What is Midrash Torah?

Bar Ilan University

David Goodblatt opened his lecture at the fourth international symposium of the Orion Center, held in Jerusalem in 1999, by noting the rarity of 'dialogue between Qumran studies and the study of the history of Judea during late Second Temple times'. To be sure, interest in the history of Second Temple Judaism is not absent from scholarly literature devoted to the Dead Sea Scrolls, but, as Goodblatt puts it, this interest is not for its own sake, but is rather aimed primarily at setting a background for understanding the scrolls and the community which is presumed to have produced them. 'What [i]s relatively lacking', Goodblatt complains, is 'the reverse: using the Dead Sea Scrolls to illuminate the history of the Jews'.
Behind this critical observation stands the notion that from a historical perspective the significance of the Qumran Sect, as such, is limited. One may even dare to speculate, that had it not been the case that the Qumran sectarians have left behind them their library, containing such a large amount of documents, the historical interest in that group would have been much smaller. It is therefore the historian's obligation to ask, how can these sources illuminate broader questions relating to the history of the Jewish People of Second Temple era, and not only the sect itself. Such an attitude was the guiding principle underlying my previous contributions to the Orion Center symposia. I was not interested in Dead Sea texts for their own sake; rather I was trying to use them as a source that might potentially illuminate issues relating to the rest of Jewish society of the time.
In the present paper I shall continue walking in the same path. I am not so much interested in Qumran, as I wish to use it to illuminate a broader historical question. I would like to suggest that seeing a similar phenomenon, which is common both to the Qumran sectarians and to the Rabbis, may contribute to our understanding not only of the Qumran material, but more importantly to our understanding of an important socio-historical aspect of Jewish society of post-destruction period. Namely, the place of the rabbis in Jewish society of their time.

In a famous line the author of 4QMMT prides himself and his group on having 'separated from the multitude of the people' (פרשנו מרוב העם), thereby expressing the sect's own perception as a group of people who have withdrawn from the rest of Jewish society of their time. As was noted long ago by David Flusser, this perception is echoed in many other places in the writings of the Qumran sect. Thus, twice in the Damascus Document the sect is described as 'the penitent of Israel, who departed from the way of the people'. Similarly, the author of the Rule of the Congregation speaks of the members of the sect as those of Israel who gather 'to walk continuously according to the judgment of the Sons of Zadok, the priests, and the men of their covenant who have turned away from walking in the way of the people'. So too describes the sect the author of 11QMelchizedek: they are 'The establishers of the covenant, who avoid walking in the way of the people'. And the same phrase is used by the author of 4QFlorilegium when he interprets the phrase 'The man who did not walk in the council of wicked' of Psalms 1:1 as referring to the sect itself: 'This refers to those who departed from the way of the people'. As the author himself indicates, his interpretation was based on the words of Isaiah 8:11, which he read in accordance with the reading of the Isaiah Scroll and other ancient witnesses, as saying: 'With a strong hand He averted me from walking in the way of the people'.
This self perception furnished the conceptual basis for the sect's rulings that strive to set boundaries between its members and outsiders. As it is well known, in several places in the writings of the Qumran sect we find rulings prohibiting social and economic relations between members of the sect and others. Thus, according to the "Instructions of the Maskil concerning those who freely volunteer to revert from all evil and to keep themselves steadfast in all he commanded", the newcomer is taught that as a rule, a member of the sect 'must not be united with' an outsider 'lest he burden him (with) guilty iniquity'. Therefore, not only is it prohibited for the member of the sect to engage with outsiders 'with respect to any law or judgment', but also it is prohibited 'either to eat or drink anything of their property, or accept anything whatever from their hand without payment'. According to these instructions, 'The man of holiness must not lean on any worthless works, for worthless are all who do not know his covenant'.
Similarly, in 1QS 9.8-9 we read that 'the property of the men of holiness who walk perfectly it must not be merged with the property of the men of deceit'. A few lines later the author rules that no member of the sect should 'reproach anyone, or argue with the men of [the pit], but instead hide his counsel in the midst of the men of injustice'. Furthermore, according to this text, the member of the sect must 'leave to [the men of the pit] property and labor of hands as a slave does to the one who rules over him, and one oppressed before the one who dominates over him'. These are 'The rules for the men of the Community who devote themselves to turn away from all evil'.
The guiding principal of these rules, as stated by the text itself, is that 'They shall separate themselves from the congregation of the men of deceit'. Indeed, the member of the sect is called to withdraw from the rest of the people, and to 'take upon his soul by covenant to separate themselves from all the men of deceit who walk in the way of wickedness'. The obligation to 'separate from each man who has not turned his way from all deceit', is repeated in Rule of the Community again and again, and is even presented as a founding principal of the Sect as a distinct community:
When these become the Community in Israel, they shall separate themselves from the session of the men of deceit in order to depart into the wilderness to prepare there the Way of the Lord, as it is written: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make level in the desert a highway for our God" (Isa. 40:3).
Despite the declarative character of these lines, the tone of the practical rules quoted above is evidently a defensive one. It is clear, therefore, that these "Rules of Separation" should be viewed as "Laws of Seclusion". That is, they are rules that function as means for creating boundaries between the sect and its members, on the one hand, and the rest of Jewish society, on the other hand.

It has been suggested that Qumran's 'Laws of Separation', are in fact a reflection of ancient 'Laws of Separation' from Gentiles, which were employed by the Qumran Sect to other Jews. The existence of such 'Laws' and tendencies towards Gentiles, among Palestinian Jews of the Second Temple period, was suggested most emphatically by Gedalyahu Alon, in his now classic paper on 'Gentile Impurity'. In that paper, Alon argued that 'Laws of Separation' from Gentiles, that are found in various forms in Rabbinic literature, were not a Rabbinic innovation. Rather, they reflect ancient notions and views regarding Gentiles as ritually impure, that were widely held by Jews of the land of Israel throughout the Second Temple period. Alon's view of the conceptual foundations of these 'laws' (that is, the notion of the Gentiles as ritually impure) was recently refuted, but his claim with regard to their antiquity is generally accepted in scholarly literature. One important and often cited text, in which such a tradition is preserved and which demonstrates these 'Laws of Separation', is Jubilees 22:16-22:
[16] And you also, my son Jacob, remember my words, and keep the commandments of Abraham, your father. Separate yourself from the gentiles, and do not eat with them, and do not perform deeds like theirs. And do not become associates of theirs. Because their deeds are defiled, and their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable. [17] They slaughter their sacrifices to the dead, and to the demons they bow down. And they eat in tombs. And all their deeds are worthless and vain... [19] But (as for) you, my son, Jacob, may God Most High help you, and the God of heaven bless you. And may he turn you away from their defilement, and from their errors. [20] Be careful, my son, Jacob, that you not take a wife from the seed of the daughters of Canaan, because all of his seed is (destined) for uprooting from the earth. [21] ... and all of his seed will be blotted out from the earth, and all his remnant, and there is none of his who will be saved ... [22] And for all of those who worship idols and for the hated ones, there is no hope in the land of the living; because they will go down in Sheol. And in the place of judgment they will walk, and they will have no memory upon the earth. Just as the sons of Sodom were taken from the earth, so (too) all of those who worship idols shall be taken away.
After a general rule to be 'separated from the Gentiles', the text lists the following 'prohibitions': (1) a prohibition on common eating; (2) a prohibition on 'performing deeds like theirs'; (3) a prohibition on becoming 'associates of theirs'; and (4) a prohibition on intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews. Shemesh, in his above mentioned study, has already noted the affinities between this passage in Jubilees and the Qumran material. The difference between the two lay in the fact that while Jubilees speaks of separation from Gentiles, the Qumran sect employed the basic concept of separation, as indicated above, to other Jews.

A similar employment of 'Laws of Separation' to other Jews can be seen in the Tannaitic halakha regarding minim, as we find it in the Tosefta:
[20] Meat which is found in the possession of a gentile is permitted for gain; in the possession of a min it is prohibited for gain. That which goes forth from a pagan temple, lo, it is deemed to be meat from the sacrifices of corpses. For they have stated: 'The act of slaughter of a min [is deemed to be for the purposes of] idolatry. Their bread [is deemed] the bread of a Samaritan, and their wine is deemed wine used for idolatrous purposes. And their produce is deemed wholly untithed, and their books are deemed magical books, and their children are mamzerim.
[21] People are not to sell anything to them, or buy anything from them. And they do not take wives from them or give children in marriage to them. And they do not teach their sons a craft. And they do not seek medical assistance from them, either healing for property or healing for a person.
The similarities between these rulings and those found in Jubilees are obvious. First, the Tosefta, like Jubilees, prohibits in a very general manner any economic connections with those others, about which it speaks: 'One does not sell to them and does not buy from them'. It then deems their wine, bread and fruit, as halakhically prohibited for use: 'their bread [is deemed] the bread of a Samaritan, and their wine is deemed wine used for idolatrous purposes. And their produce is deemed wholly untithed' the consequence of which is a prohibition on common eating, exactly as in Jubilees. It also prohibits intermarriage with the minim: 'And they do not take wives from them or give children in marriage to them', another prohibition which is stated very clearly in Jubilees. And finally, it rules that one may not accept from the minim any assistance even medical one: 'And they do not seek medical assistance from them, either healing for property or healing for a person'.
These similarities suggest that the Tannaitic "Laws of Minim" are rooted in the ancient 'Laws of Separation', as we know them from ancient sources of the Second Temple era. But while these ancient 'Laws of Separation' were aimed at creating boundaries between Jews and their non-Jewish environment, the Rabbis employed them with regards to other Jews a similar move to the one which we have seen in Qumran.
A comparison between the Qumranic move and the Rabbinic one, however, reveals an important difference. As noted above, the employment of 'Laws of Separation' by the Qumran sect is defensive in its character, so that we may view these laws in their Qumranic setting as 'Laws of Seclusion'. The situation in the Tannaitic source is entirely different. First, the Tosefta creates a sense of comparison between the status of the minim and that of Gentiles, and treats the former much more severely. It alludes to an earlier ruling 'as they have ruled' which states explicitly that:
All are permitted to perform an act of slaughtering [of an animal], even a Samaritan, even an unsercumcised, and even an Israelite apostate. But the slaughter of a min is deemed as idolatry, and that of a Gentile is invalid.
Thus, not only is the min worse than a Samaritan, worse than the one who is not circumcised and even than an apostate, but far beyond: he is treated more severely even than a non-Jew. Moreover, the Tosefta doesn't simply tell us how to deal with minim; it first categorizes them and applies to them halakhic categories that already exist: 'Their bread [is deemed] the bread of a Samaritan, and their wine is deemed wine used for idolatrous purposes. And their produce is deemed wholly untithed, and their books are deemed magical books, and their children are mamzerim'. In a sense, it labels them through the labeling of their property. Only after doing this, and as a logical result of this, the Tosefta proceeds to specifically instruct us as how to engage or, better, disengage with these minim. Thus, the "Laws of Separation" are used here by the Rabbis as means for excluding the minim.
The stand from which these rulings is formulated reflects the composer's self-image as one who has social power and ability to control the status of those with whom he disagrees. Yet, as sociologists of deviance teach us, usually only a group who knows of itself that it actually has the ability to exercise social power, and is known by others to be so, may formulate the group's 'Laws of Separation' as 'Laws of Segregation'. This, I think, may be, in turn, a valuable evidence regarding the place of the Rabbis in Jewish society of their time. For if the Rabbis exclude others, this may imply not only that they thought of themselves as being capable of doing so, but that they were indeed in a position to do so. That is, that they were in control and had considerable social power within Jewish society of their time.
Thus our comparison of Tannaitic "Laws of Minim", as found in tHull. 20-21, to the set of "Laws of Separation" in Qumran both with regards to their content and, more importantly, with regards to their rhetoric and tone may illuminate one of the fundamental questions with which students of Jewish society of the Land of Israel during the first few centuries of our era are faced. That is, if to use the title given by Shaye Cohen to one of his recently published papers, "The Place of the Rabbis in Jewish Society of the Second Century". It appears that the Rabbis occupied a central place within the Jewish society of their time, and were a leading socio-political force already in the years subsequent to the destruction of the Second Temple.

