It’s Time to Write the Modern Midrash

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Last night I hosted a screening of the Noah Movie followed by a discussion about the film. I loved it. We enjoyed great food, great company, and a great overall experience. But that’s not enough why I loved the event so much. I loved last night because I think the experience addressed a fundamental struggle to American Orthodox (and non-Orthodox) Judaism.

I view the film as a Modern Day Midrash. vlcsnap-2014-03-13-14h40m55s25The Bible story is very brief and is missing tons of details. The text also invites many questions about the narrative and morality. Torah scholars and teachers have looked at Bible stories through the lens of their time, place, and personality to answer these questions, fill in gaps, and teach lessons based on the text. These interpretations, whether they appear in the Apocrypha, Talmudic literature, or Midrash compilations, are all a form of Midrash.

For most Orthodox Jews today, old Midrashic interpretations are special. They are given almost the same authority as halachic texts from the same era. They are the “true” interpretations of the texts. We have “objective” interpretations of the text and they are cobbled together into a loosely canonized version of Midrash. That’s why so many people assume that all Midrash is historically accurate and scientifically correct. We are led to believe that some Midrash is objectively true. Ironically, the authors of the old Midrash and many of the early Bible commentaries were not working under those assumptions. They acknowledged their subjectivity. Yet, today we teach an objective view of Midrashic interpretation.

This is reinforced by classic commentaries like Rashi because they seem to view the old Midrashic interpretations as the only ones that matter. Or rather, the ones they picked became the only ones that matter. Further, Rashi is our most prolific, more popular, and most studied Biblical commentator and he barely says anything of his own. Just about everything he writes, is found in earlier sources. We are implicitly being told that the only interpretations that matter are older than Rashi.

But if you read other commentaries and later Midrash texts you see that it’s not so simple. Some Medieval commentators argue with oft-quoted Midrashic interpretations for any number of reasons. We also have more recent Midrash collections that add details and lessons that seem to be new. Interestingly, some of these later Midrashic interpretations are granted legitimacy by contemporary Orthodox authorities, but the reason they are accepted is because they are assumed to be old Midrash that was lost or hidden until the later Midrash publicized it. In other words, the idea that a later Midrash was added by a later interpreter without an earlier source is so troubling that these interpretations are reinterpreted as having originated with the old Midrash.

At some point it became unacceptable or uncomfortable to write new Midrash. But I don’t believe this is the correct approach. I think it is hurting us severely in many ways. Old Midrash is bursting with lessons and ideas about morality and spirituality. Those ideas come from a particular time and place. Of course there is beauty and power to these interpretations and we should study them and teach them. But they are somewhat handicapped by their birthday. The intended audience of the Old Midrash might have included us Moderns, but it’s not a perfect fit. Often, the moral challenges or personal struggles in the old Midrash are foreign to us. It’s like an American reading about daily life in the African Bush. We can somewhat relate to it but it’s not our life.

One of the things I proposed a few weeks ago was that we address the spirit of law in Orthodox Judaism. We should be writing new Taamei HaMitzvot that speak to us. Another phase of this effort is an attempt to create Modern Midrash. We should be reading the stories of the Bible and thinking about them in a new and fresh way. What does the story say to me, today, with my challenges, and with my struggles? We would never pass our questions and answers off as objective truth. But truth is not objective when it comes to interpretation. Different people can see different things in the same source material. They both can be true interpretations even if they are not both historically true. There is room for subjectivity in all interpretation of literature, art, music, or really anything that is not science or explicit Divine Revelation. Judaism is art, not science.

Darren Aronofsky, the producer of Noah, has written a Modern Midrash. Noah asks many of the same questions as the old Midrash and actually provides many of the same answers – with a twist. He also asks new questions and offers new answers that are often based on old ideas. It’s literally just like a Midrash. Some of his answers and ideas are odd or uncomfortable and that’s okay. He’s giving us a new way to think about an old story that stays true to ideas about the story that are deeply rooted in our tradition. When one watches Noah within this context, it’s not just a movie, it becomes a 2 hour and 20 minute Torah class. It invites us to think and criticize and discuss and learn about the Noah story from our modern perspective. And it does so spectacularly.

