Were Ancient Rabbis as Focused on Bible Interpretation as We Think They Were?

The term midrash refers, loosely, to the style of exegesis practiced by the rabbis of the 1st through 8th centuries CE, a genre that often involves straying far outside the plain or literal meaning of the text. In The Origins of Midrash, Paul Mandel presents a novel theory of how midrash developed and suggests that interpreting the Bible was not the priority of the early talmudic sages. Yitz Landes writes in his review:

Mandel argues [that], for much of antiquity, including during the early rabbinic period, the Semitic root d-r-sh [whence midrash] referred to teaching—textual or otherwise. Mandel thus overturns the [scholarly] consensus that early uses of this root refer to textual interpretation, and that only later was the root’s meaning expanded to encompass teaching more generally.

Mandel’s argument is a philological one, and it starts over a millennium before the rabbis first appeared on the historical stage. . . . In their occurrences in pre-rabbinic texts from the Hebrew Bible and elsewhere, [d-r-sh and related Semitic roots] refer not to activities of textual interpretation but simply to “the disclosure and teaching of the Jewish law.” Similarly, in early rabbinic texts, these words “do not convey a particular mode of textual interpretation and, indeed, are not limited to textual interpretation at all, but rather to public instruction, usually in the realm of laws and custom.” The meaning of d-r-sh changed toward . . . the turn of the 2nd century CE.

While praising the book, Landes suggests that “the distinction between explication of the Torah text and ‘a detailed discussion of the laws based on that text’ is not so clear [as Mandel assumes], particularly given that the discussion of the laws may still have included a recital of the pertinent passages from Scripture.”

Read more at Ancient Jew Review

More about: Judaism, Midrash, Religion & Holidays, Talmud

The Possible Death of Mohammad Deif, and What It Means

On Saturday, Israeli jets destroyed a building in southern Gaza, killing a Hamas brigade commander named Rafa Salameh. Salameh is one of the most important figures in the Hamas hierarchy, but he was not the primary target. Rather it was Mohammad Deif, who is Yahya Sinwar’s number-two and is thought to be the architect and planner of numerous terrorist attacks, of Hamas’s tunnel network, and of the October 7 invasion itself. Deif has survived at least five Israeli attempts on his life, and the IDF has consequently been especially reluctant to confirm that he had been killed. Yet it seems that it is possible, and perhaps likely, that he was.

Kobi Michael notes that Deif’s demise would have major symbolic value and, moreover, deprive Hamas of important operational know-how. But he also has some words of caution:

The elimination of Deif becomes even more significant given the current reality of severe damage to Hamas’s military wing and its transition to terrorism and guerrilla warfare. However, it is important to remember that organizations such as Hamas and Hizballah are more than the sum of their components or commanders. Israel has previously eliminated the leaders of these organizations and other very senior military figures, and yet the organizations continued to grow, develop, and become more significant security threats to Israel, while establishing their status as political players in the Palestinian and Lebanese arenas.

As for the possibility that Deif’s death will harden Hamas’s position in the hostage negotiations, Tamir Hayman writes:

In my opinion, even if there is a bump in the road now, it is not a strategic one. The reasons that Hamas decided to compromise its demands in the [hostage] deal stem from the operational pressure it is under [and] the fear that the pressure exerted by the IDF will increase.

Read more at Institute for National Security Studies

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas