"I'm writing to recommend a unique book from one of my teachers that has just been published. It is called Learning to Read Midrash, and helps provide you with a basic methodology for accessing midrashic literature. The author, Simi Peters, is a gifted teacher and writer who draws on traditional and academic sources to really bring the material alive. Her class at my yeshiva last year, Nishmat, first thing on Sunday mornings (!!??) has been one of the highlights of my learning here in Israel.
"Learning to Read Midrash, by Simi Peters (Urim), provides a straightforward, systematic approach to the study of midrash. Written with sensitivity to language and appreciation for the teachings of the Jewish sages, the book provides interpretive tools for studying Torah.
Peters distinguishes between midrash halacha, the body of legal teaching derived from the Torah text through midrashic methodology, and midrash agada, the interpretive and homiletic teachings derived from the narrative portions of the Torah. Her focus is mainly on the latter, looking at both parables and stories.
Among the biblical stories Peters explores are the binding of Isaac, the relationship of David and Bathsheba, and Moses at the burning bush. Peters, who lives in Jerusalem, is on the faculty of several institutions including Nishmat-the Jerusalem Center for Advanced Jewish Studies for Women, ATID and Darchei Bina Seminary."
-Sandee Brawarsky, The Jewish Week
"One who reads Learning to Read Midrash expecting to find interesting
midrashim with insightful analyses will not be disappointed. This,
however, is only an added bonus for readers of this book. The primary
goal of the work is to provide a method for independent study of midrash.
Simi Peters achieves this goal very well by detailing a systematic process
for uncovering additional layers of meaning in midrashim that may seem
simplistic or may be difficult to comprehend. The methodology focuses on
a close reading of the midrashic text and a careful comparison to the
Biblical text on which it is based. The book focuses on two particular
genres in midrashic literature - the mashal (parable) and the narrative
expansion. Through the application of her methodology, the author raises
midrash to a sophisticated level of Biblical exegesis. As we revisit the
stories of our childhood, such as the story of Avraham breaking his
father's idols, we discover a complex and insightful narrative and
understand its connection to the Biblical text. More importantly, after
reading this book, we feel empowered to study midrash on our own and to
gain a greater understanding of both the midrashim and the Biblical
passages on which they are based.
Learning to Read Midrash is very clearly written, and is appropriate for
readers with varied background in Jewish study. It includes, as well,
interesting background material on midrashic literature, its place in the
literature of the tannaim, and its place in the tradition of Biblical
exegesis. It is recommended for teachers of classical Jewish texts, as
well as those who wish to enhance their own learning."
-Shmuel Peerless, Lookstein Education Digest
"Maimonides exhorted readers not to take midrash literally, but was also forceful in advising people to read carefully between the lines, to find the meaning and allegorical intent. His brief recommendations have been significantly expanded in Simi Peters's book, Learning to Read Midrash.
Peters's book comes after years of teaching the Hebrew Bible and trying to make sense of rabbinic literature that often defies explication. She bemoans the fact that it was difficult to offer students the tools to study midrash independently. This book seems to be a corrective for that problem.
Learning to Read Midrash begins by outlining the difficulties that both students and teachers have in communicating what it is that midrash does, and the varied methodologies it employs. Some of the problems she identifies are: the often-tenuous connection between midrash and the biblical text, the seeming implausibility of many midrashim, and the dearth of words used to articulate a problem or insight.
Broadly put, midrash does not have a singular goal.
As Peters eloquently puts it: "Midrash explores the biblical text exhaustively, seeking both the plain sense of the text and its homiletical possibilities, without distinguishing rigidly between them."
In order to affirm this statement, Peters spends some pages discussing the difference between pshat (the literal reading of a text) and drash (a homiletical reading) and some of the more "rigid" distinctions that are embodied in other forms of biblical commentary. She includes the clever witticism of the late Professor Nechama Leibowitz: "Pshat is what I say, and drash is what you say."
The chapters that follow the introduction present specific midrashic topics - the mashal or allegory, the peticha or opening verse, the treatment of biblical personalities, and break down midrashim so the reader may better understand how to analyze them.
