web analytics
March 2, 2015 / 11 Adar , 5775
At a Glance
InDepth
Sponsored Post


Home » InDepth » Op-Eds »

Shortchanging Our Children By Teaching Midrashim Literally


Red Sea splitting

Red Sea splitting
Photo Credit: Chabad.org

As part of the high school entrance interview, I often challenge incoming students with questions that contrast the p’shat of a Chumash story with its midrashic counterpart. The reaction is always the same – the student looks at me with an expression akin to that of a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck.

The other day, the student was an eager young lady named Leah. I asked her the following question: If you were able to go back in time to the moment when Paroh’s daughter saw baby Moshe in his basket, what would you see? Would you see Paroh’s daughter requesting her maidservant to fetch the basket as the pasuk tells us, or would you see her arm grow 25 feet long like Mister Fantastic and rope in the basket as the Midrash says?

I felt at that moment as if I had asked Leah to choose between her two parents at a divorce proceeding. She knew that the Torah was an authority and correct and the Midrash was an authority and correct. But her mind was telling her that both versions could not possibly be simultaneously true. Understandably, she was frozen and unable to respond.

Leah was educated in a yeshiva day school. The vast majority of children from the current yeshiva system believe all midrashim are part of the literal account of the events that occurred in the Tanach.

Fast forward to an anthropology class at Queens College. The professor is discussing ancient Egypt. He mentions a legend among the Jews about the daughter of Pharaoh stretching her arm out to retrieve baby Moses. Leah raises her hand. She says that it was a miracle and that the daughter of Paroh had her arm stretched out to save Moshe.

Suddenly, all 53 members of her class turn to her and stare. Her face turns crimson. The professor asks her, “Do you believe that actually happened?” Leah feels the temperature rising. She knows that her beliefs are under attack, and that she has been publicly put on the spot. She desperately wants to explain the Torah position in a cogent way and yet she finds that despite 15 years of yeshiva education, she is unable to do so.

What is the Torah position on midrashim?

The Rambam, in his commentary to Perek Chelek (10th chapter of Sanhedrin) says unequivocally that midrashim are not to be taken literally, but are a source of deep wisdom.

The great mikubal the Ramchal, in his Introduction to Aggadah (found in most editions of the Ein Yaakov) states that midrashim are a source of deep and abstract ideas and not to be taken literally.

The Ra’avad, in his commentary on the Mishne Torah (Hil. Teshuva ch. 3), states that taking the midrashim literally distorts ones principles of belief “mishabshos es ha’deos”).

Sadly, this is case with our children. They have been taught midrashim as fairy tales. The effects are disastrous.

I explained to Leah that the Torah’s account is what truly occurred in space and time. The Midrash is there to point to the story behind the story. In my opinion, the story of the seemingly miraculous extension of Paroh’s daughter’s arm is directing us to consider the great difficulty she must have faced saving the life of a Jewish baby.

Imagine a modern-day Paroh – a Hitler or a Stalin, or even a Saddam Hussein. How likely would it be for the daughter of such a singularly evil dictator to defy her father’s murderous intentions? The actions of Paroh’s daughter required her to go against her upbringing and the dictates of her father. This would of necessity create tremendous conflict for any young woman, but particularly for one in her position of prominence in Egyptian society.

About the Author: Rabbi Pinchas Rosenthal is director of the Executive Learning Program at the Manhattan Jewish Experience (www.jewishexperience.org), a cutting-edge outreach program serving young people.


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

10 Responses to “Shortchanging Our Children By Teaching Midrashim Literally”

  1. I agree with Rabbi Pinchas. There is a two sided problem though…those who are taught and believe the midrashim are literal accounts…and those who exclude all midrashim with a roll of the eyes and “that’s just medrash!” as in “that’s worthless, a waste of time, too stupid for me.”

  2. Rabbi Rosenthal that is.

  3. Gene Strong says:

    English please.

