zech 8:23), as it is said: [The nations say:] Where has your beloved gone, O fairest among women? Which way has your beloved turned, and we will seek him with you (Song 6:1). But Israel says to the nations of the world: You have no share in him, but My beloved is mine and I am his [he grazes among the lilies] (Song 2:16) [and] I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine [he grazes among the lilies] (Song 6:3).
The quotation of Zechariah 8:23 shifts the attention to the time when God returns to Zion and Israel’s fasts become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah (Zech 8:19–23). Israel will beautify God by refusing to join those who do not even recognize him and by refusing to let them join with Israel for the same reason.
Thus, in R. Aqiba’s interpretation Israel beautifies God by loving him, if necessary unto death, at every point in time until after he returns to Zion.
16. [Sixth interpretation] And the sages say: I will accompany him until I come with him to his Temple [and he is enshrined].
The goal of deliverance from Egypt is apparently to return to the Land of Israel in freedom. However, in Exodus 29:46, God explains that his purpose is to meet with Israel in the tabernacle, dwell among them, and be their God. Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God who brought out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. The sight of the visible God prompts them to accompany him as he fulfills this purpose.
In the Mishnah, and to a lesser extent, the Tosefta, what “the sages say” is authoritative and definitive, as it is in the halakhic dispute in Mishnah Shabbat 20.4. This is not typically the case in midrash, however, so we cannot call this the Jewish interpretation of this verse. Here, the sages express their interpretation at great length and it is placed last of the six opinions; these are two rhetorical ways of signifying the importance, though not necessary the authority, of the sages’ interpretations.
17. They related a parable. [This is] like a king whose son who went away to a Mediterranean country. [The king] went out after him and stood by him. [Then] the son went to another country, and [the king] went out after him and stood by him. Thus, when Israel went down to Egypt the Shekhinah went down with them, as it is said: I will go down with you to Egypt (Gen 46:4).
[When] they came up [from Egypt], the Shekhinah came up with them, as it is said [in a vision]: And I will also bring you up again (Gen 46:4). When they went into the sea, the Shekinah was with them, as it is said: Then the angel of God [who went before the host of Israel (Exod 14:19). When they went out to the wilderness, the Shekhinah was with them, as it is said: And the Lord went before them by day (Exod 13:21). Until he brought them with him to his Temple.
God seemingly invites Jacob to believe that he, or he and his family, will return from Egypt to the Land, where he will die, and Joseph will close his eyes. Since Jacob died in Egypt and was returned to the Land only as bones, Genesis 46:4 cannot be taken literally. The point of the parable is that the Shekhinah brought Israel with him to his Temple.
This midrash, however, differs from non-rabbinic interpretations in at least two important ways. First, it implicitly refers the promise to the man Jacob and the people Israel rather than the less particular “Jacob’s posterity.” Second, the claim is that the Shekhinah went down with them to Egypt and came up with them to the Land. By using the word “Shekhinah,” the midrash claims that God dwelled with or among Israel, beginning when they went down into Egypt and the entire time they were in Egypt.
18. And so it says: As soon as I passed them I found him [whom my soul loves, I held him, and would not let him go until I had brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her who conceived me] (Songs 3:4).13
The sages quote the first few words of Song of Songs 3:4, referencing the whole verse, which ends with Israel bringing God into the Temple. The chamber of her who conceived me is associated with the Temple by a word play. It is conceivable that the sages’ interpretation addresses the situation after the Hurban in 70 ce. Since God delivered Israel from Egypt in order to dwell with them in the Temple, they can be confident that the Temple will be rebuilt in the future.
Purposes of Midrash
Halakhic disputes bring “various halakhic principles into juxtaposition and conflict”14 in order to define the practices of Torah with great precision. Midrashic arguments aggregate multiple rabbinic interpretations in order to achieve breadth and depth of interpretation. Even when Midrash brings interpretations into a measure of conflict, the goal seems to be to identify which interpretation or interpretations are most relevant or appropriate in context rather than which are correct to the exclusion of others.
Halakhic disputes narrow their discourse to the one correct interpretation or definition; midrashic arguments generally expand their discourse by incorporating multiple interpretations without deciding among them. In this way, they implicitly validate every incorporated interpretation as parts of its argument.
Cass Fisher, a scholar of Jewish thought, observes that theology in Midrash provides a “fundamental orientation to the divine that makes all of the other elements of the religious life possible.”15 Since Fisher could not mean that Jewish religious life was not possible before the advent of Midrash, he must mean that the particular orientation to God that is provided by Midrash makes the sages’ idea of Jewish life possible.
In Mekhilta Shirata 3, the sages’ idea of Jewish life is communal and individual. The midrashic argument is that Israel saw God and responded to the epiphany as a community, while individually they understood and practiced the implications of their response in differing ways.
Rabbi Eliezer begins the argument by explaining, “as soon as they [Israel] saw him [God], they recognized him, and they all opened their mouths and said: This is my God and I will beautify him [v’anvehu].” This is followed by six16 rabbinic interpretations of v’anvehu, reported one after the other with any attempt to adjudicate between them. It seems that the sages were free to interpret biblical and traditional writings without the constraints of literalism or a precisely defined conceptual uniformity.
When interpretation is broad and multiple rather than narrow and precise, individuals are freer to think and act in a greater variety of ways while remaining within a broad communal orientation to God. The sages’ ability to articulate their arguments in terms of multiple interpretations contributed to a culture of diverse and creative thinking that has characterized the Jewish way of life ever since.
The generations of sages, who largely shaped the Jewish way of life, seem to have crafted it very well in explicitly communal and individual terms. As Fisher writes, Midrash provides a “fundamental orientation to the divine that makes all of the other elements of the religious life possible.”17 I would add that, in Midrash, the sages seek to inscribe this orientation on each and every element of Jewish life in a way that nevertheless requires, rather than suppresses, individuality.
The sages and the communities did not always live up to these descriptions. The sages recorded conflicts in communities, among the sages, and between communities and the sages. However, it seems that Jewish communities in those days were generally sound ones, especially in light of the challenges of daily life in imperial lands, where the community worked together to provide for everything from social services to public works such as building and maintaining synagogues and roads.18
Although study of the halakhic portions of the Talmud has pride of place, every generation of sages and other Jews up to the present has also studied and been influenced by Midrash. One of its great contributions to the Jewish way of life is its approach to God that is fully communal and fully individual. Its implicit validation of multiple interpretations has served ever since to nurture breadth of thought among Jewish thinkers of all kinds.
Rabbi Carl Kinbar, founder and director of the New School for Jewish Studies (http://nsfjs.org/), studied Midrash with Rabbi Bernard Grossfeld z”l. He earned a DLitt et Phil (Doctor of Literature and Philosophy) at the University of South Africa, and an M.S. in Jewish Studies at Spertus College. Rav Kinbar received Smicha from the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (MJRC).
1 Michael Fishbane, “Anthological midrash and cultural paideia: the case of Songs Rabba 1.2” in Textual Reasonings: Jewish Philosophy and Text Study at the End of the Twentieth Century, ed. Peter Ochs and Nancy Levine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 43–4.
2 2 This assumes the probable period of time when these sages were active (90–130 ce).
3 Jacob Neusner, Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 266.
4 All translations are mine. For Mekhilta Shirata 3.10–18, I consulted Judah Goldin, The Song at the Sea: Being a Commentary on a Commentary in Two Parts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971); Jacob Z. Lauterbach, Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael: A Critical Edition on the Basis of the Manuscripts and Early Editions with an English Translation, Introduction, and Notes (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1961); Jacob Neusner, Mekhilta According to Rabbi Ishmael: An Analytic Translation. Volume One: Pisha, Beshallah, Shirata, and Vayassa. Brown Judaic Studies 148 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988); Ishay Rosen-Zvi, “Can the Homilists Cross the Sea Again? Revelation in Mekilta Shirata” in The Significance of Sinai: Traditions about Sinai and Divine Revelation in Judaism and Christianity, George J. Brooke, Hindy Najman and Loren T. Stuckenbruck, eds. (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 217–45.
5 Although this halakhic dispute is simple, or perhaps because of it, there are unresolved loose ends. For example, if there is no other fodder left in the feeding trough, and the second animal is still hungry, would it then be permissible to keep the spilled fodder clean for the second animal?
6 This is probably a scribal error. It should read “Hosea.”
7 Daniel Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 120–21.
8 Alexander Samely, Forms of Rabbinic Literature and Thought: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 194.
9 Jonathan Greenstein, “Celebrating the Holidays with Judaica,” Journal of Antiques & Collectibles, December, 2016, http://journalofantiques.com/features/celebrating-holidays-judaica/2016. Accessed 10/12/20.
10 Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Majesty and Humility,” Tradition 17:2 (Spring, 1978): 25–37.
11 Shaye J.D. Cohen, “Did Ancient Jews Missionize?” Bible Review 19 (4, 2003): 40–47.
12 It is plausible that R. Yose of Damascus is hinting that Israel will enshrine God when the Temple, which had recently been destroyed, is eventually rebuilt.
13 The wordplay is also found in Genesis Rabbah 63.2 and 98.2 and Leviticus Rabbah 1.12.
14 Jacob Neusner, Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 266.
15 Cass Fisher, “Beyond the Homiletical: Rabbinic Theology as Discursive and Reflective Practice,” The Journal of Religion 90, no. 2 (2010): 236.
16 The six interpretations are representative rather than definitive; there is a virtually unlimited number of possible responses to the epiphany.
17 Fisher, “Beyond the Homiletical,” 236.
18 For a general article on the sages and their times, see Carl Kinbar, “The Sages of Galilee and the Formation of Community,” Kesher: A Journal of Messianic Judaism 37 (Summer/Fall 2019): 85–91.