Unlike more academic guides, Peters's book is pedagogically grounded. A teacher may find him- or herself using the chapters as classroom units to study various types of midrash - from analyzing biblical dialogue to resolving textual discrepancies.
The book is a wonderful way for teachers and students of all ages to grasp an elusive subject. It would have benefitted from one addition and perhaps one omission. While Peters's book has a useful introduction, it has no concluding summation. James Kugel's book, In Potiphar's House, presents multiple midrashic readings of Genesis 39, and then follows these with general conclusions. Peters simply ends with a chapter on a rabbinic reading of the story of Hannah. Even a brief epilogue would have helped put a closure on the many disparate subjects she treats.
Peters opens her book with a haskama, or religious approval, of a rabbi who lets us know that Peters is a "true bas torah [lit. "daughter of the Torah"] in commitment and deed." One wonders why such a rabbinic affirmation is required, and hopes it has nothing to do with book sales.
The book's scholarship should speak for itself, and the fact that Peters is an effective educator leaps off every page."
- Erica Brown, Jerusalem Post
"Early in his literary career, Maimonides expressed his desire to catalog and systematize all Rabbinic aggadah. For various reasons, this intention was never realized and Jewish literature ever since has suffered its absence. Pre-modern comprehensive commentaries on aggadic midrash are scarcely found; aggadah was, after all, deemed less significant that halakhah. In modern times, however, especially in the past 50 years or so, academic scholars such as I. Heinemann, J. Heinmann, Y. Frankel, J. Kugel, and J. Rubenstein have focused intensely on this literature and, as a result, have radically altered our view of midrash, and aggadah in particular.
In Learning To Read Midrash, Ms. Peters, aware of this scholarship (she makes reference to some in passing), nevertheless does "not feel constrained to comply with all the conventions of academic discourse." And yet, the book has much to offer the beginning student in midrash. In 17 chapters that include a general introduction as well as introductions to the two major units of the book, the reader is introduced to individual midrashim and Peters' unique analysis of them. While there are many categories of interpretive midrash, Peters focuses on two: the parable (mashal) and the "narrative expansion." In the mashal chapters, the reader is introduced to a specific step by step method intended to help him/her gain control over the genre. Such instruction is very useful insofar as such a system may be applied in future encounters with the genre. Thus, these chapters are far superior to the ones that analyze narrative expansion midrashim, which somehow seem flimsy in comparison, despite their length.
As an excellent educational source, this book is highly recommended for all yeshiva high school, synagogue and university libraries with large Judaica collections."
-Yisrael Dubitsky, AJL Newsletter
"Midrash is one of the most significant genres of Jewish literature ever created. Anyone who wants to understand the Tanakh cannot fully understand the nuances of the text without viewing it through the prism of the ancient rabbis, who lived up to two thousands years closer to the creation of the biblical text than the modern reader. The Midrash is sometimes faithful in interpreting the biblical text, and more often spins its imaginative fantasy, to reconcile contradictions, fill in unstated ideas, read between the lines, explain unusual vocabulary or grammatical constructions, and create legendary explanations for ambiguous passages. No student of the Tanakh can expect to have a complete understanding of the biblical text without at least beginning with study of the Midrash. Yet the Midrash itself is not without need for interpretation. Written in ancient times, its background, meaning and implications are often beyond the ken of the contemporary student.
For that reason, a book like this, put together by a qualified scholar and able writer, is a wonderful help to the student of both Tanakh and Midrash. Simi Peters has done yeoman service by providing necessary tools and concrete examples of how Midrash makes sense once the student digs beneath the surface to discover the intent of the midrashic writer, the nuances of the language (she has a masters in linguistics), and the contemporary meaning of the texts. Her analyses of sixteen typical midrashim give the reader the necessary training to read other midrashic texts in an analytical and scholarly way. She has a wealth of experience in teaching Tanakh and Midrash in Jerusalem, where she lives with her family. She is on the faculty of Nishmat - The Jerusalem Center for Advanced Jewish Studies for Women, and other institutions of higher learning. It is, parenthetically, an encouraging sign that more and more women are becoming proficient in Jewish scholarship, so that the field will not be denied the untold ability of 50 percent of the population, as teachers and scholars. This book is a superb example of how a modern scholar (of either gender) can contribute to our understanding of ancient and meaningful texts that illuminate the meaning and relevance of the Jewish tradition."
