The quality of midrash is strained: Give ear, O ye heavens, or should it be hear?

Definitions

Midrash (from drash “to seek, study, enquire)

Anthologies and compilations of homilies, including both biblical exegesis and sermons delivered in public as well as aggadot (see *Aggadah) and sometimes even halakhot (cf. *Midreshei Halakhah), usually forming a running commentary on specific books of the Bible.” (Jewish virtual library)

Aggadah

a. a homiletic passage of the Talmud.

b. collectively, the homiletic part of traditional Jewish literature, as contrasted with Halacha, consisting of elaborations on the biblical narratives or tales from the lives of the ancient Rabbis.

Halacha

The legal part of Talmudic literature, an interpretation of the laws of the Scriptures.

Boots, Nancy Sinatra’s at least, are meant for walking, and ears are meant for hearing and listening. The sound may be noise (from whispers to hammer drills), music or language. When we hear, we receive or become conscious of a sound. When we listen, we give attention to someone or something for the purpose of hearing them. Other languages, for example French, make the same distinction: écouter (listen); entendre (hear).

The expressions “give ear to what I am saying,” which is seldom used in modern English, and “listen to what I am saying” mean the same thing, you would think, for both involve a request for someone to give attention to what is being said. Yet, in some Jewish thinking, specifically, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Schneerson, whom many Jews in the Chabad movement (a movement regarded by many Jews as de facto Judaism) believe to be the Messiah (he died in 1994), there exists a great divide between “give ear” and “listen.”

In Isaiah 1:2 we read: “Hear , O heavens, and give ear , O earth: for the LORD hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me.” Both “hear” (Hebrew root shama) and “give ear” (Hebrew root azan) are two ways of saying “listen,” “pay attention.”

Here is Deuteronomy 32:1 the Jewish Mechon-Mamre translation (which is the same as the English Revised version):

Give ear, O ye heavens, and I will speak; and let the earth hear the words of my mouth (what I say).

Ha’azinu (Listen plural) hashamayim (the heavens) ve’adabeira (and I will speak) ve’tishma (and hear) ha’aretz (the earth) imrei (what I say) pi (with my mouth – “i” pronounced “ee”).

הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וַאֲדַבֵּרָה וְתִשְׁמַע הָאָרֶץ אִמְרֵי־פִֽי׃

Ha’azinu (הַאֲזִינוּ) is Hebrew for “listen” (from ozen “ear) when directed to more than one person. It is the first word of the 53rd weekly portion (פָּרָשָׁה, parashah) in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah reading.

In Isaiah and Moses, we have “two prophets, two modes of expression.” What does the rabbinical literature make of this: Here is SichosinEnglish‘s “Two Prophets, Two Modes of Expression.”

“The word haazinu, generally translated as “listen,” literally means “give ear.” In that vein, our Sages compares Moshe’s call: “Listen O heavens, and I will speak; earth, hear the words of my mouth,” with Yeshayahu’s [Isaiah] prophecy: “Hear O heavens…, listen O earth.” They explain that Moshe was on a level of spiritual refinement which had elevated him until he was “close to the heavens, and far from the earth.” Therefore, he was able to address the heavens at close range. Yeshayahu, by contrast, despite the heights of personal growth which he had attained, was still “close to the earth, and far from the heavens.” And thus he used wording that reflected his own level.”

We shall, on the contrary, see that Isaiah not only reached the spiritual level of Moses but surpassed him – thanks to Moses, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Here is Rabbi Sacks on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings on Ha’azinu “Give ear” (Deuteronomy 32:1):

The Sidra of Ha-azinu begins with Moses’ great oration, “Give ear, ye heavens… and let the earth hear.” The Midrash with its usual sensitivity to the nuances of language, notes that Moses seems to be talking in terms of intimacy towards the heavens, and of distance towards the earth. There is an almost exactly opposite verse in Isaiah, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth,” in which Isaiah expresses closeness to earth and distance from heaven. Which path is the Jew to follow? Is he to strive towards heaven and keep himself aloof from worldly events? Or is he, like Isaiah, to find his spiritual home in the things of the earth? And what bearing does this dilemma have on the time in which the Sidra is usually read, the Ten Days of Repentance, and the days immediately following Yom Kippur, the supreme moments of self-examination in the Jewish year?

