Midrash as Political Practice

Dennis Fischman

Midrash as Political Practice

By Dennis Fischman

[This paper was written while Fischman was at Boston University. He is now a grantwriting and fundraising consultant in Somerville, Mass. dennis@twofisch.com]


Midrash is the traditional Jewish style of textual interpretation, developed by third-century rabbis and continuously elaborated throughout later Jewish history. Presuming a relation of dialogue between Jews and God, the practice of midrash worked to reconstitute Jewish identity and culture at times when exile threatened both. Midrash served a political function at its origin, and observing how, we can derive lessons for practicing politics in a multicultural society. Those lessons include the necessity for the polity to hear the claims of differing social groups, to understand culture as a resource and a precious political good, and to make the particular problems that matter to each group the focus of public concern. From midrash, we can learn some ways for diverse groups to strive for mutual understanding, and we can begin to imagine institutional changes that would admit all social groups to a shared political dialogue.

Midrash means the creative style of textual interpretation developed by the rabbis of Palestine and Babylonia in the third to sixth centuries C.E. that still influences Jewish scholars' reading of the Hebrew Bible, or Torah.[1] In this paper, I want to make two claims about midrash as a political practice. First, from its inception, midrash served a political role for the Jewish community. Midrash-makers helped regenerate a sense of group identity, and they creatively used and transformed the Jewish tradition so that the social relations among Jews would continue to be structured by a communal task.

Second, I propose that understanding midrash can help political theorists elaborate a political practice suitable for a diverse and multicultural society like the United States. From midrash, theorists can get a better sense of what is at stake in politics for members of particular social groups. They can develop a political discourse that makes those group concerns legitimate public issues, and they can begin to propose institutional changes that will force more powerful groups to address the issues that affect the least powerful. Theorists can learn these lessons, not from particular interpretations developed through midrash and not from midrash as a method of exegesis, but rather by considering the social relations that the practice of midrash presumes, discloses, renews, and transforms.


What is midrash?

Readers who have a passing familiarity with the phenomenon of midrash may be surprised to see it given a political import. Non-Jewish students of the Bible often think of midrash as a literary genre (Wright 1966), while many Jews who have heard of midrash think of it as a bunch of bobbe myseh, fantastical tales on biblical themes told for the entertainment of children (see, for instance, Goldin 1990). Each folk story that is called "a midrash," however, actually has its roots in a process of interpretation called midrash which rabbis from the third century on used to produce new meanings from the biblical text. The stories are one result of this hermeneutical effort. Many of the norms and rituals that go by the name of Jewish law are also products of rabbinic interpretation. What we are concerned with at this point is neither the stories nor the laws, however, but the process itself, the activity of making midrash.

Like any hermeneutics, midrash starts from the desire to understand what one has not yet understood. The underlying assumption of rabbinical interpretation is that every detail of the Torah has meaning which it is the duty of the Jewish reader to figure out. Midrash begins specifically by noticing problems in the text: what appear to be omissions, unnecessary repetitions, and contradictions; peculiar uses of language; and passages that do not seem to make sense, or that make a sense which is troubling to the reader from the standpoint of Jewish tradition. In midrash, these problems stimulate a creative effort to find a way of reading the text which will explain it, harmonize it with Jewish tradition, and learn something new from it, all at the same time.

In order to make a puzzling passage meaningful, rabbinic interpreters have allowed themselves to use a broad palette of interpretive techniques, both logical and fanciful. When making midrash, they let the imagination roam, because one need not establish the superiority of one reading to another: each can be successful in its own right. A midrash can also make sense and have value for its audience whether or not the audience believes it to be factual. As Max Kadushin points out in his classic The Rabbinic Mind, midrash requires only an "indeterminate belief which, on occasion, can harden and become determinate" (Kadushin 1965, p.135). If a midrashic reading of a text allows the Jews who hear it to take something with them about the way they should conduct their lives, then it serves its purpose.

For what it means to make sense of a Biblical passage depends on the purpose for which Jews traditionally read the Torah. According to Kadushin, that purpose is summarized in a set of ideas he calls the rabbinic "value-concepts." Value-concepts are not values, as opposed to facts. Nor are they evaluations. Instead, they are the subjects of which a text can treat that make it seem significant to a given set of readers. Kadushin lists the main rabbinic value-concepts as God's justice, God's love (or mercy), Torah, and the people of Israel. When the rabbis would do midrash, they would seek out problems in the text in order to come up with solutions that might have a bearing on one or more of these themes.

