Midrash is a particular form of Torah commentary, often involving excruciatingly detailed verbal analysis and what might appear to be far-fetched comparisons (based on anagrams, numerology, and the like); for examples relating to the Aqedah (the story of Abraham’s interrupted sacrifice of Isaac), see here and here. Even if, like me, you’re not religious, it can be a lot of fun if you enjoy a good argument. Exquisite Corpse has an essay by David Schwartz that serves as a lively introduction to the discipline. It quotes a guy named Ben Bag Bag and has punchlines like “R. Pappa turns out to have rejected Rab’s opinion… before Rab rendered an opinion!” But beyond the fun and games, midrash has wider implications, summarized nicely by Schwarz:
Belonging to an argumentative tradition teaches not only that learning occurs through interaction, but that the consequences of learning ought to be further action. Bickering over minute points, rousing criticism, and arguing is a form of saying: “I like what you are saying. Give me more information. Convince me.” If, indeed, Eleazar needs Yonatan, or Hillel needs Shammai, the criticism of the Israelites (or their leaders as representatives of the people) is a sign of God’s need for the debating sages. Were it not for the criticism, the give and take, there would be no Tanach, and no Torah. There would be, to use the rabbis’ circumlocution, no wisdom.
(Via wood s lot.)