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Original Texts vs. Midrashic Retelling: When to Use What

When approaching Torah studies, we recommended two categories of books: original sources and midrashic retellings. In this post, we will discuss when and how to use each of these categories.

According to Jewish tradition, the Torah that G-d gave to the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai consisted of two parts: written and oral. The Written Torah, known as the Chumash, or the Five Books of Moses, is impossible to understand without the much more extensive Oral Torah, which elaborates on the details not mentioned in writing. For example, while the Written Torah tells us to refrain from work Shabbos, it does not explain what is considered work. For practical guidance, we consult the oral tradition.

For generations, the Oral Torah was passed down from parents to children, from teachers to students. They took great care to pass the tradition accurately. Just like in homeschooling, the relationship between the teacher and the student, as well as between the student and the text, played an important role in the transmission.

Eventually came the time when, exiled and persecuted, the Jewish people were busy with basic survival and no longer able to assure accurate transmission of the oral tradition. The Sages decided to write down parts of the Oral Torah. We will elaborate on this, G-d willing, when we get to the next time period, the period of the Talmud.

Meanwhile, as we learn the Five Books of Moses, or the books of the Prophets, or Writings, it is important to keep in mind that they are meant to be understood within the context of the whole of Jewish tradition. Originally, the student would learn the text, and the teacher would fill in the gaps by providing the context of the oral tradition. Later in history, commentators, such as Rashi, committed this context into writing. Today, Torah teachers usually teach their students both the text and the traditional commentary.

The midrashic retellings we recommend in Ani Ve-Ami are based on the Oral Torah. Midrash (pl. midrashim) literally means an interpretation. Midrashim interpret the text, making it more accessible and palatable to its students.

Which brings us to our topic. What should homeschooling parents do?

The answer, as often the case in Judaism, is, it depends. If the parent is thoroughly familiar with Jewish tradition and feels confident teaching the texts directly and providing the context orally, that’s wonderful. Unfortunately, in today’s day and age, most of us are not so well educated. We tend to rely on books rather than our own memories and our own grasp of oral tradition. That is why the midrashic retellings are so valuable. They teach our children, and ourselves, the stories from the Torah in a much more enjoyable and memorable way. Instead of cut and dry text, we are given vivid details that touch our hearts and minds and stay with us for the rest of our lives.

So should we just give up on the original texts and only study midrashic interpretations? Absolutely not! It is important to distinguish between the text itself and the midrash, for several reasons.

First, there are various collections of midrashim, compiled by early Jewish sages. Some of these midrashim contradict each other. Clearly, they can’t all be true. Not all midrashim were meant to be understood literally. Many are parables, meant to teach us values, not facts. How do we know which midrashim are metaphorical? Well, the truth is, we don’t. But we do know that each and every midrash contains a valuable teaching. The midrashim need to be studied, over and over again, not as historical, but as ethical, truth.

Therefore, when a midrashic retelling adds details to a Torah story, we need to prepare our children, and ourselves, for the possibility that we might encounter another midrash that contradicts those details. Neither of the midrashim is “wrong.” They are both valuable. But as we learn more Torah, it is important to keep in mind what is in the text itself and forms the basis of Jewish tradition vs. what came from a midrash and constitutes a secondary teaching.

Second, there are different types of midrashim. By studying and analyzing them, we form a bigger picture of the Jewish tradition. More of that in the next time period, G-d willing.

And third, as a midrash says, there are seventy facets of the Torah. Each verse in the Torah is multifaceted and contains layers of meaning. Those who don’t distinguish between the text of the Torah and the midrashim are limiting themselves to the one and only understanding of the stories – the one in the particular midrashim they happen to study. But they might be missing as many as sixty nine other facets of the same text! There might be other midrashim, no less traditional, that they are simply not aware of, because they are too stuck on the ones that are familiar to them.

So where does this leave us practically? For young children, who do not yet have the capacity for abstract thought and the understanding that the same passage may have more than one meaning, the midrashic retellings are sufficient. As children grow and begin to think more abstractly, I continue reading midrashic retellings to them, but I point out which parts are written directly in the Torah and which come from a midrash. At the same time, we work on their textual skills and introduce the Chumash in the original, a little bit at a time. When the children are older, they begin studying the texts in the original, first with Rashi, then with other traditional commentators, who may bring contradictory opinions and midrashim.

And this learning continues throughout life, because we can never exhaust the whole body of Jewish tradition. There are always more facets to discover, more ways to gain a deeper and more complex understanding. So take a deep breath, don’t worry about getting it right – there is no such thing – and, most importantly, have fun! Learning Torah as a family is a wonderful experience that your children will remember for years to come.

 

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