-Dov Peretz Elkins, Jewish Media Review
"In recent years, the study of midrash has enjoyed a surge in popularity throughout the American Jewish community. While largely a positive development, this popularization has, in many instances, served to confuse, rather than to enlighten, the public as to the nature of rabbinic midrash. On one hand, midrash is often portrayed as a single, authoritative recounting of Biblical and rabbinic history that records "what really happened," and displaces any plainsense reading of the Biblical text. In other circles, however, the term is often expanded to include any creative interpretation of the Biblical text, even those that stand in opposition to, or in ignorance of, the teachings and methods of Chazal, the sages of the Talmud and midrash.
Simi Peters' new book, Learning to Read Midrash, has the potential to help correct these common misunderstandings and replace them with a sophisticated and nuanced approach to midrashic texts and methods. Peters, a master teacher of midrash who teaches in several of Jerusalem's leading educational institutions, has produced an excellent introduction to the study of midrashic texts. Though rooted in traditional commentaries and approaches, Peters is deeply influenced by contemporary academic and literary approaches to midrash, including those generally categorized under the rubric of "deconstructionism" or "postmodernism." Her book thus serves as an object lesson in how ideas and approaches that are generally considered to be foreign or even antithetical to Torah can, in fact, be instrumental in helping us understand the texts and concepts in our tradition.
Despite her academic influences, Peters does not assault the reader with unfamiliar jargon. After acknowledging her debt to the academic world in her introduction, Peters largely relegates that world to the background, adopting a clear and engaging writing style. In most cases, only the reader who is already well versed in literary criticism will be able to discern the influence of academic scholarship on the book.
The book consists of two parts. The first deals with the mashal, or parable, and the second, longer section with the "narrative expansion," Peters' term for Chazal's elaborations of Biblical stories. The sections are made up of a series of short chapters, each of which focuses on a single midrashic text. In these chapters, Peters invites the reader into her classroom, challenging him to engage the text, just as she challenges her students in Jerusalem.
Peters' understanding of the mashal is based on the insight that there are often significant gaps between the mashal and the nimshal (the text that follows the mashal and seeks to clarify the link between the mashal and the Biblical text). As she writes in the book:
The message of a mashal is thus often found in the discrepancies between mashal and nimshal and Biblical text or the mashal element and other parts of the same midrash (pp. 25-26).
For Peters, the discrepancy between the mashal and the nimshal often calls attention to the issue that the darshan (interpreter) seeks to introduce or emphasize in the Biblical text. For example, in chapter 3, Peters discusses the famous mashal about Avraham, in Bereishit Rabbah 39:1, in which a wandering man comes upon an illuminated tower and declares that the tower must have a master. The nimshal never explains in what way Avraham is similar to the wanderer. Peters argues that this element suggests not only Avraham's later travels, but also his spiritual quest. It is precisely in the merit of yearning for spiritual truth that Avraham receives Divine revelation.
On the basis of this insight, Peters suggests the following six-stage method for analyzing meshalim: 1. Dividing the paragraph into its constituent parts, 2. Examining the mashal as a story in its own right, 3. Isolating the important elements of the mashal, 4. Matching the elements of the mashal and the nimshal, 5. Drawing conclusions and 6. Re-reading the Biblical text in light of the midrash (p. 30). Peters systematically applies this method to each of the six meshalim she presents. Upon completing these chapters, the reader will be well equipped to apply Peters' method to other meshalim that he may encounter.