Words of Closeness and Distance

The Midrash, continues Rabbi Sacks, tells us that Moses was “close to heaven” and “far from the earth,” and this is why he said, “Give ear, ye heavens, and I will speak; and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.” “Give ear” speaks in the tone of closeness, “let the earth hear” bears the accent of distance. In the same way, the Midrash says that Isaiah was “far from the heavens… and close to the earth,” for he said, in exact opposition to Moses, “Hear O heavens, and give ear, O earth.”

But this opposition is a surprising one. “Torah” means “teaching,” and all its words are words of instruction for every Jew.3 When Moses said, “Give ear, ye heavens… and let the earth hear” the implication was that every Jew should strive to be close to heaven, and to liberate himself from the constraints of earth. If Isaiah, the greatest of the prophets,could not reach this, how then can the Torah demand it of every Jew? And, if closeness to heaven is, in fact, within the reach of every Jew through the inspiration of Moses which is “within” every Jew, why had Isaiah failed to reach this level? The matter is all the more strange since—as the Midrashsays—Isaiah’s words were spoken as a continuation of Moses’ address. Speaking as he was under the direct inspiration of Moses, it should have been all the easier for Isaiah to rise to his heights.

We are forced to conclude, then, that Isaiah was not outlining a lower level, but an even higher one, than that of which Moses had spoken. It was in this sense that he was continuing where Moses left off. Reaching upwards to Moses’ heights, “close to heaven,” he was able to strain to a yet greater achievement, of being “close to earth.” And since Isaiah’s words, too, are part of the Torah, they form a universal message to the Jew.

End of Rabbi Sacks.

How does one outside the midrashic pale make sense of what Rabbi Sacks calls this midrashic “sensitivity to the nuances of language.” To recap, we have:

Moses close to heaven and distant from earth

Closeness – “give ear” (O heavens);

Distance – “hear” (O earth)

Isaiah distant from heaven and close to earth

Closeness “hear” (O heavens)

Distance “give ear (O earth)

As we read in Sacks above, the reason why Moses said “give ear” was because he was close to heaven, and the reason why he said “hear” (listen) was because he was distant from earth. En passant, was he seeking a heavenly country whose builder was God? (Hebrews 11)

Isaiah, the greatest of the prophets, in apparent (the Midrash is going to explain) contrast to Moses, seems to have reached a much lower level of spiritual development than Moses, and thus seemed to be far from the heavens… and close to the earth, because he said “Hear O heavens, and give ear, O earth” in contrast to Moses’ “Give ear O heavens, and hear O earth).

But here’s a thing: Isaiah’s inverted (perverted?) use of “hear” and “give ear,” says the Midrash, not only equals the heights achieved by Moses but surpasses Moses. The Midrash says that because Isaiah’s words were a continuation of Moses’ address in Deuteronomy 32, this meant that Isaiah was speaking under the direct inspiration of Moses, which made it easier for Isaiah to rise to the heights heights reached by Moses. Even more strange, and strained, is Rabbi Sacks:

We are forced to conclude, then, that Isaiah was not outlining a lower level, but an even higher one than that of which Moses had spoken. It was in this sense that he was continuing where Moses left off. Reaching upwards to Moses’ heights, “close to heaven,” he was able to strain to a yet greater achievement, of being “close to earth.” And since Isaiah’s words, too, are part of the Torah, they form a universal message to the Jew.”

Isaiah was twice blessed.

In Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” Portia, disguised as a doctor of law, comes to rescue Antonio from Shylock, the Jewish merchant of Venice. Antonio signed a bond granting the usurer Shylock a pound of his flesh if he, Antonio, could not pay what he owed.

Portia:
 Do you confess the bond?

Antonio: 
 I do.

Portia:
 Then must the Jew be merciful.

Shylock:
 On what compulsion must I? tell me that.

Portia: 
 The quality of mercy is not strain’d,


It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:


It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

(The Merchant Of Venice Act 4, scene 1)

Moses also speaks of the rain: Listen, you heavens, and I will speak;
hear, you earth, the words of my mouth. Let my teaching fall like rain
and my words descend like dew, like showers on new grass,
like abundant rain on tender plants (Deut 32:1-2).

Imagine a Jewish Shakespearian play:

The quality of Midrash is not strained

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:


It blesseth him that gives an ear and him that hears its word.

How sound is the idea that the first chapter of Isaiah is a continuation of the end of Moses’ address in Deuteronomy 32? Here is the end of the address, Deuteronomy 32:43: Rejoice, you nations, with his people,
for he will avenge the blood of his servants;
he will take vengeance on his enemies and make atonement for his land and people.

Consider the contrast between the first eight verses of Isaiah 1 and Deuteronomy 32:43:

1 The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

A Rebellious Nation

2 Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth!
For the Lord has spoken:
“I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.

3 The ox knows its master,
the donkey its owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”

4 Woe to the sinful nation, a people whose guilt is great,
a brood of evildoers,
 children given to corruption!
They have forsaken the Lord; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel
and turned their backs on him.

5 Why should you be beaten anymore?
 Why do you persist in rebellion?
Your whole head is injured,
your whole heart afflicted.

6 From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness—
only wounds and welts
and open sores,
not cleansed or bandaged
 or soothed with olive oil.

7 Your country is desolate, your cities burned with fire;
your fields are being stripped by foreigners
right before you, laid waste as when overthrown by strangers.

8 Daughter Zion is left
like a shelter in a vineyard,
like a hut in a cucumber field,
like a city under siege.

9 Unless the Lord Almighty
had left us some survivors,
we would have become like Sodom,
 we would have been like Gomorrah.

In Deut 32:43, Moses tells his people to rejoice because the Lord will avenge his people (the Israelites) and restore his people to the land. In Isaiah 1, the Lord brings down his wrath on his rebellious, evil people. It’s hard to find a greater contrast in tone and message between these two passages. “Drash” in “Midrash” means to seek, study, enquire. If you seek what you want to find, you’ll find it. I can’t see any other reason for this collocation of disparate passages other than a fascination with linguistic permutations, which Rashi, our next commentator makes no fuss about. He simply says that Moses “called upon heaven and earth as witnesses for Israel – witnesses that endure forever.”

Rashi is considered the “father” of all commentaries that followed on the Talmud (i.e., the Baalei Tosafot) and the Tanach (i.e., Ramban, Ibn Ezra, Ohr HaChaim, et al.)

Here is Rashi’s commentary of Deut 32:1

Listen, O heavens: that I am warning Israel, and you shall be witnesses in this matter, for I have already told Israel that you will be witnesses. And so is [the clause] “And let the earth hear” [to be similarly understood]. Now why did [Moses] call upon heaven and earth to be witnesses [for warning Israel]? Moses said: “I am [just] flesh and blood. Tomorrow I will die. If Israel says, ‘We never accepted the covenant,’ who will come and refute them?” Therefore, he called upon heaven and earth as witnesses for Israel-witnesses that endure forever. Furthermore, if they [Israel] act meritoriously, the witnesses will come and reward them: “The vine will give its fruit, the earth will yield its produce, and the heavens will give their dew” (Zech. 8:12). And if [Israel] acts sinfully, the hand of the witnesses will be upon them first [to inflict punishment upon them]: “And He will close off the heaven that there will be no rain, and the soil will not give its produce” (Deut. 11:17), and then [the verse continues]: “and you will perish quickly”- through [the attacks of] the nations. — [Sifrei 32:1]

Does it matter to a Jew who is right. Not to a proper Jew A course on rabbinical Judaism teaches that interpretation is ”bound to a text with wide room for interpreting its meaning?” In the room are seventy rabbis, each doing his own thing, or rather one rabbi with seventy faces. “There are seventy faces to the Torah: turn it around and around, for everything is in it” (Midrash Bamidbar [Numbers] Rabba 13:15); everything in the sense that it contains the building blocks of everything in and under heaven, which Jacob Neusner calls the “grammar” of rabbinical theology (See Jacob Neusner and Rabbinical Theology).

I conclude with three different Jewish views of how to drash “seek, enquire, study” (from my The Written and Oral Torah: Which is Primary?)

Judaism affirms that God made use of two methods of communication in order to transmit the truths of Judaism from one generation to the next; the written text and the living communication of parent to child. These two methods of communication complement and support each other. It is only when we absorb the message through both of these mediums of communication that we can arrive at a proper understanding of God’s truth….’” (Rabbi Yisroel Blumenthal).

When the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah to Israel, He gave it to them in the form of wheat to produce from it fine flour, and in the form of flax to produce from it a garment. (Tanna Debei Eliyahu Zuta, ed. Ish-Shalom, parasha 2).”

Anybody who studies our Talmud knows that regarding the disagreements among the commentators there are no absolute proofs, and generally there are no irrefutable objections. For this branch of wisdom does not allow for clear demonstrations as does mathematics. (Ramban [Nachmanides]), Introduction to his Milchamot Hashem).”

Time to drash – for the exit.

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3 thoughts on “The quality of midrash is strained: Give ear, O ye heavens, or should it be hear?

  1. Hi Ralph,

    It seems to me that you are making the very “rabbinic” mistake of collapsing history by using quotes from different eras without taking context into consideration. For example, the last three citations were from a contemporary mystic, a late medieval rationalist who opposed mysticism, and a late medieval mystic conditioned by the rationalism of his time. More important, most of your post is given to R. Scheerson and R. Sacks, both of whom inherited their world view largely within twentieth century Jewish mysticism, and their interpretations are more mystical than midrashic.

    You must know the correct terminology; I don’t, but “Give ear, O heavens” and “hear, O earth” is evocative and even hyperbolic, as is the idea of heaven and earth acting as witnesses. The plain sense is not the literal sense, which would be nonsense. This use of language is similar to what we find in much of midrash. The mystical approach is to assume additional signification that goes beyond the plain sense of the text. (Since linguistics is your thing, you might want to check out “A River Flows from Eden: The Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar” by Melila Hellner-Eshed. She attempts to show that the language of the Zohar is specifically intended to induce a mystical state.)

    As you know, there are reasons (or, I should say, explanations) for these different perspectives on interpretation. But may I suggest that the primary reason is that the sages you cite did not understand the conceptual language of midrash (that is, the midrash of Chazal, not what you call the “midrash” of R. Scheerson) but treated it as if it were mysticism rather than a very different conceptual approach to Scripture. (I wish I could elaborate on that, but I don’t have the time it would take to put my thoughts on “paper”.) Long story short, midrash (in particular, Amoraic midrash) fell largely out of favor in the Gaonic era due to the hegemony of Babylonian rabbis and their halakhic emphasis.

    Midrash did not begin to make a comeback until the publication of Midrash Rabbah in the early sixteenth century. By that time, mysticism pervaded Judaism (though the Rambam reacted against that influence) and, ever since, midrash has been read as ifit were mysticism.

    • Thank you Carl for these interesting insights.

      Yours is in inverted commas, unless otherwise mentioned.

      “It seems to me that you are making the very “rabbinic” mistake of collapsing history by using quotes from different eras without taking context into consideration. For example, the last three citations were from a contemporary mystic, a late medieval rationalist who opposed mysticism, and a late medieval mystic conditioned by the rationalism of his time.”

      The first citation – “a contemporary mystic” – is from a 2008 course in Judaism at the University of Washington. Do you know who is presenting this course?

