For Season 2 of More Midrash (which will launch in early March), I am preparing a deep dive into the collection of midrash known as Vayikra Rabbah (on the book of Leviticus). Here are some excerpts from a short and moving article by Professor David Stern, “Vayikra Rabbah and My Life in Midrash.” After a long career at the University of Pennsylvania Stern is now on faculty at Harvard. His work in part involves the intersection between literary theory and rabbinic creativity – namely, midrash.
David Stern begins by sharing about how Vayikra Rabbah was the text that really hooked him on midrash.
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. (23)
After attempting and failing at writing a dissertation on this compilation, he ended up working predominantly in Eichah Rabbah, on the book of Lamentations.
Even so, I did not completely abandon Vayikra Rabbah. In the nine months I had spent with the text, I had fallen in love with it, with a certain quality of sweetness, for lack of a better term, that I detected in this unlikely midrash on a biblical book that is largely about officious priests sprinkling the blood of sacrifices on holy altars and curing Israelites of malignant skin diseases and purifying the impure. There seemed to me something truly inspired about this midrash, whose most striking feature was its ability to ignore all the manifest content of the biblical text in favor of taking up seemingly unrelated ideas that it connected to Scripture through puns and other associative links. This was a midrash that made no bones about doing what it wished to the biblical text. Yet, in typically midrashic fashion, it was also able to return to the biblical text and suddenly open up a perspective upon a phrase or a word so fresh and unexpected that it could blow your mind away. (25)
Stern ponders the growth in the scholarly field since he first encountered the midrash. Some questions have been resolved, others no longer interest him. The history and original function of midrashic collections does however continue to interest him, although answers do not come easy.
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 conflation 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! (31)
Each chapter of Vayikra Rabbah can seem only tenuously attached to the content of the weekly Torah reading, often hooking onto only the first verse.
These verses are not only the initial verses in each weekly Torah reading (according to one or another of the Palestinian triennial cycles), but they also tend to be “throw-away”’ verses, that is, chapter headings or the like. Further, the interpretive approaches that [Vayikra Rabbah] adopts toward these verses tend toward an extra-textual meaning or, more accurately, toward a spiritualized understanding of the weekly parashah and its significance. (32)
David Stern’s article focuses on Vayikra Rabbah chapter 4, which I will not get into now, but in the process of reflecting on the beautiful and even poetic progress the midrash makes throughout the chapter, he writes:
[I]t is the desire to put my finger more exactly on this point – the sudden transformation or leap from exegesis into literature – that is what makes me want to continue to write about midrash…there is something about texts I end up studying repeatedly that touches me – what it is, I am not certain: perhaps a feeling for a point of similarity, or at least, a point of contact – and that makes me want to sing a song of praise to the text. It’s study as worship, as celebration. (37)
I resonate with his words. A deep and sustained enough encounter with midrash ends up moving me from focusing on interpretation – that is, how the midrash is understanding the Hebrew Bible – to a glorious exhilaration of reading midrash in its own right, as a unique and idiosyncratic and delightfully passionate endeavor of the Jewish mind and spirit.
David Stern, “Vayikra Rabbah and My Life in Midrash,” in Prooftexts , Vol. 21, No. 1, Prooftexts at Twenty (Winter 2001), pp. 23-38.