To define midrash as textual exegesis, then, is to miss the dimension of midrash as a social practice. As philosopher Sara Ruddick tells us:

Practices are collective human activities distinguished by the aims that identify them and by the consequent demands made on practitioners committed to those aims. The aims or goals that define a practice are so central or "constitutive" that in the absence of the goal you would not have that practice. (Ruddick 1989, pp. 13-14)

As a practice of interpretation, midrash is distinguished by the value-concepts by which both makers of midrash and their audience judge whether or not the interpretation makes sense. Those value-concepts, however, derive from another "collective human activity": the relationship between themselves and God that the Jewish people have traditionally taken to define their community. Jews have not studied the Torah in order to solve problems in the text; they have grappled with the text in order to know how to relate to God, and that has determined in large part how they would relate to one another. It is the relation of dialogue inherent in the practice of midrash that holds the most interest from a political point of view and to which we now turn.

A dialogue among exiles

The narrative parts of the Torah focus to a great extent on the ongoing saga of the relationship between two characters: the Jewish people, and God. As much as the theme of relationship has been the center of the story, however, so too has the practice of reading and interpreting the story been integral to Jewish attempts collectively to maintain a relationship with God.

Thinking of themselves as, and acting as if, the group were engaged in a long-term relationship with God is a practice that has formed traditional Jewish culture. I use the language of practice again because Jewish orientation toward God has been largely a way of life and not a philosophical outlook. Theology has played a minor role in Jewish life. Jews have searched the Torah not to find out who and what God is, but what God wants. As Martin Buber has memorably characterized it, the connection between the Jews and the God we have sought is an I-Thou relationship, and its mode is that of dialogue (Buber 1970 [1958]). In midrash, the Torah is experienced not as a written set of statements but as the opportunity to rejoin God in conversation. Finding new meaning in Biblical passages is like standing at Sinai all over again. Both give the participant the sense of being addressed in an urgent and immediate way.

The dialogue between God and humanity in which the Jews have chosen to take a special part is no idle talk. The aim without which the conversation would lose its meaning is the joint enterprise of human beings and God to hallow the world. Jewish tradition regards the act of creation as unfinished. Every day, the rabbis taught, we have new opportunities to take the world as we find it, ambiguous and undirected, and to perfect it through both moral and ritual acts. God cannot do this alone without destroying the partnership between the human and the divine which is a central part of the reason God created the world. Thus, human actions have a cosmic significance. Human beings, however, cannot accomplish the task without learning what it takes to repair the world, and this means understanding more and more of the purposes of its creator. Midrash is the means by which, in the rabbinic tradition, Jews have met their responsibility and exerted their influence as partners in creation. Midrash bridges the awesome distance between a human perspective and the divine so that, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, in this world, God's work becomes our own.

For love of the world, the two partners in creation, God and the Jews, must remain in dialogue, even when one feels the other has abandoned it.[2] At the time when midrash was developed, a catastrophe had befallen the Jews' relation with God. Judea was an abject tributary of Rome. The Roman general Titus had destroyed the Temple in 70 CE and carried many Jews off into slavery. A military revolt led by Simon Bar Kokhba in 135 CE had also been crushed, dashing the Messianic expectations of his followers. Ten of the most prominent Rabbis of Palestine had been tortured to death by the Romans. Jerusalem, the capital and holy city, was declared off-limits to Jews. The country as whole had lost much of its population, and for the second time, the Jews were dispersed abroad, with no imminent prospects for return. One Jewish sect, the Nazarenes or Christians, had used these disasters as evidence that the relationship between God and the Jewish people had come to an end, and what they asserted, many other Jews feared. For certain of the Torah's commandments to the Jews could be carried out only in the land of Israel, and others applied only to a self-governing people. Like earlier exiles, the Jews lamented, "How shall I sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"

In these grave circumstances, midrash was a key element in Jewish national survival. From that time on and for many centuries afterward, rabbis used midrash to reassure the Jews that God had not forgotten them and that together, they still had a task to engage in, even under dramatically changed circumstances. Makers of midrash searched the sacred text for predictions of the Jews' dispersion and promises of their eventual return. More fundamentally, they found ways to reinterpret exile as a moment of the ongoing partnership between Jews and God.

The prophetic literature from the Babylonian exile had already offered one such interpretation: "Because of our sins, we were exiled from our country." Through midrash, the rabbis reworked and strengthened this reading as it applied to the Roman assault, promising that personal holiness and a return to moral behavior would lead God to forgive and lead the Jews back to Zion.

