Making modern midrash

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Making midrash anew in our time

by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

How do we respond to the challenge that, in writing modern midrash, we see the stories and teachings of Torah through modern lenses, perhaps taking these stories and interpretations in new directions?

The Rabbis read the biblical characters as if they were Rabbis: Isaac studying Torah in Shem's yeshiva, for example; David HaMelekh staying up all night to study Torah like a yeshiva bokher. Ridiculous, if the standard is historical accuracy. But the results are that the Torah & Tanakh come alive, the Rabbis are able to use the ancient texts as the screen through which they reexamine themselves and learn new wisdom -- including new understandings of the possibilities hidden within the text.

Why should we not do the same thing? Just as the Rabbis represented a new psycho-social character type come to leadership of the People Israel, so what is happening right now, with women especially but not only, is a new group of people with a new life-approach shaped by the heavy hand of Modernity, coming to ---- ?? power?? well, not quite -- coming to a share of leadership and visibility -- in the People Israel.

For the Rabbis, the alternative to making midrash for their time would have been throwing out the text entirely. Same for us.

Moreover, for women especially (and I would add, also for men who have grown up with women as equals and in a more-or-less democratic society that has absorbed all the world's cultures and modern science/technology -- and are therefore shaped with different values and even different personalities from those of either the biblical men or the Rabbis), there is an additional factor: the text was written by men of a certain kind. Its acceptance of certain social structures is an acceptance bespoken by men.of that kind. The Torah is not kind to hunters (to pick a case that I agree with, rather than one I disagree with.) Are we to assume that it presents the views and feelings of hunters accurately? I doubt it. I also doubt it presents the views of women accurately.

How to fill in the gaps? Only by midrash. The midrash may or may not be anachronistic; the point is that it is alive, and makes Judaism alive.

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