The very first day I came to cheder1as a small child, I was brought by my father and my uncle. As is the custom, they threw candies at me, and they told me that the archangel Michael had thrown them.
My father told me that when he was brought to cheder, his grandfather Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch was still alive, and he threw candies and told him the same—that the archangel Michael had thrown them. My father took this very seriously. He didn’t want to eat the candies, they were so precious to him.
Eventually, the day before Passover arrived, and as usual, they were checking the pockets of the small children for crumbs of bread. His grandfather called him and asked him where he kept the candies. At that point, he had to eat them all.
This is the kind of education we have to have!
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Sefer ha-Sichot 5701, pp. 29–30 (translated).
Heaven forbid we should tell a child an untruth! It is a Jewish custom, and a Jewish custom is also Torah—the Torah of truth. Everything the child is told is true: Those who throw the candies are doing it on behalf of the archangel Michael, the angel who seeks out the merits of the Jewish people. The sweetness of the candies is the sweetness of Torah as it descends and clothes itself in a physical object.
|When he grasps the outer clothing, the child grasps the archangel Michael and all the truth that is within that clothing!
An adult won’t accept this, because he sees that he, and not an angel, is the one throwing the candies. When a child is older, we can explain to him that this is only a garb for something much higher. But when he is a three-year-old child just beginning his education, we tell him these things clothed in a story, and he has no problems with any of it. Nevertheless, when he grasps the outer clothing, the child grasps the archangel Michael, and the sweetness of Torah, and all the truth that is within that clothing!
Midrash For the Rest of Us
If you’ve been following this series, by now you should know that when you come across a fabulous story from the Midrash, you need to peel back the covers to discover what it’s trying to tell you. The stories are all true stories—just not necessarily the way things were able to unfold in our physically limited realm. This reality is not the ultimate expression of truth.
But, we asked, what about those aren’t capable of peeking beneath the surface? What about small children—and even simpleminded adults—who have no patience for abstractions, and take all they hear and read at face value? Are we supposed to hide these stories from them?
Historically, that just hasn’t been the case. Many, if not most of these midrashim are collections from sermons of popular rabbis of past generations. To whom were they sermonizing? To whoever came and listened: men, women and children—most of them simple folk.
So too, over the last thousand years or more, these collections were read by the simple, literate Jew and retold to small children in their plain, undecoded form. They were our mother’s milk, and they became part of the Jewish DNA. They pumped through our blood and inspired us to hold tight throughout all the hardships and persecution. Where intellectuals collapsed and accepted apostasy rather than lose their lives or their property, those who embraced the simple meaning of these stories without question stood firm and strong. On these stories were raised men and women who lived lives of truth.
|Truth doesn’t grow where falseness is planted.
Truth doesn’t grow where falseness is planted. We must say that even as they are understood on their most basic level, each of these stories is absolutetruth.
But how is that so? Either fine clothes will be growing on trees when Moshiach comes, or they will not. Can we say that for the small child they will do so literally, while for the sophisticated adult they will do so only figuratively?
To return to the story of the Zohar we quoted in Part I: A beautiful woman in the palace appears to her beloved first by peeping out a small window, then by speaking to him from behind a curtain, and then through a thin veil. The thin veil isaggadah—the midrashic tales we are discussing. A person who enjoys these stories without grasping their deeper meaning, it would seem, is like someone enamored with the veil. But this can’t be true. It must be that somehow in the veil itself rests the entire beauty and truth of the Torah.
The question is not on midrashic aggadah alone. The Hebrew Bible is filled with anthropomorphism—G‑d’s eyes and hands, His wrath, His disappointment and His love, G‑d as king, G‑d as father—all understood by innocent and simple people exactly as stated.
When a child hears the story of Abraham arguing with G‑d over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he most certainly imagines the two standing face to face, as a man argues with a close friend. When he reads that G‑d smote Egypt with an outstretched arm, he imagines a giant arm extending down from the heavens. And he won’t give up that image, no matter how much his teacher may try to explain. A hand means a hand. The child has no concept of deeper meaning or higher reality. The child is concerned with the world he sees and feels. This is the world of the child—free of abstraction, simple and concrete.
Yet Maimonides categorically ruled that one who believes that G‑d has any form whatsoever is denying His oneness, and has thereby forfeited his share in the world to come!2
No, Maimonides is not booting all the little children out of heaven.
|No, Maimonides is not booting all the little children out of heaven.
He is obviously speaking of an adult who has read the classic commentaries and has the intellectual capacity to conceive of oneness and formlessness, yet nevertheless insists on a literal understanding of G‑d as a being of form. The child isn’t quite there yet.3
Nevertheless, the question remains: How could the Torah—a Torah of truth—mislead the innocent reader of simple faith?
