Dancing with the Text: The Rabbinic Use of Midrashic Allegory

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Malka Z. Simkovich

Last Spring, I taught a Bible course at the Catholic graduate school where I work as a Professor of Jewish Studies called Women in the Scriptures. My students entered my classroom already knowing many of the biblical stories that were on my syllabus. But they were also aware that they had not studied these stories closely, as written texts. They had received these tales, tales such as the fall of the man and woman in the Garden of Eden, the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, and the Israelites’ worshipping of a golden calf, as cultural traditions whose narrative details have been blurred and shifted from teacher to teacher, and from age to age.

In the opening unit of the course, which focused on the scriptural account and reception histories about Eve, some of my students were startled to learn certain details which they had not previously heard from their teachers. Eve’s name, for instance, does not appear in the scriptural story; she is simply known as The Woman. Only after Eve’s entire identity is upended, after she is plucked from a rooted life in the Garden, and after she is required to start again, in an unfamiliar and threatening wilderness outside the domain of total divine protection, is she named. And when my students discover that, despite the abundance of medieval Christian art depicting Eve holding an apple in the Garden, there was no apple involved when she feeds Adam (or more accurately, The Man), some begin to grapple with a rising tension between what they read in the text, and what they have long been taught about the story. They begin to interrogate their assumptions about the story’s details and its theological ramifications. What exactly occurred when the woman approached her husband and caused a disastrous fall from grace? How can a story so important be missing so many key details? The stories that my students have learned about the Garden of Eden do not equip them to encounter the biblical text.

While “textual encounters” animate some of my students, others disengage, declaring the text to be more or less irrelevant to their spiritual lives, bearing little meaning in comparison to the story’s transmitted and interpreted versions. These students are intuiting a sophisticated argument: it is possible to attribute significance to one particular, even later, version of a story, and perhaps it is the attribution of significance that makes a version authentic – even if it is not the original one, or the written one.

As it happens, Orthodox Jews are actively engaged in the same tensions as Christian readers of the Bible. One classic example arises yearly on Passover, when observant Jews read the Song of Songs, often with the Artscroll translation. The Song of Songs, which on its face reads as a love poem, includes erotic imagery which gave rise to rabbinic discussion regarding whether the text should be included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. This debate is seemingly resolved by Rabbi Akiva’s statement that, while other biblical books are holy, the Song of Songs is akin to the Holy of Holies (Yadayim 3:5). Akiva’s interpretive wordplay on the grammatical syntax of the Song’s name, which implies that the Song of Songs is a superlative expression of Israel’s love for God, just as the Holy of Holies is a space of superlative and exclusive worship of the divine, correlates with later midrashic traditions that the Song is an allegory depicting Israel’s relationship with God, a relationship which is often presented in biblical prophetic literature similar to a romantic relationship. Picking up on the midrashic tradition, Artscroll’s translation of the Song of Songs goes even further, insisting that a literal translation of the Song of Songs is not only incorrect, but deceptively heretical. The Artscroll edition of the Song of Songs offers the following comment of introduction:

The Song is an allegory. It is the duet of love between God and Israel. Its verses are so saturated with meaning that nearly every one of the major commentators finds new themes in its beautiful but cryptic words. All agree, however, that the true and simple meaning of Shir HaShirim is the allegorical meaning. The literal meaning of the words is so far from their meaning that it is false.

Artscroll puts this claim front and center on their website as well with a pithy byline that advertises Artscroll’s Song of Songs translation as “the first English translation faithful to the allegory that is the Song’s authentic meaning.” And yet, the Artscroll editors are not offering a midrashic interpretation of the Song of Songs, in line with rabbinic tradition. They are offering a translation of the Song of Songs that does not correspond to the literal meaning of the Hebrew text. The editors of Artscroll are making a theological claim: allegory can reflect a text’s authentic meaning, which in turn can transform the plain-sense meaning of a scriptural text, the peshat, into a falsehood which must be rejected.