Gradually, another line of interpretation developed alongside the first. According to the mystics, not only the Jews but an aspect of God's own self went into exile when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. This reading, which made the catastrophe seem even greater, paradoxically offered even more grounds for hope. Instead of God sitting in judgment over the Jews and waiting for them to deserve a merciful reversal of their sentence, God was felt to be in exile along with them, suffering as they suffered, constrained by their constraints. The task of hallowing the world had never been taken from the Jews. Instead, on this reading, it had been made more difficult and more urgent. Jews and God were now united in dialogue over how to restore the kind of world in which their full partnership in creation would once again be possible. All the resources of midrash and the ingenuity of rabbinic readers went into telling this story of exile and return, and by telling the story, they made sense of Jewish existence again (Kugel 1983).

The rabbis also used midrash to devise and to legitimate a set of rituals that would allow Jews to continue their commitment to hallowing the world but did not depend on the existence of the Temple. Rabbinic Judaism originally emerged from a movement to make everyday times, places, and activities holy. Even when the Temple was still standing, the rabbis had sought to expand the focus of Jewish spirituality from priests and sacrifices to all Jewish men and the quotidian. When the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis had to institute, and propagandize for, what in effect was an entirely new form of Judaism and yet maintain a sense of continuity with the Jewish past (Neusner 1983). Midrash allowed them to do this. It let them reshape the schedule of sacrificial offerings into a schedule of worship, transform the laws of levitical purity into a set of dietary laws, and make the study of texts, midrash itself, the central activity of Jewish religious life. Midrash promoted revolutionary change in Judaism while remaining loyal to what it historically had meant to be Jewish.

Yet for all their ingenuity, the rabbis could not erase the reality of exile, and even the re-establishment of a Jewish state has not done so, until this day. As I have described it in my book Political Discourse in Exile, for Jews to live in exile is to live in a culture that demands we think, speak, act, and feel in ways that contradict a specifically Jewish sense of identity (Fischman 1991, ch. 5). The diaspora deprives us of the conditions we need to hallow the world without relieving us of the responsibility to do so.

Exile means not being able to carry our task except in sporadic and disjointed ways. It means the story we live is broken off in the middle, the dialogue between God and ourselves is interrupted, our partnership is on the rocks, and we have lost our compass in daily life and have to navigate all alone. The biblical stories that resound with the theme of exile--the expulsion from Eden, the confusion of languages at Babel, the destruction of the Temple--all emphasize that the loss of meaning is a tragedy. Reading these stories, we can hardly bear it. Exile demands we put all our force into finding a way to return.

The politics of Jewish community

From the account I have just given, it should be clear that midrash played a political role from the moment of its emergence. Rabbinic interpretation of texts was the means by which the Jewish people reasserted its right to exist. It also reaffirmed the purpose of Jewish national existence (the dialogue with God over the repair and perfection of the world) when Roman imperialism had shattered the institutions of Jewish self-government and despair would have been a natural reaction. Beyond these ideological functions, the practice of using midrash to prescribe rules of conduct for everyday life became a new form of communal politics: perhaps, given their dispersion and the continuing hostility of Roman emperors and popes, the only politics in which the Jews could have engaged. In short, midrash and the rituals based upon it both made it imperative for the Jews to struggle to remain Jews, and provided the vehicle for doing so.

If midrash structured the relations between Jews and other nations, at the same time, it dramatically affected relations of power among Jews. At the time of the Roman occupation of Judea, the role of rabbi was a recent social invention, and the people who accepted the title were challenging the long-established hierarchy of status and power. Both the monarchy, when it existed, and the priesthood were based on descent: from David in the one case, from Aaron in the other.

Some of the rabbis belonged to aristocratic families themselves, but others came from the am ha'aretz, the uneducated masses who tilled the soil. It was not their birth but their ability to interpret the Torah on which they based their claim to leadership. With the abolition of the monarchy and the destruction of the temple, rabbinic authority spread. There was a power vacuum, and the rabbis filled it. Theirs was still rule by an elite, but a different and more permeable elite than had ever governed the Jews before.

The practice of midrash helped accomplish a second revolution in Jewish political life: it permanently altered the kind of character that Jews looked for in their leaders and aspired to in themselves. Until that time, the ideal character had been one who challenged and even warred with other nations in the name of God. Biblical figures like Abraham, Moses, and Joshua had set the precedent. In recent memory, kings and prophets both embodied this ideal, with the prophets being likely to take the Jews themselves to task when they deserted their mission and became an "other" nation, as well. Indeed, the Messianic ideal current at that time envisioned a holy warrior who would liberate the Jews from foreign rule and establish the kingdom of God in the midst of the nations (Scholem 1971).

But repeated defeats such as the crushing of Bar Kokhba's rebellion convinced the rabbis that this kind of personality was dangerous, perhaps suicidal, in the circumstances that they faced. "The human condition of Israel therefore defined a different heroism," as Jacob Neusner has described. Through countless teachings, all derived or justified through midrash, the rabbis instilled their "affective program": in effect, their proposal for the new Jew.

A simple catalogue of permissible feelings comprises humility, generosity, self-abnegation, love, a spirit of conciliation to the other, and eagerness to please. A list of impermissible emotions is made up of envy, ambition, jealousy, arrogance, sticking to one's opinion, self-centeredness, a grudging spirit, vengefulness.... (Breitman 1988, p. 106)

To be accepted in the fellowship of the synagogue, one had to strive to adhere to this ideal. The rabbis preferred the Isaacs and Jacobs of this world to the Ishmaels and Esaus. Brash, courageous, but unreflective types like the tragic heroes of the Bible, Samson, Jephthah, or Saul, would no longer make the grade as leaders, nor even as good Jews. The rabbis deliberately shaped the Jewish self in order to constitute Jews as subjects in their own image.

That image, however, was decidedly masculine. It was not just that only men recognized one another as rabbis. The character that the rabbis strove to build through their teachings and interpretations was a set of virtues that they associated with manhood and doubted that women could achieve. To contemporary eyes, it may seem ironic that humility and a desire to conciliate are masculine traits in traditional Jewish culture. Indeed, this may account for the stereotype of the Jewish man as soft and effeminate. In the rabbinical view, however, it took strength to answer oppression with humility, and it called for great courage to persevere in the dialogue with God when both appearances and t*he taunts of the nations aimed to convince them that the partnership had come to an end.

The masculinism of midrash was in part contingent.[3] The rabbis who practiced midrash simply decided, against their own best evidence, that women had nothing to teach them about the partnership of Jews with God.[4] Barbara Breitman argues that it was partly psychological, too, since "experiencing Jewish women as the dominating emasculating persecutor" was far safer than blaming the plight of the Jews on non-Jewish men, who might have the power to retaliate (Breitman 1988, p.108). Over time, however, the rabbis' gendered definition of Jewish identity has influenced the actual gender socialization of Jews to such an extent that the masculinism of midrash has become structural. Jewish women today, given the opportunity to engage in the prestigious activities of interpreting the Torah and carrying out the ritual law deduced through midrash, sometimes find it an alienating and not a self-affirming experience because the subject position they have to occupy in order to do so excludes so much of their perspective and concerns specifically as Jewish women. Within the sphere of exile, Jewish women have been exiled a second time.

In Jewish history, then, midrash has been a political practice in multiple senses, and for good and ill. None of them is directly transferrable to American politics today. Yet by considering the political problems that midrash has addressed, we might understand better what is at stake in political claims currently being made by various social groups in the United States. Midrash might also offer us a model for how to go about understanding one another's predicament in the current political order well enough so that we might be able to move forward toward a more inclusive and democratic society.


What might political theorists learn from midrash? What does this Jewish invention have to teach us about how to practice politics in the United States today? Midrash can aid us in developing a social ontology, or understanding of social reality, that gives adequate weight to social groups and their struggles over identity and meaning, a set of conflicts that defines politics in the United States today. From midrash, we can also derive a practical guide to engaging in political dialogue that takes the claims of less powerful groups seriously. Finally, a midrashic approach to political theory suggests that certain political institutions need to be reformed in order for a just political order to emerge, and it gives us a sense of what direction the reforms must take. Let us now look in turn into each of these areas.

Hearing the claims of social groups

In the context of American political life, Jews can be seen most distinctly not as adherents of a religion but as members of a social group. As Iris Young uses the term: A social group is a collective of people who have affinity with one another because of a set of practices or way of life; they differentiate themselves from or are differentiated by at least one other group according to these cultural forms. (Young 1990, p.186)

According to some critics, the differentiation of society into social groups is the root of all our national problems. We need a common way of life and a common culture; elsewise, we will become like the former Yugoslavia, a scene of never-ending civil war between smaller and smaller factions, each claiming a national identity (for instance, Schlesinger 1992).

