Hi. I’m Jay. Welcome to More Midrash. I started this podcast as a new way to explore midrash, to read these ancient Jewish texts closely with anyone no matter how far away we may be from each other. I believe that close reading is an act of love, attention to detail is an act of devotion, and opening to imagination is a spiritual practice. In this first episode of the season, I want to introduce you to me, to midrash, and to our specific focus for the season – folktales in the midrashic collection Vayikra Rabbah.
My story in midrash begins in sixth grade. My family had recently become more active in synagogue, as my Bar Mitzvah date approached. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to participate earlier – just that we lived an hour and a half away from the nearest Jewish community. Showing up required commitment to quite a commute. Every Shabbat morning we drove the distance from Willcox to Tucson, Arizona. I enter the chapel with my family, feeling some combination of anxiety and awe. We grab a prayer book, and a book of Torah. The music of the prayers draws me out of my introversion for awhile, but there always comes a time when I set the prayer book aside, open the gossamer pages of the Torah, somehow always wrinkled and folded indiscriminately, and begin to read the sacred stories and laws of Judaism. My eyes drift toward the bottom of the page, where there are commentaries explaining the history, possibilities, controversies, and deeper meanings that scholars throughout the ages have found in practically every verse of the Torah. This vibrant virtual study hall became a refuge for my mind, heart, and spirit. Doubt and debate were just as welcome as faith and following a set path. Although I wouldn’t learn the word midrash until a decade later when I entered rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College, I was already becoming a disciple of this quintessentially vibrant, playful, and profound Jewish mode of learning.
What is Midrash?
Midrash is a form of Jewish commentary on Torah. The word midrash derives from the Hebrew root dalet resh shin, meaning “to investigate, inquire, or seek out.” In rabbinic use, midrash refers to three things, which you might think about as nesting dolls. On the smallest level, a midrash is a single unit of rabbinic interpretation. It also refers to specific books which have collected midrashim (the plural of midrash). On the broadest level, midrash refers to the genre of rabbinic readings of Tanakh.
The midrashic books of the grand Jewish library were compiled roughly between the 2nd century and 12 century CE. Most midrashic books are structured as commentaries on specific books of Tanakh, such as Bereishit Rabbah on Genesis (Bereishit in the Hebrew) which offers multiple opinions on most verses of Genesis. However, other compilations, such as the one we’ll focus on this season, Vayikra Rabbah on Leviticus, only nominally comment on the actual content of the biblical book. More on that later. Even with the collections that mostly interpret the biblical text, midrash includes a variety of different voices. One rabbi will offer an opinion only for another rabbi to suggest the opposite. Lines of interpretation will suddenly soar into a story only tangentially connected to the topic at hand.
One scholar of midrash, David Stern, describes his own love of the eclectic nature of midrash in a 2001 article (Vayikra Rabbah and My Life in Midrash). He writes:
“Something about midrash intrigued me with its cacophony of voices and interpretations, the unpredictable and endlessly surprising mix of narrative and exegesis, the jigsaw puzzle of its literary forms and passages with their wildly changing stances.”
For me, midrash lives somewhere between poetry and theology, between scholarly attention to detail and soulful play of the heart.
What is Vayikra Rabbah?
This season we’ll focus on folktales found in the midrashic collection to Leviticus known as Vayikra Rabbah. Each week, I’ll do a close reading of a story found within the chapters for the weekly parashah, even though many of the stories are a bit removed from the content of the weekly Torah portion.
So what do we know about Vayikra Rabbah?
- Compiled 400-500 CE in Land of Israel
- 37 chapters
- Each chapter mostly focuses on only one verse, usually the one opening the weekly Torah portion
- In Israel of that era, there was a triennial cycle, so they would make their way through the whole Torah every three years. That’s why some of the focus verses are in the middle of what we have come to know as a parashah
I’m going to share more words from the scholars who have studied Vayikra Rabbah. David Stern will speak to the function of the collection, Moshe Mirkin to the relation of the midrash to the verse it ostensibly interprets, and Burt Visotzky to how Vayikra Rabbah reflects the religious evolution from priestly leadership to rabbinic leadership. David Stern writes:
“For [Vayikra Rabbah], alas, we have very little evidence about its original function, although I like to think that this midrashic anthology, like other amoraic midrashim, was first put together for very pragmatic reasons: not to serve as a record in writing of sermons or midrashim once delivered and now in danger of being forgotten, but as source books of tradition – some of them perhaps midrashim once used in actual sermons, other parts undoubtedly the invention or confl̄ation of the anthology’s compiler(s) – to be used in the future by preachers or teachers in need of material for sermons or lessons that they had to deliver. The initial compilation of these midrashim – in the fifth and sixth centuries in Byzantine Palestine – seems to correspond to the period when rabbinic Judaism was consolidating itself as the “normative”’ religion of Jews in the Land of Israel. Doubtless, there were rabbis and preachers in distant towns and settlements in need of material and without other sages at hand to whom they could easily turn for help. The existence, even in nascent or embryonic form, of collections like [Vayikra Rabbah] would have been very valuable for such preachers or teachers who might have found themselves searching rather desperately late Friday night, as their oil lamps were burning down, for lessons to preach or teach the following morning!”
