Incomplete Draft: Midrash and Metaphor

Midrash and Metaphor

One of the ideas of this blog was that scholars in the field should use it as a space to test-run new ideas and new work. So, I’m going to be brave and share a half-written, and incomplete draft of a paper I’m working on.

Click here to read.

Unpacking the seven metaphors at the heart of the Midrash I quote is proving a daunting task, and the philosophical literature on metaphor that I’ve been trawling through is vast, to say the least. I have some ideas, and am still working them through.

But, I’d love people’s comments and suggestions. What do you think the competing suggestions of these metaphors amount to? I have the most to say about R. Hannina’s metaphor about the well. All suggestions are welcome, and will of course be fully credited in any final draft!!

Best wishes for a festive and restful Pesach.

  1. Yves

    restful ? we have a long way out of Egypt, haven’t we ?

  2. Phillip Stambovsky

    An ambitious, interesting, and potentially important project.

    Question from someone who is not a professionally expert Hebraist: How, if at all, is “mashal”
    related to “demut” and “tzelem”?

    I would think that your study should offer at least a brief synopsis of the major approaches to metaphor—which begin with Aristotle and go at least through Lakoff & Johnson. You may wish to look at the first chapter of my “The Depictive Image” (Univ. of Massachusetts Press 1988) for a succinct, philosophically critical overview of metaphor theory from the classical period down through recent doctrines (including Davidson). The chapter applies the major accounts to short literary texts in order to demonstrate the strengths and limits each theory. (Among the places in which the book is cited are a couple of essays—one of which refers to Solomonic material—in a text titled The Bible in Three Dimensions [1990].) What also might be relevant to your thinking on metaphor is my essay “Metaphor and Historical Understanding,” which appeared in History and Theory (vol. 37.2, 1988).

    Metaphors function differently in different universes of discourse. (The proliferation of abstract theories—semantic, structural, phenomenological, etc.—reflects nothing so much as a neglect of this key factor and merely promises a “bad infinite” of clever theoretical proposals and constructs.) As for the seven Midrashic metaphors you single out, rather than trying to find the competing theories “they seem to presuppose,” you might do better to assess the competing theories themselves in light of the unique frames of reference within which the metaphors achieve their purposes. The more developed and subtle the analysis of context, the more original and penetrating and valuable will the study prove.
    The reference to mirror neurons was especially interesting, and I myself refer to mirror neurons in a study of inference (not unrelated to my thinking on metaphor and myth) titled “Inference and the Metaphysic of Reason” (Marquette Univ. Press, 2009).

    Instead of an epistemological approach (a signature reductive orientation of analytic modernism), you might wish to consider a focus on the onto-epistemology of Solomonic knowledge and the function of metaphor in that context. (The inference book approaches conceptual thinking from that angle.)

  3. Sam Lebens

    Dear Professor Stambovsky,
    I just wanted to thank you for this stimulating and helpful, and indeed encouraging, comment.
    Your work is on my reading list already. I’m trying to make my way through a gargantuan amount of literature to make this project work, but this year, I’m only a part-time post doc, so progress is slow.
    Next year I’ll be full time at the University of Notre Dame. It sounds as if your book will help me tame some of the literature, and that your papers will be very stimulating.
    I’ll reply more discursively during the weekend, but now, in Israel, the Sabbath is falling upon us, so I have to rush. I look forward to continuing the discussion on Saturday night.
    Best wishes,

  4. Carl Kinbar

    A few thoughts before the sun sets:

    This is a very interesting approach. Although my personal learning and graduate education is in rabbinic writings, my undergraduate work was in philosophy. So at least I have a fighting chance of understanding where you are coming from, though I cannot offer detailed comments.

    I have been studying and teaching midrash for many years and have spent not a little time on the portion of Shir Hashirim Rabbah that you are working with. Although I cannot see myself quite siding with Davidson, one of my mantras is that the meaning of the metaphor is in the metaphor and not in our explanation of it. I.e., don’t let the metaphor get lost is the explanation.

    I would suggest that another factor essential for reading aggadic midrash is its pervasive hyperbole. My mantra here is parallel to my mantra there: don’t let the hyperbole get lost in the explanation.

    I look forward to future installments.

    Carl Kinbar

  5. Sam Lebens

    Thank you for your comment, Carl.
    Regarding Prof. Stambovsky’s comment. I think I’m going to restructure the paper around the seven (or more likely six) theories of metaphor expressed in the Midrash. And as you suggest, ‘assess the competing theories themselves in light of the unique frames of reference within which the metaphors achieve their purposes.’
    I don’t believe there’s any philological link between ‘demut’ and ‘tzelem’ and ‘mashal’ – but the conceptual relationship between the three is still worth reflecting upon.
    Thank you. I’ll upload a new installment in a few weeks, I expect.

  6. avi

    Reading the 7 metaphors, it seems to me that the 7 examples are arguing about the nature of Torah.

    going in order from the document:
    Anonymous: The purpose of torah is a practice in logic and analytics.
    Nachman 1: The purpose of Torah is to get you to the after life or world of souls (the palace)
    Nachman 2: The purpose of Torah is to get you through the basics of this life, thickets and reeds.
    Yossi: The torah is food of this world, and it is very hard to understand and make practical use of.
    Shila: The torah is like scolding hot water, and it can “burn” you if you are not careful.
    Hanina: The Torah is very very deep, filled with multiple levels of meaning, an each generation comes and adds to the understanding of the next generation.
    Our Rabbis: The Torah is precious and the most valuable thing to learn, but we will use “cheap” methods, mundane, secular ways of knowledge, to better understand it.

    I’m not sure what this says about Metaphors in general, but it seems to me that is the message of the Midrash. That Metaphor helps us unlock the meaning of the Torah that we might otherwise lose due to a purely literal reading of the text, and there is a greater question about what the point of learning Torah is, and what is the nature of torah learning.

    1. Avigael

      Nice Interpretation Avi !

  7. Carl Kinbar

    Good observations, Avi. It seems to me that each midrash gives instructions for approaches to learning Torah.

    Another factor is the contrarian thrust of the passage as a whole, which is summed up in the repeated statement, “Before Solomon arose, no one understood Torah; after Solomon arose, everyone began to understand.” I read this as an implicit critique of the notion that the only way to learn Torah is at the feet of rabbis. The seven midrashim, which follow the valorization of Solomon, implies that he restored Torah learning to Israel.

    By setting the passage in Solomon’s time, Song Rabbah also undermines the idea of the continuity of oral Torah. If “No one understood the Torah,” where were the “rabbis” of the time? Traditional commentaries respond to the implicit critique by amending the statement to “No one [but the rabbis] understood Torah.” Hmmm.

    1. avi

      That is a very interesting read of it. I would look at those phrases a bit differently.
      The repetition of the line, ““Before Solomon arose, no one understood Torah; after Solomon arose, everyone began to understand.” seems to me to be a statement of instruction. Meaning, if you study torah and don’t make heavy use of the Mashel as given by King Solomon (who also wrote Mishlei) then you are missing the whole point of the Torah.

      I don’t read the statement that those before King Solomon didn’t understand the torah literally. Rather it’s a mashel in and of itself. “Before”, “King Solomon”, wrote his works of kohelet, Mishlei, and Shir hashirim, there was nothing to easily point at and say, “this is how you are supposed to understand Torah.”

      I think to phrase it in a more modern way, would be to say, “If you don’t understand how to read the works of King Solomon, then you don’t understand how to read any of the Torah”.

      It would seem a bit odd to mean to read all of the midrash as a mashel, save one or two lines, and to try to read those one or two lines as being bits of historical theory.
      Historically, I could be wrong about this, but it looks to me, that Jewish writers swung back and forth on a pendulum of how to read Torah sources, literally and allegorically, without a consensus on either aspect ever being reached.

  8. Carl Kinbar

    Hi Sam. You wrote, “It would seem a bit odd to mean to read all of the midrash as a mashel, save one or two lines, and to try to read those one or two lines as being bits of historical theory.”

    Sorry for my lack of clarity; I did not mean to imply that Song Rabbah makes historical claims in these meshalim. The two instances of “Before Solomon arose . . .” is preceded by “Likewise (kakh),” indicating each is a nimshal. They are therefore presented as interpretations of the mashal proper. I’m not sure why they should be considered meshalim in their own right.

    You seem to be saying that nimshalim should be read as instruction and as hyperbole. I agree. Still, the absence of rabbis in the entire passage is telling. We can see the same phenomenon in the extended passage on “Let him kiss me . . .” which also deals with Torah study.

    I’m not suggesting that the Galilean rabbis were writing themselves out of the picture but that they were de-emphasizing their role in the learning process. I’m thinking along the lines of Anisfeld (“Sustain Me With Raisin Cakes”), who is among a growing number of scholars who argue that the Galilean sages of third and fourth century C.E. developed a rhetorical approach that was more appealing and accessible to the general Jewish public. God’s condescension was highlighted and rabbinic claims of authority were softened, in contrast to the heavier approach of the Babylonian rabbis, who emphasized their own authority (see Rubenstein, “The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud.”).