This argument mistakes the problem for the solution. Common ways of life cannot be enforced in a democratic society. They can only be negotiated. What the United States has had until now has not been a common culture, but a dominant culture within which all social groups have had to learn to operate. They have not been able to demand that others learn anything about their own, subordinated cultures, simply because they have not had the power to do so. As formerly subjugated groups acquire more economic clout and political influence, it is the insistence on maintaining one dominant culture which has been leading us to the brink of insoluble conflict. We will avoid the situation that Yugoslavia or Rwanda find themselves in today precisely by paying close attention to the specific needs and claims of all the social groups that make up this country.

One type of claim that, in the United States, has not usually been regarded as a political issue, we can be alerted to by our study of midrash. Jews, like all other social groups, have a stake in the culture that gives members of the group an "affinity with one another" (as well as in the identity that differentiates them from members of other groups). That stake may vary, both with the group and with the individual. It may be large or small, and the group may feel its culture to be precious or problematic, or frequently, both. The relation between a group and its identity and culture will never be insignificant, however. Differences make a difference, one way or another.

Yet by themselves, members of a particular social group can assure neither the continuity of the group nor the possibility of carrying on its "set of practices or way of life." As Young reminds us, our identity depends on a process of differentiation with and from other groups. If the other groups have more power, they may impose upon us a stigmatized identity with which we may desire not to be associated.[5] Likewise, as we have already seen under the heading of exile, not every "cultural form" can be practiced in every society. A social group's desire to pursue the way of life that constitutes it as a group may conflict with the society's established requirements for claiming legal equality, acting as a citizen, or simply earning a living.

Culture and identity matter to the people to whom they belong. Differing social arrangements can support or destroy these goods for a particular group, and public actions can take away a group's control over the practices and understandings that constitute it as a group. We saw this issue arise for the Jews in the age of the Roman conquest, and we saw midrash as an act of cultural resistance. Our study of midrash therefore teaches us that we must treat group claims about identity and culture as political. They are not private matters. They involve questions of power, justice, equality, and human flourishing, and whether we talk about them in terms of group rights, interests, or needs, they are profoundly what politics is about.

Recognizing culture as a political good

As a Jewish model of political practice, midrash can help us recognize why any social group might demand a say about policies that affect the tenability and the public meaning of its group identity, or its ability to preserve and practice its culture. There are at least three reasons why Jews have a stake in Jewish culture that might apply to other social groups as well.

First, some groups can convincingly claim that they need to maintain and strengthen their identity and to have full access to the resources of their culture simply in order to survive. The Jews who lived when midrash was first being developed had to face the threat of physical annihilation. Years of war against Roman occupation had resulted in the depopulation of Judea and the dispersion of the Jews to every corner of the empire. Midrash, as we have seen, assisted the Jews in their effort to reunite and reorganize. By reinterpreting their defeat and working it into the story of the group's constitutive relation with God, makers of midrash helped Jews find the cultural resilience they needed in order to survive and carry on their task while living in diaspora. Over generations, midrashim articulated the new set of Jewish practices even further.

Today in the United States, despite a rise in reported hate crimes against Jews, and despite the disturbing presence of an armed racist movement which increasingly identifies with the Nazis, the time has not yet come when we should say that Jews as a group face a physical threat. Other social groups, however, do have to worry about their survival, and chief among them is the African American community. Despite the celebrated rise of a small black middle class, a combination of twenty-five years of decline in real wages, the decline of the manufacturing, agricultural, and public sectors as sources of jobs, the racially biased enforcement of criminal laws, and the infiltration of more and more deadly drugs and weapons into the urban ghettos have placed a generation of black people at risk.

Considering this threat, and with the example of midrash in mind, we can see why cultural politics should now be a matter of life and death to black people in the United States. Solidarity is a survival skill. As Michael Dyson writes:

If nationalism is viewed as an attempt to establish and maintain a nation's identity, growing out of circumstances of social and cultural conflict, then black nationalism is a response of racial solidarity to the divisive practices of white supremacist nationalism. (Dyson 1995, p.80)

Black nationalism need not mean positing blackness as either essential or natural, nor, bell hooks reminds us, does it have to imply "repudiating all that appears to maintain connection with the colonizing culture" (hooks 1990, p.109). As Cornel West has written, to combat moral nihilism and despair, black people have no use for an abstract racial identity. Their interest lies in the web of

personal, familial, and communal relations among African-Americans. These relations--though always fragile and difficult to sustain--constitute a crucial basis for the development of a collective and critical consciousness and a moral commitment to and courageous engagement with causes beyond that of one's self and family.... (West 1993, p.36)

These vital relations, however, have been stretched to the breaking point by the social changes identified above, and more. Repairing them will mean, for African Americans, gaining a measure of control over the direction the United States economy takes and the policies the government enacts from here on in. Understanding culture and identity as bases for national survival, as midrash teaches us to do, political theorists should be able to acknowledge that African Americans have special claims to make in defense of their identity and culture and to insist that those claims be considered in public debate by all citizens, regardless of race. And what is true of African Americans no doubt is equally true of American Indians and Chicanos and other groups whose example I do not know as well.

