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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Classic Rabbinic Midrash

Editions Assouline, photo Laziz Hamani.

The Second Temple period was one of the most religiously dynamic and creative in the history of Judaism. It came dramatically to an end when the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE. The most significant post-destruction development was the emergence of rabbinic Judaism—the form of Judaism which has dominated Judaism down to modern times. There was no sudden triumph of rabbinism after 70. Initially the rabbis, like their spiritual forebears the Pharisees at the end of the Second Temple period, were a sect within Judaism, whose powerbase within the community was in the rabbinic schools (the Batei Midrash). They were opposed initially by the land-owning class, whom they refer to as ‘peoples of the land’ (‘ammei ha-’aretz) and by other groups competing for the hearts and minds of Israel, including the Jewish Christians, whom they call ‘heretics’ (minim). However, by the third century CE the rabbis seem to have been accepted as the religious authorities by the majority of Palestinian Jews. The turning-point probably occurred about 200 CE during the lifetime of Judah ha-Nasi. Judah, a wealthy landowner, was recognized by the Romans as the political leader (the Patriarch) of the Jewish community. He was, at the same time, leader of the rabbinic party.

The rabbis were a scholarly group whose religious activities centred on the study and exposition of Torah. They accepted as inspired scripture the present-day synagogue canon (though some doubts, finally quashed, were expressed about the inspiration of the Song of Songs and about Ecclesiastes). Within scripture pride of place was given to the first five books—the Torah of Moses. These were regarded as containing within them, whether implicitly or explicitly, all that Israel needed to know in order to live its life in conformity to the will of God. As one rabbinic maxim put it: ‘Turn Torah over and over again, for everything is in it. Reflect upon it. Grow old and worn in it, and do not stir from it, for you have no better rule than it’ (Mishnah, Pirqei' Avot 5: 22). In addition to the Written Torah, the rabbis held in high esteem certain traditions passed down, they believed, ultimately from Moses himself, which supplemented and clarified the Written Torah. These traditions were subsequently designated Oral Torah, and came in the end to carry the same authority as the written text itself. In effect this Oral Torah defined the parameters of the correct interpretation of the Written Torah. Interpretations of the Written Torah (such as those advanced by Jewish Christians to justify their teachings) which did not accord with the tradition of the rabbinic schools were ipso facto deemed illegitimate. However, within the framework of the Oral Torah considerable diversity of opinion was allowed. The Oral Torah was by no means rigid and monolithic. The text of the Written Torah was polysemic and even contradictory conclusions, if drawn correctly from it by competent authority, could be seen as equally ‘words of the living God’. This introduced a flexibility into the system, which was vital in adapting Torah to ever-changing historical circumstances. In a sense the rabbis embraced a kind of doctrine of continuous revelation. All necessary truth was encoded in the Written Torah given to Moses on Sinai, but the meaning of the Torah only unfolds through the activity of the scholars who expound it generation after generation and apply it to changing historical circumstances. And only at the end of history will all the latent meaning of Torah be fully realized.

The rabbis' programme of study in the post-70 period concentrated initially on the codification of law. This programme eventually reached its culmination in the law-code known as the Mishnah, which tradition holds was promulgated about 200 CE under the auspices of Judah the Patriarch. The Mishnah is not a ‘cut-and-dried’ code, like the Code Napoléon. It contains within it considerable differences of opinion. Nor is it a straightforward commentary on the Torah, though it presupposes the Torah throughout and frequently cites it directly to support a particular position. Rather, in a manner reminiscent of the Temple Scroll, it offers a systematic and thematic statement of the law which harmoniously combines the data of the Torah with clarificatory expansions and with well-established custom and tradition.

Despite its systematic incorporation of so much of the Torah, it is the Mishnah's independence of Torah that first strikes the reader. It is a self-contained, essentially free-standing document, which raises acutely the problem of its relationship to the Torah of Moses. This problem was addressed by the rabbis over the next 300 years in broadly two ways. First, the Mishnah itself was carefully studied and expounded in the rabbinic schools, and in the process biblical bases for its views from time to time were proposed. This process of direct commentary on the Mishnah resulted in the two Talmuds—the Palestinian or Jerusalem Talmud, which was finally edited about 400 CE in the school of Tiberias, and the Babylonian Talmud, which was finally edited about a century later in Babylonia, where rabbinic schools had also become well established. Secondly, a programme was initiated of reading and commenting upon the Torah in the light of the Mishnah. This produced the classic Rabbinic Bible commentaries known as the Midrashim. There was, doubtless, a tradition of Bible-exegesis within the rabbinic schools prior to the editing of the Mishnah, and some of these traditions have been incorporated into the Midrashim, but it was probably the publication of the Mishnah, and the need to link the Oral Torah to the Written Torah, that generated the compilation of all the major Rabbinic Bible commentaries that have survived from the Talmudic period. The creation of Midrash continued unabated down to roughly the ninth century, by which time the whole of the Pentateuch, the Five Scrolls (Ruth, Esther, Song of Songs, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes), and much of the rest of the Hebrew Bible had been provided with detailed commentary. The Pentateuch, not surprisingly, attracted the lion's share of the attention, and in the case of some of its books several different commentaries survive. These commentaries fall into three main groups. First, the Tannaitic or Halakhic Midrashim comprising the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus, Sifra on Leviticus, and Sifrei on Numbers and Deuteronomy. Secondly, Midrash Rabbah comprising commentaries on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and on each of the Five Scrolls. And thirdly, the Homiletic Midrashim, the Pesiqta of Rav Kahana and Pesiqta Rabbati, which are based on the cycle of special biblical readings used in the synagogue during the festivals.

The exposition of scripture offered in these works is highly distinctive. For possibly the first time in Jewish Bible commentary the principle of polysemy is explicitly embraced, that is to say, the Bible is held to possess different simultaneously valid levels of meaning. The text tends to be treated atomistically, verse by verse, or phrase by phrase, with little attempt to discover the ongoing ‘argument’ of a passage or book. The potential of scripture is maximized: there is a tendency to deny that scripture is ever redundant or simply repeats itself. Repetitions are systematically nuanced to provide slightly different meanings. Scripture is treated as an interlocking whole and harmonized to remove contradictions. There is virtually no sense of historical development, ‘no before and no after in Torah’: it is saying the same things throughout. In some forms of Midrash the text of scripture can be reduced effectively to a set of symbols to be manipulated by the commentator apparently at will, as when the numerical value of the words is computed for exegetical purposes (a device known as gematria). However, an important distinction is observed between the exposition of the legal parts of scripture (the Halakhah) and the exposition of the non-legal, narrative portions (the Aggadah). The former were treated much more conservatively, well within the range of techniques which one would expect sober jurisprudents to employ. The latter, however, can be subjected to extreme forms of manipulation to make them yield the homiletic, theological, or moral points which the commentator desires to make.

As their highly learned character shows, these commentaries were all compiled within the rabbinic schools. However, one of the sources on which they drew was the long and rich tradition of Bible exposition within the synagogue. Scripture played a central role in the synagogue service. The Pentateuch was systematically read in Hebrew on sabbaths over a three-year or a one-year cycle. A second reading, known as the Haftarah and drawn from the second division of the synagogue canon, the Prophets, was added to the Torah reading, and the Psalms and other parts of the third division of the canon, the Writings, were also extensively used in the liturgy. Exposition of scripture was presented in synagogue in two main forms, first through the Targum, a rendering of the Hebrew Bible lections into Aramaic, and secondly, through the sermon.

Rabbinic tradition claims that Ezra instituted the Targum. Whether or not this is correct, the practice of translating the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic certainly goes back to Second Temple times. As the numerous surviving medieval copies suggest, the old oral Targum delivered in synagogue was often much more than a literal translation of the Hebrew. It could involve extensive paraphrase of the biblical text. The relationship of the synagogue Targum to the classic rabbinic Midrashim has long been a matter of dispute. It used to be assumed that the exegesis of the Targumim was heavily derivative from the Midrashim (there was a reluctance to grant the Targumists any originality), but it is more likely that influence operated in both directions, and that the Targum provided a rich source of commentary for the Midrashists when they were first developing the systematic exposition of scripture. The influence of the Targum on early classic Midrashim such as Genesis Rabbah is very clear. The Targumim were certainly valued highly by the medieval Jewish commentators, and are printed alongside the biblical text in the great modern Rabbinic Bibles. The Targum, as befits its life-setting, offers on the whole a popular, homiletic exposition of scripture. It became the model for a whole series of later Bible paraphrases into Judaeo-Arabic, Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish), and Yiddish (Judaeo-German), which powerfully shaped the Jewish popular religious imagination.

The sermon also as an institution seems to have predated the emergence of the classic Midrashim and to have contributed substantially to their content. One form which it took was a short homily preceding the reading of the Torah and based on the first verse of the Torah lection. It was regarded as ‘opening’ the scripture reading and was known in Hebrew as a Petihah. The preacher began by quoting a verse, usually from the third division of the canon, which on the face of it had nothing whatsoever to do with the Torah reading. He then ingeniously demonstrated that there was, in fact, a link. The Petihah was used to engage the audience's interest in the Torah reading, to demonstrate the unity of scripture, and to make various theological and moral points. There are remnants of many hundreds of these Petihot scattered all over the classic Midrashim. They are testimony not only to the eloquence and ingenuity of the preachers but to the Midrashists' reliance on their expositions of scripture. Though it has never carried the same prestige as the more formal, systematic Bible commentaries, the sermon has remained an important genre of Jewish Bible commentary down to the present day, and sermon collections form an extensive if somewhat neglected body of exegetical literature.

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