  4. Gadi D says:

    I was with him till his anthropology class example, which demonstrates why his is also a bad approach. Bowing to peer pressure or academic disdain over matters of belief is contrary to Jewish tradition. What if the professor had used kriyat yam suf as his example of a legend of the Jews and “Leah” had said the exact same thing about it being a miracle? What if her professor then asked her if she really believed that and her fellow students stared at her like they did in Rabbi Rosenthal’s anecdote?

  5. Bryan Baruch says:

    They’re turning them into little morons, like fundamentalist christians. It’s disgusting.

  6. Gadi D says:

    A better approach would be to teach the textual anchor for such midrashim along with the lessons to be learned from them, but also instill a firm foundation of faith that does not discount the possibility of the miraculous. What Leah could have said in her entrance interview when she was unfairly challenged by Rabbi Rosenthal, was that this is the subject of a debate between two tanaim and that indeed it would be interesting to see which one was right. A good teacher would have explained that this machloket exists and that we can learn lessons from both positions.

  7. Gadi D says:

    And I wonder what Rabbi Rosenthal would have done if he were in the anthropology class and was asked about the “legend” having to do with the frogs in Egypt. He discredits the midrashic version of there being one frog that kept splitting, and that’s fine. But does he not realize that the anthropology professor in his example would likely find the very concept of the plague of frogs to be no more than a folk tale as well? His approach does not give “Leah” adequate tools to defend her beliefs at all.

  8. ArtScroll’s “translation” of the Song of Songs is based on the midrash. The literal translation is on the bottom of the page in tiny type.

  9. Jesse Long says:

    Why is fundamentalist Christianity disgusting, Bryan Baruch? Furthermore, why should we even TRUST a guy like you with an avatar of Boris Badenoff, anyway?

  10. Bryan Baruch says:

    It doesn’t even merit a reply.

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
Netanyahu speaks with AIPAC leaders. Jan.14, 2015.
Netanyahu at AIPAC: ‘US-Israel Alliance is Sound’
Latest Indepth Stories
Hur and Aharon holding up Moshe's hands as Joshua battled Amalek.

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey after you left Egypt-how undeterred by fear of G-d”

Begun

Stalin’s plan for the Soviet’s “final solution of the Jewish question” was totally assimilating them

Bibi and Obama: Head to Head

Many Jews oppose the speech fearing it will further erode relations between Israel & US. I disagree.

UGANorthCampusSign

The University of Georgia Student Government Association called for more investment in Israel.

Without an alliance comparable to ISIS, Al Qaida & Iran, militant Islam will conquer the Middle East

Ultimately, Esther, Netanyahu, and we, the Jewish people, must and will rely on the true King, God, for our salvation from this genocidal threat.

Netanyahu addresses a clear, present & lethal threat to the US/Israel/WORLD; NOT political bickering

Buried in the tax-returns of the JCF is millions of dollars funneled to NIF in the last few years.

Bibi’s speech to Congress will bring respect and honor to the Jewish Nation from the US & the world

Obama & Putin have handwriting/signature clues indicating differences between public & private life

It’s time for a new Jewish policy regarding Ramallah, NOT just because of the yarmulke incident

“GETT’s” being screened for Israeli Rabbinical Court judges at their annual convention.

If Jackson were alive he’d denounce Democratic party’s silence towards virulent anti-Semitism

Victim of Palestinian Arab terrorism, a victor in NY federal court, after years of being ignored by Justice Dept.

March 2013: Arabs hurled stones hitting the Biton’s car; Adele’s mother swerved the car-into a truck

More Articles from Rabbi Pinchas Rosenthal

“I don’t want to learn and that’s it! I go to yeshiva all week and I need a break!” Your son storms off and slams the door.

All you had done was innocently ask him to learn on Shabbos afternoon. Your son, however, felt like a parolee asked to go back into solitary confinement. This is, to say the least, a painful experience for both father and son.

Red Sea splitting

The vast majority of children from the current yeshiva system believe all midrashim are part of the literal account of the events that occurred in the Tanach.

The parents of these children cannot understand the reasons for their children’s lack of interest in Judaism.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/shortchanging-our-children-by-teaching-midrashim-literally/2006/05/31/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: