What is Midrash?

May 9, 2014
Midrash!

Midrash!

I went to see the film Noah. Seen it? What did you think?

For my comments about the film, check out its entry on the Jewish Film blog. The bottom line: I thought it was great midrash.

Midrash is often spoken of as literature that fills in the gaps in the Biblical story. For instance, what does the Bible tell us about Abraham’s childhood, or for that matter, what does it tell us about why God picked Abram for the covenant?

If you said, “nothing,” that was the right answer.

If you said, “What about the story about his father Terah’s workshop?” then you are referring to a midrash from the 5th century collection Genesis Rabbah.

If you are an eager beaver and want to find books of midrash, you can do so but you may find that they are somewhat daunting. The colorful stories are embedded in sermons, ethical debates, and legal discussions. Classic rabbinical midrash took very specific literary forms which are foreign to modern readers. For a little taste of this sort of midrash, you can find Genesis Rabbah (also called Bereshit Rabbah) online.

Midrash is also a modern process. A film can include midrashic elements (see Noah and The Prince of Egypt.) Novels like The Red Tent can be built completely of midrash.

You can also do midrash on your own. In fact, you probably already do. Have you read a passage from the Torah and thought to yourself, “But what about….?” or “Why did he…..?” If you began to speculate about possibilities that are not actually IN the text, you were engaging in midrash.

Here’s an interesting exercise: try to read a Biblical text and NOT add anything to the text. If you start filling in details, stop. If you start wondering about something, stop. Just deal with the words on the page. It’s tougher than you might think.

Midrash is a very human impulse. We want to understand the text, and when what’s there seems awfully skimpy, it’s natural to speculate. It’s just important to keep track of what is really IN the text and what isn’t.


Wisdom from the Grumpy Old Guy

November 20, 2013
English: King Solomon in Old Age (1Kings 4:29-...

English: King Solomon in Old Age (1Kings 4:29-34) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday I moved into my new home. Last night, the skies over the Bay Area opened and it has been raining ever since. Last night I got the kitchen set to rights and was contented, today I am watching the gutters overflow and am looking for someone to help.

Life is like that. You get things all tidy and — oops! — something else happens. When I was young, I found that very frustrating. Now that I am older, I know that it’s just how it goes. Now that I am older, I know to be grateful it’s something as simple as the gutters.

There is a Jewish voice who speaks to this phenomenon. His name is Kohelet, the voice of the Book of Ecclesiastes, and he’s the original Grumpy Old Guy.  According to tradition, he was King Solomon in his old age. According to those sources, in youth, King Solomon wrote Song of Songs, the great erotic love poem of the Bible. In his prime, he wrote the book of Proverbs, a repository of wisdom. But in old age, he wrote Ecclesiastes, saying, “All is vanity.”

At the end of the book, after looking at all the kinds of pleasure life has to offer, and all the problems life has to offer, he concludes:

Not only was Kohelet wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.

The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd.  Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.

Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

– Ecclesiastes 12: 8-14

There are some things in life that are clearly good, or clearly bad, but for many things, we won’t really know until it all plays out. There’s an old Jewish story in which a man gets a horse for free, and he crowed, “Good luck!” Then his son broke his leg riding it, and he cried, “Bad luck!” Then the Russian Army came through drafting all the young men, but they didn’t take the man’s son because he had a bad leg — but the man would no longer declare something “good luck” or “bad luck” because the truth is, it’s often hard to tell.

May your gutters run freely, may your feet stay dry, and may all of us learn to reserve judgment until we have all the facts!


Yom Kippur 5774

September 13, 2013
Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge (Photo credit: Frank Kehren)

R. Samuel bar Nahman said: Prayer is likened to a mikvah but repentance is likened to the sea. Just as a mikvah is at times open and at other times locked, so the gates of prayer are at times open and at other times locked. But the sea is always open, even as the gates of repentance are always open. – Lamentations Rabbah


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