Midrashim: Don’t Be So Literal

I have observed a phenomenon among a large number of people who were raised Orthodox but became disenchanted (popularly known as “off-the-derech” or OTD). Many of them have a particular axe to grind: they complain about midrashim, which they find to be childish and simplistic.

Now, I’m not suggesting that midrashim drove them away from Orthodoxy. Rather, I’m reminded of a story I once heard from a particular kiruv (outreach) professional. He encountered a teen from an Orthodox home smoking on Shabbos and confronted him about it. The teen responded by angrily asking how G-d could let the Holocaust happen. That’s a valid discussion topic but, as this rabbi observed, it was not the real reason he was smoking on Shabbos.

Similarly, there may be some valid questions about midrashim but those who vociferously object to them – going so far as to make internet memes mocking them – were probably not turned off by them in the first place. Nevertheless, had they been taught midrashim differently, disenchanted Jews might not find them so objectionable. Are we doing our children a disservice by teaching midrashim as if they were Bible fan fiction?

The three midrashim to which I’ve seen the most objection are: (1) that Rivka was three years old when she married Yitzchak; (2) that the manna could taste like anything; and (3) that Pharaoh’s daughter stretched her arm like Plastic Man’s to retrieve the basket containing the baby Moshe. I’d like to discuss a new approach to teaching midrashim and then reframe these three midrashim in a new context.

My proposed approach to teaching midrashim is (as per the title of this article): don’t be so literal.

Shocking though this must be to some, it’s actually not such a radical idea. In his famous essay on aggadah, Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam (Maimonides’ son) explains in great detail how some aggados and midrashim are intended literally, while others are intended for a variety of other purposes, such as to impart moral lessons.

Reading every midrash as literal would not only be improper, it would be downright impossible given that many midrashim contradict one another! Just a few examples:

  1. Angels roasted meat for Adam in the Garden of Eden;
  2. Adam was a vegetarian.
  1. Pharaoh had three advisors: Balaam, Yisro (Jethro) and Iyov (Job), each of whom was repaid according to the advice they gave;
  2. Iyov was a fictional character in a parable written by Moshe.
  1. Og, the antediluvian giant, was the one who informed Avraham that Lot had been captured. This was a ploy to get Avraham killed so Og could marry Sarah;
  2. Eliezer – Avraham’s faithful servant, who used his superhuman strength to fight alongside Avraham and rescue Lot – was Og.

(Adam, Iyov and Avraham all start with the letter alef – we’re just getting started!)

If one were to insist on accepting all midrashim as literal history, these midrashim would pose some serious quandaries! Did angels roast meat for Adam to throw away? Did Pharaoh typically employ fictional characters as advisors? Did Og change his mind about marrying Sarah and commit himself on the spot as Avraham’s most trusted servant? Clearly, these pairs of midrashim are not intended to advance a single narrative.

So, accepting that midrashim need not be literal and might be allegorical, how can we reframe the midrashim that so many find untenable? (I will share my takeaway for each of these midrashim but you don’t have to agree with my interpretations. It’s just what they say to me personally.)

Rivka was three years old when she married Yitzchak – Even pointing out that they need not have consummated the marriage until Rivka reached the age of majority, this midrash doesn’t sit very well with modern audiences. Here’s what it says to me: “Three years old” is an age with very specific halachic ramifications. The Talmud teaches regarding a kesubah (marriage contract) that a girl who was converted, freed from captivity or redeemed from indentured servitude until the age of three, her kesubah is 200 zuz, unlike an older girl in these circumstances, whose kesubah would only be 100 zuz. The midrash discusses the depravity of Rivka’s homeland; by saying that she was three, it refers to recognizable halachic “buzz words” about the presumption of purity that girls of that age enjoy.

Now, some may feel that three-years-old is meant literally – Rashi certainly does – but there are other opinions. The Sifri says that Rivka was 14 when she married Yitzchak; this is the position accepted by the Seder Olam. Sure, that’s still pretty young by our standards but I think we can not be appalled if that was a marriageable age 4,000 years ago. So if you can’t take both literally, feel free to select the opinion that you find more acceptable.

Manna could taste like anything – People may not find this an inherently objectionable idea but they are quick to point out that the Torah tells us what the manna tasted like: a wafer in honey (Exodus 16:31). Clearly, the Sages knew this as well, so I suspect the idea that “manna could taste like anything” tells us something else. Here’s what it says to me:

In Numbers chapter 11, the Jews rebel against the “insubstantial” manna, complaining that they missed cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. Rashi cites the Sifri that the manna could taste like anything except these five things, because these foods are harmful for nursing mothers. The message is pretty clear: G-d gives us everything we need. There may be things we want but if He withholds them, it is surely for our own benefit, albeit in ways we may not be able to see.

The arm of Pharaoh’s daughter stretched – Exodus 2:5 says that Pharaoh’s daughter sent forth her maidservant to retrieve Moshe’s basket. The Sages interpreted the word “amah” to mean her arm, which grew many cubits (amos). Again, this would appear to be a moral lesson for us: if we think something is beyond our ability to perform, we should give it our best effort and G-d will assist us.

We teach the midrashim in a simple form to younger children and they make the stories in Tanach even more vivid. They can be exciting and engaging, and that’s a good thing. Where we fall short is in not revisiting these midrashim as students grow and become more critical thinkers. All too often, a 12-year-old, an 18-year-old and a 30-year-old are left with the same superficial explanation that they were given at age 5 or 6.

Rabbeinu Avraham concludes his essay on aggados saying that, now that he has explained things, he trusts that every discerning person will be able to evaluate midrashim and understand which are meant literally and which serve various allegorical purposes. This will keep people from going to either extreme – dismissing and mocking the words of our Sages on the one hand, or believing every fantastic claim on the other.

If we teach midrashim more critically, we may not stem the tide of disenchantment but we can remove the resistance to (and subsequent urge to mock) profound thoughts presented too superficially.

And the same goes for “so the challah shouldn’t be embarrassed.”

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.