On Talmudic And Midrashic Reasoning

I had the chance to read (review forthcoming) a lovely resource on classical Jewish sources, and it led me to ponder what it is about such writing that I do and do not appreciate so much. In previous reviews about Jewish writings I have been accused by rather unsympathetic readers of those reviews of being anti-Semitic for being hostile to the Talmud. Yet this is not the case, and it seems likely as if those who are so intent on defending the Talmud are not aware of what makes it problematic from a biblical perspective. Let us therefore begin by describing what we mean by Talmudic and Midrashic reasoning. If one has read the Talmud, one can see laws and principles (not all of them biblical) that are separated from any sort of story or context. A midrash, though, is a commentary of biblical texts, especially texts where laws are accompanied by stories that help to explain their origin and at least frame their interpretation. It should be noted that both Talmudic and Midrashic interpretation are both characteristically Jewish approaches towards biblical law and biblical contents in general, and classical Jewish texts include both sources and both styles of approach, although Talmudic sources are usually more familiar to most readers.

Although I have a strong bias in favor of Midrashic reasoning, I do not think that it means that we can simply take any Midrashic interpretation at face value as authoritative. There are certainly many ways that one can misinterpret scripture even when one is referring to the scripture. It is more that while I do not believe that one can get to scriptural truth by divorcing biblical laws and principles from their biblical context, which frames how they are to be interpreted and often gives us details that paint how it is that laws are to be handled. As an example, the biblical law consistently allows polygamy and seeks to regulate it (suggesting it is permitted but not ideal), although the biblical stories consistently portray the negative results of polygamy, pointing out that laws permitting it do so despite the painful and unpleasant results that happen from families competing over limited attention that would strongly discourage such behavior from taking place. This is a case where an understanding of the law in association with biblical stories gives us insight to these laws and their application in ways where staged debates by clueless rabbis do not.

And it is that which leads us to the question of clueless rabbis and their role in both sorts of reasoning that we have been discussing here. In Midrashic reasoning, a clueless rabbi is the author of a clueless interpretation. It is not hard to see examples of this outside of Judaism. A great many Christian writings, for example, are Midrashic in their interpretation, giving interpretations of biblical stories that seek to add depth of meaning to scripture. But while clueless rabbis are the writers of Midrash, they are the heroes of the Talmud. For example, one cannot read very many Haggadahs before one gets to the point where one is reading about a rabbi who comes to an understanding about the Passover that he had not for decades because of the precise grammar of the command to keep the Passover. It seems as if the way that clueless rabbis serve as heroes where they seek to determine the truth through a majority vote rather than through a proper understanding has accounted for at least some of the popularity of Talmudic reasoning, since self-appointed authorities often appreciate other self-appointed authorities who give them legitimacy.

It is probably good for us to ponder why it is that we find certain modes of thinking appealing and not others. There are sometimes deep personal reasons why it is that we prefer some things to others. That is not necessarily the case when it comes to my preference for Midrash over Mishnah (which are the separated laws that form the Talmud), but it could be the case for some people. There are likely a lot of Jews who have little familiarity with Midrash, because the Talmud is so much more popular and notable in that tradition, such that a great many of the Jews I have known are simply not familiar with biblical law and its context. There do appear to be options to study the Midrash for those who engage in advanced Judaic studies, but the Talmud is more readily accessible for many despite its size. It is, of course, the opposite for Christians, who frequently do not realize the Midrashic approach of Paul in particular to the Hebrew scriptures as being particularly Jewish in nature, something which has been occasionally obvious to more knowledgeable Jewish commentators who have recognized the similar approaches. We would all do well to recognize that the issue many people have with the Talmud is not so much that it is Jewish or features a debate or argument, but rather that it seeks to divorce biblical laws and principles from supporting context and seek to place the commentator in a role of authority, neither of which are appropriate approaches to the Bible.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, History, Musings and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On Talmudic And Midrashic Reasoning

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    Yes, it is vital to understand what drives the writings in order to understand their proper context. Just as a house divided against itself cannot stand, taking the Biblical laws and principles from their context puts them at odds. Truth comes from their cohesiveness. This is just another way that the Jews denied Christ through ignoring the teaching of His apostles, for no scripture can be privately interpreted (II Peter 1:20).

    • Yes, that is precisely correct, though given that this process started a couple hundred years or so before Jesus Christ, it seems possible that part of what Jesus Christ and the Apostles were writing about was in response to a tendency to separate principles and laws from their context, as part of a larger conversation about the legitimate use and interpretation of scripture.

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