All classical Torah literature can be roughly divided into two categories: law and spirit (“halacha” and “midrash”). The Written Torah (“Tanach”) might be described as the public face of both of these categories, but either way, it’s mostly incomprehensible without the interpretive resources of an Oral Torah.
The inaccessibility of the legal passages is pretty much intuitively apparent to anyone who has spent time with them. But I believe that even the poetic passages from Tanach often seem incomplete on their own. The great prophets gave flesh to the bones of The Law. They showed us that, beyond simply doing what is right, we should aspire to greatness. They showed us how our daily interactions with elements of the world around us – whether human, animal or the very soil beneath our feet – must be infused with a thirst for justice and a love for all creation. But the principles and attitudes to which they hint – ever at risk of becoming lost beneath the sheer weight of their breadth and subtlety – are clarified and organized by the various collections of midrash.
But here we must be especially careful. No matter how tempting and even entertaining it might be, I believe that there is precious little to be gained by reading midrash literally as simple and childish stories. Midrash, like every part of our Torah, can be properly understood only through careful preparation, great effort…and then quiet reflection. Lots of quiet reflection.
In this book, I’ve tried not only to present my own conclusions about specific midrashic passages (while remaining passionately loyal to traditional Jewish thinking), but to provide more general guidance: what’s a student to do when faced with a midrash whose simple reading is patently deceptive? What about one filled with unnecessary characters, complicating what by all rights should be straightforward? And what about theological contradictions? Since the authors of the midrash obviously knew better, these calculated “errors” are clearly designed to teach.
But to teach what? Read on.
One more note.
New students, faced with their first written tests, invariably ask me whether I expect translations that are literal or correct. I invariably reply: “Yes. All of the above.”
Nevertheless, for this book I’ve chosen a rather informal translation style when presenting primary sources. If you will compare my versions to the original Hebrew or Aramaic texts (and I strongly advise you do), you will see that my desire to recreate the smooth and clear flow of ideas will generally win out over precision. You can only gain by looking things up for yourself.