We know that many of the characters in the Tanach are flawed personalities, it is one of the reasons why the text has resonated with readers throughout history. They make mistakes, get things wrong, act unjustly or even unfairly at times. Less well known though is that the ancient Jewish interpretative tradition, although it often erases these faults, or engages in unlikely apologetics, is just as happy, at times, to highlight or exaggerate them. The hapless biblical hero, whom we instinctively imagine to be a paradigm of saintliness and sanctity, finds themselves used instead as a salutary example of how not to behave; they become at best a nebbish, at worst unsavoury.Continue reading
n a rather bizarre comment the Midrash (BR 69,3) seems to compare Jacob’s angels, climbing up and down the ladder, to flies. It draws a parallel with a young prince sleeping on his bed with flies buzzing around him. When his nurse appears the flies go away. Similarly, says the Midrash the angels were ascending and descending the ladder, until God appeared, whereupon they ran away.Continue reading
The earliest midrashic commentaries on the story of Jacob and Esau portray Esau as thoroughly wicked. Since Jacob does not seem to emerge from the deception of his father with much credit, the vilification of Esau seems a little unfair. But, like much of midrash, if we need to consider it in its historic setting if we are to fully understand it.Continue reading
Few midrashim startle us as much as the one which begins “Rabbi Akiva was sitting and preaching and the public was falling asleep….” Akiva was the greatest of all the early rabbis, yet his audiences did what congregations have been doing for centuries; they fell asleep during his sermon.Continue reading
The Akedah, the Binding of Isaac is a disturbing biblical narrative. It has been the subject of profound criticsm. The ancient Midrash proposes three alternative scenes that suggest the criticisms are misplaced. They do not necessarily convince us.Continue reading
The compilers of the Midrash were aware that the Jewish tradition was conflicted about Noah’s merits. The Torah seems to have no such qualms, describing him as righteous man, perfect among his generation, who walked with God. But some rabbis saw things differently, and they looked for hints in the Torah’s language which might suggest that Noah was not as great as he appeared.Continue reading
My review of Rabbi Tony Bayfield’s book Being Jewish Today appeared in the Jewish Chronicle on October 25th, 2019.
Jews, on the whole, do not do theology. We have no catechism, not official beliefs that we theorise about and try to make sense of. The nearest thing we have is Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles of Faith, which he wrote to define Judaism against Islam and Christianity, and which the few theologians among us have argued about ever since.Continue reading
According to the Bible, when God expelled Adam and Eve, wrapped in fig leaves, from the Garden of Eden he made them clothes from animal skin. The midrashic collection known as Genesis Rabbah, probably compiled in the 5th or 6th century, says that in Rabbi Meir’s Torah it did not say they were clothes of skin, but clothes of light. The Hebrew words for clothes and light differ by only one letter, and are pronounced almost identically.
Leaving aside the question of the authenticity of the biblical text (and this is not the only occasion when the 2nd century Rabbi Meir seems to have had a different version of the Torah), the suggestion that Adam and Eve may have had ethereal clothes made of light, rather than ordinary animal skins, connects this Midrash to a legend, now mostly lost, which casts Adam and Eve in a very different light. Continue reading
The story of Korach’s rebellion offers an interesting insight into the responsibilities that accompany leadership and privilege
The story is simple. Moses had appointed his brother Aaron as High Priest. He did so at God’s command but nobody, other than Moses knows this; to everyone else it looks like a classic case of nepotism. Moses’s cousin Korach leads a rebellion, reasoning that if there are privileges to be handed out in the family they should just as easily be given to him as to Aaron. Joining with various other malcontents he demands a share in the priesthood. Continue reading