Contemporary Midrash: Living Sacred Text*
Two true stories:
A group of ten adults and children gather for a Shabbat afternoon open session of bibliodramatic Living Midrash. We sit in a circle after a gentle walking meditation, and I ask each participant to imagine that they are a biblical animal or object, and invite them to introduce themselves. I am the Temple Menorah. I’m Mt. Sinai. A panther in the desert…
When I come to 10-year-old Sara Mosenkis, she volunteers, “I’m the rainbow after the Flood.”
We continue around the circle. A few moments later, up shoots Sara’s hand. “I changed my mind!” she announces.
“Oh, who are you now?”
“Well, I’m still a rainbow, but I’m the rainbow at the Red Sea.”
Startled, I want to know more. “That’s very interesting. We’ve never heard of a rainbow at the Red Sea. Tell me, who are you; what do you do?”
Sara steps into the middle of the circle, puts her hands on the floor and arches her body to demonstrate. “I’m the rainbow that held the waters apart!”
The sharp intake of breath around the circle tells me that we’ve been witness to the creation of a memorable midrash.
Now it is the first day of Rosh Hashana, and I am working bibliodramatically with a congregation of 150 after the Torah reading. I begin the story with Isaac’s weaning feast, and ask the participants to imagine that they are members of the family or invited guests at the simcha. The group begins to warm up to speaking in first person, begins to imagine what it might have been like that day. We hear multiple voices for each character. I move the story further along, telling part, reading part from the text.
As I walk Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness, I offer a flashback: Hagar’s memory of the time, eighteen years earlier, when pregnant with Ishmael she fled from Sarah’s abuse. I read the full text of God’s promise to her, “Behold you are with child and shall bear a son. You shall call him Ishmael (which means ‘God heeds’) for the Lord has paid heed to your suffering….He shall dwell alongside all of his kinsmen.” (Genesis 16:11-12, JPS) Three days of wandering pass, and the pair collapse of thirst. Hagar lays her son under a bush, sits “a bowshot away,” and bursts into tears.
I ask, “Hagar, what is your prayer at this moment?” and we hear a mother’s prayers – bitter, resigned, angry, bargaining.
I share that the text enigmatically rejoins Hagar’s tears with “And God heard the cry of the boy.” (Genesis 21:17) “So, Ishmael, what is your prayer at this moment?”
Again, several prayers. Then Rabbi Marcia Prager’s eyes light up and she says softly, “My name is Ishmael, which means ‘God heeds,’ so all I have to do is pray my own name.”
“What would that sound like?”
With intense focus, she begins to voice the name: Ishmael…Ishmael… Ishmael. I find myself joining her, and then motion to the congregation. And in that moment 150 Jews, identifying with the dying boy, offer a prayer for salvation: Ishmael…Ishmael… Ishmael. I am astounded at the deep comprehension of the text and radical empathy that the drama has made possible.
To close, we move beyond the assigned reading, to the day on which Ishmael and Isaac reunite to bury their father in Hebron. I invite a conversation between the two sons and the Spirits of Abraham and of Sarah, who are buried in Machpelah.
The Spirit of Abraham offers a benediction, “My sons, if you ever think you know the will of God, ask a lot of questions. I thought I knew God’s will, and I almost murdered both my sons. Ask a lot of questions!” That this somber advice is offered at the spot where a Jewish settler, certain of the will of God, will gun down a Muslim congregation in prayer, is not lost on the congregation.
I offer these two stories to illustrate the power of the contemporary midrashic experience with two very different settings, texts and tones. They are bibliodramatic stories because that is my metier; accounts of equally powerful biblical encounters can be told by midrashic dancers, musicians, visual artists and writers. Contemporary midrashic explorations can create a connection with sacred text like no other method of text study. Through the faculty of imagination, participants enter the text. They identify with the motivations and relationships, struggles and dreams of our archetypal ancestors.
The most common response to these experiences is “I’ll never read Torah the same way again.” Something has profoundly shifted. Their lives have become the text and the text has become their lives. A connection that wasn’t, now is. Perhaps this is what it means when it says that it is incumbent on every person, in every generation, to view her/himself as having stood at Sinai. To Sinai, we add Eden and Babel and Ur…and every moment of our sacred narratives.