While Jews have found it relatively easy to survive in the United States, and in some cases to prosper, we have still found ourselves in the perplexing and painful dilemma which I described earlier as exile. The same liberal political philosophy that formally guarantees us against religious persecution also defines the constitutive task of the Jewish tradition as either non-existent or, at best, non-political. What matters to us as Jews is not supposed to matter to us as citizens, and we certainly cannot expect other citizens to respond to the imperatives of our own culture. At most, we might get a hearing for our need to act in ways that will hallow the world if we can disguise it as a dissenting opinion or as a group preference, a claim of rights, or an argument about universal principles of justice. The effort of putting on the disguise exhausts us, however. The urgency of the need does not come across in translation. We find ourselves unable to make a convincing case. We are left blaming ourselves for not making sense, when the sense that we make is socially unacceptable.

The history of midrash as a response to exile teaches us that social groups have an interest in the politics of return: finding ways to alleviate the conflict between the group's sense of what is real and what matters and the moral boundaries that prevail in the polity. This interest lies partly in repairing the injuries to the self that living in exile inflicts on individual members of the group. A metaphor for this condition might be "passing," the attempt by gay men and lesbians to present themselves in public as straight (or by Jews to pretend to be gentiles, or light-skinned blacks to be taken for white). "Passing" is living a lie, and while it sometimes confers material benefits, it exacts great psychic costs. Living in exile, however, means that even when one's identity becomes known, it signifies nothing of public concern. The problems and the passions of being Jewish, female, gay, or black are considered irrelevant.

Ellis Cose compares the situation of the black middle-class man to that of a runner before spectators. "Though they can see him well enough to abuse him," he writes, "no one up there can really see what he is going through" (Cose 1993, p.133). Living in exile means that no one outside the social group has an obligation to "see what [one] is going through." Instead, the obligation falls on the exiles to act, speak, and even think in ways that will make them intelligible to others. All too often, the cost is that we become unintelligible to ourselves, and that is an unfair and unequal burden for any society to place on any of its members.

The interest of social groups in returning from exile goes further, however. Besides the discriminatory burden that exile places on individuals, the group has a stake in resisting what Iris Young has called "cultural imperialism."

To experience cultural imperialism means to experience how the dominant meanings of a society render the particular perspective of one's own group invisible at the same time as they stereotype one's group and mark it out as the Other. (Young 1990, p.59)

While the personal dissociation attendant on exile is anguishing, the effect of exile as cultural imperialism is to shut certain groups out of the democratic process. Exiles cannot set the agenda for public debate. If we cannot say what we mean in any way that others must recognize, then we cannot call upon others to pay attention to the things that matter to us the most. Even on the issues that others recognize as political already, if we speak from our own traditions, histories, biographies, and concerns as members of a particular group, by that very token we identify ourselves as people who do not have to be listened to. In Joan Tronto's terms, a "moral boundary" has been drawn against us to prevent our participation in politics in our own persons (Tronto 1993).

To be included in "the articulation and negotiation of differences within a collectivity" that we call politics is the most fundamental claim a group can make (Phelan 1994, p.40). When particular social groups argue that the prevailing political discourse excludes them from meaningful participation, then as theorists and as fellow citizens, we are bound to listen.

A third reason why a social group might insist on the political significance of its identity and culture is the belief held by some members of each group that being Jewish, gay, female, or black (for instance) has something to say about the way a good political system would work. How can identity inform political philosophy? At minimum, all these groups can claim an unwelcome expertise in the kind of oppression they themselves have suffered. They are willing, even eager, to share the hard-won lessons that history and personal experience have taught them, so that the pain will stop and never be repeated, for them or for anyone else. In order to instruct the public, however, they need the opportunity to discuss, and the authority to interpret, the specifics of their experience as a group.

Some social groups have also claimed that their standpoint as what Patricia Hill Collins has called "the outsider within" gives them an intimate perspective on how domination works in everyday life (Collins 1991). White America, James Baldwin used to say, needs the mirror that black America can hold up to it. Theorists of a "feminist standpoint" argue that one can only see the full hierarchy of power from the bottom. Both claim to be able to make an unique contribution to the positive transformation of the political order.

Above and beyond these claims, members of some groups believe the United States is in urgent need of an infusion of the moral values that characterize their cultures. Both Jews and black Christians have assumed a prophetic role toward American society, taking it to task for abandoning its own highest ideals.[6] Indeed, West argues that it is "the moral content of Jewish and black identities" that may revive a black-Jewish political alliance (West 1990, p.74). Feminist theorists of difference have argued that ways of knowing about the world and reasoning about moral issues found especially among women (as well as habits of mind and heart that characterize the practice of being a mother) are resources that we can use in politics. These resources, it is hoped, may enable us to resolve conflicts more fairly and to promote stronger relations of care among the citizenry, regardless of gender.[7]

These are all political arguments for recognizing the importance of culture and identity to particular social groups, and therefore recognizing claims made in the name of those cultures as a proper subject of political debate. As a polity, we need not agree with every such claim we hear. We do need to take them seriously, however. To ignore these claims is to deny the resources of the political system to a particular social group on the issues that, to some of its members, matters the most--and that is excluding the group as a whole from full and equal citizenship.

"Getting it": sustaining political dialogue

What does it mean to take the claims of social groups seriously? More understanding is always better than less, but we need not become experts in a culture, nor in the historical experience of the group to which it belongs, in order to treat their needs as legitimate political claims. What we must know, what we owe it to one another to know, is the predicament that members of a social group face in the United States today.

To illustrate what I mean, let me use an example from recent history: Anita Hill's testimony during the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. The Senate Judiciary Committee amply demonstrated that one can be elected to high leadership positions in this country without understanding the lives of either black men or black women. The single most painful aspect of this strange spectacle was the questions even supposedly liberal Senators asked Hill over and over: "Why did you put up with the alleged sexual harassment? If it was as bad as you say, why didn't you just leave?" Across the country, a single phrase leapt to the lips of female reporters, members of Congress, and viewers alike: "They just don't get it." The recognition that the political leaders (and much of the public) of the U.S. do not begin to understand the lives of anyone who is black or female led to shock, anger, and further withdrawal of support for the institutions of government in the United States.[8]

Why was the Senators' treatment of Hill's testimony so offensive to large portions of the polity? When members of a less powerful group tell members of a more powerful one, "You just don't get it," they are saying, in effect: "You don't know us. You don't share our predicament in this society, and you lack the good will or the imagination to put yourselves in our place. When you try to talk about our problems, you sound both unfeeling and stupid. How can you judge us? You don't recognize our needs when we shout them at you. How can we trust you with power over our lives? Why should we?"

These are questions of legitimacy, questions basic to political life. Unless those who ask them can be satisfied with the answers, government by consent of the governed is impossible. Let me make the claim even stronger. Without a climate of mutual understanding among all major social groups, a society can have order, even government, but not politics. Politics, at its best, involves the recognition of others as real as we are, people who can surprise us and, sometimes, win us over. "Not getting it" means being unaware of the people among whom one lives except as shadows of oneself--what Marx once called "the other-beings of thought" (Seigel 1978, p. 134)--or as helps or hindrances to one's own interests. Without a commitment to understand one another, we cannot be citizens, people who strive together to create a society that meets the needs of all.

In order to be citizens, in order to practice politics, we need to know where it pinches for members of other social groups, in a most particular way. Shane Phelan has described the process by which members of a group can theorize their own experience and others can begin to comprehend it in her book Getting Specific (Phelan 1994). "Getting it," however, is something that all participants in the polity need to do, not just theorists. Its relationship to Phelan's "getting specific" is roughly that of phronesis (practical wisdom) to theoria in Aristotle (see Fischman 1992). It is not merely a different way of knowing. "Getting it" involves an active, long-term commitment to political dialogue. It is a process of repeatedly changing our minds and coming to different understandings of the society in which we live and of our own place in it.

For the process of "getting it," midrash offers us a useful model. The stimulus to midrash-making is a problem in the text. When we notice a gap or discrepancy in what God has addressed to us, we take that as a call to learn something new and to find meaning where before there was only misunderstanding. The stimulus to "getting it" is a problem in the web of social interaction. When we realize that another person is talking about an unjust situation they face in social life that we had not perceived and, for the moment, do not perceive as they do, we wonder why we understand the story in such divergent ways. Resisting the urge to dismiss their claims, we affirm the same relationship of dialogue that makes rabbinic interpretation possible. We orient ourselves toward the project of creating by joint effort a society that is good and just for all of us, as the Jews oriented themselves toward hallowing the world in partnership with God. To "get it," we adopt the same assumption the rabbis made about Torah: that none of what our partners say is meaningless, and that the responsibility for understanding it lies upon us. We take an attitude of indeterminate belief toward the claims of other groups. Suspending for the moment the question of truth, we seek meaning, instead.

