This week's portion: postpartum
This week's portion: integration

Abraham and the idols in midrash and the Qur'an

Ask the average Jew to recount stories about Abraham, and odds are good you'll hear a story about how Abraham's father Terah was a seller of idols, and one day the boy Abraham smashed the idols in his father's shop. The funny thing, of course, is that this story doesn't appear anywhere in Tanakh. We know it from the midrash.

Midrash is a form of exegesis, a text that seeks to explain or explore texts from the Tanakh. Midrash writ large is broken into two categories: midrash halakha, and midrash aggadah. My Jewish Learning offers a good introduction to midrash aggadah, nothing that "[w]hen Jews use the colloquial 'it says in the midrash,' they are usually referring to teachings of midrash aggadah, generally those found in a corpus of classical Jewish texts compiled between about 200 and 1000 C.E." That article also acknowledges the centrality of the story about Abraham and the idols:

The best-known rabbinic midrash may be the legend of Abraham the patriarch as a young child in Mesopotamia smashing idols. Not just a simple morality tale about a national hero, the text in Genesis Rabbah suggests that Abraham's selection by God did not come out of nowhere, as Genesis 12 might plausibly be read. Rather, Abraham had independently come to a point where he would be receptive to the voice of a single God.

We studied this passage from Genesis Rabbah in the midrash class I took at the CY this past summer. Here's a taste:

R' Hiyya said: Terah was a manufacturer of idols. He once went away somewhere and left Abraham to sell them in his place. A man came and wished to buy one. "How old are you?" Abraham asked him. "Fifty years" was the reply. "Woe to such a man," he exclaimed, "you are fifty years old and would worship a day-old object!" At this he became ashamed and departed.

On another occasion a woman came with a plateful of flour and requested him, "Take this and offer it to them." So he took a stick, broke them, and put the stick in the hand of the largest. When his father returned he demanded, "What have you done to them?" "I cannot conceal it from you," he rejoined. "A woman came with a plateful of fine meal and requested me to offer it to them. One claimed 'I must eat first,' while another claimed 'I must eat first.' Thereupon the largest arose, took the stick and broke them." "Why do you make sport of me," [Terah] cried out, "have they then any knowledge?" "Should not your ears listen to what your mouth is saying," [Abraham] retorted.

What chutzpah this Abraham has! I love his snark and his pointed wit. The text goes on to illustrate the innate understanding of the oneness of God which led him to act in this manner; it's a fantastic story. It's also a story which appears in the Qur'an.

We gave Abraham his right judgment formerly; for We knew him well.
When he said to his father and his people: "What are these statues to which you are devoted?"
They said: "We found our fathers worshiping them."
He said: "Indeed, you and your fathers have been in manifest error."
They said: "Have you brought us the truth, or are you one of those who jest?"
He said: "No, your Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, Who created them both, and I bear witness to that."
"And by Allah, will show your idols my guile, after you turn your backs."
Then he reduced them to pieces except for their chief, so that they might turn to him.
They said: "He who did this to our gods is certainly one of the wrongdoers."...
They said: "Are you the one who did this to our gods, O Abraham?"
He said: "No, but their chief did this; so ask them, if they can speak."

(-- The Qur'an, 21:51-9 and 62-3, as translated by Majid Fakhry)

This appearance of a familiar (to me) story from midrash in the Qur'an seems to me like a clear sign of narrative cross-pollination between the Jewish community and the early Muslim community, and I think that is incredibly cool. Some are decidedly uncomfortable with that assertion, and I'm aware that there was a strain of medieval Christian polemic (referenced here) which argued that because the Qur'an copies from Judaism and Christianity it is therefore not a unique, sacred, and revealed text. I don't want to recapitulate that in any way.

From where I sit, the notion that Jewish stories might have influenced the ultimate written text of the Qur'an is analagous to the notion that regional Flood stories might have influenced the ultimate written text of the Tanakh. (We're reading the story of Noah this week, so that's much on my mind.) In neither case does the existence of related stories in other regional traditions diminish the holiness of the cherished text. After all: if God is to speak to us, God needs to use language and metaphors that we can understand, right?

In my Qur'an class we're learning about tafsir, Qur'anic commentary, which takes the text of the Qur'an and comments upon it bit by bit. (That's according to Norman Calder, who was a Senior Lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Manchester; the Wikipedia entry concurs.) Classical tafsir involves the citation of named authorities (a way of indicating one's adherence to a particular way of reading the material in question) and what Calder calls the "consequent polyvalent reading of the text." In other words, classical tafsir presupposes that there's no one "correct" way to read any passage from the Qur'an; rather, the text naturally supports a range of meanings and implications.

This matches what I understand to be Jewish tradition's central approach to Torah. There's a quotation from Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, formerly chancellor of JTS, to which I repeatedly return. Rabbi Schorsch writes that "in Judaism precisely because the Torah is revered as divine, it becomes susceptible to unending interpretation. It would be a denigration of God's word to saddle it with just a single meaning." I am fascinated and delighted to see a similar stance within Islam, too.

The Calder article to which I referred a moment ago is filled with close analysis of different tafsir texts around the story of Abraham and the idols. He describes these readings as "embedded in the text through the discovery of grammatical, lexical, or narrative devices, transparent to the tradition, but constituting for [the mufassir / interpreter] the cracks through which he can create a new theological space." So the creative reading comes directly out of the text, hanging on points of syntax or vocabulary or narrative, and it creates a space within which the mufassir can articulate his understanding of the story and its implications. Sounds very like midrash, to me.

Calder compares the Quran's style to a Chinese painting: if a painting shows a high pagoda or mountain top, one's imagination can fill in what appears below the frame -- though there's a structure within which that imagination needs to function. It would be inappropriate to imagine Corinthian columns, or the Tower of London, beneath the top of the pagoda which appears in the frame. Just so, the imagination of those who read and interpret the Quran is meant to work within a set of known parameters.

This offers me food for thought when it comes to midrash and other forms of creative/responsive storytelling, too -- more on that sometime soon, I hope. For now, I'm left wondering: is there a contemporary/creative tradition of tafsir today which goes beyond the bounds of normative classical interpretation, as there is within contemporary Judaism today a tradition of literary midrash which transcends the perspectives which were thinkable when collections of classical midrash were compiled?

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