In the last installment we heard from R. Saadia Gaon in the Department of Simple Meanings (peshat) and from Maimonides in the Department of Deeper Meanings (derush)—and the folly of confusing the two. We left off with a promise to hear from Maharal of Prague, who would apply Maimonides’ principles to Midrash in a way that would open up a whole new understanding of Torah and reality.

The Limits of Midrash

But before we get to Prague, we need to discuss some of the wrong turns and dead ends that were taken post-Maimonides—mainly so that we don’t take those routes again.

After Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed was translated from Arabic into Hebrew, many more students of Torah began applying Aristotelian philosophy to their studies. Sometimes the marriage was quite elegant. Often, it was the ugliest form of syncretism. Any suggestion of a miracle had always irked the classical philosopher, but now he felt he had the permission of the great Maimonides to reinterpret these allegorically. Anecdotes of historical significance were also reinterpreted, thereby dismissing any historicity of the Talmudic sages.

By the end of the 13th Rashba attempted to ban the study of philosophy and natural sciences until the age of 25. century, many of the leading rabbis in Provence and Spain were fed up enough with these teachers and preachers that they felt drastic action was needed. At the urging of a respected Provencal sage, many of the leading rabbis of the time, led by Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet of Barcelona (known as Rashba), instituted a ban prohibiting anyone from studying philosophy and natural sciences until the age of 25 (with the exception of one who was studying medicine for a profession).

Many of the Jews of Provence were outraged. They deeply respected Rashba as an outstanding scholar and leader to whom they would address the most difficult questions both in Jewish practice and in theology. But they could not imagine abandoning their study of the Greek-Arabic philosophy that had become a regular part of their curriculum.

Rabbi Yedayah Bedersi was one such Jew. Bedersi was fluent not only in all areas of Torah scholarship but, like many of his era, in Aristotle and Avoerres as well. He was also a master of letters, having published his first poem at age fifteen. He composed several commentaries on Midrash. His ethical work Examination of the World is oft-quoted. He is also known for his long poem-parable in defense of women.

But, most of all, R. Yedayah Bedersi is known for his respectful but forceful retort to Rashba concerning his ban. He denies the accusations that the schools in Provence had been twisting the meaning of scripture and midrashim through their Aristotelian contortions. In the process, he lays down more clearly than anyone before, exactly what the rules of Midrashic interpretation must be—using brilliant yet simple rules of reason.

To begin, he writes, simply because a story clashes with the natural order is not sufficient reason to reject it. An absurdity must be interpreted allegorically, but there is nothing absurd about the Creator of the natural order breaking that order with a miracle.

An absurdity, Bedersi writes, must be interpreted allegorically, but there is nothing absurd about the Creator of the natural order making a miracle.

He then divides the midrashic stories into four categories, explaining how we must deal with each one:

  1. Unlikely stories told by the sages.

    Although a story is extremely unlikely, and although it neither strengthens nor weakens our faith, we nevertheless accept it, since it comes to us from a reliable source. 1

  2. Miraculous stories.

    We do not reject a story simply because it includes a miracle. The Creator of the world has no problem performing miracles. But if a miraculous story clashes with a general principle, we must reinterpret. We can imagine loaves of bread and fine clothing miraculously growing on trees, but we have a general principle told to us that clashes with this: “There is no difference between this world and the world to come other than the subjection to foreign rule.”2

    Similarly, we can imagine tzaddikim after their passing reinvested in fine new bodies, enjoying another world, as described by Rabbi Benaah, etc. But this clashes with a general principle that in that world “there is no sitting or standing . . .”

  3. Apparent exaggerations.

    If the story describes a world where miracles abound, and these miracles are not of the sort that strengthen our faith or provide any other apparent benefit, we must reinterpret—for three reasons:

    1. It’s not honorable to the Torah and its sages to believe this.
    2. This diminishes the significance of those miracles mentioned in the Torah, which the Torah itself treats as rare instances.
    3. G‑d does not make miracles without necessity, and neither do His prophets.

    The Talmudic tales of Rabbah bar bar Chanah are a good example. In them you’ll hear of an antelope the size of Mount Tabor whose dung dammed up the Jordan River; a frog the size of sixty houses swallowed by a yet more monstrous sea creature—which was then plucked out of the ocean by a giant raven. Then there was the fish so big that when it was cast ashore it destroyed 60 towns and fed another 60. A year later, people were cutting rafters from the fishes’ ribs for the homes of the towns they had rebuilt to replace those that had been destroyed. Another fish was so large that it took three days and nights for Rabbah bar bar Chanah’s ship to sail from one end to the other—and it was a ship so fast that if you shot an arrow, the ship would pass it.

    There was even one fish that had sand and grass growing on its back. The sailors innocently set ashore on what they presumed was an island, and set up a barbecue—only to have to rush back to ship in the nick of time as the annoyed fish began to turn over. The sailors innocently set ashore on what they presumed was an island, and set up a barbecue—only to have to rush back to ship in the nick of time as the annoyed fish began to turn over.3

    The consensus among all Talmudic scholars is that these tales of Rabbah bar bar Chanah are not all necessarily meant to be taken at face value.4 Within the phantasmagorical imagery of these tales whispers a story from a world beyond ours, tightly encoded within complex metaphor. Indeed, from the Zohar5 it appears that the sea of which he is talking is the sea of Torah, the birds and fish are allusions to particular angelic beings and souls—every detail with layers of meaning, but certainly not for the sports-fishing buff.

  4. Absurdities.

    If the story presents an absurdity, we must reinterpret. Bedersi here seems principally concerned with cases of anthropomorphism. That the Creator of Heaven and Earth could have physical form he considers irresolutely absurd.

As we said, Bedersi wrote all this in a letter to Rashba. Rashba himself discussed the interpretation of fantastic midrashic tales, also taking the approach of Maimonides. He provides several reasons why the sages might conceal their wisdom within enigma and fantasy. One very revealing episode:

Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi was sermonizing, and the assembly was dozing off. He wanted to wake them up. So he said, “There was one woman in Egypt who gave birth to six hundred thousand at once!”

There was one student there—Rabbi Yishmael ben Yosei was his name—who asked, “Who was that?”

So he told him, “It was Yocheved, who gave birth to Moses! He was balanced against the entire nation of six hundred thousand—as we see in the text:6 ‘Then sang Moses and the children of Israel.’”7

How more explicit a demonstration do you need, writes Rashba, that the words of the sages are not always to be taken literally? He then proceeds to interpret the meaning of a ten-cubit Moses taking a ten-cubit axe and jumping ten cubits into the air to whack the giant Og on the ankle—just as Og was attempting to throw a mountain on the Israelite camp. All of it has meaning, but none of it at face value.

The Wrong Way to Learn Midrash

Bedersi set down clear boundaries, but the rules of interpretation were still unclear. There was still no clear definition for Midrash. That left room for some to believe that midrash and aggadah are not really true—they are just parables or fables to make a point. They said, “The simple meaning of the text is true. The halachah is an obligation—so it’s certainly true. But these tales are just homiletics.”8

Fundamentally, these people understood the tales of the rabbis much as we understand good fiction: stories to make a point. Fiction is not a lie—the author has a real point to make, and that point may be true. It’s only that he uses the medium of a story to make his point, and the story—the packaging for the point—is not true. So, too, these people understood the stories of the Talmud and Midrash to be making true points—but dressed in packaging that was very distant from reality.

Rabbi Yehuda Loewe of Prague (known as the “Maharal of Prague”) was adamant: Torah is not fiction. Maharal was adamant: Torah is not fiction. Anything the Creator of the universe tells is real.Jews consider the words of their sages that have been recorded in the Talmud and Midrash to be Torah, no less divine than the Five Books of Moses. Once they were accepted by the general community of observant Jews as works to be studied and revered as Torah, they attain a status of G‑d’s own thoughts, arguments He has with Himself and stories He tells Himself. And if the Creator of the universe is telling it, it’s real.9

A case in point is the following story of Titus, after he had destroyed the Temple and laid waste to Jerusalem:

When Titus was traveling back to Rome on a ship with the Jewish captives and the vessels of the Holy Temple, a storm at sea threatened to drown him. He said: “It seems that the G‑d of these people has power only over water. When Pharaoh came, He drowned him in water. When Sisera came, He drowned him in water. Now, He is about to drown me in water. If He wants to show His strength, let Him come onto dry land and fight with me there!”