To "get it," we try to take in the context from which the other person is speaking, whether that means a culture other than the dominant culture or a social location and a set of problems with which we are not familiar, even though we may be complicit. Searching for context is also a key strategy of rabbinic interpretation. Often, two seemingly contradictory statements in the text can make sense together if we assume that the speakers cited are talking about two different problems. Reaching an understanding in the political sphere, similarly, involves learning that what is at the heart of the matter for oneself is not for the other, and that the difference has to do with the situations that members of specific social groups have to face.

Often, what we are "just not getting" is the way that a group is in exile: the way that we are keeping it from fulfilling its needs, or even expressing them, by the boundaries we draw around politics. Failing to understand how a group is in exile is perpetuating its plight; beginning to understand is a step toward accomplishing its return. That return, however, is not a return to Eden, but to Zion: not an end to pursuing its needs, but the chance to pursue them fruitfully in the political process. Learning what silences and invalidates the claims of others is a key step toward conducting real dialogue on how to meet the needs of all.

"Getting it" is a process. Noticing and wondering about a difficulty in understanding and trying to explain it are just a few of the early stages in the process. What is most important, of course, is to respond, to meet claims of need or right that one previously might not even have entertained with appropriate ethical action. Even in the moment of the most vigorous political action, however, the attitude of indeterminate belief can be valuable. One must remember that one has never understood everything, never gotten it once for all, that one is always getting it, still. It is vital to submit one's interpretation of the situation of another, hard-won as it may have been, to further dialogue. Because understanding another's needs thoroughly may lead us to the sense that we ought to do what we want not to do, we are prone to resist, to dissemble, or to make excuses (see Flax 1993). Only continued confrontation with members of other social groups speaking for themselves can keep us honest. Like the imagined encounter with God that moves traditional Jews to return to the Torah text again and again, we must continually engage in political dialogue so that the lessons we learn do not become dogma but rather apply to each new situation as it rises to challenge us.

Some might fear that "getting it" means giving away the right to disagree. Not so. It does mean giving up the presumption that one is automatically qualified to judge the claims of another. It means following Bob Dylan's advice in the famous anthem: "Don't criticize what you don't understand." By committing ourselves to take seriously the point of view of a social group to which we do not belong, however, we enable ourselves to make our criticisms more pertinent, and our judgments fairer and more authoritative, than if we ignored that point of view. "Getting it" minimizes the extent to which we talk past one another. It also gives us a basis from which to speak with one another as equals. Instead of dismissing our criticisms as the exercise of an irresponsible privilege, our interlocutors will be more inclined to listen when we argue that they have misconstrued something about their situation. With respect and care, members of one group can argue with another over whether or not they, in fact, "get it"--as long as they are committed to continuing to learn from the people whose situation they are discussing.[9]

Midrash and "getting it" are also alike in that they give us what Michel Foucault and others have called local knowledges, bits of accumulated wisdom that we can use in the specific case under discussion without having to make a general principle of them. Midrash-makers can come up with a way of reading a certain passage in the Torah that makes good sense, and yet they are free to use the same approach in other textual locations or not to use it, depending on what sense it would make there and whether or not they can explain the text without it. When we learn to "get it" about how belonging to a certain social group affects a person we know in one situation, it also gives us questions to ask and clues to look for in other situations, for other members of the same group. It adds to the stock of ethically relevant situations which we habitually recognize, and to which we have some idea how to respond.[10] And yet, if what we have learned does not apply to a slightly different situation, that casts no doubts on the validity of the interpretation. We need not create large theories or sweeping historical narratives in order to be sure of what we know when we "get it," and to act accordingly.

When we do midrash on a text, however, the meanings that we find in one part of the text do sometimes shade our interpretation of other passages. We need not take previous midrashim into account, but we can: if we so choose, if the passages strike us as similar. A body of midrash can create a world that we enter every time we start to read the text.

Midrash as a political practice can also have this cumulative quality. If I understand Anita Hill's claims, for example, it may change how I look at the whole of American society: men, women, blacks, whites, government officials and citizens and the relations between them. I may have to locate myself on a different social map than the one I had been using to navigate before.[11] I may recognize my complicity in injustices I had not suspected. I may also find an affinity with, say, the situation of black women, that I had not felt before. Thus, "getting it" about

Jewish and Interfaith Topics: