(RNS) — I will never forget the day I fell in love.
It happened in the library of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where I was studying to become a rabbi.
And, no, it wasn’t with a woman.
My love object was actually a body of sacred literature. It was the midrash – the searching (drash) of biblical texts in order to reveal their deeper meanings.
Jews use the term in various ways:
- It is a process – “midrash”.
- It is an individual teaching – “a midrash”.
- It is also a body of sacred literature – “the midrash”.
Midrash contains ancient sermonic material, anecdotes and verse-by-verse explanation of the biblical text. It uses the verse and, often, a single word as a starting point, while enlisting other biblical verses as part of the narrative tapestry.
Midrash opened up a whole new world to me.
Yes, I knew the stories and teachings of the Torah.
But no one had ever told me that there was more – that the ancient rabbis had received the biblical text and engaged in an act of what James Kugel called “narrative expansion” in order to respond to a problem in the text, usually an unanswered question.
As literary analysts have noticed, the biblical text is laconic. He doesn’t like to give details. Therefore, the midrash jumps into the textual void: who is a certain person? What does a certain word mean? Where is a certain place? Why did a certain thing happen like this?
After all, how do we read the sacred text? Like a lover reads a love letter or a text message or listens to a voicemail. It’s akin to obsession: what did she mean by that? What did he mean by, “See you this weekend, probably?” What does “probably” mean?
The midrashic process even finds its place in American folklore. George Washington was honest, they say. Great, let’s make up a story about how he confessed to his dad that he cut down the cherry tree to add some narrative to his honesty.
(Fascinating to note: a parallel in the legend of how young Abraham smashed his father’s idols and then confessed to it. Both are stories about the founders of their nations.)
The midrashic process finds its way into secular literature. It is about filling in the gaps of an earlier story. When playwright Tom Stoppard wondered about two minor characters in Shakespeare’s play, “Hamlet,” and the terse statement of their demise, he wrote the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. When John Gardner wondered: what would the Anglo-Saxon epic “Beowulf” sound like if heard from the monster’s point of view? he wrote Grendel.
You could even say the process continues in popular culture. The idea of TV spinoffs – taking a minor character in a story and building a whole new narrative around them? Kind of like midrash. “All in the Family” spawned “Maude” and “The Jeffersons” and “Archie Bunker’s Place.” The creation of background stories and origin stories? Midrash.
And, in music: Leonard Cohen’s immortal song “Hallelujah” was a midrash on the biblical stories of King David and Samson. Likewise, his song “Who By Fire” is a midrash on the Unetaneh Tokef prayer on days of fear.
But, most of the time, midrashim are stories about Torah stories.
The age of midrash began in the days of the ancient sages, in the early centuries of the common era, and never really ended.
And, yes, most of the time these stories were written by men, based on stories that men had written generations before.
That is, until now.
I hold in my hands a book that is nothing less than a treasure: “Dirshuni: Contemporary Female Midrash”, edited by Tamar Biala, a brilliant educator, and translated by her husband, Yehudah Mirsky, and educator Ilana Kurshan.
Dirshuni (“interpret me!” – a command we playfully imagine biblical texts shouting out to their readers). This is a collection of midrashim written by Israeli women. There were two previous volumes in Hebrew, the second of which I own, the first of which I searched in vain in the bookstores of Jerusalem and which seems out of print. The Hebrew of the essays echoes the original language of Rabbinic Hebrew, the birth language of the midrash itself. It is a tribute, in the true sense of the word.
In the introduction to this new volume, Tamar Kadari defines “midrash” as “an exercise in creativity, with an element of play and pleasure in which field and imagination are conjoined”.
She’s right. The essays in this book – text and commentary – are journeys into the depths of the Jewish imagination. They flow from women’s experiences of sacred literature, everyday life and the Divine itself. In this sense, they testify to the ongoing act of revelation.
Some entries for what will be a good meal:
- What would creation look like from a woman’s point of view? The ancient midrashim state that God created and then destroyed the previous worlds because they were inadequate. Tamar Biala plays with it. She wonders if God’s pain and disappointment at these failed creations could have replicated the disappointment and grief of a miscarriage—that God miscarries, “so to speak” (a key midrash phrase). “And God saw all her worlds fall at her feet, and she thought, I’m just going to let my heart fall with them… What did she think at that moment, as she couldn’t bear to look at these worlds any longer?”
- We find the addition of female voices where they were previously absent – Sarah at Isaac’s link; Dinah’s perception of what happened when the Canaanite prince, Shechem, raped her (noting, as I did in my own rabbinic ordination thesis on rape, that in 1500 years of literature sacred, Dinah remained absolutely silent). For Rivkah Lubitch, Dinah’s silence was born of trauma: “Two women were raped, and their silence resonated from one end of the world to the other. Dinah and Tamar, the sister of Amnon…” (from the story of David, II Samuel 13 — as Phyllis Trible put it, a terror text).
- Female midrashim develop hitherto underexplored characters – for example, Bityah, Pharaoh’s daughter who saves and adopts Moses. Gili Savan connects his rescue of Moses to the words of Isaiah 58, suggesting the societal obligations of the Jewish people to the poor derived from Bityah’s righteous acts to Moses. Great!
- These midrashim give names to those who had not yet been named – for example, giving Jephthah’s tragic daughter the name Tanot, based on a small quirk in the original biblical text.
- And, yes: as happened in classic midrash, our writers indulge in puns and puns that would be worthy of Will Shortz playing with riddles on Sunday mornings on NPR. Thus, in the story of the Binding of Isaac, Abraham does choveish and chamoro, “saddles his donkey.” On the contrary, the patriarch koveish and rachamav, “subjugates his compassion”, in order to bring Isaac to the sacrifice.
“Dirshuni” is powerful, playful, joyful and sometimes painful. His words and insights will make many “guest appearances” in my sermons and teaching over the coming year.
One last thing: “Dirshuni” is a powerful testimony to two remarkable forces in the Jewish world.
First: the enduring and growing presence of women who teach the sacred text. I hesitate to omit a person from this list of women with whom I have studied, for fear of omitting a friend and/or a teacher. Just at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem: Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, who is probably the most prolific Bible text teacher of our time; Judith Klitsner, Rachel Korazim, Melilah Hellner-Eshed, Elana Stein Hain, Ruth Calderon, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, etc., etc., etc. Each of them has shaped my understanding of the text, in a profound way.
Second: I want to point out that “Dirshuni” consists of the voices of Israeli women. Let’s not fail to appreciate it. Because it is nothing less than a revolution – not only for Israeli women, but also for Israel itself. Of all the many reasons why I love Israel and am a Zionist, there is no doubt that the intellectual and spiritual output of the Jewish state fulfills the dreams of the early Zionists – that the Earth becomes Ground Zero for cultural revival. and Jewish intellectual and that a new Torah would come out of Zion.
What he does. What he has.
Get a copy of “Dirshuni”. As we begin a new Torah cycle for the year, He should be by your side – for your own learning and teaching. It will bring a lot of information.
With a solemn warning: do not lend it.
You may never see him again.