We need more Modern Midrash. I am certain that the struggles of our generation and the issues we face can be addressed by Torah. But we don’t have to look at Torah exclusively through the glasses of our great great great grandparents. We can look at Torah through our own eyes and see things from our own perspective. Like Aronofsky’s Noah, we make no claims of objectivity or historical truth. But the lessons and ideas can be eternal despite acknowledging their subjectivity.

American Orthodox Judaism faces many great challenges. I think Modern Midrash is part of the solution. It is empowering. It gives us credit for being well educated and steeped in Torah. It allows for creativity and expression. It speaks our language. It makes Biblical stories and their interpretations relevant. It will provide great thinkers an opportunity to see answers to our existential and religious questions in Torah. It will be the voice of our contemporary struggles and triumphs. It changes everything. The process and its results will help create new positive Jewish experiences for a new generation.

So join me in this journey. Let’s write the Modern Midrash together. The next few months of Torah readings are Biblical narratives. The soil is lush and fertile. Let’s build something new out of something old. I believe it is our duty and I believe that we will be successful. If we do succeed, I am confident that we will hear the echoes of the Voice that spoke to our forefathers. That Voice will help us discover our own path to a Jewish life that is full of meaning, religiously commitment, and spiritual ecstasy.

  • How do you keep Modern Midrash from becoming an exercise intmwriting your own values and theology into the tradition? Don’t we believe that with each generation since Sinai we lose some of the culture and values relayed in Sinai?

    • The same way it was always done. (And not everyone agrees with “Niskatnu haDoros”)

      • As a side-note, I do not know of anyone (Orthodox) who disagrees with nisqatnu hadoros. There may be questions about what the implications of the idea would be on halachic authority, but this isn’t a question of halachic authority.

        But in any case, you didn’t answer my question. You’re saying that we need new/more medrash, that the old stuff may not speak to today’s Jew. I’m asking for how you check when you’re creating an apt metaphor for Sinaitic values, and when you’re incorporating un-Jewish values and giving them a false air of authenticity. Particularly since you’re trying to cover those areas where we today are out of line with the past, although the question must be asked in general.

        This is parallel to my comment on “Keeping the Orthodox Orthodox”. I have nothing against your thesis, I just can’t judge it altogether until I hear more about your checks-n-balances. One shouldn’t promote writing new medrash without explaining how they are making sure that what gets written really is new medrash.

        • The answer I gave stands. There have always been new ideas and they have always been “checked” by other scholars, thinkers, and rabbis. Ideas that are out are dismissed, ideas that are in, stay in. Not such a big deal, really.

      • Shades of Gray

        Are these sources the opposite of “Niskatnu haDoros” ?
        –Chaovos Halevavos regarding the Torah not mentioning Olam Habaah
        –Ibn Ezra regarding Slave Mentality

      • Milton

        Can you point to a single traditional source that does not agree with Niskatnu Hadoros?

        • Shades of Gray

          See this article by R. S.Z Leiman discussing “dwarfs on the shoulders of giants” in Tradition 1993. I also remember R. Chaim Dov Keller discussing it in the Jewish Observer in the context of one of R. Norman Lamm’s articles which mentioned “dwarfs on the shoulders of giants”.

        • Check out this short book:

          • R’ Leiman’s essay is consistent with the diminishing additions model. And for that matter, so is the Rambam. Kellmer argues from silence: if the Rambam expected his period to be lesser than earlier ones, why does he invoke the contigencies that caused it? It could simply be that the Rambam believes in yeridas hadoros (which, after all, is an uncontested position in both talmuds), but believes it is an inevitable product of history. Things get lost over time, the number of negative situations that cause cultural drift will inevitably far outpace revivals.

            Second, we aren’t discussing halachic process here; this modern medrash would be aggadita. When it comes to halakhah, we have rules like halakhah kebasra’i — that our being atop the shoulders of giants and studying and comparing their works may give the later decisor more legal authority, even if we do consider him lesser. Abayei and R’ Papa discuss mesiras nefesh and yir’as Shamayim (self sacrifice and living in an awe of the One in heaven), not knowledge.

            Third, regardless of yeridas hadoros in general, are you disagreeing with R/Dr Haym Soloveitchik’s thesis that we now rely more on texts than Jews did 100 years ago because we are still reconstructing the Torah culture after a cataclysmic rupture? Our particular generation is one that is culturally impoverished, one that has not held on to the innate values that we’re supposed to be learning at our mother’s knees and from the society we mix in.

