On the Modern Creation of Midrash to Further Political Aims
By Richard Kahn
Jews love texts. From certain medieval works of Jewish thought in which nearly every word in the introduction has been culled from a traditional source (e.g., Isaac Don Abarbanel’s Rosh Amana) to Yale Library’s vast Judaica collection (about 95,000 volumes), it is clear that text study is a cornerstone of Judaism. That said, even the most “fundamentalist” Jews do not share the zealous advocacy for biblical literalism that the word “fundamentalism” seems to imply. For a religion that values its texts so much, this lack of literalism is somewhat surprising: If we respect these texts so much, why is it completely acceptable and even encouraged to distort their plain meaning?
Yes, the premise of this article rests on the controvertible assumption that there is such a thing as “plain meaning.” But those who would reject this premise should note that the Jewish scholars of the past who have interpreted texts contrary to the pshat (plain meaning) have not done so out of postmodern rejection of pshat; indeed, these exegetes often make it clear that they know that their interpretation differs from the pshat. In this essay, I will be operating under the assumption that although plain meaning is sometimes not accessible, it often is, and it always exists.
This practice of abandoning literalism has early Jewish precedents. Midrash, or “applied meaning,” as Rabbi Professor David Weiss Halivni terms it in his Peshat and Drash (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), takes snippets of biblical texts and applies meanings to them that are often nowhere to be found in a plain reading of the original texts. Without getting too much into the competing theories of the relation of Midrash to the Bible, suffice it to say that the meaning that an intensive first read of the text would yield usually does not correspond with the meaning that the Midrash ascribes to it.
Although most of our scholarly instincts cause us to cringe when we see literary analysis that completely ignores authorial intent, modern Jewish thinkers actually apply meaning in a manner almost identical to that of midrash. Furthermore, our reactions to modern-day midrash have little to do with our respect for the text’s plain meaning. If the speaker is saying something agreeable, her religious language resonates with us, and we admire that the speaker has chosen to express such wonderful ideas using the language of our holy texts. But if the speaker is offending us, he is violating the text, making it conform to his ridiculous political assumptions; how dare he abuse our beloved texts to make his point? Clearly, in the same way that midrash subordinates the plain meaning to the substantive goal, our reaction to midrash is more about the bottom line of the interpretation offered than the hermeneutics.
Let us start with a rather innocuous text, likely the most quoted passage in the Torah: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). This verse (in slight variation) plays a prominent role in the following Talmudic story:
It happened that a certain heathen came before [Hillel] and said to him, “Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” . . . Hillel . . . said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.”
Shabbat 31a (Soncino translation)
Hillel’s proverb is a variant of the Golden Rule, phrased in the negative as opposed to the positive. This verse has been the key source for much classical Reform thought (see Hermann Cohen) and has been a—if not the—central text of Jewish social justice efforts. In fact, the American Jewish World Service’s database of Jewish texts that justify social justice is even named on1foot.org as an allusion to the demand of the “certain heathen.” This verse does, indeed, lend itself to such uses, but it also lends itself to less conventional interpretations.
Rabbi Menachem Froman, an Orthodox rabbi from the Judean settlement Tekoa, is an anomaly of a Religious Zionist rabbi in that he has come to prominence by attempting to develop friendly relationships with Palestinians. The Religious Zionist community in Israel constitutes much of the far right; while Froman shares with them his intense religious love for the physical land of Israel, he differs with them in his ardent support for a Palestinian state. In 2005, he sent an open later to Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas expressing the Jewish values behind a shared Jerusalem. He recounts our story from Shabbat, which he refers to as a “hadith,” an Arabic term that means “narrative”:
From this hadith, which summarized the main principle of our religion, it’s possible to learn that just as Jews have obtained a free and thriving state from Allah the Exalted, respected in the world, and just as we obtained from Allah the Exalted a state with Jerusalem as its capital, our neighbor will also obtain a state with its capital as Jerusalem.
