Teaching Midrash from a Developmental Perspective

Tamar Schwell

In the classical way of teaching Tanakh and midrash in the modern Orthodox day school it is, unfortunately, quite common for the student to either take the words of the midrash literally, as they appear at face value, or to come to deride the words of Hazal because he does not realize that they are meant to be understood on a deeper level than they appear. As a young child, the student is taught many midrashim as "Bible stories" and is never given a basis upon which to distinguish between those events that are actually written in Tanakh and those that have their source in midrashei Hazal.

At a certain point, perhaps when finding it difficult to believe that a particularly outlandish point in the midrash could be literally true (e.g. Rivka marrying Yitzhak at age three), or upon being exposed to contradictory midrashim, the young student may come to doubt the importance of, or even to mock the words of Hazal. Not understanding that Hazal may have intended something other than a literal interpretation of their words, they come to deride the words of Hazal and may end up with the attitude that "it's only a midrash".

An additional problem that may arise is the danger of disillusionment. At a later stage of education, if the child is finally taught that Hazal may not have meant for a particular midrash to be taken literally, or that perhaps there was an exegetical, didactic or polemical motive behind the midrash, he may feel disillusioned due to the fact that he did not know this until now, or that he spent so many years not really understanding the point of the midrash. Due to the incomplete understanding that the student is given of midrash in the early years of his education he may never come to fully comprehend the midrash and its use as a tool for the study of Tanakh, particularly as an exegetical explication of the text as opposed to just a story that is supplemental to the Bible text. It is the job of the educator to transmit to the student the wisdom of Hazal found in the midrashim and avail him of the information packaged in the parables and the often concise language.

This project is the presentation of a program designed for a new, more sophisticated method of teaching Tanakh and midrash so that the standard modern Orthodox Day School student will develop a full appreciation for midrashei Hazal. The proposal described in this paper is a plan for a developmental integration of a mature approach to midrash study into the curriculum. Taking developmental issues into account, students while still in elementary school can be taught and trained to understand the midrash on a deeper level than is traditionally taught. In this manner, by the time the student is entering high school he will already be prepared for an in-depth study of midrash and have an appreciation of what the midrash is meant to teach. By gradually integrating a sophisticated understanding of midrash, in an age-appropriate manner, there is less chance of the student remaining with only a literal understanding of the midrash (when not intended by Hazal), or more problematic, developing a scornful, derogatory approach towards midrash.

This paper begins with a background discussion of midrash, dealing specifically with midrashei aggadah. The distinction between midrashim that are parshanutic, i.e., exegetical, and closely tied to the text, and those that are darshanutic, i.e., homiletic, and exploit the text for a different agenda, is described. This is followed by descriptions and examples of different genre of midrashim, including m’shalim and various types of narrative expansions. The main point as educators is to use this information to analyze the type and structure of the midrash and attempt to understand its aim before teaching it. It should be pointed out to the student that the use of parables and stories, dialogues and character development in the midrash help deliver the message of Hazal more effectively.

The paper continues with several studies in cognitive development of children as a guide for how and when to best implement different stages of the program. Many of the studies indicate that children do understand simple figurative language, do ponder sophisticated, philosophical questions and can be made to empathize with the plight and dilemma of others if presented in the correct fashion. This information is relevant to the educator in deciding which midrashim to teach and how and when to teach them. Based on these findings I present the proposal of how midrash can be taught in conjunction with Tanakh in a way that can maximize the child's potential to understand the midrash beyond the literal meaning and minimize the possibility of misunderstanding the midrash or the intention of Hazal.

A distinction should be made between the pre-literate and literate child. During the pre-literate stage it is most important to familiarize the child with the stories found in the Torah. He should come to know the Biblical personalities and to recognize the midot that characterize them. The next stage is described as early-literate, when the young student is beginning to learn Humash by reading it from the text. He should now begin to notice that stories he learned previously in parshat hashavua are not actually written in the text. The student should now be trained to notice grammatical difficulties or missing information in the text and will soon begin to question religious or ethical issues that arise from the text, as well. With the development of critical thinking regarding the text, the child can now understand that the reason texts such as midrash exist is not just to tell stories, but to help explain the difficulties in the Tanakh text. In the next stage abstract thinking regarding concrete questions raised in the midrash can be introduced.

After being trained in this way throughout elementary school, the student in junior high school or high school should then be prepared for an in-depth analysis of the midrash itself. He must now be taught the skills to do this. Having been exposed from a young age to the fact that the midrash and commentaries are entities of their own, even though they are closely related to the Tanakh text, and that there are difficulties in the Tanakh text that are addressed by the midrashim, the student should not have difficulty comprehending the function of midrash. The student who has analyzed and experienced how a midrash that seems superfluous to the text actually stems from careful exegesis and addresses questions inherent in the text will be less likely to deride the words of Hazal than one who was told the midrashim as Bible stories and never went beyond that. With this method there is less danger of understanding all midrashic stories literally as fact, or of disillusionment upon learning that this is not so, because the student understands that the midrash does not come simply to tell stories, but has a function that is somehow related to the text.

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