  9. Avigael

    I couldn’t read it. I love the Midrash – it is a spiritual book that gives its treasures to those who ask HaShem to reveal it to them, the arguments here of back and forward here put me to sleep and dulls the excitement of the Sefer !

  10. Tim Cowen


    I’ve just found this paper of yours. Adam Taub and I are currently giving a course on midrash at LSJS in London. We are planning a class on this midrash. Your highlighting of the distinction between understanding1 and understand2 etc is a useful insight.

    Some preliminary observations on the meshalim. I have excluded what you have called the anonymous first mashal. I dont think it’s a mashal at all. It is the metaphorical statement which the meshalim are designed to illustrate. I have also exclude the wick-in-the-darkness at the end from the set, because it is addressing a new sub-point – the imprecation not to treat a mashal trivially. The middle 5 in the text of the midrash are structurally presented as a set of 5.

    It seems to me you can group them as follows:

    GROUP 1
    Rav Nachman 1 and 2: The palace and the thicket of reeds.
    Torah is a stationary place to visit. Only for those who are seeking it.
    The Mashal offers us ways in and out. These meshalim are not concerned with the contents of the location only access and egress. Maybe obvious why you would want to enter a palace (especially since trope of God as king in palace is so common in midrash), but why is exit so important? Why enter a thicket of reeds at all?
    Objection: Torah as exclusive location for eager curious visitors only is not enough. Mashal serves only them. Elitist model.


    GROUP 2
    R Yose and R Shila – Basket of fruit and boiling pot.
    This time Torah is in an incomplete or broken container. Should have handles (ears) but doesn’t. What should be portable is stationary. Mashal completes the incomplete vessel.
    Mashal enables Torah to be taken to people – process of teaching – gives it “ears”.
    Contents are now important. Mashalim only differ whether they are sweet fruits or something painful.
    Objection: Implication that Torah is incomplete or broken. Contents (whether accessible or painful) are finite. Maybe too portable – Torah may end up in wrong place or in wrong hands.

    GROUP 3
    R Hanina – Well of cool sweet water – rope-rope cord-cord draws the water.
    Synthesises and develops the first 2 groups and resolves objections – Torah is in a fixed place – contents are desirable and inexhaustible – mashal makes the contents of the fixed place portable/teachable.

    Mashal then goes further. Ropes-ropes and cords-cords are words-words meshalim-meshalim. Midrash is a process of connecting texts to each other. One rope isn’t enough.


    This is probably why you have a preference for R Hanina’s mashal. You are supposed to. Presentation of a series of ideas/meshalim in the midrash is (in my view) often designed to show the power and superiority of the final idea by demonstrating the flaws of the earlier ones. Structure of a midrash is often as important as contents of constituent parts.

    A bit like modern philosophers presenting series of increasing complex trolley problems in order for student to appreciate subtle points of the final problem. Amongst other things midrash is teaching its reader how to teach.

  11. Avigael

    Sam, I re-read your paper to try to digest it better. Still undigestable to me, sorry, telling you so you can better present it to a wider audience. I feel like it doesnt do the Midrash justice somehow ??? I thrive off the interpretations that Avi and Tim have offered – Kol HaVod to them ! I sense that the Midrash is the main bridge between the Mishnah and Tanach, if these two are the train rails then Midrash is the cross beams that keep it straight and together, so function as a critical part of the infrastructure of understanding Torah as we are supposed to. To denigrate this to some intellectuals definition to me is sacrilege !
    Also, Shimshon clearly gave riddles, which shows that hidden knowledge was given in this fashion long before Shlomo Hamelech. To say that Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe Rabbanu etc did not understand Torah is ludicrous ! So I think that the comment regarding Shlomo HaMelech’s interpretation of Torah needs further work. Hope that assists you, my comments are given with that in mind. Much Hatzlacha !

  12. Sam Lebens

    Thanks Tim and Avigael for your recent comments.
    I wrote this unfinished draft some time ago now. I think I was less interested at the time, in doing real justice to the interpretation of the Midrash, so much as using it to help me find new ways of cutting up the conceptual territory in the philosophy of language (between Max Black, Davidson, and Lakoff and Johnson).

