Tuesday, October 7, 2008

1:3:107: Painful Midrash

The basic story in the Tanach is wonderful. It is powerful and very touching. It is a parsha I look forward to each year. The Midrash is for me a total turn off. It is primarily macho daydreaming of the worst sort. At this point Egypt has not harmed the Jews, if anything it is the reverse, yet all the pregnant Egyptian women miscarry because of Judah.

Also the attacks on the brothers by Joseph get rid of the feeling of forgiveness that Joseph shows in the Tanach. Especially:
"Judah: "The fire that burned Shechem is rekindled within me." Joseph: "It is rather the fire you unjustly intended for Tamar your daughter-in-law, and I will quench it.""
This turns Judah's previous high moment of admiting his error into a negative attack. Reads like a political attack not a discussion among brothers reaching for joint forgiveness. Maybe someone else can show me the redeeming social value for this Midrash but I just can't see it.


Richard Friedman said...

I'm concerned that dismissing this long and complicated midrash as macho daydreaming may be anachronistic and miss the point. The Humash text in VaYigash presents us with Yehuda's plea for the life of Binyamin -- a plea by the representative of the disfavored wife for the cherished son of the favored wif. The plea is long and sincere; Yehuda is reformed; and Yosef hears it and is immediately convinced of its sincerity and is reconciled to his brothers. The midrash, at least on my first reading, seems to see the interaction as more complex and ambiguous. The midrash sees a struggle between the two leaders of their "sides" of the family (and they, or, in the case of Yosef, his son Ephraim, become the leading tribes of the Northern and Southern kingdoms), a struggle with fierce and not-easily-resolved feelings. Maybe the midrash is actually appropriate to this season -- reconciliation and tshuva are not storybook-clean transformations; they are difficult processes, where old feelings do not disappear but linger. Hostilities are not dissolved, they remain urgent. Yehuda does not become covered with warm fuzzies; he cries out so that Yosef falls off his throne and Pharaoh's and Yosef's teeth fall out, the walls fall, and the women miscarry ("miscarry" in Hebrew is the same root as "fall").

Anita said...

I too am disturbed by the violence of this midrash. In reading through it, I thought at one point toward the end, when Judah lets out a mighty roar and Joseph falls off his seat, and all the brothers are flung to the four corners of the chamber, that I could read this in a psychological way; that is, the effect of meeting their long -lost brother again, whom they had described to their father as having been killed in such a violent way, was deep, profound, and knocked them off their (psychological) feet. The dramatics of the midrash are clear- there's dialogue, setting, special effects; it's quite fantastic. But ultimately, not very enlightening. There's no need, in my view, for the rest of the violence. It seems to me very much like a flight of fancy that reminds me of those video games I don't want my son to play. I can understand how Judah and Joseph would be torn at this point, and there are many levels and dynamics to this family interaction. But the flinging and roaring and gnashing of metal get in the way.

Howard said...

Its long and maybe complicated but not complex. The bulk of it is still the physical strength and power of the brothers (following up the previous midrash). It ends with as clean an ending as the biblical story.

Since most of it happens before the brothers know who Joseph is, I don't think the interaction is ambiguous. The brothers act up against Joseph representing not Ephraim but Mitzryim (Egypt) and Joseph using the excuse of his divining ability, mentions their sin. The later tribal history is only relevant if you think that during the period the midrash was written, it was an important issue which I wonder about.

If you look at the Judah story you see his change, remember he also lost two sons, he really can understand Jacob. Also his treatment of Tamar shows a change. I don't find warm fuzzies, I find true teshuvah by Judah.

It is this midrash that ends with a sudden unexplained and unmotivated turn around which breaks the pattern of the previous material. They suddenly get all huggy.

Richard Friedman said...

It still seems to me that the discomfort with physical strength and violence is imposing a 21st-century American standard (and indeed, one from a particular segment of American society) on a literature and culture from a different place and time.

The Rabbis knew the later tribal history, and they did think it important -- the notion of a pair of messiahs, one descended from David (i.e., from Yehuda) and one from Yosef is a Rabbinic idea.

Howard's third paragraph argues that the account in the Humash is plausible. I agree -- sometimes, tshuva results in a radical reorientation and a total reconciliation. But the author(s) of this midrash had a different view of how reconciliation usually occurs in the real world, a view that I also find plausible, even compelling. I should have characterized the brothers' interaction (as seen by this midrash) as "ambivalent" rather than "ambiguous" -- the process is agonizing and wrenching; feelings do not change in a flash; and distrust and hostility do not evaporate, but may even be exacerbated for a time. Indeed, the Humash itself indicates that the tshuva is less than immaculate -- see Gen. 50:15-17, where the brothers worry after Yaakov's death that Yosef might seek revenge (like Michael waiting to kill Fredo until their mother's death).

The midrash ends with the reconciliation because it can't deny that the events recounted by the Torah happened; what it denies is simply that the process was as simple, clean, and whole-hearted as is suggested by the biblical account.

Howard said...

I agree that I am imposing my 21st century viewpoint on the material. Directly and straightforwardly. I think Richard is doing the same thing, but less obviously. He seems to ignore the vast amount of violence in this and the preceding midrashim. I don’t think that those who wrote the material considered in unimportant window dressing but an important message. We, the Jews, used to be exceedingly powerful, with ten of us able to destroy a major power like Egypt. We have lost this power as a result of our not following G!d’s word. It is a midrash about our relationship with G!d and with the other nations.

Also, I don’t see this midrash as relating, from Judah’s side, to his relationship with Joseph but his relationship with Zaphenath-paneah (Joseph’s Egyptian name). For example, when Joseph asks about Judah’s treatment of the young Joseph, Judah reacts by breaking into tears and shows his intense feelings about saving Benjamin. If Richard’s reading is a correct interpretation, there should be some ambivalence in his reaction, there is none. Again it is a midrash about our relationship with the other nations expecially those who persecute us.

We all read midrash, as well as Tanach , in at least three ways. One to find the P’shat (plain meaning in contest), two to read beneath the surface for the deeper meaner, and three to find support for our view of the issue or to challenge the content of the midrash. I challenge the content of the this midrash while I think Richard is trying to find support for his position. But all of of read the material from a 21th Century viewpoint. Just to be clear, I think Richard’s reading of the Torah story is very insightful.