The rejection of literal renderings of the text can give way to an increasing lack of interest in critically engaging with the text. Once a text’s meaning becomes elusive, and no interpretive barometers are provided by which to know whether to trust a text, a text can become vulnerable to whatever authority or community exercises upon it its desired mode of interpretation. And once literal readings of problematic stories become undermined, new readings can be offered which better correlate with our worldviews.

Monty Python’s 1979 film Life of Brian brilliantly satirizes the revisionism that ascribes meaning to new versions of the text. When Jesus delivers his Sermon on the Mount, a crowd of people gather in the back of the assembly, trying to hear the speech above the crowd’s din:

JESUS: They shall have the earth… 

GREGORY: What was that? 

JESUS: …for their possession. How blessed are those… 

R. CHEEKY:I don’t know. I was too busy talking to Big Nose.

JESUS: …who hunger and thirst to see… 

MAN #1: I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers.’ 

JESUS: …right prevail!

MRS. GREGORY: Ahh, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?

GREGORY: Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

This exchange ingeniously taps into the ways in which Jews in the first century – both followers of Jesus, and those who rejected him as a messianic figure – liberally reformed their texts by supplementing them with oral traditions. Such active interpretation, of course, would continue through the 21st century, and not only by “faithful reformers.” Biblical scholars of the Protestant tradition would reformulate scriptural texts in radically new ways in the late 19th century by developing theories regarding four main compositional layers of the Pentateuch. The result was essentially a de-threading of strands which comprised the Hebrew Bible: by pulling its compositional strings out, these scholars laid bare the atomized statements which replaced, competed, undermined, or rested alongside one another.

Readers who would place themselves on opposite ends of the interpretive spectrum—minimalists who assume that unless proven otherwise, the narrative material in the Bible is not historical, and maximalists who assume that unless proven otherwise, the narrative material in the Bible is historical—sometimes meet in the same place. Julius Wellhausen, the German Protestant father of Biblical Criticism, and Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, the author of Artscroll’s commentary to the Song of Songs, get the reader to the same message: do not read scriptural texts as a literal representation of what someone, or some people, once thought.

At the same time, the scene from the Life of Brian reminds us that this is nothing new. From the time that the Hebrew Bible was coming into its final form in the Second Temple period, it was at the same time being actively interpreted, and from the time that it was being actively interpreted, it was being allegorized. Mistrusting the written word—or rather, insisting that the deeper and truer meaning of a text lies behind the written word, which acts as a symbol that requires further interpretation—was a notion which energized the most influential intellectuals of the age, from the Hellenistic Platonists, to the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE–50 CE), to the Christian Church Father Origen of Alexandria (c. 184–c. 253 CE). Philo and Origen were both impacted by the Alexandrian culture in which they were reared, a culture whose educational philosophy was founded upon the notion that true meaning lay within allegorical understanding.

Even Greeks expressed suspicion of the integrity of written text, on the basis that it can be misunderstood and misinterpreted. This suspicion was so widespread that famous poems, poems like Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, were transmitted orally for centuries until they were recorded. In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato presents a series of dialogues between his teacher, Socrates, and the eponymous interlocutor. In one of these dialogues, Socrates declares that writing is bad because it makes people forget their knowledge:

SOCRATES: Well, then, those who think they can leave written instructions for an art, as well as those who accept them, thinking that writing can yield results that are clear or certain, must be quite naive and truly ignorant of [Thamos’] prophetic judgment: otherwise, how could they possibly think that words that have been written down can do more than remind those who already know what the writing is about?

PHAEDRUS: Quite right.

SOCRATES: You know, Phaedrus, writing shares a strange feature with painting. The offsprings of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. When it has once been written down, every discourse roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.

PHAEDRUS: You are absolutely right about that, too.

SOCRATES: Now tell me, can we discern another kind of discourse, a legitimate brother of this one? Can we say how it comes about, and how it is by nature better and more capable?

PHAEDRUS: Which one is that? How do you think it comes about?

