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Recent Developments in Jewish Thought: the Field of Midrash

by Ira Robinson, Concordia University


In this conference, we the presenters are supposed to be reporting to the community on "the cutting edge" of Jewish studies, the most recent developments in the field. There is a good reason for us to do so. Like all academics, we have the privilege of pursuing our studies as we see fit. However we can never pursue these studies without taking into the most serious consideration the needs and desires of the greater public which may be interested in what we are doing. This public, whatever other elements it may contain, certainly includes the Jewish community and that community is increasingly a sophisticated and demanding one. As Daniel Gordis stated in a somewhat different context, "in an age of doubt and intellectual crosscurrents, our laity is much too intellectually inquisitive and too highly educated to accept religious precepts without having them grounded in secular, 'state of the art' terminology and concepts."i We in the academy can assume no less. The second reason for our reporting to you at this conference is that we, the current academic practitioners of Jewish studies, are conscious and have been for some time that what we are doing is no longer a novelty on the North American scene. Having come to a certain stage of "maturity", we are obliged to examine ourselves and look at both our virtues and shortcomings.ii

My assignment as reporter today was given me by the conference's organizers months ago. It was to report on the area of "Jewish Thought". Beyond that generality, I was given no specific instruction in terms of choosing a topic. After considerable reflection, I decided to report on midrash. By the end of this report I hope you will understand why. At this point, however, I think it is fair to say that I personally believe midrash to be not merely an intrinsically interesting field within the area of Jewish thought, but also one in which we can see most clearly illustrated some of the major issues and problematic relationships between the academy, practitioners of Jewish studies and the general public. I may perhaps begin with the observation that this article is the first for which I have done a significant amount of my research on the internet.iii


In a formal sense, midrash is to be understood as a process of interpretation, most prominently of the Hebrew Bible, undertaken by people calling themselves Jews, most prominently ancient and early medieval rabbis. It also includes the corpus of texts recording these interpretations.iv I will not go any farther (or perhaps I have even now gone too far) because I tend to agree with James Kugel when he wrote:

There are many recent works that seek to define midrash, and nothing would be gained here by attempting to reduce these efforts to a few sentences; though one might say more pointedly...that since these studies have already not defined midrash in ample detail, there is little purpose in our not defining it again here.v

Whatever it is, midrash has been assiduously pursued and studied by Jews for hundreds and thousands of years. Its texts have been extensively preserved, analyzed and revered within the Judaic tradition. To the extent that midrash has come to the consciousness of those outside that tradition, however, it has often sounded strange, ludicrous and even sacreligious. Thus, to take an extreme but instructive example, Pope Gregory IX in 1239 characterised Rabbinic literature--with special reference to its midrashic content--thus: "In this is contained matter so abusive and so unspeakable that it arouses shame in those who mention it and horror in those who hear it."vi

This radically different reading of the midrashic thought of the rabbis--reverence within the Judaic tradition and revulsion on the part of those Christians who looked in--goes to the heart of the major problem that Jewish studies in the academy was meant to solve.


We who teach subjects like midrash in a university setting trace our intellectual anscestry back to Germany in the early part of the nineteenth century. At that time, in a context of a Jewish struggle for equal civil and political rights and at a time of momentous change in Judaism, a pioneer scholar of what was to become academic Jewish studies, Leopold Zunz, set forth a program for a "scientific" study of the Jews and their literature which would result in nothing less than the solution to the problems of the Jews as he understood them. His position was well summarized by Nahum Glatzer, who wrote:

Zunz links the neglect of Jewish literature with the inferior civil status of the Jewish community; only a knowledge of the spiritual heritage of Jewry will encourage enlightened statesmen to grant the Jew the same rights and civil liberties as the rest of the nation. The Jew who is familiar with his people's past will know how to reform his religious customs and thereby prepare himself for his new status in society.vii

We will yet return to the nexus between Jewish studies and the Jews' relationship to their society.

