Methods of Midrash

How this genre gleans deep meaning from the Torah's text

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Midrash negotiates the two forces whose encounter generates the creative tension of rabbinic culture as a whole–change and tradition. Broadly speaking, midrash attempts to secure the Torah’s centrality amidst shifting social and intellectual circumstances and views. 

While midrashic texts and statements can appear illogical and random when taken out of context, they are in fact the products of a holistic system guided primarily by middot (rules of exegesis) within a range of favored genres. The middot, several midrashic genres, and the general tendencies and principles of midrash will be discussed below.

The Role of Torah: Two Views

There are two primary, and at times competing, assumptions about Torah that are at the core of the midrashic enterprise. While scholars tend to doubt the historicity of these schools of thought, tradition holds that second-century figures Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiba and their respective followers disagree concerning the very nature of Torah.

Rabbi Ishmael and his school hold that Torah “speaks in the language of people”–that is, the way that people normally speak–and consequently its interpreters should not make too much of every textual quirk or inconsistency. The Akiban view maintains that the Torah is a perfect composition down to every “jot and tittle”–every tiny letter such as the yod, and every calligraphic flourish, such as the tiny “crowns” that appear on the tops of some letters in a Torah scroll–and that only an improperly trained exegete would mistakenly deem even a letter of Torah, let alone a syntactic or grammatical anomaly, superfluous.

The viewpoints of both Akiba and Ishmael repeat throughout the midrashic canon. Despite the debate over “human” versus “divine” Torah language, Akiba and Ishmael share the vital principle that Torah is the only textual source appropriate for the continuing work of revelation. Even as it reworks, reorganizes, and reconceives Torah in radical ways, midrash grants Torah ultimate authority and endless attention.

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Stephen Hazan Arnoff is the executive director of the 14th Street Y. He was previously the managing editor of Zeek and the director of Artists Networks and Programming at the Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y.

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