A divine voice came forth and said to him: “Wicked one, the son of a wicked one, descendant of Esau the wicked! I have an insignificant creature in My world called a gnat. Come ashore and do battle with it!”

Titus went ashore, and a gnat came and entered his nostril. It pecked at his brain for seven years.

One day, Titus was walking past a blacksmith’s shop. The gnat heard the noise of the sledgehammer and became silent. Titus said: “There is a remedy!”

Every day they brought a blacksmith, and he hammered in Titus’s presence. To a gentile blacksmith he would give a handsome stipend, but to a Jew he would say: “It is sufficient that you see your enemy suffering!”

For thirty days they brought smiths to hammer in Titus’s presence. Then the gnat adjusted to the noise of the hammer, and continued pecking at Titus’s brain even when the hammers were struck.

Rabbi Pinchas ben Arova said: “I was with the great men of Rome at the time when Titus died. They examined his brain, and what they found in it was the size of a small bird!”

In the Mishnah we learned: It was like a year-old pigeon, weighing two liters.

Said Abaye, “We have a tradition that its mouth was of bronze and its claws of iron.”

As Titus lay dying, he instructed his servants: “Burn me and scatter my ashes over the seven seas, so that the G‑d of the Jews cannot find me and bring me to judgment.”

Now, reading the chronicles of Roman historians, you won’t find anything about this gnat. Titus, they tell you, died of a fever. At any rate, metal claws on a big bug is a tad outrageous.

So, one scholarly Italian Jew named Azariah dei Rossi explained, “This is just aggadah.” It didn’t really happen. It’s just that the sages wanted to impress on people that G‑d can always find a way to punish the wicked, so they told this story.

The same Azariah dei Rossi approached other teachings in a similar vein. Rabbi Eliezer taught that the northern side of the world was never completed. G‑d says, “Whoever believes he is a god, let him come and complete the northern side.” From this and other similar statements, dei Rossi derived that the Talmudic sages believed the world was flat.

This was just the sort of thing that ruffled Maharal’s feathers much too much. This man, he said, has no idea what the sages are talking about.

Truth Is Stranger than Non-Fiction

So, Maharal of Prague further defined the ways of Midrash, with two signposts on two sides of the road:

  1. On the one hand, you have to know that every story told and recorded by the rabbis of the Talmud is true. They are Torah, just as much as a verse from scripture or a halachah kept by all Jews is Torah.10
  2. On the other hand, you must know that these stories are not concerned with physical reality at all. Rather, they are speaking of the essential reality.

What’s the “essential reality”? Here’s a classic treatment of the essential reality of midrash from Maharal:

The Talmud tells us that Moses was ten cubits tall.11 A cubit is the distance from your outstretched big finger to your elbow—averaging about one and a half feet. That would put Moses at fifteen feet.

Strange thing, no one inside the story seems to notice—not Pharaoh, not the Jewish people, not even the daughters of Jethro, who tell their father, “An Egyptian saved us from the shepherds!” The fact that he was a giant about three times their size seems to totally pass them by.12

So, Maharal tells us that the real Maharal tells us that the real Moses truly was fifteen feet tall. Just not the Moses that Pharaoh saw. Moses truly was fifteen feet tall. Not the one that Pharaoh saw, or that the fleeing shepherds saw. They saw only the physical shell of Moses, as he is invested in a body within our physical world—a world that for several reasons can’t manage a ten-cubit human form. But Moses is a complete person, and ten is the number of completeness. He should have been ten cubits tall—would the physical world be capable of such a thing. Certainly, writes Maharal, whatever could be reflected in the physical world was reflected, and Moses was likely taller than the average human being. But not as tall as he really was.13

Which Moses is more pertinent to our understanding? If we want to understand the simple meaning of the text, a giant Moses will just confuse matters—as we’ve seen. If we want to have an idea of the soul-power of Moses, his impact on the crowd when he walked in the room, his true height as a spiritual giant—he was as big as they get, not missing a finger’s breadth of the ten cubits of perfection.

