Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg is an exceptionally good scholar. In her book Moses, she offers her readers an interesting generally different but thought-provoking look at the life and deeds of the biblical Moses. She approaches the telling of Moses’ history based on Midrash because, as she states, “the biographical challenge is immeasurably enriched by the existence of the ‘supplementary’ material found in midrashic texts.” The emphasis on ‘supplementary,’ was made by Zornberg, and is a recognition on her part that the analysis of Moses’ life that she presents in her book is not based on the biblical text but on what some might call alien Midrash.
Jewish tradition states that there are seventy ways to examine the Torah. The number seventy is used in Jewish tradition not as a definite number but to imply “many.” Midrash is a collection of stories of actions and behaviors invented by the rabbis as parables to teach many lessons. These stories are often parables not even hinted at in the Torah itself and are frequently counter to the explicit wording of the biblical text. She tells us that Midrash portrays the biblical hero in an “undignified” manner, again her emphasis, that the famed lawgiver whom the Bible states was the humblest of men, was according to Midrash resentful, and filled with anger and complaint.
Many people today enjoy hearing midrashic stories, rabbis fill their sermons with midrashic tales, usually leading their congregants to believe that the midrashic elaborations actually occurred. People who accept Midrash as the truth will find Zornberg’s methodology of reading the original Torah with Midrash interesting, perhaps even insightful. Others, who are purists, may object. Midrash is not Torah. They might say that joining Torah and Midrash is not like joining a man and a woman. It is more like the joining of more dissimilar objects, such as combining a history book and a novel based on history. Granted Midrash should not be dismissed out of hand, but like novels, it should not be evaluated as history.
Interestingly, Zornberg accepts Midrashic notions, such as that Moses had no idea that he was an Israelite when he killed the Egyptian taskmaster to save an Israelite slave (the Bible itself does not enlighten us on this matter), Moses was born knowing the entire Torah which he never forgot, God did not allow a non-Israelite to be Moses’ wet nurse so Moses refused to suckle from an Egyptian woman, Aaron was a leader of the Israelite slaves and Moses did not want to usurp his older brother’s position, Moses was supposed to be High Priest but was punished and the role was given to Aaron and this caused Moses to be profoundly disappointed, (he had a right to the High Priesthood since he was a younger brother, and younger brothers were preferred over their older sibling in the early days of Israel), and although unstated in scripture and contrary to the plain reading of it, Moses was told at the outset of his career that he would not bring his people to the promised land.
While the overwhelming number of Zornberg interpretations are based on Midrash, there are also enlightening interpretations of the Bible text itself. She speaks, for example, of the impact that three women made on his life: his birth mother, his adoptive mother the daughter of Pharaoh, and his sister. His adoptive mother, for instance, showed compassion to the infant Moses that she found floating in the Nile and rescued him. Moses learnt from her behavior and showed similar compassion when he grew on three occasions: rescuing an Israelite from an Egyptian taskmaster, trying to resolve an argument between two Israelite slaves the next day, and saving the Midianite woman whom he later married from her tormentors at a well.
Whatever one’s inclination, it should be recognized that Zornberg has much to say, and what she says raises fresh ideas that prompt us to think and perhaps even change our views about Moses.