In embarking on his mission, Zunz and those who followed him, to this day, have attempted to present the Jewish phenomenon in the language of general academic discourse. Zunz, for example, is celebrated as a pioneer in the field of midrash. His major work, Die Gottesdienstliche Vorträge der Juden historisch entwickelt (1832) is cited even in present studies in the literary history of midrash.viii His presentation of midrash, and those scholarly presentations which followed his, necessarily involved a process of "translation" in which, consciously or not, the concepts inherent in the original sources were changed to those of contemporary academic coinage.ix As Jay Harris stated:

the constructs [of nineteenth century academic Jewish studies] help[ed] diminish the legal and historical significance of rabbinic patterns of reading. The distance between rabbinic and modern textuality was simply too great for these scholars to seriously countenance the possibility that the rabbis really read Scripture as the rabbinic documents say they did...they were driven to retrieve rabbinic culture in a manner that diminished its apparent irrationality. x

They had to. As Harris further asserts, for leaders of "any form of Judaism that engaged modernity on any level...Modern textual assumptions allowed little room for doubt that learned and critical historical and/or linguistic analyses could determine the definitive meaning of a text. In the face of such assumptions, rabbinic patterns of reading and applying the Bible appeared misguided and in need of full or partial rejection or explanation in order to sustain some kind of Jewish religious commitment in the modern world."xi

In other words, nineteenth century academic scholarship, for good and sufficient political and religious purposes, needed to assert that midrashic texts either did not really mean what they said (just as midrashic texts themselves assert that the Torah does not always mean what it literally says), or, if they did, that they had little or no determinitive implications for the essential development of Judaism. These assertions were couched in the idiom of the nineteenth century university, in which historical and textual studies reigned. For this reason, academic studies in midrash have tended in the past century or so to be, first of all, historical in nature, in which scholars tended to understand midrashic texts as reflections of events contemporary with the protagonists.xii Beyond that, as Barry Holtz remarked in passing, scholarly work was "concerned primarily with issues of textual transmission and variant readings". xiii In other words, you don't know anything truly unless and until you have established a "definitive" text. Vast energies were spent by scores of researchers of midrashic and other rabbinic texts in the creation or recreation of "original" texts.


The first thing of importance I have to report to you is that that scholarly consensus has recently been the subject of very strong challenges. Because of this, the study of ancient and medieval Judaic texts in general, and of rabbinic texts in particular, has undergone an important change. Peter Schäfer, in a 1986 article, puts the problem in this way:

What is a 'text' in rabbinic literature? are there texts that can be defined and clearly delimited, or are there basically only 'open' texts, which elude temporal and redactional fixation? Have there ever been 'Urtexte' of certain works and a development that could be traced and described?...And finally what is redaction or final redaction? Are there several 'redactions' of a work--in chronological order--but only one final redaction?...Or is the final redaction merely the more or less incidental discontinuation of the manuscript tradition?xiv

Schäfer is certainly not the only one with this concern. Malachi Beit-Arié, talking about medieval Hebrew manuscripts (and we have no rabbinic texts in any earlier exemplars), stated:

Therefore many principles and practices of classical textual criticism, such as the establishing of genetic relationships between manuscripts, stemmatic classification, the reconstruction of archetypes and the restoration of the original are not applicable to Hebrew manuscripts, not only because many of these represent horizontal rather than verticle transmission and so provide us with open rescensions, but also because their text may have been affected by the intervention of learned copyists.xv

We can see that the efforts of a century and a half of academic scholars attempting to establish reconstructed, "original" texts has lost, to say the least, some of the solidity of the ground on which their discipline was established. But there is one more statement of importance that Beit-Arié makes in this context. He said that "What medieval copyists performed while copying was indeed what in modern theories of criticism is known as deconstructing the text and then reconstructing it."xvi


This statement brings us to the second major development to report: the reconceptualization of midrash in light of important trends in the academic study of literature. A wonderfully evocative statement about midrash as literature comes from the felicitous pen of Judah Goldinxvii:

Midrash is not belles-lettres: it does not care to reflect on the beautiful for its own sake; it does not tell its stories for the sake and delight of the story itself (this may be an exaggeration); its poetry is not for the pleasure to be had from the poem itself.xviii But in the reflections and parables and homilies of the Midrash, in the very daring to fly far beyond the literal as it creates hortatory exegesis, in the initiative it takes to explain the biblical past with the help of the present-beloved are anachronisms!-and the present as a prolongation of the biblical past, in the determination to prove appealing to scholar and non-scholar alike (though there were occasions when the Sage directed his remarks specifically to a non-scholarly audience), in the way it enjoys quoting biblical verses, one after the next and the next-thus stirring in the mind sounds and memories that would otherwise vanish, the surrealistic way it catches sight of signs of the future in biblical figures of speech: In all these ways it leads the modern man toward the discourse which has come to mean so much to him, the discourse of the humane and beautiful, the discourse that tries to satisfy a desperate human need: the need for flight from surrounding ugliness, the need to escape from the crushing commonplace.xix

The relationship between midrash and literature has been very much stimulated by recent trends in literary analysis like semiotics and deconstruction, trends that have gone under the generic title of "postmodern". David Stern puts it this way:

Under the impact of [contemporary literary] theory, midrash has gone through a veritable sea change. The focus of the field, its methods, its conceptual premises, have all experienced a fundamental, radical transformation. And during the same period, midrash has gained a currency within the larger intellectual world that it never possessed before.xx

A key to this process has been postmodernism's reaction against the notion that all texts have and must in principle have only one, unique, objective meaning. In questioning this understanding of midrash, scholars are, in Daniel Boyarin's words, opposing:

the allegorical-Aristotelian tradition of Judaism, best represented by Maimonides...[which] has gained hegemony in the dominant Jewish culture.xxi

This opposition recognizes, once again in Boyarin's words, that:

all interpretation and historiography is representation of the past by the present, that is, that there is no such thing as value-free, true and objective rendering of documents. They are always filtered through the cultural, socio-ideological matrix of their readers.xxii

Furthermore, this opposition has based itself on the concept of intertextuality. This means, in effect, that there is no text that can exist entire of itself without reflecting on and interacting with the literary systems and discourses of which it is a part.xxiii For a number of scholars, both within and without the field of Jewish studies, who have adopted this theoretical framework for their research, midrash has been a source of fascination because of its "transgressive character...the nonchalance with which it constantly violates the boundaries between text and commentary."xxiv It was also seen, by some as an important precursor to the literary theories of postmodernism.xxv

It should be noted that this intertextual way of understanding midrashic texts has been vigorously opposed by Jacob Neusner, among others, though, by his own admission, Neusner did not understand much of the theoretical literature on intertextuality.xxvi Neusner's many volumes on the ancient rabbis and their writings, numbering in the hundreds, is characterized by a belief that each separate rabbinic composition must be understood, first and foremost, as a separate work, with its own weltanschaung and not be simply understood as synoptic texts, informing each other and possessing an organic connection.xxvii For Neusner, this sort of intertextual reading looks suspiciously close to the "theological convictions of faithful Jews, whether Orthodox or Reform, Conservative or Israeli or Reconstructionist."xxviii It is too easy, Neusner thinks, to engage in theology as scholarship than to address issues germane to the interests of other, non-Judaically committed academics, as Neusner claims to do in his own analyses. This dispute is a classic example of the adage that there is almost literally nothing advanced as a thesis by a reputable scholar that is not considered damn foolishness by another reputable scholar.


In what context, then, can we understand the contemporary scholarship of midrashic texts, and, by extension, all texts of the Judaic tradition? Can we, in David Stern's words, "secularize our understanding of this inherently religious literature, as we must, without profaning it?."xxix Also, has our "secularized" understanding of these texts and that tradition, which goes under the name of Jewish studies, engaged the serious attention of the academy? In the case of midrash, as well as kabbalah,xxx the answer to the latter question appears to be yes. All the contemporary scholars of midrash we are dealing with, whatever their epistemologies, are serious about getting the rabbis and their writings within the general purview of the academy as a whole.