Appendix: On Dating the Rabbinic 'Laws of Minim'
When were the Rabbinic 'Laws of Minim' formulated? To what period do they testify? The anonymity of the text is an obvious obstacle to any attempt to date these 'Laws of Minim'. If to decide the matter only according to the date of the document in which they are presently found the Tosefta one might tend to assign them to the second half of the third century CE. Yet, a story which immediately follows may suggest that they are much earlier, and that they predate the early second century CE. For thus we read:
It once happened that Rabbi Elazar ben Dama was bitten by a snake, and Jacob of Kefar Sama came to heal him in the name of Jesus son of Pantera, but Rabbi Ishmael did not allow him. He said to him: 'You are not permitted, Ben Dama!' He said to him: 'I shall bring you proof that he may heal me', but he did not have time to bring the proof before he dropped dead. Said Rabbi Ishmael: 'Happy are you, Ben Dama, for you have expired in peace, and you did not break down the hedge erected by sages. For whoever breaks down the hedge erected by sages eventually suffers punishment, as it is said: "He who breaks down a hedge is bitten by a snake"' (Eccl. 10:8).
This story has repeatedly attracted the attention of scholars who were interested in Rabbinic reactions to Christians and Christianity during the late first and early second centuries. The reason for this is self-evident: it mentions Jesus and one of his followers. It raises, however, several interpretive questions and difficulties, most of which have been noted by scholars quite long ago. Thus, for example, readers of the story were interested in the question of what was the proof that Rabbi Eleazar ben Dama wanted, but ultimately was unable, to bring in support of the legitimacy of his desire to be healed by that Jacob, Jesus' follower. In fact, this question was raised already by the Babylonian Talmud, who asks: ומה הוה ליה למימר? that is, 'what could have he said?'. The Talmud's answer is, that Ben Dama's supposed proof was from the words וחי בהם (literally, 'he shall live by them') of Leviticus 18:5. According to the rabbinic tradition itself, these words were taken by the Sages to indicate that saving one's life is even more important than the keeping of the commandments.
A second question with which readers of the story were faced is: since Rabbi Ishmael admits that Rabbi Eleazar ben Dama, after all, did not brake down the hedge set up by the Sages, why then was he bitten by a snake? Daniel Boyarin, who ponders upon this question, concludes that 'the story is indicating that this Ben Dama, otherwise a kosher rabbinical Jew ... had been an intimate of the Christians'.
There is yet a third question, which, to the best of my knowledge, is usually not addressed at least not explicitly by readers of the story. That is, what was 'the hedge erected by the Sages', which Rabbi Eleazar ben Dama was about to break down, and to which Rabbi Ishmael was referring? The answer to this question has to do with the very reason for the placement of this story by the editor of the Tosefta here, in tractate Hullin. For, after all, one should ask: what does this story do here? How is it related to the subjects dealt with in this tractate, which is devoted to the laws of preparation to eating of non-sacral meat?
The answer to this question is that our story was placed here because it tallies with the end of the preceding passage, in which we find the prohibition to seek medical assistance from the minim. Accordingly, we have to assume that Rabbi Ishmael was familiar with this or a similar ruling, and to it he was referring by the phrase 'the hedge erected by the sages'.
This assumption is corroborated by another consideration, to which already the Babylonian Talmud was aware. That is: while the rabbinic stand that permits one to violate the law for the sake of saving one's life was restricted by the majority of the rabbis, by the exclusion of three major religious issues idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed according to Rabbi Ishmael himself this restriction does not apply. According to his view, one should do everything to save one's life, even to worship idols if ordered by others to do so, lest he, or she, will be killed:
'He shall live by them' (Lev. 18:5) Rabbi Ishmael said: Whence do you say, that if one is told, in private, 'worship idols so that you will not be killed', that one should worship and not be killed? Scripture says: 'He shall live by them', not that he will die because of them.
How, then, are we to reconcile Rabbi Ishmael's stand with his position in our story? The only solution I can think of is to assume that Rabbi Ishmael considered the healing of Rabbi Elazar ben Dama by the name of Jesus as severer than idolatry. Such a stand had to be rooted in a ruling that explicitly treats heretics in a harsher manner than it treats idol-worshipers. Such a ruling is the one that precedes our story.
It follows from this analysis that the block of legal rulings that govern social relations with minim, as it appears in t.Hull. 2:20-21, predates Rabbi Ishmael, that is, it should be considered as earlier than early second century CE.