    To that end, I’m not surprised that it’s not all the digestable! I didn’t hope to, nor would be so audacious as to hope to do justice to the full depth of the Midrash. The one thing that I am pleased with is the distinction between the two types of understanding. I think that is one of the keys to the Midrash.

    However… I had the pleasure of teaching this Midrash more organically at Pardes last summer and did much better with it.

    Tim I think we have to be careful before we say that the Midrash prefers Rabbi Hannina’s metaphor, because there is one that comes after it; the metaphor of the cheap wick.

    I do think that the palace is supposed to be talking about set end points and set beginning points. He ties the coil to the door, and if you hold on to it; you can forge any path you like in the palace, and you won’t get lost.

    Solomon’s metaphors somehow give you that – a way of thinking of something; that sets limits but still gives you a great deal of freedom. A metaphor could tell you to think of men in terms of wolves; that sets certain limits to the ways in which you’re being invited to think about men, but also gives you some freedom.

    The man in the palace didn’t seem to need the coil; which he left there merely for others. This would indicate that metaphors are not essential.

    The field metaphor doesn’t give you the same freedom; a very definite path is set for you; not just a way in and way out. And, even the wise man couldn’t have traversed the field without cutting the path. This implies that the metaphors are essential; that the same content could not be conveyed in any other way.

    The metaphors about handles all pre-echo Lakoff and Johnson’s use of the same metaphor. A metaphor helps us get a handle on the concept we’re talking about. By thinking of one thing in terms of another, normally, by thinking of an abstract thing in terms of something more tangible, we can ‘grasp’ what was otherwise too hard to grasp.

    The different details in those handle-examples seem to be differing not as to the nature of metaphors but as to the nature of Torah itself. When you move the barrel of fruit, you preserve the arrangement of the pile of fruits (which you wouldn’t necessarily manage if you moved the pile fruit by fruit). The hot water speaking of the danger of Torah handled without metaphors…. etc.

    I agree, Tim, with what you say, largely, regarding Rabbi Hannina’s statement. It speaks to chains of association.

    Finally, the wick metaphor, I think pre-echoes Davidson’s approach to metaphor. A metaphor just means what it says; which is often pretty worthless. What’s special about a metaphor isn’t what it says, but what it does; how it shines a light upon something else.

    I hope these newer reflections help.

    I will come back to this paper eventually and rework it significantly. I’ll let you know when I do.

    PS. I recently published an article in the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion with a lot of Midrashim in it. I’d be happy to receive comments, and would be happy if you found it useful for your course.

  13. Sam Lebens

    To revise one thing I said:
    I think the fruit metaphor might be telling us something distinctive about metaphors, that it allows you to convey lots of content in ways that respect the way that that multiple content is inter-related; it allows you to move the whole pile of fruit, in-formation, so to speak.

    A lot of these insights I owe to my students at Pardes.

    1. dinale

      Dear Sam. Regarding your last article of The Epistemology of Religiosity , I think that in general the capacity to feel awe is important not only in religion and philosophy but in everything in life in general
      I also think that believing is not an element of value. You can believe lies, dogmas, myths and it doesn´t place you near any philosophical truth

  14. Sam Lebens

    For those who are still interested, I have a new and more complete draft, radically revised, of this paper on metaphor: Click Here, if you’re interested! Comments gratefully received.

  15. Dinale

    Dear Sam

    I agree that the Song of Songs has a deep theological content. That is why I wrote this poem published
    in one of my books:

    Light 27: a prayer of two poets
    By Dina Grutzendler

    King David:
    El is my light and my salvation
    whom shall I fear?
    El is the stronghold of my life
    of whom shall I be afraid?

    When did You give me my expansion
    When did You tell me “be” and I “was”
    When did You offer me your first word “love”
    And I became love
    When did You allow me to know You were You, and I was I
    When did You tell me “you will know” and I “knew”
    When did You place me “here” and “everywhere”

    King David
    One thing I ask from El,
    this only do I seek:
    that I may dwell in the house of E1
    all the days of my life,

    to gaze on His beauty
    and to seek Him in his temple.

    What can I give You back, if all that I am , You are
    How can I thank You if not with my tears of adoration
    I am here far away, lost in cold sidereal travel
    but You are still my central sun
    my spirit burns
    because it was never hidden, never disguised, never covered

    King David
    I will sing and make music for El
    My heart says of You, “Seek his face!”
    I will see His goodness
    in the land of the living.

    I want to remain in memory as I really am
    The essence, the center, the tenderness
    The being who utters all the words without words
    Who enriches all space with the music of silence
    And adores Him who sits in his throne of All-Nothingness

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