What is midrash? Simply, it means “interpretation.” But it’s not just any old interpretation. Specifically, midrash is Biblical interpretation in the inquisitive, imaginative spirit of early rabbinic readers.
Classical Midrash: Four Assumptions
According to James Kugel, early rabbis read the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), with four assumptions in mind: it is divine, cryptic, flawless, and always relevant. But—I always add— the rabbis understand the assumptions a bit whimsically.
Yes, the Bible is divine speech, i.e., the most meaningful speech possible. It’s loaded with so much meaning that humans will never fully map it. We study in groups, learn old interpretations, craft new ones—and we still barely scratch the surface. So, of course, the Bible is and always will be cryptic.
And, really, it’s hardly flawless. The stories, poems, and aphorisms were shared, recorded, edited, and re-edited by fallible human beings. Repetitions, inconsistencies, and puzzles show up everywhere. But instead of seeing problems, early rabbinic readers saw opportunities. And so, at every opportunity, they asked a creative question. Then, they came up with an imaginative answer, grounded in the Biblical text. So, in a way, they saw the Bible as a flawless, endless spiritual prompt. And when you’re engaging that deeply, the text is always relevant.
In another way, too, the early rabbinic interpreters saw the text as always relevant. Each section, they said, is relevant to all the others. Storytelling stops and starts, metaphors recur, scenes hint at one another. Sometimes, the bible gives information in a non-linear way. So, when we have a question about one chapter, we might find a clue in another one. It does not matter which one comes first in the table of contents; no one knows for sure when they were written or edited. Thus, they often read the bible as if nothing is definitively earlier or later.
Kabbalah: Four Dimensions of Reading
Medieval Kabbalistic teachers used the tools of midrash in their own map of interpretation. They looked for four dimensions of meaning: peshat, plain literal meaning; derash, exposition of recurring ethical themes; remez, hints to allegorical meanings; and sod, secret allusions to God’s true nature.
In my book Mouth of the Donkey: Re-imagining Biblical Animals, I use the four assumptions of midrash and the four dimensions of medieval Kabbalah. Peshat appears when I bring in information about the life of specific animals. Biblical authors wrote about animals they knew. So, if we want to understand them, we need a taste of their background knowledge. Derash appears when I make inter-textual allusions, noting connections between words and themes in different books. I assume that motifs recur because they express values important in Biblical culture. From there, it is a small step to teach about biblical ethics. Remez appears when I articulate a hidden, metaphorical level in the biblical text. Sometimes a passage tells two stories at the same time! And sod appears when I show how human experience reflects divine spiritual nature.
In real life, of course, no one can clearly separate the four Kabbalistic approaches. They overlap. As Biblical scholar Michael Fishbane points out, “we live in multiple life worlds simultaneously.” And no one uses the four assumptions of early rabbinic midrash in an objective way. Our background influences what we notice and how we shape our ideas. But that’s how divine speech keeps on giving, in every generation.