SOCRATES: It is a discourse that is written down, with knowledge, in the soul of the listener; it can defend itself, and it knows for whom it should speak and for whom it should remain silent.[1]

Socrates’ complaint that once a text has been written, it reaches “those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not,” is one that the Rabbis would have likely sympathized with. Like the Greeks, the rabbis prioritized orally transmitted traditions.[2] And the trend to begin writing scholarship down in the Greco-Roman world was contemporaneous with the rabbinic turn to the written word as well. The Pharisees, the predecessors of the Rabbis who lived in Judea toward the end of the Second Temple period, developed an oral law that would at times undermine the written one.[3] This oral law would be as authoritative as the written law, and in some ways more potent, because it could be developed and shaped in ways which required the rabbis to actively interpret and often allegorize the written law. Only a small group of priestly Jews, the Sadducees, whole-handedly rejected the oral tradition, and considered the written word more trustworthy and authoritative than the oral law (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, 16). The Rabbis, however, held that both written and oral laws were equally authoritative. At the same time, they made a clear distinction between the oral law and the written law, even as the oral law was becoming recorded in written form. Consider, for instance, the following source, preserved in the Babylonian Talmud:

Rabbi Yohanan teaches: The Holy One, Blessed be He, made a covenant with the Jewish people only for the sake of the matters that were transmitted orally [al peh], as it is stated: ‘For on the basis of [al pi] these matters I have made a covenant with you and with Israel’ (Exodus 34:27)….

Rabbi Yehudah bar Nahmani, public orator of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, taught as follows: It is written, ‘Write these words down for yourself.’ But it is also written, ‘since it is through these words (lit. by word of mouth).’ What are we to make of this? It means: You are not at liberty to say written words by heart; and you are not at liberty to transmit teachings transmitted orally in writing.

A Tanna of the school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: [It is written] ‘[Write] these [words down]’ – these you may write (the Written Torah), but you may not write Halakhah (the Oral Torah)… (Gittin 60b).

This text, ironically preserved in written form, cites a rabbinic tradition that the Oral Law may only be transmitted through word of mouth, and not through written text at all. Another legend, this one preserved in the Babylonian tractate Shabbat, cites Rav referencing a hidden scroll which he discovered in the house of Rabbi Hiyya which recorded oral laws. This text suggests that at one stage, the written records of oral tradition were frowned upon and possibly prohibited (Shabbat 6b, 96b. Cf. Bava Metzia 92a.)

The Rabbis’ attitude that the oral tradition is superior to the written tradition is related to the notion that written texts widely provide access to knowledge which can be misused or misunderstood. In one talmudic tradition, for instance, a heavenly voice intervenes when Yonatan ben Uzziel seeks to produce an Aramaic translation of the Writings section of the Tanakh. The reason for such drastic intervention, the Talmud tells us, is “because the date of the Messiah is foretold in it” (Megillah 3a). Translating the Writings section of the Tanakh, therefore, must be avoided not because it holds a partial truth, but because it can be disseminated to people who will not have the knowledge to properly understand it. This is also why the writing of Aramaic translations of the Tanakh known as targum was initially prohibited as well. Note, for instance, the following story, which speaks of targumim being hidden and concealed:

R. Yose said: My father Halafta once visited R. Gamaliel be-Rabbi in Tiberias and found him sitting at Yohanan the son of Nizuf’s table reading the targum of the Book of Job. [Halafta] said to [R. Gamaliel], ‘I remember that your grandfather R. Gamaliel stood on the Temple Mount, when the targum of Job was given to him. [R. Gamaliel] said to the builder, “Bury [the targum] under the bricks.” [R. Gamaliel’s grandson, R. Gamaliel] too gave orders, and they hid it.’[4]

What makes the rabbinic approach to oral traditions distinctive from Hellenistic attitudes toward allegory, however, is the idea that, at the heart of some oral traditions, at least within the narrative stories regarding biblical figures, there lie connections with the Written Law, particularly when it comes to midrashic interpretation. Even as the Rabbis sought to maintain the two categories as separate and distinct, midrashic readings of the written law were based on close readings of the text, careful attention to added details and missing details, and efforts to resolve seeming contradictions in the scriptures by picking up on literary nuances of the written tradition.[5]