We’re used to considering the precise measurements of our world as the final arbiter of all truth. It might help to jump to an event in Mezhibuzh, Ukraine, a century or two after Maharal:

One of the homeowners of Mezhibuzh was involved in a nasty dispute with another resident of the town. It happened that while in the Baal Shem Tov’s presence, in his shul, he yelled that he was going to rip the other guy apart like a fish.

The Baal Shem Tov told his pupils to hold one another’s hand, and to stand near him with their eyes tightly closed.

He then placed his holy hands on the shoulders of the two disciples next to him. Suddenly the disciples began shouting in great terror: They had seen how that fellow had actually ripped his disputant apart like a fish.14

Now, what if I ask you, “Did a resident of Mezhibuzh tear apart his disputant like a fish?”

You might answer, “Well, not really.” Problem is, I have witnesses. Very reliable ones. And they all saw exactly the same thing.

But can the perpetrator be charged in court for bodily harm? Problem is, his disputant is still walking around without a scratch.

So, which world is real? One world canWhich world is real? The world of action, or the world where we perceive the effects of our actions? be perceived by anyone with ears for hearing. The other requires senses of a higher grade than most of us will ever achieve. But does that make it less real? On the contrary, perhaps the higher reality is the truer one. There, after all, is where we can perceive the real effects of our actions and words.

Maharal takes the same approach to the gnat in Titus’ brain. The sages are not concerned with telling us a story for the medical annals. Their concern is to present to us the real Titus and his true destiny. Did a physical gnat enter his brain? Perhaps not, writes the Maharal. But the story is still true, because the gnat got in there anyways. Every living creature has its essential quality that makes it uniquely what it is—and the essential quality of the gnat made its way in.15 This essential quality, if it could be seen, would appear in its most intense state with a mouth of bronze and iron claws.

The same applies to Rabbi Yehudah’s description of the universe with an open north end. The purpose of this description was not for astronomical predictions, or to send a man to the moon. Rabbi Yehudah was telling us what the world is all about: that it was not created as a perfect place. As Maharal writes, the world is not a cause, it is an effect, and an effect can never be perfect. Only the original cause, the ultimate Creator, can be complete. Our world reflects this, to some degree, through the effects of the north wind. But again, in an incomplete way.16

Maharal sums up his approach in Maharal sums up his approach: “The sages do not speak of the physical at all; they speak of a world stripped of physicality.” one simple line: “The sages do not speak of the physical at all; they speak of a world stripped of physicality.”17 Every midrashic teaching is a peek behind the veil, dressing deep truths in language that is meant to reveal an inner world. If that language seems foolish to us, it is only because we have not yet cracked the code. We are grabbing the clothes, the words, as though they themselves were their own meaning.

On the other hand . . .

Maharal wrote many volumes of commentary on Midrash, perhaps more than any other Torah giant, all following these same principles. Reading them, we often sense a modern mind, and indeed his writings are more popular today than they were in the 16th century, when he was perhaps less understood.

Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, whose mother was a cousin of Maharal, composed what is likely the most popular work on almost all the aggadah of the Talmud. It is included in the standard editions of the Talmud under the title Chiddushei Aggadot Maharsha. He follows a similar approach, using principles of both philosophy and Kabbalah.

Now a systematic approach to midrash had been laid out clearly by Maimonides and Maharal. But that raises a new question, perhaps a more difficult one: If the point of midrash is not the story itself, but that which it contains, not the foreground but the background, and if anyone who understands these stories literally is a fool—then how is it that we tell these stories to children and simple folk, who certainly take them at face value? Are we to hide all of these tales from them? Have we been doing things wrong all these centuries?

Maharal himself provided the key to answering this crucial question. It becomes clearer when we examine the works of his contemporaries, and of those who followed in his footsteps. Which is what we will discuss in the next installment.