      The three examples, as you say, are from three different kinds of Jew, and diiferent time periods. I should have added that in all these three authors (historical periods, views), it is the sages – the oral tradition/Oral Torah – who decide what the written Torah means. Rabbi Tatz said that even a six-year old can understand the written Torah.

      Rashi’s commentary appears to equate the meanings of “give ear” and “hear” as identical. Most language users – of any age (in both senses of the term) would do the same as Rashi.

      “More important, most of your post is given to R. Scheerson and R. Sacks, both of whom inherited their world view largely within twentieth century Jewish mysticism, and their interpretations are more mystical than midrashic.”

      Carl, would you agree with this description of Midrash?

      “In developing midrash, there are two schools of thought on how to handle the language of Torah. One is that the language is the language of human discourse, and is subject to the same redundancies and occasional verbiage that we all encounter in desultory conversation. The other view holds that since Scripture is the Word of G-d, no word is superfluous. Every repetition, every apparent mistake, every peculiar feature of arrangement or order has meaning.”

      http://www.faqs.org/faqs/judaism/FAQ/03-Torah-Halacha/section-25.html#b

      Your
      “You must know the correct terminology; I don’t, but “Give ear, O heavens” and “hear, O earth” is evocative and even hyperbolic, as is the idea of heaven and earth acting as witnesses. The plain sense is not the literal sense, which would be nonsense.”

      Yes, heavens and earth don’t literally give ear or hear. By “plain” sense do you mean “obvious” sense, namely, metaphorical? That is what I mean – and hopefully mystics too. My argument is that both “give ear” and “hear” are different forms of the same metaphor.

      By rejecting Rabbi Sacks and the Rebbe (Schneerson) you are saying that the Chabad kind of exegesis is not true midrash, not so? Rabbi Shmuley Boteach says that Chabad is “de facto” Judaism. Would you say he’s being plain rash – metaphorically speaking?

      • Thanks for your response Ralph. Here are my comments.
        (Your words are in italics.)

        The first citation – “a contemporary mystic” – is from a 2008 course in Judaism at the University of Washington. Do you know who is presenting this course?

        By “first citation,” I meant Bluementhal. The course in Judaism is by an academic scholar.

        Rabbi Tatz said that even a six-year old can understand the written Torah.

        That’s a common saying, but astounding. What is written is deep and profound and the source of all else.

        [Rashi] appears to equate the meanings of “give ear” and “hear” as identical. Most language users – of any age (in both senses of the term) would do the same as Rashi.

        My only reservation is that “give ear” also has the connotation of posture, like “lend me a hand” says, IMO, something more than “help me.” Is there a linguistic term for that?

        Carl, would you agree with this description of Midrash? “In developing midrash, there are two schools of thought on how to handle the language of Torah. One is that the language is the language of human discourse, and is subject to the same redundancies and occasional verbiage that we all encounter in desultory conversation. The other view holds that since Scripture is the Word of G-d, no word is superfluous. Every repetition, every apparent mistake, every peculiar feature of arrangement or order has meaning.”

        I don’t believe that these two well-known approaches are mutually exclusive. Since I believe in divine inspiration, I allow for the possibility that redundancies, etc., may signify something more than simple repetition. Also, in terms of human language, the various forms of Hebrew parallelism are never simple repetitions, but say something more than either parallel sentence would say by itself. At the very least, repetition has a rhetorical force that is greater than a lone statement.

        By rejecting Rabbi Sacks and the Rebbe (Schneerson) you are saying that the Chabad kind of exegesis is not true midrash, not so? Rabbi Shmuley Boteach says that Chabad is “de facto” Judaism. Would you say he’s being plain rash – metaphorically speaking?

        (Smile) The term “midrash” is used very broadly, as if it means something like “Jewish exegesis.” I use it in the more restricted sense of “the midrash of Chazal (the sages of early Judaism). That said, Rabbi Boteach is entitled to his opinion. Even among the Orthodox, most would not agree with him. As a Messianic Jew, I have numerous disagreements with Chabad, which I won’t get into here, however much I respect their zeal.

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