By referring to the text as a “hadith,” he effectively makes the aggada seem much more significant than aggadta is generally perceived to be in Orthodox Jewish circles. In Islam, a hadith is a narrative of the Prophet Muhammad’s life, and as such, is treated as completely authoritative by most religious Muslims. By contrast, in modern day yeshivot, little time is spent analyzing the aggadic sections of the Talmud, which are viewed as subordinate to the halachic sections when it comes to practical, legal implementations. In this specific aggada, Hillel is clearly not a prophet, and while his words carry tremendous force, coming as they do from one of the most important Tannaim, they are not as authoritative as Muhammad’s words are in the context of Islam. The use of the word “hadith,” while not wholly accurate, is an example of the paradigm I am addressing: compromising on meaning in order to convey a broader message, in this case making it clear to the reader (a Muslim) that the aggada is, in fact, “the main principle of our religion.”
Froman reads this verse hyperliterally; he utilizes “neighbor” as it would be literally understood in English, though in the original Hebrew the word used in the verse, re’ah, is not synonymous with the Hebrew word for neighbor in the sense of geographical proximity, but is instead closer to “friend.” It is true that in the original biblical context, most friends were also neighbors, and vice versa, but it does not seem to be the case that the physical location of the other person is the deciding factor in whether one should “love him as yourself.” Building on his interpretation of re’ah, Froman claims that “Allah the Exalted established the Palestinian nation as our neighbor,” and therefore we must wish upon the Palestinians everything that we wish upon ourselves, namely autonomy. Froman’s conclusion does follow from the verse, but only through a circuitous translation and interpretation therefrom. We generally understand the passage in the Christian sense of “Do unto others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12), whereas Froman uses the verse to develop a reciprocal relation between “others” and “you,” which would best be expressed as “Do to others what has been done for you.”
Froman must be aware that this reading of “Love your neighbor” leads to absurd conclusions. Froman could just as easily have concluded that “just as Jews speak Hebrew in their free and thriving state, our neighbor should also speak Hebrew in its state.” Reading the “as” in “love your neighbor as yourself” to denote equivalence leads to untenable conclusions, but as a rhetorical strategy, it works. When making his point, Froman feels no obligation to stick to the plain meaning—or even to restrict himself to a reasonable reading—of the text. The verses are, to use Maimonides’s language, “poetical conceits [asmakhtot be’alma] . . . not meant to bring out the meaning of the text in question” (Guide to the Perplexed III:43, Trans. Shlomo Pines). For Froman, hermeneutics do not stand in the way of his making a point.
Although Froman is atypical within the Orthodox world in terms of his political views, we will see that he is completely normal in terms of his free use of texts. Consider Rabbi Meir Kahane, another political-religious figure within the Religious Zionist movement, one who would vehemently oppose Froman’s actions. Kahane was assassinated in 1990, but his many followers perpetuate his message; they have been videotaped chanting “War Now!” at rallies and have consistently opposed all peace negotiations. Froman concludes from the Golden Rule that Jerusalem should (or, more precisely, will) be a shared city. Rabbi Meir Kahane, another prominent settler, uses the Golden Rule in a slightly different setting in the following passage from Or HaRa’ayon (translated by Raphael Blumberg as The Jewish Idea [Jerusalem: Institute for Publication of the Writings of Rabbi Meir Kahane, 1996]), his magnum opus:
Whoever knows that Jewish blood has been spilt and is aware of the pain and suffering caused to his Jewish brethren by cruel gentiles, yet he does not demand that their blood and suffering be avenged, is himself wicked and cruel. He lacks the anger and hatred toward wickedness and cruelty which are part of G-d’s command to “love your [Jewish] neighbor as yourself.”
p. 279, bracketed word in the original
Here, “Love your neighbor” is used to support revenge. (Kahane was the founder of the Jewish Defense League, which was officially declared a “terrorist group” by the FBI for its acts of violence against Arabs.) Kahane takes a verse that was most likely used often by his left-wing political adversaries and turns it against them; it is not he, he argues, who is lacking in love, at least for the individuals that count. Kahane explicitly limits the verse to “[Jewish]” neighbors and defines love in the verse to mean “anger and hatred toward wickedness and cruelty,” namely towards the Palestinians who he feels have spilled Jewish blood.
In one of his controversial writings, Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner of Brooklyn, rather than using a well-known verse like Froman and Kahane did, chooses to use a verse that very few will recognize:
And Eisav went unto Yishmael and took Machlas the daughter of Yishmael, Avraham’s son, the sister of Nevayos, in addition to his other wives, for a wife.
Genesis 28:9 (Artscroll translation—Hutner’s choice)
This verse is brought in an article he penned in 1977 for the ultra-Orthodox periodical “The Jewish Observer” in which he argued that Zionists were at least partially responsible for the Holocaust. This piece predictably sent shockwaves through the Orthodox Jewish community for its inflammatory claims. In the course of the article, he presents his religious view of history as a “sacred” subject in which overarching spiritual paradigms can be viewed through the lens of Torah. Thus, Genesis 28:9 predicts that “it was inevitable for the forces of Eisav and Yishmael”—Rome (Christianity) and Arabia (Islam) in traditional Jewish literature—“to combine.” As such, Hutner attaches tremendous importance to the Mufti’s 1941 trip to Berlin, even going so far as to say that Hitler and the Mufti’s relationship was “one of the most significant alliances of modern times.”
For our purposes, note that Hutner’s argument is based on such an obscure verse. At face value, no significant religious content whatsoever can be drawn from this verse, and therein lies its desirability for Hutner. Just as Hutner attributes significance to a verse devoid of much significant meaning on its face—genealogical lists are about as dull as the Torah gets—he also characterizes as significant an event that, when viewed on its own, does not seem that consequential. Hutner’s use of this verse illustrates that he views holiness as pervading even the most miniscule details of both the Torah and Jewish history, which to him are, of course, intimately related.
These three thinkers’ use of text implies that to them, the superficial meaning of the text is not of paramount significance. When Kahane and Froman can take one text and suggest that it mandates opposite modes of action, and Hutner can take Genesis 28:9 to prophesy devastating historical events with worldwide implications, the intrinsic meaning of Jewish biblical texts can hardly be said to be a prerequisite for homiletics. If there exists a point at which we can confidently object, “That’s not at all what the verse meant!” these rabbis have clearly crossed that line. As such, it is clear that they use the verses not as proof texts, per se, but more as a language of communicating. By expressing thoughts through text, the speaker indicates that he or she both considers the text authoritative and values the subject being discussed. In these cases, the argument is strengthened by the proof text only insofar as the reader already knows that the speaker values the proof text. Genesis 28:9 will not likely convince the hitherto unbeliever, and if someone thinks that Kahane is a racist madman, quoting the Golden Rule won’t change his or her mind. But the texts can serve as a common language between the writer and the reader; that they both value the Torah as a source of wisdom will strengthen the writer’s point, even if the Torah is not serving as the direct source of wisdom in this case.
Most readers will balk at the purported misuse of texts if (and only if) they disagree with the given writer’s positions. Is Kahane, for instance, merely couching his deep-seated bigotry in religious terms? Probably—Kahane may be the first person ever to interpret “Love your neighbor” as a moral imperative to avenge non-Jews. But is this exegetical innovation necessarily a bad thing? Where is the line drawn between resenting that someone misuses holy texts for political reasons and appreciating that the same person chooses to express his deeply held political positions in religious language?
The American Jewish World Service (AJWS), according to its mission statement, “is an international development organization motivated by Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice.” One of their projects, on1foot.org, amasses Jewish sources on a variety of issues pertaining to the activism and volunteering efforts that AJWS facilitates. This impressive array of texts covers everything from women’s empowerment to the environment, providing Jewish sources (broadly construed to include everything from Ezekiel to Emma Goldman) to address the issue at hand. Presumably, the AJWS intends for these source sheets to be used in conjunction with charitable projects, either to prime volunteers for the task ahead or to simply add a religious component to an organization that has few overt religious—or at least specifically Jewish—elements. A recent AJWS ad campaign underscored its shaky religious foundations, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus wondering aloud, “Is it a Jewish thing?” – a question that deserves more consideration than its humorous portrayal suggests.
