Methods of Midrash

How this genre gleans deep meaning from the Torah's text

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The phrase kal v’homer is often translated as an a fortiori argument, whereby a less significant statement leads to a more serious example or vice versa. A practical paraphrasing of kal v’homer reads, "if case ‘X’ is true, then all the more so must case ‘Y’ be true."

In Sifre Devarim 31 (a midrashic collection on the book of Deuteronomy), Ishmael and his descendants are portrayed using a series of kal v’homer statements to try to assert their ascendancy over Isaac and his children. "[If] Abraham was just one man and he inherited the Land and we are many men, so the Land should be given to us as an inheritance…Just as Abraham worshipped only one God and inherited the Land, isn’t it logical that we who worship many gods will inherit the land?" Rabbinic terminology is so pervasive, it would seem, that even characters within rabbinic texts use it—even if their logic is faulty.

Gezerah shavah, defined as "verbal analogy," allows a midrash to infer the meaning of a word or root in Scripture based on the meaning of the same word or root in another place in the biblical text. In Tosefta Sotah 6:6 (as well as in similar versions in both Sifre Devarim and Genesis Rabbah), the ambiguous use of the verb m’tzahek expands the negative image of Ishmael, who is said to be m’tzahek with Isaac, based on varied connotations of the same verb in other biblical verses.

He is linked to idol worship as implied by parallels with Exodus 32:6, sexual impropriety following Genesis 39:17, making war as in Samuel II 2:14-16, and cunning as suggested by Proverbs 26:18-19. Like many biblical characters representing challengers to mythic Israel while sharing a common heritage, the figure of Ishmael inspires both polemic and respect. 

Binyan av allows set categories of interpretation based on a shared word or phrase amongst a "family" of verses. For example, according to Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat in the Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 1:1, 18a, all phrases that begin "And God" refer to both God and God’s royal court, while statements that begin with "And He [God] said" share a common theme of pending disaster.

Midrash as a whole is highly verse-centric, preferring to atomize the meaning of words, letters and phrases, than to pursue textual cohesion across narratives, chapters, and books. The system of middot is the primary vehicle for this micro-reading and organization of Torah. Their use creates rich layers of character and subtext, connecting component parts of the biblical text in unexpected ways—and providing a certain sense of continuity, if not consistency.

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Stephen H. Arnoff

Stephen Hazan Arnoff is the executive director of the 14th Street Y. He was previously the managing editor of Zeek and the director of Artists Networks and Programming at the Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y.