By Israel Drazin


Many rabbis have, in effect, abandoned Bible study to fundamentalist Christians. Very few of
their books that ostensibly address the Torah actually do so. Instead, usually
without disclosing the fact, the rabbis who composed these volumes and the
rabbis who deliver synagogue sermons focus on the midrashic versions of the
biblical tales and laws, rather than the Torah text. The rabbis treat these
midrashim as the true Torah, as divine, as if, despite the Torah itself saying
something entirely different or not addressing the issue at all, the midrash is
the word of God delivered to Moses at Mount Sinai, amidst thunder and
lightning. They seem to run from the Torah because they don’t know how to deal
with the difficult questions about the Bible, especially from people who
identify conflicting statements, and from scholars who contend that the Bible
is not a divine document but the product of different writers over an extended
period of time.


The midrashim, the plural of midrash, that they use as replacements are fascinating didactic
imaginative expansions of the Bible composed by sages who, like novelists,
delved into the behind the scene action that the Bible doesn’t disclose. They
offer listeners and readers imaginary parables to capture their short attention-span
and teach them lessons in story form that they can easily understand and
remember. The writers of midrash never meant their sermons to be taken
literally, or that they should replace the study and understanding of the
Torah. It is a supplement, a spice, a dessert, not the main course. Midrash
today appears in books labeled as such, as well as the Talmuds, many Bible
commentaries, such as Rashi and Ramban, in mystical books such as the Zohar,
and in rabbinical sermons. It is not unusual to hear a rabbi tell his
congregation the “fact” that Abraham smashed his father’s idols, even though
this fascinating and instructive tale is not in the Torah or even hinted by it,
without revealing the true origin of his story. The book by Rabbi Ari D. Kahn, Echoes of Eden, which Jews who delight in midrash will undoubtedly enjoy, is a good example.


The author tells readers that he is following the methodology of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik,
although he doesn’t describe the method. Rabbi Soloveitchik (1903-1993) focused
on the writings of the rationalist Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) frequently in
his talmudic lectures, but took the diametrically opposite approach when
commenting on the Torah. He considered the mystical Moses Nachmanides (known as
Ramban, 1194-1270) as the best Bible commentator (the underline is in
the book The Rav Thinking Aloud by David Holzer). Holzer quotes Rabbi Soloveitchik: “In
my opinion, the Ramban has contributed much more to the philosophy of religion,
to the Jewish world formula” than Maimonides’ book on philosophy, Guide of
the Perplexed.
Maimonides, he continues curiously, was “over-educated and
over trained…. The Ramban used more intuition than logic.” Thus it is no
surprise that Holzer also quotes Rabbi Soloveitchik as saying, the tales in the
Talmud and Midrashim about miracles “are not parables, this actually happened.”


Following the Nachmanides-Soloveitchik method, Rabbi Kahn, for example, reveals the name
of the biblical Noah’s wife as being Naamah, although she is unnamed in
Scripture, and relying on midrashim invents a fictional yarn, presented as
biblically true, that she was a descendant of Cain, who murdered his brother
Abel, that she was a demon-like temptress; and since all humans today are
descendants of Noah and his wife, we are, he claims, in part, the progeny of
the fratricidal Cain. This is a tale that would have made the 1998 Nobel Prize
Winning Author for fictional literature, the author of Cain, Jose Saramago, proud, for he mockingly and with a tongue in both cheeks, revealed that Cain seduced all three of Noah’s son’s wives.


This story, it must be said, takes second place to the salacious adventure of Eve
and the serpent, who Rabbi Kahn exposes, again relying on midrashim, as the
devil, who is enchanted with Eve’s beauty and is driven by passionate
uncontrollable lust to seduce her. He waits until Adam, who Eve had married in a
ceremony performed by God himself with angels as witnesses, has fallen asleep
exhausted, after having had sexual intercourse with Eve, and is no threat. Eve,
the rabbi discloses, was not interested in power, as many Bible readers
suppose, she was “enticed by the aesthetics, by the beauty. Her reaction (to
Satan’s subtle seduction) is not greed for power but lust for beauty and
experience,” and so she succumbs, and the “object of his desire was won.”
Relying on midrashim and the mystical book Zohar, the rabbi reveals that she
conceived from this adventure and her offspring was the aforementioned Cain.
Thus, according to the rabbi, our blood stream not only flows with the
merciless DNA of Cain, but of the devil himself.


This methodology of teaching midrash as the true Bible not only uncovers thrilling and
enchanting tales, but also theology that the midrash users claim to be
biblical, but is not even hinted in the scriptural text, theology that changes
radically from midrash to midrash from rabbi to rabbi, depending on the speaker
or writer’s inclinations, life experiences, and education. Thus, although the
Bible describes the consequences of misdeeds, of not following the biblical
way, as a poor and unsuccessful life, a purely practical description of consequences,
the midrash gushes into what is frequently Oscar Wildean, mystical,
other-worldly, amorphous, notions of scaring souls, loss of salvation,
other-worldly punishments, Christian teachings of original sin, and brooding
never-ending anguish over even minor mistakes. Thus, for example, Rabbi Kahn
writes: When Adam and Eve “sin, they lose the clothing of salvation. The result
is the loss of divine protection and the sense of proximity and intimacy with
God, the feeling of a child wrapped in the embrace of a loving mother. It is
then that they feel naked. Their response is to cover their bodies; apparently
(focusing only on the physical), they were oblivious to the damage done to
their souls. In place of the ‘clothing of salvation’ that had dissipated, they
cover themselves.”


In sum, those who like the preaching of midrash will enjoy this book, but those who seek to
understand the Torah won’t find it here.