Indeed, Rabbi Abraham ben David (known as Raavad) criticized Maimonides for making this ruling.4 He himself agreed that G‑d has no form, physical or otherwise. What he could not bear is the condemnation, as he writes, of “many who were better than him [meaning Maimonides (!)] who believed such things due to their innocent reading of the text.”
“Better than him,” writes Rabbi Abraham. Even though they believe something about G‑d that he himself agrees is utterly false! What is so wonderful about people who cannot fathom a formless G‑d?5
To answer that question, we need to readjust our thinking about several issues: about Torah, about reality, and about human language.
The View from Higher Worlds
First, let’s examine our approach to midrash a step deeper. While Maharal was composing his elucidations of midrash in Prague, Rabbi Menachem Azariah of Fano, Italy, was taking a similar approach to Torah text in general.
R. Menachem Azariah was concerned with a statement of the Talmud, that the Torah sometimes exaggerates.6 One of the examples the Talmud offers was when Moses tells how the spies described the cities of Canaan. He quotes them as saying that these are “great cities, fortified up to the heavens.”7
R. Menachem Azariah writes, “Heaven forbid that the Torah should exaggerate! Everything in the Torah is truth—even the lies the characters of the Torah tell are truth. For in a Torah of truth, there is no room for inaccuracies, never mind exaggeration. And in this case the cities are truthfully fortified to the heavens, for in the higher realms the external ministering angels cannot enter the boundaries of the land.”8
To R. Menachem Azariah, that itself is the meaning of exaggeration in Torah—not an inflation of the facts, but a statement of a higher truth that cannot be expressed in our physical world. Torah, however, speaks only secondarily about our physical world—and in a world higher than our own, there is certainly some very real manifestation of this truth.
Ramban (Nachmanides) had written that the Torah speaks about earthly matters and alludes to spiritual ones.9 Now, R. Menachem Azariah
|The Torah speaks principally about higher matters—the earthly matters are secondary.
turned that around: The Torah speaks principally about higher matters, he wrote; it’s the earthly matters that are secondary.10
Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz was the chief rabbi of Prague shortly after Maharal. His voluminous Shnei Luchot ha-Brit (known by its acronym, Shelah) was a highly popular and influential work among European Jewry in the 17th and 18th centuries. In it, he quotes R. Menachem Azariah and supports his view. But he carries the idea further, into the domain of midrash.
“Just as every verse of the Torah must be understood according to its simple sense,” he writes, “so too, every midrashic story is true in its simple sense.”11But what he means by “simple sense” in midrash is certainly not what we would consider it to be.
To explain himself,12 he cites the great Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero.13
Rabbi Cordovero presented a unique understanding of anthropomorphism. Others understood biblical anthropomorphism quite plainly: when we read about G‑d’s hand or ears, we understand that G‑d’s hands are not real hands, but since we have no other way to describe Him, we use something of which we do have a grasp—namely, our own hands and ears. But, wrote Rabbi Cordovero, in truth the reverse is true: The real hands and ears are those of G‑d, since it is from G‑d that all things originate, as the prophet remarks,14 “Does the One who made an ear not hear; the One who formed the eye not see?”
|The real hands and ears are those of G‑d. Only that His eyes and ears are verbs, rather than nouns.
It is only that G‑d’s eyes and ears are verbs, rather than nouns. As he wrote, “When talking about G‑d, we are not discussing the bodily ear, but rather the function of that ear. Just as a bodily ear hears and discerns the meaning of what it hears, so the divine power receives a voice and discerns whether it is acceptable or not.” But the point is, the real ear is the divine verb, not the corporeal noun. The ear on the side of your head is only a cheap imitation of the genuine McCoy.
This is a radically original way of thinking of metaphor in Torah: all that exists in our reality is nothing more than an analogy derived from the true reality to which it points. As the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, explained this view, G‑d gave us a hand and eyes and ears so that we could understand the true hand and eyes and ears as they are above. And the same with all that we find in our world. The whole world is one big parable, a crystallized analogue of the real thing.
Rabbi Horowitz understands midrash in much the same way as Rabbi Cordovero understands anthropomorphism—the metaphors are not foreign to their subject, but actual derivations of a higher reality. “So too,” he writes, “the simple meaning of any midrashic tale—its essential meaning—is as it is above. That which we generally understand as its simple meaning is actually how it comes to us having been clothed and clothed again in many layers of clothing.”
As Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes in Tanya: “The Torah descends from its place of glory, as it is G‑d’s will and wisdom . . . and from there it has journeyed in a descent though hidden stages, stage after stage . . . until it has clothed itself in materials matters and things of this world . . .”
Midrash, too, is speaking principally of something above. Where above? In which world?
