Professor Daniel Boyarin’s book Midrash Tannaim: Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash attempts to answer a question that has occupied Jewish culture since the Middle Ages: How is one meant to understand the Midrash and Is it possible to relate to it as biblical exegesis?
Boyarin claims that the key to understanding the Midrash as exegesis is found in the Sages’ understanding of the entire Bible as a text that interprets itself. From the Gaonic period through the beginnings of critical research into rabbinic literature, the attitude towards Midrash has wavered from awkwardness to astonishment. In light of the accepted understanding of exegesis from the Middle Ages through today, the Midrash seems to distort the biblical text and consistently deviate from what seems like the simple reading of the verses. This position calls into question the possibility of understanding the Midrash as exegesis.
One of the solutions that modern researchers use for dealing with this problem is to claim that the Sages were guided by a set of rules and assumptions that are different from those used by the modern commentator. According to this understanding, Midrash is a result of “organic thinking,” which, as opposed to scientific thinking, cannot distinguish between the text and the commentator. The book starts with a critical analysis of this position. Boyarin rejects the claim of “organic thinking” of the Sages and instead suggests a new understanding of rabbinic Midrash. In the process he expands the boundaries of the concept of exegesis.
Boyarin claims that the underlying assumption of the Midrash is that the Bible itself is the direct context of every single word contained in it. Therefore there is nothing more natural for the commentator than to “plant” a verse, or part of a verse, in another biblical context. The rabbinic commentator assumes that the Bible is a book that interprets itself, and that in order to expose the interpretation, the verses must be removed from their local contexts in order to be read alongside other verses. Thus, instead of viewing the Bible as a text with one meaning that finds expression in a specific story or commandment, the interpreter sees the Bible as a collection of verses and words that he can take apart and put together again to create new stories. The commentator is therefore, not inventing interpretations from scratch and is not using verses just to verify his own opinions but is rather breaking down the “normal” context of the verses to construct the Midrash.
The book also works to justify the midrashic texts and rabbinic exegesis in light of modern literary theory. Boyarin’s claim is that the Bible is characterized by a dialogue between its different parts, but more than that, each and every text is itself in dialogue (with the past, with other texts, or with the reader). Therefore, the Midrash is just a radicalization of intertextual reading of every single text.
The recently published book is an English translation of one of Boyarin’s first essays. Since the book was first published nearly twenty years ago Boyarin has published many books on different aspects of rabbinic literature and has become one of the most prominent rabbinic literature researchers. In this new translation for Hebrew audiences, Boyarin has added two chapters that connect his earlier work on Midrash to his later research and to the approaches he has adopted since the book was originally released. The first chapter, “The Midrash as Anti-Philosophy,” deals with the connection between midrashic interpretation and body and sexuality in the Talmud. The second chapter, “Rhetoric, Theology and Allegory in the Writings of Paul and Origen,” looks at the connections between midrashic literature and Hellenistic and Christian allegory.
Daniel Boyarin’s Midrash Tannaim: Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash will be published in Hebrew by the Shalom Hartman Institute.