Reading Ourselves into Rabbinic Readings of Scripture
How Do We Know This?: Midrash and the Fragmentation of Modern Judaism, by Jay Harris (SUNY Press, 1994)
Wherever Midrash is taught, we are trained in two schools of reading: Rabbi Yishmael’s stuck to straightforward readings of the biblical texts; Rabbi Akiva’s spun far-fetched interpretations, relying on the smallest of details.
This picture has been incredibly influential in Jewish life and discourse. Reactions are strong to both approaches. Many moderns are deeply uncomfortable with Rabbi Akiva’s method that derives laws from a text that cannot, in good academic conscience, support them. They take comfort in the fact that, though his method was more influential in ancient Judaism, it was countered by that of sober, careful Rabbi Yishmael. In contrast, post-moderns revel in Rabbi Akiva’s unselfconscious creativity, pitying the limited and unimaginative school of Rabbi Yishmael—the meaning of texts, after all, is more about the interpreter than the text itself.
That the two schools represent real disagreements in how to read the Bible is rarely questioned—which is surprising decades after the publication of Jay Harris’s book. Harris demonstrates that the idea of these two schools, and their supposed methods, is absent from the Talmud itself. Indeed, the idea that there were two schools went almost entirely unnoticed until the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment. Since then, he shows, whenever a new sensitivity awakened as to how one should read texts, each generation recast the two schools in their own image, placing Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael in opposition in order to play out their own anxieties about how to read our tradition.
It is true that different theologies and methods lie behind various works of Midrash, as explored by other scholars (most recently, Israel Azzan Yadin in Scripture as Logos and Scripture and Tradition). However, it has failed to penetrate the public discourse that these two schools have been retrojected onto sources for which they are ill-fitting.
Perhaps the “two schools” theory says more about us than it does about Midrash.