For this, we have recourse to a teaching of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Ari: The peshat(simple, literal) meaning of the text belongs to our World of Action. The alluded meaning (remez) speaks in the World of Formation, a step up from this physical reality. The midrash then provides us a glimpse into how things look from the World of Creation, the deepest plane of the created reality. Beyond that, the Kabbalistic meanings belong to the World of Emanation, a world in which all is open G‑dliness.15
As it turns out, as
|As we move through the various departments of Torah, we are actually traversing worlds.
we move through the various departments of Torah, we are actually traversing worlds, viewing the same idea as it manifests in the various layers of the entirety of reality, like many facets of a single diamond.
Metaphor As Clothing
All of this will become clearer if we examine this metaphor of the metaphor: clothing. Why do ideas need clothing?
An author wishes to communicate an idea, an ethic or a perspective on life. If he would spell it out in the raw, the point won’t come across. He needs something that will carry his audience from their perspective to his, so that they will see that which is currently imperceptible to them. He can’t pick them up and take them there, and he can’t plop his mind into their brains.
But what he can do is find clothing that fits the subject and makes it presentable, that hides whatever is distracting them and brings out the highlights he wants to point out. As good clothing brings out the natural beauty of the subject, so a good parable brings out a depth otherwise ineffable. Paradoxically, both do so through concealment—concealment for the sake of revealing a deeper beauty.
Right now, for example, I am providing a metaphor for metaphor. If I just tell you what a metaphor is and its purpose, I doubt that I’ll get my point across. By telling you that metaphor is like clothing, I can communicate something about it that you may not have previously realized.
Now, clothing is a foreign layer, and so too a metaphor or analogy. The analogy may be a story about a wolf in a vineyard, a traveler to distant islands, or animals on a farm—and yet its content has nothing to do with wolves, grapes, islands or farms. If the audience gets stuck in the trappings and remains in the vineyard or on the farm, it would seem that the author has completely failed. George Orwell would certainly be dismayed by the number of high-school students (and some of their teachers) who believe he wrote a cute story about pigs and horses.
That is the case with most parables. But with the parables, metaphors and anthropomorphisms of Torah, matters are different: it’s impossible to grasp the clothing without also grasping whatever is clothed inside. Even if you are oblivious to those contents, you’re holding them tight.
Why the difference?
Because Aesop, Jonathan Swift and George Orwell found metaphors off the shelf and dressed their ideas within them. But, as Rabbi Horowitz wrote, the metaphor of Torah grows out of the ideas themselves. Just as you can’t grab a turtle’s shell without grabbing the turtle, so you can’t grab a Torah metaphor without grabbing the entire Torah in all its essence.
|You can’t grab a turtle’s shell without grabbing the turtle, and you can’t grab a Torah metaphor without grabbing the essential Torah.
Why is a candy sweet? Because Torah is sweet. That is the authentic, primal sweetness—and from there is derived all the sweetness in the world.
Why is it that fish can live only in the sea? Because there are souls that can live only within the sea of Torah.
Why is it that the space beyond our tiny planet goes on for so many light-years beyond? Because the material world is so infinitesimally insignificant in comparison to the transcendental worlds beyond it.
And so, when the human being tastes a candy tossed at him in the schoolroom, ponders a midrash about fish in the sea, or stares up at the sky in awe, in all those things he senses a truth far beyond.
It turns out that when discussing metaphor and midrash, we’re really talking about human language.
Language, developmental psychology has taught us, is much more than a means of communication. Language is the human gateway from the world of sensation to the world of abstraction.
When the child begins to understand language and form sentences, a transformation begins, a metamorphosis from a creature of a world of colors, textures, sounds, tastes and smells to a transcendental being that conceives objects, classes of objects and relationships between them. That’s why, while we’ve taught animals to communicate, we’ve yet to teach an animal language. As Bertrand Russell succinctly put it, “A dog cannot relate his autobiography; however eloquently he may bark, he cannot tell you that his parents were honest but poor.”16
Language means more than saying, “I want a banana” or “the banana is yellow.” Language provides the ability to see beyond the banana and beyond the yellow, and to conceive of those as ideas, so that you can construct new ideas—and perceive ideas that you have never seen. You can understand the banana as one of a set called bananas, a subset of fruits, which are in turn a subset of food. You can build relationships in your mind between the yellow of the banana and the yellow of other objects. You can conceive of a red banana, or a yellow coconut, even though you’ve never seen such a thing. As the Russian social psychologist
|Language empowers us to turn the universe symbolically inside out.
Alexander Luria wrote,17 with language “we can, if we will, turn the universe symbolically inside out.”18
Bruno Bettelheim is best known for his classic work of child psychology, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. He criticizes the “narrow-minded rationalists” who object to telling children fantasies, pointing out the value children receive from these stories in dealing with the emotions and turmoil of life. As for the unrealism, he writes that this is “an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales’ concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner process taking place in an individual.” In short, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue. . .”