Peters' approach to narrative expansions is not nearly so systematic. As she notes, the narrative expansion is a far more diverse genre than the mashal, and hence, does not easily submit to a programmatic methodology. In her readings of narrative expansions, Peters stresses careful analysis of both the Biblical and midrashic texts, with a particular emphasis on determining the structure of the text. Peters argues that these accounts do not necessarily represent authoritative traditions about actual events. She identifies two primary motivations behind the narrative expansions. The first is exegetical. These stories represent attempts to resolve problems in the Biblical text. As interpretations, these readings are open to criticism and debate no less than the commentaries of medieval authorities such as Rashi or Ibn Ezra. Furthermore, rabbis often have a didactic agenda in telling their stories. Drawing on Rambam, Peters argues that these stories are more focused on conveying moral and spiritual truths than historical facts. Hence, to focus on the question, "Did this midrash really happen?" is to miss the point of the midrash.
In the process of reading individual texts, Peters raises many general issues in the reading of midrash. For example, she repeatedly emphasizes the need to read midrashim on two levels. First, each mashal, expansion or comment must be read as an individual work authored by the rabbi to whom it is attributed. Once this has been accomplished, we must consider how the editor of the given midrashic collection organized and utilized these sources for his own purposes. Often, the message of the editor is quite different from those of his sources. Also worthy of note is Peters' stimulating discussion in chapter 14 of Chazal's understanding of the role of chronology and sequence in fictional and non-fictional works.
Peters' interpretations do, at times, suffer from "over-reading." She imbues details and gaps in the text with meanings that go beyond what the text will bear. She has a particular tendency to see a psychological element in midrashim that is not always warranted. One example of this is found in the chapter entitled, "Portrait of a Biblical Personality: Exploring David's Heart in the Aftermath of Sin." Peters argues that the lengthy passage in Bavli Sanhedrin 107a-b, which deals with David's sin with Batsheva, presents an elaborate psycho-spiritual portrait of David. It seems that this passage is more concerned with dealing with certain exegetical and theological issues than with psychoanalyzing David. Particularly problematic are her comments on the following narrative expansion:
Batsheva was washing her hair under a chalta. Satan came and [made himself] appear to [David] as a bird. [David] shot an arrow at [Satan, but] hit the chalta [broke it open], uncovered [Batsheva] and saw her. Immediately, "and David sent, and inquired about the woman..." (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 107a).
Peters interprets the word chalta as "beehive" on the strength of Rashi's use of the word kaveret in his gloss on the term. She then proceeds to interpret this narrative allegorically. She terms this passage "a psychological portrait in symbolic language" (p. 219). Peters sees the various elements of the story as representing aspects of David's inner psychosexual state. The beehive, with its combination of sweet honey and danger, represents the perils and the potentials of David's relationship with Batsheva.
Unfortunately, it is not at all clear that there is any beehive in our text. Rashi's use of the term kaveret most likely means a "basket" or a "receptacle," which is the meaning of the Aramaic word chalta. Furthermore, despite Peters' claims to the contrary, it seems to me that this passage, first and foremost, comes to answer a literary and theological issue. The simple reading of the Biblical text in Samuel suggests that Batsheva was an exhibitionist, bathing on her roof, and David, a Peeping Tom! How can we imagine such things about the progenitors of the Messianic line? Rather, the midrash explains that Batsheva was washing in a most modest manner and that David came to view, by accident, only her head, after having been tricked by the Satan.
Peters' turn to allegory is indicative of another weakness in her method. In addition to her literary tools, Peters is guided by a didactic and theological agenda. Her chapters generally end with a lesson that the author argues is the "moral" that the students are meant to take from the text. These lessons are often informed by a fairly rationalistic approach towards God and our relationship with Him. While these lessons are often quite appropriate to contemporary readers, they do not always accurately reflect the complex and often (to us) troubling nature of the midrashim in question.
These are, however, relatively minor criticisms, ones that the author would likely view not as reflecting oversights, rather as integral parts of her method. Though I disagree with some of her readings, I found all of Peters' interpretations to be stimulating encounters with the text, which emerge from her careful blend of critical inquiry and reverence for Torah. Peters presents a sophisticated, yet accessible, method for the study of midrash, which allows the reader to appreciate both the spiritual authority and the dynamic creativity of rabbinic texts. This book will enlighten and challenge students of midrash of all levels and perspectives.
1. Indeed, I believe that Peters goes too far in suppressing academic references. Aside from the salvational value of such attributions, the reader would benefit from references for further reading.
2. See Jastrow's entry for kaveret in his dictionary and Michael Sokloff's entry for chalta in his A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (Maryland, 2003)."
-Moshe Simon-Shoshan, Jewish Action
"Learning to Read Midrash is interesting on many levels. Firstly, it makes us aware of the fact that midrash is not simply "stories" but rather a sophisticated branch within rabbinic literature. Even people familiar with midrashic sources may have difficulty defining exactly what midrash is, or seeing the connection between a particular midrash and the Biblical text it discusses. There has been until now little guidance on how to approach midrash systematically. But here we have a well-done presentation of a series of 16 explicated readings along with a presentation of the basics of a methodology for approaching these texts. Those who go through the very readable material will find themselves participating in a welcomed "training program" in reading midrash, gaining new important insights into Hazal's words.
Second, the volume is another contribution to the growing Torah literature written by knowledgeable women and scholars. Simi Peters is on the faculty of Darchei Bina Seminary and Nishmat - the Jerusalem Center for Advanced Jewish Studies for Women, which has pioneered in training women to have expertise in halacha and advanced rabbinic literature. Women students now have models of women teachers to inspire them to gain proficiency in sophisticated Torah study."
-Prof. Oscar Mohl, The Jewish Press
"The Biblical text is sparse. Read literally, straight through, you'd get the impression that P.G. Wodehouse wouldn't do well among the nomads. Even the strictly narrative portions leave out most of the story, and leave room for all sorts of questions. The Rabbis thought so, too. Enter the Midrash. The Midrash -- stories recorded in the Talmud and in collections -- are the rabbinic attempt to fill in the gaps.
Some of these stories are exceedingly well-known; better-known, in fact, than parts of Tanach itself. Nechama Leibowitz tells of asking a class to turn to the part of Bereishit where Abraham smashes the idols. The class flips back and forth in frustration, unable to find the text. It's a Midrash, of course.
Remember that Star Trek:TNG where the crew encounters a culture that communicated entirely in metaphor? That's kind of how Midrash works, rendering proper reading of them no simple task. They're not only metaphorical, they're poetic and literary, often treating the Biblical figures as literary as much as historical. They draw on diverse source texts, the original context of which is often key to getting it right.
Inasmuch as the Midrashic interpretation is the dispositive one for traditional Judaism, understanding these texts is fundamental to understanding all successive rabbinic Biblical exposition. Simi Peters, of Nishmat in Jerusalem, has stepped into the breach with Learning to Read Midrash. She provides a solid methodology to follow, but not a recipe. She takes you step-by-step, laying out the interpretive process.
Beginning with simple mashal/nimshal forms - basically extended metaphors - Peters builds up to complex, extended midrashim, composed by many authors, often using different styles and format. What if part of the mashal (the comparison) are missing or unclear? For multi-part midrashim which offer competing interpretations, what does the ordering tell us?
From there, Peters ventures into narrative expansion. These are the trickiest, their connection with the text can be the most difficult to tease out. They also contain the most fantastic stories in rabbinic literature. The proper treatment of these stories has been the source of great controversy, but I find myself siding with the relentlessly logical approach of Maimonides.
In short, the questions is: how literally did the rabbis intend these stories to be taken? Maimonides comes to what I believe is the only reasonable conclusion: the rabbis knew as well as you or I that we shouldn't take the stories literally. Taking them as historically accurate turns you into a fool. Assuming that the rabbis thought they happened turns them into fools. It's simply most reasonable to assume that the rabbis included them in order to bring to life philosophical truths.
Peters approaches the text with true humility. She assumes that not only the Rabbis, but also her prior teachers, know something important, and aren't just making it up as they go along. Even when she disagrees with an approach, she gives it its due, and early on, provides a number of scholarly and rabbinic references of interest.
She uses fairly well-known subject texts, which serves two purposes. First, it's a text that you probably already know something about and feel comfortable with it, so examining it is less intimidating. As a result, the contrast between the before-and-after magnifies the effect of the midrashic interpretation.
