Despite the editorial appearance of a sequential or running commentary, the rabbis also treated each interpretation of a verse as its own universe of meaning. Multiple interpretations are included side by side, and there was no attempt to give a unified reading of a given story. The rabbis expressed themselves through exaggeration, inventive history, sound and word association, and parallels of sound or substance between verses across the Tanakh. Sometimes they engaged in polemics against Christianity or Islam, which were making different use of many biblical texts.
Already in the 12th century, Maimonides noticed that some Jews were either taking midrashic teachings too literally, or else writing them off as philosophically unsophisticated. Maimonides argued that midrash had to be approached as a code of metaphors hinting at deeper truths.
The best-known rabbinic midrash may be the legend of Abraham the patriarch as a young child in Mesopotamia smashing idols. Not just a simple morality tale about a national hero, the text in Genesis Rabbah suggests that Abraham's selection by God did not come out of nowhere, as Genesis 12 might plausibly be read. Rather, Abraham had independently come to a point where he would be receptive to the voice of a single God.
This midrash lays out Abraham's relationship to his family and to the people and culture around him, and his willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. It is not only a depiction of this patriarch, but also a model of spiritual personality for Jews in any age and foreign culture.
Though the early forms of midrash aggadah have long since passed from use, the activity of midrash has left its imprint. Since the advent of printing, Jewish study Bibles have presented multiple interpretations of each verse on the same page with no attempt at resolution. Jewish writers and artists, in Israel and throughout the world, present or revise biblical stories to express insights on matters from feminism to the Holocaust. Through the legacy of midrash aggadah, Torah (Jewish learning) continues to serve not as a closed system of doctrine and dogma, but as a perennial spark for ethical and spiritual thinking.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.