The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, seems to be going beyond this. When a small child is told that the archangel Michael threw candies at him, thatis very real to him. He imagines the angel there in the room, and the candies become very precious candies. And yet it is not a lie.
Indeed, that is just the point: That which is absolute truth in the world of the child, in your world is an absurd lie. Not because your world is any closer to the truth than the child’s. On the contrary, the innocence and simplicity of the child can embrace truths which the adult can only faintly apprehend from afar.
|The simplicity of the child can embrace truths which the adult can only faintly apprehend from afar.
But because in the world of the child, language is not about facts, but about their meaning. The child has no problem with absurdities in the external world, because the child’s world is entirely an inner world. The inner world is all that counts to the child.
This is also the point being made by the Rebbe when he points out that when a speaking person talks about a hand, his principal meaning is not the muscle, skin and bones of the hand, but the vitality of that hand. If he says he was “handed” something, he is not saying that chunk of meat gave it to him, but that the life of a living being that is invested in that hand gave something to him.
So too, the Rebbe explained, when the small child hears about G‑d’s hand, what is of principal concern to him is the awesome vitality of G‑d’s mighty hand. When he is told that the candy was thrown by the archangel Michael, he principally relates that to the sweetness of that candy. That abstraction is there with him immediately—because all human language is abstraction. As he grows older, the outer layers fall away, while that essential perception of awe remains.
And what could be more precious than the awe felt by a small child when imagining G‑d’s mighty hand?
Yes, as the child grows older, he will have to strip away the fantasy and metaphor to find the concepts within. And it is vital that he have teachers that he respects, so that he will understand that they were not fools, that there must be something much deeper here.
Yet, as deep as he will fathom any truth, the most valuable approach will always be the awe and wonder, the simple faith and innocence which he experienced as a small child.
|“When I pray, I pray with the mind of a small child.”
As Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet (1326–1408) wrote, “When I pray, I pray with the mind of a small child.”19
Chaim Topol (best known for his role as Tevye inFiddler on the Roof) once had a private audience with the Rebbe. He described one of his proposed television productions, a series of Bible stories for children.
The Rebbe told him that since he is doing this already, he would not discourage him. But if he had asked to begin with, he would not have recommended it.
Let us take the story of Abraham arguing with G‑d over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, said the Rebbe. Imagine for a moment how the scene appears in the mind of a small child. The child sees G‑d standing there before Abraham as they discuss the case at hand, face to face. In that, he sees the greatness of Abraham and his closeness to G‑d, in a way no adult possibly could. And in a way that a television program must not portray.
As the child grows older, he understands that G‑d is not a person with a body. Those trappings fall away. But the perception of closeness to G‑d and the greatness of Abraham—that stays with him. And because he learned it as a child, it is far more real than anything an adult could be taught.20
Midrash, Torah and Reality
In our brief exploration here, we’ve come not only to a new way of understanding what midrash is all about, but a new approach to some of our most basic building blocks: What is language? What is Torah? And what is reality?
Some are stuck with a very pedestrian view of the Talmud and Midrash as nothing more than a repository of teachings from various teachers—teachers they imagine to be much like themselves, prone to exaggeration for the sake of making a point. Such a view is sorely insufficient at explaining Jewish practice and belief. Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Menachem Azariah, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, et al take a thoroughly different perspective, which extends from their concept of reality in general.
As Ramban lays out for us in his introduction to the Book of Genesis, Torah is not about reality; Torah creates reality. Things first exist in Torah and then emerge into the created world.
|The world is the background to G‑d’s story, and all that exists emerges from His telling of it.
The world is the background to G‑d’s story, and all that exists emerges from His telling of it. It’s just that His voice reaches us muffled and distorted. But Torah is the direct communication between the Director and His people. Torah is the one channel through which His voice comes to us as a clear signal—albeit encoded in “materials matters and things of this world.”
Without this perspective, the uncompromising insistence of these scholars on the reality of aggadah is perplexing. What is so terrible if a Torah sage might tell a little scrap of fiction to make a point? Isn’t there value to poetry and fiction even if it has no substance even in some deeper plane of reality?
But once we understand that the words of the Torah sages are also Torah, that they too are clear channels through which the divine speaks to us, then everything changes. As Ramban says about the Book of Genesis, so the same could be said of midrash: If it was not a reality before the sage said it, it emerged into such at that point.
If the world is G‑d’s palace, then Torah is the window through which the Master of the Palace peeks out at us. It’s left up to us to get the hint. And then, to go running after it.
Now that we know what Midrash is and what it isn’t, we really should apply all of this to a model case, one where we can determine what is to be taken as anecdote, what is to be taken figuratively, and how it could be true for each person on his or her own level.
One final installment in the series, coming up.