"The Song of Songs is the parable that Solomon formulated in order that the people will understand the Torah." (Boyarin, p103).
I am often asked, “What is midrash”, and I think to myself, “how much time do I have to explain?!” The word midrash, just to start, can refer to a method of interpretation or it can refer to a collection of writings. While the collection of writings is pretty self-explanatory, and it is the easy answer to give, saying, “it is a written collection of rabbinic interpretations of the Bible”, PHEW!!! But I think some people are curious about the actual method of midrash itself. This post will be an overview of how midrash works.
“There are essentially four fundamental assumptions about Scripture that characterize all ancient biblical interpretation” (Kugel, p17). The Bible is Cryptic, Instructive, Perfect, and has Divine origin. The meaning and application of the Bible is not always obvious, nevertheless, the reader(s) assume it is instructive and applicable to their lives. Furthermore, the Bible doesn’t have errors or contradictions, but is perfectly in harmony, precisely because it is the Words of HaShem. These assumptions drive the rabbinic interpreter to realize that if he doesn’t know, the deficiency is in himself to understand, and now he is obliged to search out(דרש, drash) the cryptic, divine, perfect, instruction, by using other parts of scripture.
Given these assumptions, I think the rabbis also assumed the Torah(the first five books of the Bible) is “real” history(cf. Boyarin, p103), and the remaining books of the Bible are sources that help explain the “real” situations that the Torah presents. This doesn’t diminish the historicity or divine origin of the other books, but consider the saying, “The deeds of the fathers are a portent for the children” (Midrash Tanchuma, Lech Lecha 9). Without the Torah, the other biblical books are meaningless.
In fact, most midrashim(plural) draw from the books categorized with the “Writings” in the Jewish Bible to interpret the Torah. These books are Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. The rabbis understood that Moses, David, and Solomon were given wisdom to interpret the Torah and they wrote these collections. With the help from their writings, rabbis and students could search out the further meanings in the Torah. With this in mind, the rabbis understood the Song of Songs as a mashal(a parable) that interprets the events of the exodus at the parting of the Red Sea and Mt. Sinai.
A mashal is fictional, but fiction doesn’t mean false. Consider any modern historical dramatization: it takes a nugget of an historical event and creates a fictional story to situate that event. A rabbi’s parable need not be understood as “what really happened”, but another fiction created to compare and interpret the actual event. For example, imagine a man sitting on a park bench. This is the actual event. One parable: a person sees the man, and asks why he is sitting there since it is really cold outside. Second parable: a person meets his friend on the bench, who had planned to meet him there on the way to eat together at the diner. Third parable: a person sees him sitting with his wallet at his side and he goes to steal it. Each story is a unique fiction in relation to the actual event. But each midrash gives some new contextual meaning to the actual event in the Torah by comparing it side-by-side with a creative fiction using other parts of the Bible.
There is a lot more to midrash! Let me know if you want me to expand more on midrash. Like or write in the comments below what you think.
- Boyarin, Daniel. 2003. Sparks Of The Logos. “Take The Bible For Example: Midrash as Literary Theory”. Brill.
- Kugel, James. 1997. The Bible As It Was. Belknap Press of Harvard.