At the start of this report, we noted that in its nineteenth century beginnings, Jewish studies was concerned with the solution of the key problems of Jewish life as then perceived. Has this changed? Looking at this issue from the perspective of contemporary studies in midrash, it seems reasonably clear that essential motivations have not changed all that much.xxxi If Zunz and his colleagues in the early nineteenth century wished to have their new discipline make a political difference in the way the Jewish community was perceived, so too at the end of the twentieth century. Boyarin expresses the issue in this way:

The valorization of midrash as interpretation and indeed as a model for interpretation means as well the revoicing of a Jewish discourse in the discourse of the West. The liberal term "Judaeo-Christian" masks a suppression of that which is distinctly Jewish. It means "Christian", and by not even acknowledging that much, renders the suppression of Jewish discourse even more complete. It is as if the classical Christian ideology--according to which Judaism went out of existence with the coming of the Christ, and the Jews are doomed to anachronism by their refusal to accept the truth--were recast in secular, anthropological terminology. In recent theoretical writing about literature...the unique Jewish discourse called midrash has been distinguished and has even entered the theoretical canon...This is profoundly encouraging...that my work has meaning and importance beyond a coterie of specialists.xxxii

Neusner, like Boyarin, is likewise convinced that his study of the ancient rabbis has "framed an approach to the study of religion, that is, to the history and comparison of religions, that can well serve beyond the limits of Judaisms."xxxiii

If Zunz and his colleagues sought to make a difference in the religious and intellectual life of modern Jews, then contemporary Jewish studies, as illustrated by the field of midrash, can be shown to be also seeking an audience among Jews of various levels of belief or nonbelief seeking meaning in their lives, though the difficulties inherent in presenting midrash to contemporary Jewish audiences are legion.xxxiv For those Jews who desire to utilise Jewish studies in order to engage in a continuation of their religious tradition, Michael Fishbane tries to show a way:

The new voice of the contemporary scholar is no more the voice of the old interpreters than theirs was the primary voice of Hebrew scripture. Like its predecessors, this new voice is also engaged in prolonging the words of the ancient text...Scholarly discourse may therefore rightly be seen as a kind of supercommentary, analyzing texts with the ideas and methods of one's own historical situation and integrating them into new orders of significance...I do not believe that the older interpreters did any less, in their own way. It is therefore a renewal of their double-voicedness that I have tried to achieve... and in so doing, to prolong the voices of Scripture through my own exegetical imagination.xxxv

There are also Jews who wish to be engaged in a Jewish discourse, though unable to see themselves necessarily as continuators of a religious Judaic tradition, David Stern tries to show them a way as well. He sees in midrash:

...the capacity for modern Jewish scholarship to transcend its secondary status as commentary on the classics of the past and to become a source of Jewish creativity in its own right--that is to be able to embody the meaningfulness of Jewish tradition (even without necessarily subscribing to its content).xxxvi

Please send us your comments and questions!


i Daniel Gordis, "The Elusive Conservative Third Generation", Conservative Judaism 37 (1983), p. 34.

ii Cf. Bernard Cooperman, "Jewish Studies and Jewish Identity: Some Implications of Secularizing Torah", Judaism 42 (1993), pp. 229-242.

iii Thus one of the most comprehensive bibliographies on the subject is produced by Lewis Barth et al. and is available on the internet (

iv Cf. Barry Holtz, "Midrash", in Barry Holtz, ed. Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts (New York, 1984), p. 178.

v James L. Kugel, "Two Introductions to Midrash", in Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick, eds., Midrash and Literature (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1986), p. 91.

vi Cited in Robert Chazan, ed. Church, State and Jew in the Middle Ages (New York, 1980), p. 222.

vii N.N. Glatzer, "Leopold Zunz", Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem, 1972), volume 16, col. 1238. Cf. Ismar Schorsch, From Text to Context: the Turn to History in Modern Judaism (Hanover and London, 1994), pp. 161-173, 180-198, 233-248.

viii David Stern, Midrash and Theory: Ancient Jewish Exegesis and Contemporary Literary Studies (Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1996), p. 7.

ix Cf. Peter Schäfer, "Research Into Rabbinic Literature: An Attempt to Define the Status Quaestionis", Journal of Jewish Studies 37 (1986), p. 141.