On1foot seems much less harmful than Kahane’s violent ideology, much less controversial than Froman’s vision of a shared Jerusalem, and much less offensive than Hutner’s Holocaust theology, but there is no actual difference between hiding bigotry behind religion and positing religion as the motivation for social justice. For instance, many biblical scholars agree that the “[Jewish]” in Kahane’s verse is, in fact the original meaning of the verse, something with which on1foot.org would probably not agree. Both take a preconceived notion, superimpose it on Jewish texts, and drag the texts along for the ride. Both risk endangering the plain meaning of the text in order to make it sympathetic to their pursuits. The AJWS is not necessarily more faithful to our texts than any of these polemicists. The AJWS simply attaches the texts to causes that many of us support.
One (semi-)Jewish thinker, Baruch Spinoza, did object to Maimonides’ “poetic conceit” model and his broader goal of reinterpreting Scripture to correspond with Aristotelian philosophy:
But this is mere rubbish. They are concerned only to extort from Scripture some Aristotelian nonsense and some fabrications of their own; and this I regard as the height of absurdity.
p. 13 of Theological-Political Treatise (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001, Trans. Samuel Shirley)
It is true that Spinoza respects the plain meaning of the texts more than other philosophers, Maimonides being a prime example. But although Spinoza rarely distorts the meaning of individual verses, he is the master of cherry-picking quotes from the Bible to support his theological-political philosophy. Even the textual purist Spinoza’s sources are usually made to be subservient to his broader agenda. Nevertheless, his point holds. The privilege to use texts with “poetic conceit” license must come with the responsibility to be cognizant of the limitations of that license. Modern Jewish polemicists who proclaim the “Jewishness” and text-based nature of a laissez faire economy, Palestinian rights, illegal immigration enforcement, or a higher minimum wage should bear in mind that they are making midrash no less than their opponent. The fact that they choose to express themselves in Jewish terms is something that should be encouraged; impassioned people like these keep Judaism relevant. But the declaration of a correspondence of such and such cause with “Jewish values” should always be taken with a grain of salt.
I am not ruling out the possibility of a rigorous process to determine what exactly this set of “Jewish values” is. But I am highly skeptical that such a search will yield useful results. The Jewish corpus of texts is too broad for there to be uniformity on any given subject. When multiple approaches are found in Jewish texts, which approach is in line with Jewish values? Should we grant greater weight to certain texts based on how popular their authors were? Should a text’s weight be adjusted according to how old it is? Does focusing exclusively on texts unfairly assume that Jewish values are transmitted textually, as opposed to orally or mimetically? The sheer number of variables in such a process makes it difficult to run successfully. However, even if such a process is possible, the fact remains that most Jews talking about “Jewish values” have not undertaken such a process, nor have they considered that the very existence of these values is dubious. Any thinker who appeals to Jewish values should be clear about what she means when saying that a certain position is the “Jewish” view.
Because it is possible to apply any meaning to virtually any text, we are left with a situation where the texts may seem to have little value within Judaism. Granted, it is true that, barring the hypothetical research project in the previous paragraph, the entirety of Judaism cannot be said to reflect a single position. Yet individual Jewish texts can express a position. Maintaining that Rashi would support immigration reform, for instance, is much more justifiable than saying that immigration reform is Jewish. And while someone opposed to immigration reform may then want to apply meaning to Rashi, the Rashi devotee has the right to defend the plain read.
Jewish texts can have as much practical import as any texts, with the added bonus that Jewish texts may be more likely to resonate with Jews than non-Jewish texts. Once we get past the mythical construct of “Jewish values,” we can accept the diversity of traditions within Judaism. We can start studying texts for what they are. And when we feel strongly about a position, we can freely use midrash to express that position in Jewish language, even if this involves distorting the original meaning of the text or conveniently ignoring the texts that don’t agree with us. Artfully interpreting texts is a time-honored Jewish tradition.
But please, just don’t tell me that your political views are the “Jewish way.”