Moshe Mirkin, in his Introduction to Vayikra Rabbah [Hebrew, v], comments on the role the biblical verse plays in the midrashim in this collection:
“Not all of what the midrash has to say really connects to the verses from Leviticus. The rabbis want to teach about Jewish faith, the existence of the Jewish people, and culture and ethics generally. The verses are like a marble or copper tablet on which the teachings are engraved. There isn’t necessarily a connection between the mechanism for making the content accessible and the content itself. The verses from Leviticus, like the tablet, are what preserve and protect the teachings for posterity, helping them be remembered.”
And Burt Visotzky reminds us that the book of Leviticus highlights the centrality of the priesthood to biblical religion. An earlier midrashic collection on Leviticus, known as Sifra, delves deeply into the details of the priesthood that permeate Leviticus. Visotzky writes:
“One is left with the impression, which though unsaid is nevertheless overwhelming, that the rabbis who authored these [early] texts became, as it were, the new priesthood. The rabbis co-opted the timeframes of the Temple, the tithes of the priesthood, the system of purities of the cult, etc.”
But several centuries later, when Vayikra Rabbah is compiled, the situation changes. The destruction of the Temple is no longer a recent trauma but a sad yet increasingly distant fact of Jewish life. There is a more open shift of emphasis from Temple to Torah as the spiritual center of gravity. Visotzky writes:
“The radical nature of the rabbis’ departure from devotion to the Temple cult is most apparent in [Leviticus Rabbah]. Ostensibly a midrash on Leviticus – Torah Cohanim [“Instruction of Priests”], it is much more a book about rabbinic practice and ideology.”
So when we read this midrash, we may expect to learn more about the rabbis than about the book of Leviticus. The organizing principle for this season of More Midrash takes us one step further, picking out folk stories – told by the rabbis, sometimes about the rabbis.
How do folktales work in midrash?
How do folktales work in midrash? My primary guide in answering this question is the book Web of Life: Folklore and Midrash in Rabbinic Literature (2000), by Galit Hasan-Rokem, translated by Batya Stein. Hasan-Rokem is professor of folklore at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In the introduction to her book, she shares that her approach…
“…views folk narratives as woven into the very fabric of rabbinic Aggadah and rabbinic literature in general and not merely as an amusing digression providing relief from heavier and more important matters. As will emerge from the chapters of this book, folk literature deals with the most important issues of its time.”
Hasan-Rokem describes three characteristics of folk stories: They are collective, traditional, and oral.
“Folk literature is conceptualized as collective. Its authors and performers generate it through a persistent link with the community that creates this literature together with them. They have no exclusive rights to it, nor do they stake claims of sole ownership. It is traditional and transmitted from one generation to another. Its main and original mode of existence is oral, and its artistic features are the result of its re-creation in the course of performance, which is one of its distinctive features.”
This is a helpful framework when thinking about the role folk stories play in a larger rabbinic collection. On the one hand, we have the fixed, canonical text of the Tanakh, which at one point may have originated in oral rather than written traditions, but by the time of the rabbis has become the written text of Jewish culture, with verses often introduced by the phrase, “that which is written” (hakatuv). At the other extreme, midrashic texts include folk stories that encompass oral traditions that may exist independently of biblical perspectives and may at times stand outside of normative rabbinic perspectives as well. In between, we have the typical play of midrashic interpretation – some of which record oral traditions and some of which are intentional written forms. So one of the interesting questions to ask of a folk story is how it supports or subverts the rabbinic claim for authority and truth.
I want to conclude with words from one of my favorite writers, Parker Palmer, in his book The Active Life: “The marvelous thing about learning from a story is that a story never ends, so our learning from it need not end either.”