Learning to Read Midrash
By Simi Peters
Urim Publications, 2004, 310 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - January 22, 2010
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.