Sunday, April 05, 2009

Physics, History, Poetry, Jazz and Faith: It's All in the Midrash

(reflection after hearing Hebrew scholar Evita Zornberg speaking with Krista Tippett on the NPR program SPEAKING OF FAITH this morning)
Before I was old enough to go to school, my mother used to make me nap in the middle of the afternoon, whether I felt tired or not. She was the one who rested, while I lay in bed looking at pictures in books that I couldn't read. I remember a two-page spread in one book, over a text that was probably just "ring around the rosie," but what I saw was a group of boys and girls celebrating while one boy stood aside, hands in his pockets, smiling directly out at the reader. Two girls flanked him. Why was he apart? What were kids celebrating? Why were those two girls paying such close attention to him? I constructed elaborate back stories for the picture, with dialogue: Bad guys had threatened the group, the boy had super powers and had fought them off, etc. etc.

Speaking of Exodus, Hebrew scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg told how rabbis have been doing the same thing with scripture from the centuries before Jesus. They call it "midrash," a story interpolated in the margins of scripture to explain why things happened the way they do. She read verse seven of Exodus, "But the descendants of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong; so that the land was filled with them." How did this happen? A midrash predating the 5th century C.E. tells a story of how Hebrew women fished in the stream, sold the fish at market, and purchased mirrors. These, they took to the Hebrew men in the fields. "See? I am more comely than you," they would say. "No, I am more comely than you," the man would respond. "And in this way," the midrash continues, "they became accustomed to desire." Zornberg inserted her own midrash, here, speculating that this story speaks to how slaves in despair need to be taught a desire for a different future. The ancient midrash adds that these women bore children always in sets - twins, quads, or even thousands at a time... thanks to mirrors.

What the ancient scholars did with their Scripture is what I did with that picture, and it occurs to me that it's one of the two essential things that our brains do all the time. One of these essential things is to look for the back story, to look between the lines, to "open up" a puzzle box, or "speculate" beyond the apparent. The other of these essential things is to find connections between unlike things, and that's what I'm going to do now, relating the midrash idea to just about everything going on in my world today:

  • Physics has opened up our understanding of the universe by looing inward to see atoms as planetary systems, molecules as galaxies; and to find, looking ever farther outward, galaxies themselves as part of vast galaxy - like systems.
  • Historians' whole job is to fret each decision, each remark in a newfound letter, to speculate why. I've been reading A.Lincoln: A Biography recently, and the author speculates how Lincoln's grandfather was affected by seeing his own father slain in a field by Indian raiders, and how Lincoln was thinking when he summoned Black leaders to propose a "back to Africa" solution; something every page. A scornful reviewer in WEEKLY STANDARD belittled it as a liberal Democrat's remaking of Lincoln in the image of, say, Mario Cuomo or Barack Obama. I don't see that; but I do see an effort to analyze Lincoln's decisions and fragmentarily expressed beliefs.
  • I went to sleep last night listening to jazz, and what is that, except inspired interpolations of new melody, new harmony, between the lines of established songs? Ditto, Bach's riffs on hymn tunes of his day.
  • Last I heard, dreams themselves are "midrashes" on glancing thoughts and prevalent concerns in our days. I awoke several times last night with dreams concerning people I haven't seen in years, and students I teach now, and crime movies, and a tornado. Couldn't get back to sleep, unable to stop myself from speculating where those images all came from in my recent daily life.
  • Actors search for motivations behind every line, every pause, every move. Hamlet speaks to ths ghost of his father in act one, then claims that no one knows if there's an existence after death ("an undiscovered country") in his most famous soliloquy. How? Why? Actors think of it as "finding the truth" in the line... a truth that they can relate to in their own experiences.
  • The news is full of speculation: Obama calls "provocative" the North Koreans' launch of a rocket this morning. What exactly does that mean? What response does that rocket "provoke?" And what reaction do the North Koreans' hope to get? We have federal offices devoted to questions like that.
  • I'm reading ENDPOINT, John Updike's final book, a collection of poems written since 2001. Every single poem is, of course, a midrash on some moment, some image. For example, he tells of seeing a very small girl alone in an electronics "big box" store. He remembers being a tiny child lost and crying in a store; but this girl is pacified by the motions of pixellated fish on a big screen. From that, he jumps off into a meditation on "infotainment." This whole package takes off from the thought that Updike's lifetime of generating words may turn out to have been wasted, as book literacy seems to be diminishing in importance.
  • The Hindu scripture BAGAVAD GITA is one long "midrash," an interpolation into the legend of a prince who led one half of his family into battle against the other half. JOB is clearly a poetic midrash inserted between paragraphs of a prosaic story of a rich man's being tested by God and Lucifer.

New York's Episcopal Bishop Spong, much despised by religious and social conservatives, tells in one of his books how the concept of midrash changed the way he reads Scripture. One doesn't have to follow him to all his conclusions to acknowledge that what he says is obviously true: the midrash tradition was at its height when Paul et. al. were composing our New Testament. Clearly the Gospel writers are working with a mixture of Hebrew testament stories, stories passed on by word of mouth about Jesus, speculation to explain some of Jesus's hard sayings and acts, and imagination to give the "back story" to Jesus's life. (One obvious such interpolation: Jesus's prayer at Gethsemane, to which we are told there were no witnesses.)

Scholar Zornberg points to the "upside - down" nature of the Exodus narrative, which often tells us that these things happened so that later generations could tell the story. The Seder liturgy, according to her, includes the question, "How is this celebration of the Passover in this family different from all the others?" The answer is, "We're relating it to us."

Can it be wrong to take something like the feeding of 5000 and to speculate how that worked, or to speculate that the whole story is a metaphor expanding on the remark "I am the bread of life" with a pun on "fish" (an early symbol of Jesus, thanks to a Greek anagram of Christ)? I think not. Rather, it's what a thinking person does, to ask, "Why? How? And how does this relate to my experience?" Here's the Scripture, here's the script, here's the event: What's the truth in it, for us?


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Anonymous said...

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