Joel Cohen

The Midrash: Is there real value in it?

Remember when, as a child, you were taught the story about the baby Moses sitting on Pharaoh’s lap, reaching for his crown? (Shemot Rabbah 1:26) You believed with all your heart that Pharaoh tested, with the encouragement of his wise men, whether Moses posed a threat to him. And that the angel Gabriel pushed his hand from a bowl of diamonds to a bowl of hot coals, causing him to take his hand to his mouth and resultingly become tongue-tied.

A pretty story, yes. Maybe, for many believers — even adult or mature ones — a story that depicted how God’s angel saved “the Redeemer” from certain death that would have made the redemption of the House of Israel from Egypt unattainable.

The only problem, we would later learn if we allowed ourselves to do so as we matured, is that it simply didn’t happen – call it a myth, a tale, a legend, or simply midrash. Something akin to Achilles’ mother holding him by his heel and dipping him as a baby into the River Styx to make him impervious to the wounds of war.

Maybe, as children, the Moses story helped construct a bridge for us to help us understand the Ways of God.  As adults, though, we are allowed to accept and conclude that stories like that shouldn’t be accepted as “truth”.  Still, do all, even mature, believers always allow themselves to separate the wheat from the chaff – the Written Torah from midrash?

We’re told from Day 1 of our indoctrination into Judaism’s belief system that “Moses is truth and His Torah is truthמשה אמת ותורתו אמת)  ( Obviously some incidents described in the Hebrew Bible are virtually impossible for the modern to believe. They seem apocryphal or allegorical in nature – but they are nonetheless taught to us to be the unassailable truth, however hard they might be to believe (if we even permit ourselves to question their authenticity, rather than simply take them as unchallengeable).

For example, God gathered dust from the ground and created man from it (Genesis: 2:7). Or having decided that man shouldn’t be alone, God essentially put Adam to sleep and reached into his rib to form woman (Genesis 2: 20-22) The Bible tells us that God Himself narrated the Torah; and so, the Torah is the “God’s honest truth.” Meaning, it reports with literal preciseness what occurred.

But suppose a scholarly rabbinic figure of long ago was to tickle the story somewhat. He did so maybe to make the account more believable; maybe to express a policy that woman should be subordinate to man; maybe to argue that “dust” is merely a metaphor; maybe to bring the story closer to the theory of evolution that might scientifically emerge one day.

This purely hypothetical scholar employs his story arguing that the words “dust” and “rib” actually mean “ape” – that, over time, God actually caused the ape to evolve into humankind. Or, when God created man and woman he also created a “soul” named דרווין , who would later be born. דרווין, the soul, observed the birth and creation of mankind. Given the scholarly status of the rabbi, דרווין’s account becomes part of the midrash –  another “legend” to be handed down over the generations.

To be sure, I’m no scholar but I’ve herewith created a midrash. If somehow my midrash were to become studied, I will unintentionally have led young believers — maybe even mature adults — to believe that that’s exactly what occurred. I will have effectively bastardized the “truth” of the Written Torah into fantasy.

Yes, there may indeed be intrinsic value in my “ape, later man” story.  After all, modern science accepts evolution. And many Torah-observant Jews willing to acknowledge it do indeed find difficulty with the Hebrew Bible’s fantastical account of mankind’s creation. And so, perhaps with a glass of scotch in hand to enhance my creativity, I’ve made the story of mankind’s creation more accessible and believable, although dispensing with the Torah’s “truth” along the way.

Everyone reading my account, though, will recognize that it’s pure fantasy; fiction; even a fairy tale. Indeed, it’s not an “elaboration,” as those who glorify the midrash typically argue. And, remember, my midrash is more consonant with how most moderns envision how mankind actually came into being (rather than how the Torah somewhat whimsically presents it).

Yes, often enough, episodes in the Torah are difficult for rational human beings to believe. And its believing readers are asked by the religion’s regimen to accept their content on faith — including a core belief that God Himself authored it.

Once they accept, however, that the authors of the midrash aren’t truly divine, one wonders whether the midrash provides something any better than did Aesop – which was properly identified as “fable”. Indeed, however, Aesop typically provided valuable lessons for humankind. In contrast, one doesn’t always find value in a midrashic tale that, we must recognize from the outset, isn’t factually true.

One, for example, tells us that Moses told the Angel of Death the day he was scheduled to die that he would surrender his soul only directly to God Himself. Further, God actually consulted with the sun that promised that it wouldn’t set unless and until Moses surrendered his soul directly to God. (DR 9.9 Pertirat Moshe 122) Really?

I fear that such midrashic excesses might cause modern thinkers who critically examine the Torah to conclude that the Written Torah may itself be a midrash, especially when adherents of Judaism, young and old alike, aren’t told in unambiguous terms that the midrashic tales, in comparison, are fictional, pure and simple.

Let’s, however, consider the Written Torah itself. One who has difficulty accepting the account of creation in the Book of Genesis might also look for a good reason for its curious account. Assume, therefore, that creation occurred consistent with the scientific theory of the “Big Bang.” A “Torah believer” who accepts the Big Bang theory would still have to believe that a prime mover set “the Bang” in motion –  that “prime mover” being God.

So why would God offer the Written Torah’s oddball description of creation? Perhaps God Himself recognized that mankind would much more easily be able to accept and internalize the account of creation as contained in the Torah than what only a genius such as Albert Einstein himself could possibly comprehend if the scientifically “true” (Big Bang) account of creation appeared in the Torah having been dictated to Moses by God at Sinai. Sometimes, the fairy tale is easier to understand than is science.

Returning to the midrash, perhaps alternatively its role is to effectively bind people to the culture of Judaism. The Greeks were tied together by stories such as that describing the curious death of the heroic Achilles. Jews have similarly been bound together over time internalizing what the midrash has told us about the heroism, strength and character of our Biblical ancestors of yesteryear. Accepting that role, to this way of thinking “legend” has sometimes superseded literal truth in order to result in a meaningful end.

Similarly, as a friend of mine, Yaacov, might say, it doesn’t really matter if George Washington truly admitted to his father that it was he who had chopped down the cherry tree (“I cannot tell a lie.”)  Or that Abraham Lincoln actually walked back six miles to return a three penny overcharge to a storekeeper. It is sufficient, he would say, that those stories are part and parcel of the common heritage of Americans that bring us closer to our heroic predecessors and each other.

Or in terms of midrash, legends may often help adherents of Judaism to believe in the righteous value of Judaism’s figures whom we honor as its heroes. Accepting it that way, so what if the life of baby Moses sitting on Pharaoh’s lap wasn’t really saved by the angel Gabriel’s legerdemain? That, as long as we, as adults, take the story to be no more “truthful” than are the legends (or myths) of Achilles, Washington and Lincoln.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Petrillo, Klein & Boxer in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Petrillo, Klein & Boxer firm or its lawyers.