Sunday, December 17, 2006

Boring Chumash

One Friday evening on Parshat Noach, our rabbi got up to speak. He chose to discuss the episode of the Tower of Bavel. He began by saying that he had read those nine verses so many times yet only this year had he finally understood it, i.e. God had previously declared that humanity should “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Yet the people of Shinar built the tower “so that they will not be scattered across the face of the earth” (ibid 11:4). They tried to thwart God’s will.

Unfortunately, my rabbi did not deal with the more obvious question he posed, how through his many years dedicated to scholarship, he missed such a blatant point. I decided to tell him why (after the service, of course).

The answer begins with my children’s Bible education. Every Friday night I discuss the parshat hashavua with them. I usually find it frustrating. Did my children (the oldest is 8) really have to be told that the Tower of Bavel was built in order to plug a hole in the sky to stop another flood? Did they really need to be told that Yitschak went willingly to the Akeida or that Sarah died after Satan told her that Avraham was about to or even had already sacrificed him? Was it so vital to the story that that they had to be told that Rivka was three years old when she married Yitzchak? Was it so essential to the storyline that they needed to be told that Pharaoh’s daughter’s arm expanded rapidly in length when she reached into the Nile to pick up baby Moshe? Was it so indispensable to the plot that they had to be told that there was only one frog and that each time the Egyptians hit it, it split up into many frogs? Etc.

Is the Chumash so boring that our teachers are forced to resort to midrash to “spice it up” or is it that they enjoy ridiculing it, so that the stories sound more like fairy tales rather than serious religious inquiry? Or perhaps, even more frighteningly, do they not really know how to teach Chumash?

While some Midrashim are cute, such as Avraham’s experiences in his father’s idol shop, most damage our ability (even as adults) to look at the text impartially (some even damage our respect for the text – but that’s another story!!).

My rabbi, whose scholarship and breadth of knowledge I respect, couldn’t see the obvious because whenever he read the story he couldn’t get out of his head the image of Nimrod climbing up a tall tower with an outstretched sword ready to ascend the heavens and engage God in combat.

I have no desire to mock Midrash. As someone who studied it in university, I really do appreciate its beauty and depth, but we must never forget that a Midrash is what it claims to be: “drash” and not “pshat”. Before we even begin to teach our children “drash” let’s first try to teach them “pshat”.


  1. "Some midrashim are cute"??

    Without disagreeing with the premise that we can focus on the text of the Chumash even independent of the midrashim, I think we owe the midrashim the same seriousness of inquiry -- as midrash. Thus: WHY do Hazal teach that Avraham broke his father's idols, that Pharaoh's daughter's arm extended, that only one frog came out of the Nile, that Rivka married at the age of 3, and, of course, that the Tower of Babel closed a hole in the sky. The texts of midrash themselves generally reveal a level of sophistication themselves, including a profound understanding the p'shat of the biblical text, beyond the disturbing one-liners that may inhibit serious learning of the yes, exciting biblical text. Perhaps the study of midrash is not for children after all -- but analysis of these same midrashim above has left me with a real appreciation for the savvy and insight of Hazal.

  2. Penina Kraut addressed this issue in her article "Did Vashti Have a Tail?" -

  3. Midrashim should never "damage our respect for the text" if understood properly. Nor should they be seen as "cute," as that usually reflects only a simplistic understanding of the Midrash. (James Kugel's "In Potiphar's House" gives a straightforward approach to understanding midrashim.)

    At the same time, we need to ask what the goals of the chumash class are. In this case, it seems that the parent's goal for his child (learning the text) is not the same as the teacher's goal of using the text to learn proper midos/hashkafa from Chazal. The latter, though not the former, has plenty of room for Yitzchak showing great mesiras nefesh in allowing himself to be sacrificed, Avraham showing heroism in destroying the idols of his father, etc.

  4. Perhaps the problem is not so much with primary education as with ongoing education. Are teens and adults being taught in a way that enables them to think beyond the way they were taught in grade school?

  5. As a teacher of chumash, I will tell you that it is a very difficult subject to teach properly. You suggest that our teacher's don't know how to teach Chumash properly, yet you have not suggested any method of your own. I would guess that you never taught a class before. Maybe before criticizing all the hard working teacher's of your chidren, try to appreciate what they're doing for your children. As much as you'll probably say that you do appreciate them, your words suggest otherwise.