The following is a post I wrote for Matt's blog, Kankan Chadash, as it appears there (the one thing I changed is the title). If you want to comment, please do it over there (unless you really want to say something here).
The following is a response by Yehuda to points raised by Chana in the comments on the post entitled "Can Animals Speak?" Chana asserted "The aggadah is not rational. Neither are midrashim" (please see the comments there for the full context of this quote). The following is Yehuda's response.
I would like to take up the following two issues concerning midrashim and aggadot: 1) Should they be taken literally? 2) Are they some how not rational?
1) To make any absolute statements about midrashim is risky. Midrashic literature is vast and varied. Obviously, some are to be taken literally and some are clearly allegorical. Admittedly, it is not always easy to discern. Because of this difficulty one must take great care to not misrepresent the authors of these midrashim. Any misrepresentation of our sages is a grave injustice - all the more so, if that misrepresentation would cause people to view the rabbis as silly or foolish. For this reason, any midrash with a fantastical element must be handled with great care. I chose the word fantastical deliberately - fantasy is the product of the imagination alone - unicorns and dragons only exist in the imagination. One must ask (as one should when reading anything) what purpose such midrashim have. Truthfully, the line between the fantastic and the amazing-but-true can, at times, be hard to draw. Of course, it should be remembered that our rabbis were not in the business of writing fantasy stories. In summary, there are three kinds of midrashim: 1) ones we know are literal; 2) ones we know are allegorical; 3) ones that we are not sure about.
No matter what kind of midrash we are reading one thing is always true. Midrash is part of the Oral Law, the Torah Sh'ba'al Peh. Its purpose is to explain the Written Law, the Torah Sh'bichtav. The Torah Sh'ba'al Peh does not limit itself to explaining the commandments of our Torah (and Rabbinical enactments). It embraces everything the Torah has to teach us. The Torah Sh'bichtav includes both commandments and narrative. Similarly, the Torah Sh'ba'al Peh includes both discussions of law, halakha, and midrashim and aggadot which are often in the form of narrative. Just as the purpose of the stories in the Torah are clearly meant to enlighten and educate us, so to the midrashim and aggadot of the Torah Sh'ba'al Peh. The purpose of this education could not be stated any clearer than what Moshe Rabbeinu told B'nei Yisrael at the conclusion of the last speech he gave before he passed on (D'varim 30:15-20):
"See, I have placed before you this day the life and the good and the death and the evil. That which I have commanded you this day to love Hashem, your God, to follow in His ways and to keep His commandments and statutes and judgments; and you shall live and multiply and Hashem, your God will bless you in the land that you are coming there to inherit it. And if your heart turns and you do not listen; and you will be led astray and you bow down to other gods and you serve them. I tell you today that you will surely perish; you will not have long days on the land that you are crossing over the Yarden to come there to inherit it. I make the heaven and the earth witnesses against you today: the life and the death I have placed before you, the blessing and the curse; and you shall choose the life in order that you shall live, you and your children. To love Hashem, your God, to pay heed to His voice and to attach yourself to Him; for it is your life and the length of your days to settle on the land that Hashem promised to your forefathers: to Avraham, to Yitzchak, to Ya'akov to give it to them."
The purpose of midrashim and aggadot - whether they be literal or allegorical - must have the same end as the rest of the Torah: to imbue us with a love of God that is transformative - to give us life.
2) Are midrashim rational? I am sure that you are aware that some midrashim are the actual d'rashot that our rabbis gave to their congregations. Imagine the rabbi of a large synagogue getting up in front of his congregation before the chanting of the Adon Olam. He stands before the podium and begins to describe a recent visit he made to his physician for a check-up or he gives the play-by-play of a famous baseball game or he tells us a story out of his childhood. Why is he doing this? You would know - without anyone having to tell you - that this is a normal part of a Shabbat d'rasha. You know that he is telling the story in order to teach a lesson. But why not just tell us the lesson? You know that would not be as interesting (and/or entertaining).
I would say that the story (or any other emotionally charged technique) can serve three possible functions: interest, memory and action. Interest: The rabbi, in our example, wants to keep his audience's attention (or get it in the first place). A good story will quickly get the attention of an inattentive crowd. Memory: Everyone knows that when a lesson is associated with a story that hits you emotionally it is much easier to remember. Action: Additionally (and perhaps more importantly), a good, emotionally charged story can be very moving - it can make you want to do something and not just know something (think of the word: emotion). The rabbi does not want his speech to be too cerebral - he wants his congregation to feel something about what he is saying and, perhaps, even be inspired to action (like give tzedaka).
The rabbi's speech has rational and emotional elements. The rational element, the lesson, appeals to the mind of the listener. The emotional, or non-rational, element appeals to the listener's emotions. I believe the same could be said for many midrashim. Similar to the rabbi's speech, when a midrash employs an allegory (aside from being an excellent tool to communicate deep ideas) or an anecdote it can serve a rational as well as non-rational function. The midrash might want us to feel something about the idea that it is conveying (for any of the three, above mentioned, purposes).
This dual function of midrashim should not be surprising. Neither the importance of the rational nor the importance of the non-rational should be minimized in our avodat Hashem (service of Hashem). How can we serve God without knowledge? How can we serve God if that knowledge does not inspire us and move us to action? Can one read Tehillim without feeling something? Can one study Mishlei without using his or her mind? . . . or vice versa?
In conclusion, midrashim are perfectly rational - they teach lessons that appeal to the mind. However, this does not mean that they can not serve a non-rational purpose - an appeal to the emotions.