…Some of my more traditional colleagues ask me where these experiences lead; they are concerned that exercises in contemporary midrash can be an excuse for projecting alien values onto Torah. They recognize that classical rabbinic midrash, too, was often the stuff of free-floating fantasy – or of value-laden agendas tied to far-fetched prooftexts. But, they note, it was created by scholars deeply steeped in text. It is said that midrash is the white fire between the black fire – the letters – of the received text; they are afraid that we are ‘playing with fire.’
There are, of course, no guarantees. But responsible artists and facilitators are themselves familiar with text and classical midrash, or team up with scholars who are. Creating contemporary midrash is like undertaking a space-walk. It may feel unencumbered, weightless, ultimately free, but one must always be tethered to the mother-ship for life-sustaining oxygen and for safety, lest one float off into outer space. So we are tethered to text for substance and authenticity.
Some participants will add meaning to their lives just by engaging with narrative text in this profound way; others will be inspired to learn more about what preceded us; still others will be moved into relationship with halakha. Certainly, the lives of Bibliodramatist Peter Pitzele and poet David Curzon are testimony to the centripetal power of contemporary midrash; they credit their encounters with midrashic process with calling them back to Jewish community and practice. And the same is true of many others as well. I excerpt from a letter to ICM from a woman inquiring about our trainings:
“I am excited by the potential power of this radical work (and I use the word “radical” with all of its meanings in mind, including its most literal meaning, ‘at root’). I am moved both by the authenticity of the midrash that comes from entering into the characters and by the transformative power the characters bring to our individual lives…. Contemporary Midrash…has been a life-long pursuit, even before I called it by that name…. I had no other viable path within Judaism.”
Now consider another, quite different story:
The editor of the “Living Religion” page of a large urban newspaper needed a reporter to cover a bibliodramatic course on Genesis offered by a major city synagogue. The editor was familiar with Bibliodrama and recognized that the course was a unique response to Bill Moyers’ Genesis series on PBS. Following union rules, he assigned the next reporter in line at the city desk to the story. However, as he briefed her, the reporter objected that she would have no idea how to prepare. He offered her a copy of Peter Pitzele’s book, Our Fathers’ Wells, and suggested that she also read the biblical passages that the course would be covering on the night she attended.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I draw the line at having to read the Bible.”
What a wound her response betrays! Can we imagine a reporter responding to a research assignment on any other subject, “I’m sorry, I draw the line at reading….”? We can only guess at what the Bible has come to signify for this young woman: perhaps a repository of atavistic superstition; an artifact of oppressive patriarchy; or a cruel fundamentalist weapon in contemporary political debate. She is not alone in her suspicion and alienation. The Bible is one of the key underpinnings of Western language and culture; its language, images and stories permeate our speech, literature and art. It is an invisible glue that holds our diverse civilization together, but an adhesive that is fast rigidifying and deteriorating through disuse – and abuse.
Even “The People” are, on average, sadly ignorant of “the Book” and conflicted about their relationship to it. If ever there were a threat to Jewish continuity, this alienation would signify it. If the community is to survive, it must heal this rift between itself and its core myths, its sacred texts. In contemporary midrash dwells the potential for that healing: a re-animation of sacred text for this generation, the restoration of religious imagination to individuals, and, in an often painfully fragmented society, a profound opportunity for engagement and meaning.
*Excerpt reprinted by permission of the publisher, from Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, vol. 27, no. 530, pp. 3-5. © 1997, CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Illustrations: “Hagar in the Desert” and “Yael” – relief sculptures © 2015, Rivkah Walton. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For a selected bibliography of readings in Contemporary Midrash, including narratives, poetic and instructional work, view or download ICM Bibliography of ContemporaryMidrash (pdf).
Living Text: The Journal of Contemporary Midrash
See Living Text for information about eight back issues of this journal which features the best of contemporary midrashic writing and special features.
See Turn It and Turn It: A Forum on Contemporary Midrash, curated and introduced by poet and critic Alicia Ostriker in the journal Religion and Literature (Vol. 43, No. 2, summer 2011), published by the University of Notre Dame Press.