(Vere, Stein Atle. ©2011. “Midrash”. brakha.blogspot.com.)
The Tora תורה is the five books that begin the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). But Tora can also mean the ongoing tradition of interpreting the Tora. Thus Tora is a synonym for Yahadut (Judaism).
Interpreting the Tora is called Midrash מדרש .
Midrash means something like the “demand” for answers. Or more politely, “inquiry”. It refers to the Rabani (Rabbinic) methods for interpreting the Tora (thus is equivalent to hermeneutics). It can also refer to the resulting interpretations (thus is equivalent to exegesis).
Unlike, other the methods of interpretation, Midrash can explore some surprising qualities of the Hebrew language (such as fluidity of spelling) and can enjoy a context where the Tora is the infinite speech of God. Thus any plausible context can be possible, and all plausible meanings can coexist as valid simultaneously. Indeed, the “Jewish interpretation” of Tora, namely Midrash, is more like a method of holy divination, a kind of kosher bibliomancy, to discern appropriate information from the Infinite. Its multivalent meanings welcome a pluralism of diverging schools of thought.
There are two kinds of Midrash.
• Halakha הלכה the way of “going” (Jewish legal tradition) continues to clarify the mutual obligations among the sacred aboriginal kinship system of Yisrael. To form the society of Yisrael, interrelating with each other and with God.
• Agada אגדה the “tale” (Jewish narrative) continues to draw inspiration from the ongoing story of Yisrael. To form the identity of Yisrael. The various medieval books, such as Midrash Raba, categorize as Agada. Prophecies about future events are also part of the story of Yisrael and seem to categorize as Agada as well. I also categorize archeology as a modern exploration of Agada, that seeks to clarify the Pshat פשט the “simple” (plain, literal, everyday, normal) level of meaning of the Tora. Agada elucidates the story of Yisrael.
I feel it useful to add Kabala as a third “kind” of Midrash.
• Kabala קבלה the “receiving” of secrets (Jewish spirituality) continues to discover via the subtle wording of the Tora how the world works. How an Infinite God interfaces with the activity of a finite world. How an infinite consciousness interrelates with human consciousnesses.
One can even call Kabala “Jewish science”, except it is keenly interested in the “lifeforce”, Nefesh נפש . Today science lacks the technology to address the Nefesh − the “carrier of consciousness” − usefully. Current scientific speculation includes suggestions from quantum mechanics, implying consciousness involves “light” (electro-magnetic fields), thus consciousness involves the fabric of space-time itself. Probably a scientific description of the carrier of consciousness requires paradigms of physics that still await discovery.
Compare the difference between Kabala and science to the difference between folk medicine and scientific medicine. The ancient traditions of folk medicine may not be as precise and surgical as scientific medicine, but they often evolve as part of a survival strategy that is more holistic and robust, and in this way more healthy. Similarly, one day, science will understand how consciousness works. Probably it will prove to somehow interface the infinity beyond space-time, whence our freewill, beyond the limitations of predetermination or randomness. On that day, science and spirituality will be the same thing.
In the meantime, we humans are conscious beings. We can expect to subjectively intuit information about what it means to be conscious. With regard to the spiritual part of Midrash, Kabala transmits insights that remain relevant and compelling even to our modern sensibilities.
Here, the three kinds of Midrash are Halakha, Agada, and Kabala. These organize the way that the Children of Yisrael engage the Tora from the Bronze Age to the Modern Age today. Perhaps our next age will be that of the Mashiakh.