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

March 19 2019

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.”

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


Understanding the Background of the White House Ruling on Anti-Semitism and the Civil Rights Act

Dec. 13 2019

On Wednesday, the president signed an executive order allowing federal officials to extend the protections of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to Jews. (The order, promptly condemned for classifying Jews as a separate nationality, did nothing of the sort.) In 2010, Kenneth Marcus called for precisely such a ruling in the pages of Commentary, citing in particular the Department of Education’s lax response to a series of incidents at the University of California at Irvine, where, among much elase, Jewish property was vandalized and Jewish students were pelted with rocks, called “dirty Jew” and other epithets, and were told, “Jewish students are the plague of mankind.”

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Israel on campus, U.S. Politics