x Jay Harris, How Do We Know This?:Midrash and the Fragmentation of Modern Judaism (Albany, State University of New York Press, 1995), p. 262.

xi Harris, How Do We Know This, p. 257.

xii Cf. Daniel Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 119.

xiii Holtz, "Midrash", p. 205.

xiv Peter Schäfer, "Research Into Rabbinic Literature", p. 150. Cf. a spirited defense of the enterprise of text reconstruction by Chaim Milikowsky, "The Status Quaestionis of Research in Rabbinic Literature", Journal of Jewish Studies 39 (1988), pp. 201-211, and Schäfer's response in "Once Again the Status Quaestionis of research in Rabbinical Literature: An Answer to Chaim Milikowsky", Journal of Jewish Studies 40 (1989), pp. 89-94.

xv Malachi Beit-Arié, "Transmission of Texts By Scribes and Copyists: Unconscious and Critical Interferences", Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 75 (1993), pp. 50-51. Cited in Lewis M. Barth, "Is Every Medieval Hebrew Manuscript a New Composition?: The Case of Pirqé Rabbi Eliezer", in Marc Lee Raphael, ed. Agenda for the Study of Midrash in the 21st Century (Williamsburg, VA, 1999). Internet:, p. 3.

xvi Ibid.

xvii On Goldin and his approach to the study of midrash, see Judah Goldin and the Study of Rabbinics: Proceedings of a Symposium in Memory of Professor Judah Goldin (1914-1998) (Philadelphia, Jewish Studies Program of the University of Pennsylvania, 1999).

xviii Cf. Daniel Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, p. x, who asserts that "Literary theory today is not focussed on beauty but on meaning".

xix Judah Goldin, Studies in Midrash and Related Literature (Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1988), p. 251.

xx David Stern, Midrash and Theory, p. 1.

xxi Daniel Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, p. xii. Cf. Geoffrey Hartman, "The Struggle for the Text", in Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick, eds., Midrash and Literature, pp. 8-9.

xxii Daniel Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, p. 12.

xxiii Ibid., p. 14.

xxiv David Stern, Midrash and Theory, p. 4.

xxv On the problematic nature of this theory, see Stern, Midrash and Theory, p. 6.

xxvi Thus Neusner states, in relation to an article on theories of intertextuality, "Among the diverse theories at hand, the one of greatest relevance (footnote 4: Or, at any rate, the only one I could undertand.) Canon and Connection: Intertextuality in Judaism (Lanham, University Press of America, 1987), p. 151. When Neusner recycled this statement in a volume he published in the next year, it was modified to read: "the others [i.e. theories] in her survey did not seem to me pertinant to the issues at hand". Wrong Ways and Right Ways in the Study of Formative Judaism: Critical Method and Literature, History and the History of Religion (Atlanta, Scholars Press, 1988), p. 34, n. 8.

xxvii Jacob Neusner, Canon and Connection, pp. xi, 147. For a critique of Neusner's approach, see Shaye J.D. Cohen, "Jacob Neusner, Mishnah and Counter-Rabbinics: a Review Essay", Conservative Judaism 37 (1983), pp. 48-63.

xxviii Jacob Neusner, Canon and Connection, p. xi.

xxix David Stern, Midrash and Theory, p. 2.

xxx Cf. Joseph Dan, "Midrash and the Dawn of Kabbalah", in Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick, eds., Midrash and Literature, p. 127.

xxxi Jay Harris feels that the nineteenth century arguments for and against midrash will be sublated in the current theoretical discourse. How Do We Know This?, p. 263.

xxxii Daniel Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, p. xi. Cf. David Stern, Midrash and Theory, p. 2.

xxxiii Jacob Neusner, Wrong Ways and Right Ways in the Study of Formative Judaism, pp. xviii-xix.

xxxiv Cf. Barry Holtz, "Midrash and Modernity: Can Midrash Serve a Contemporary Religious Discourse?" in Jack Wertheimer, ed., The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era (New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, 1992), pp. 377-391.

xxxv Michael A. Fishbane, The Exegetical Imagination: on Jewish Thought and Theology (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1998), pp. 4-5.

xxxvi David Stern, Midrash and Theory, p. 13.


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