Including the original Hebrew midrashim in the back is a nice touch. A nicer touch would be inter-linear translations, especially since translations are used in the chapters. And nicer still would be to include the source texts used in the midrashim and their contexts. It would add to the size of the book, but would keep you from need three or four separate books open at once.
Unlike many such attempts, Peters almost never left me scratching my head, wondering where that idea came from. The interpretation may not have been obvious going in, but afterwards, never appeared invented. Sometimes the clues aren't all there up front, but I never felt cheated. That's what a teacher is for, after all. Writing with this sort of clarity, training minds rather than merely informing them, is a stunning achievement. I felt as though this was the book on midrash I had been waiting for, and it left me eager to start applying it myself."
- Joshua Sharf, blogcritics.org
"I can't remember where, but I once read that the Chasam Sofer would review the Midrash Rabbah on the weekly Torah portion rather than Rashi's commentary and would joke that his congregants knew Rashi better than he. At one point, many years ago, I decided that I would also try to go through the Midrash Rabbah every week. Most weeks, I got nowhere near the end of the portion. But I did end up spending many hours each week studying the Midrash. Once you get the rhythm of the text, it is actually quite easy. Additionally, the commentaries published in the standard Vilna edition are excellent and offer great insight into the text.
That experience is why I was so hesitant to look at Simi Peters' book Learning to Read Midrash. After all, I thought, been there done that. What is there to learn? I was totally wrong. Mrs. Peters wrote a brilliant book. She offers a systematic methodology to learning midrash and shows you repeatedly how to use it properly. When I learned midrash, I instinctively used most of her methodology. But by systematizing it, she makes it easy to do and, significantly, makes it much harder to miss important details. Without exaggeration, this is one of the most fabulous books I've read in a long time. Plus, she writes in a great style and elucidates a number of interesting midrashim. She does to the midrash what R. Yitzchak Etshalom does to the chumash."
-Gil Student, Hirhurim blog
"This is an important book.
Unfortunately Jews sit in synagogues today and hear sermons filled with Midrash and haven't the slightest idea what parts of the rabbi's talk is really in the Bible, what parts are Midrash, and whether the rabbi's view is based on the Torah, the Midrash or the rabbi's own opinion. This is tragic since the sermon is supposed to instruct not confuse.
Simi Peters explains what Midrash is, why it was developed, what it intends to accomplish and what are its methods and styles. She writes that Midrash may be an interpretation of a biblical word, a sentence or episode. It may be a sermon invented to teach a lesson, a parable related or unrelated to a biblical text. It could also be a combination of intentions.
Peters devotes the first seven chapters of her book to an explanation of the midrashic parables and gives six examples in six chapters. She shows how the Midrash may use one biblical verse to interpret another obscure one, how the Midrash frequently uses a scriptural passage as a springboard for its message, and how the Midrash engages its readers in a delightful dialogue.
She writes clearly and carries her readers step by step in a logical fashion. For example, in chapter 4, she quotes a verse from Lamentations 1:1, offers the midrashic commentary by breaking it up into twelve understandable parts, shows that the Midrash is composed of four sections, and identifies the problem faced by the Midrash. She then continues with eight more brief sections, which make the midrashic story clear, interesting and relevant.
Describing her method in this fashion may make readers feel that Simi Peters' method is complicated, actually the reverse is true. Her method of studying each element separately enhances clarity and heightens the enjoyment and understanding of the Midrash.
Mrs. Peters uses the same tactics in her last nine chapters where she explains how the Midrash expands upon biblical narratives. An example is the well-known tale of Abraham breaking his father's idols, an adventure that is not in the Torah, only the Midrash. Another example is how the Midrash rewrites the story of the birth of Samuel, which is only presented briefly in Samuel 1-2.
In short, readers of this volume will find fascinating midrashic tales that Peters analyses in an enjoyable manner. Readers will learn how to differentiate a Midrash from the Torah original and the eye-opening ways to decipher the rabbi's sermon. And, what is most important, they will become aware of what is Torah and what is Midrash."
- Israel Drazin, The Jewish Eye