One example, which commonly circulates in Orthodox circles, will have to suffice here: the story of Abraham in the fiery furnace, a story that many of my Orthodox friends have scoffed at as being an example of a story which many Jewish children believe is in the scriptural text, and yet has “nothing to do” with the scriptural tradition. These friends, in fact, are wrong: the midrashic tradition about Abraham in the fiery furnace draws closely on the biblical tradition about Daniel’s friends who are thrown into a fiery furnace in Daniel 6. Once we realize this connection, we easily note many other midrashic traditions about Abraham which are drawn from Daniel’s story. The question becomes, then, why the Rabbis seek to link Abraham with Daniel? This question yields fascinating answers regarding how, in the Second Temple period, Daniel was the wanderer par excellence, the successful Diaspora Jew, the epitome of piety, and the rabbis transfer these qualities to the First Jew, the father of the Israelites, the father of the Jews. Stories about the forefathers which seem altogether disconnected from the scriptural tradition almost never actually are.

The difference between how rabbinic tradition read written text and, say, how Plato, or modern biblical scholars do, is that for the rabbis, the midrashic “oral” readings reveal truths that lie within and inside the written word, whereas ancient classical and modern scholarly readings argue that a symbolic reading should supplant the textual one. This is why the Artscroll reading of the Song of Songs, reviled and mocked as it often is by Jews who live outside of the right-wing Orthodox community, is in a sense anathema to the rabbinic interpretative tradition. In arguing that there is no truth which lies within a plain-sense translation of the Song of Songs, Artscroll’s approach is more Hellenistic than rabbinic.

Our task as faithful readers who follow rabbinic tradition, then, should include asking ourselves whether, in reading and applying midrashic traditions, we are inviting the scriptural text to act as a conveyer of an inherent meaning. Such a question requires us to approach the categories of peshat and drash not as categories which pull at each other in continual tension, but which imbue one another with integrity and meaning.

[1] Plato. c. 399-347 BCE. Phaedrus in J. M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson, ed., Plato: Complete Works, (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 551–552.

[2] Even written documents in the Second Temple period emphasized the authority of aural and visionary revelation. Michael Stone, Secret Groups in Ancient Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 39–40. But according to Stone, maybe the ancients weren’t as anti-writing as scholars have thought. Philip Davis: “Daniel… is a book in which every thing significant is done by writing.” Cf. Guy G. Stroumsa, The Making of the Abrahamic Religions in Late Antiquity (Oxford Studies in the Abrahamic Religions; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015 ), 25–26.

[3] The classic example of the rejection of such literalism is how the Rabbis interpret the phrase “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,” in Exodus 21:23–24 as a mandate to compensate an injured individual for incurred damage, physical pain, medical fees, loss of livelihood, and any embarrassment incurred by the injury (Bava Kamma 83b).

[4] Shabbat 115a.

[5] Gittin 60b. The Rabbis’ attribution of superiority to the Oral Law is reflected in the Talmudic statements which declare that the Mishnah is superior to Mikra, the biblical text, and the Gemara, the commentary to the Mishnah, is superior to the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 33a.). Tzvi Sinensky has written on the rabbinic sources which declare that the Oral Law is superior to the Written Law, noting that the rabbis privilege the Oral Law because it is more complex, because it generates more laws than the written law, and because it comprises the foundational characteristic of the covenantal relationship between God and Israel, which as Sinensky notes, “is exclusively in the domain of the Jewish people.”

Dr. Malka Z. Simkovich is the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies and the director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016), and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories That Shaped Early Judaism (2018), which received the 2019 AJL Judaica Reference Honor Award. Simkovich’s articles have been published in the Harvard Theological Review and the Journal for the Study of Judaism, as well as on online forums such as The Lehrhaus and the Times of Israel.