            Last, this generation is also very weak in being able to weed out bad ideas. Between a constant litany of incidents that shake one’s faith in the rabbinic authorities (real or supposed) and the democratization of communication caused by the internet, there is a strong trend among the rank and file to ignore such guidance. For example, look how YidTech is trying to sell the Shabbos App without a teshuvah from a known poseiq, or even an article from a theoretician. (R’ Herschel Schachter makes a similar argument about Partnership Minyanim and Do It Yourself halakhah.) They presume their target audience will take their blog-style arguments and turn them into practice.

            And the same would happen to “medrashim” that tell stories that fit today’s zeitgeist, and therefore have sufficient truthiness, even if they are inconsistent with Torah values.

            • The only really important part of your comment is the same point you’ve been making all along. You have an inflated sense of reverence for the ancients and a deflated sense of respect for the moderns.

              • Again, you’re asserting that yeridas hadoros / nisqatnu hadoros as I understand it (which I didn’t really spell out) is overrated, without presenting or proving an authentic alternative. You dismiss the two points I made about our generation being less plugged in to aggadita and mimetics — which you want to turn into formal aggadita — as simply unimportant parts of my post. All in all, you left us no content, just an empty “no it isn’t.”

                • Nistaknu hadoros means a lot of things to a lot people. The only sense in which I agree that we are worse off than we were 1000 years ago is that we have fewer experts in Biblical linguistics. We still have them, but they are not considered Gedoylim so they have no voice. Aggadita had many different purposes and many different methodologies. Moderns are certainly capable of Sefer HaYashar style story telling.

                  • Except I didn’t originally say nisqatnu hadoros or yeridas hadoros, you brought the buzzwords into the conversation. I said something far more specific. I opened with mention of the loss of Sinaitic Culture. Then I followed up with spelling out that Abayei and Rav Papa were talking about feelings and commitment rather than knowledge. So, I have no idea why you’re talking of “a lot of things to a lot [of] people”. And you then talk about knowledge, when I was talking about something more mimetic, experiential and emotional.

                    And you still are not even touching my observation that it’s generally accepted (and pretty obvious) that there was some kind of fundamental loss in the inarticulatable parts of Torah caused by the Shoah and the relocation of the centers of Orthodox life, such that there is a “qitun hador” of the current generation, regardless of what you believe is the norm. Nor did you touch my claim that there isn’t enough respect for authority for ideas that have sufficient truthiness can be trashed from the coalescing contemporary Orthodox communal culture once they’re put out into the marketplace of ideas.

                    This is a FAR greater loss than our loss in linguistics. We cannot be as sure we’re capturing values that are consistent with Torah rather than accelerating our loss of that Sinaitic Culture with stories that teach accretions that contradict it. We cannot even be sure our peer review would succeed in eliminating them from the “canon” of Modern Medrash even when we do detect such inconsistencies.

                  • DF

                    But moderns, especially moderns who invent their own midrash, are also capable of reading their agendas into the text they interpret. The ancients didn’t do that. Alternatively, they may have, but the agendas from 1500 years ago have either become lost or become the de facto mainstream, and are this imperceptible as agendas.
                    The issue of progression v regression is entirely unrelated.

                    • DF

                      By the way, if you feel there’s a need for it, why not just write it yourself?

                    • DF

                      I’m going to answer it myself, since you’re so intent on ducking it:
                      Because even you yourself wouldn’t believe anything you write.
                      And that also explains why no one writes “modern midrash.”

        • Shades of Gray

          I believe R. Keller, I quoted previously, was responding to R. Norman Lamm’s chapter of “The Degenerations of the Generations” in his “Torah Umadda”(referenced in Note 1 of R. S.Z Leiman’s essay). I didn’t read the book, but I imagine it’s relevant to Niskatnu Hadoros.

    • Daniel M

      Every single week rabbis give drashos that provide their own spin on the parsha. They pick and choose midrashim and peirushim to support their point. This is how it has always been done. Read Abravanel on the last two parshas, and what Nechama Leibowitz has to say about the origins of his rather Marxist utopian ideas that he reads into the text…. 600 years ago.

      It seems to me that what’s being proposed here is a midrashic format for writing Torah commentary. It’s a question of form, not content.

      • I thought it was a matter of moving the base, or enlarging the base, that those rabbis were extrapolating from. Which allows for drift. Right now, the basic communal gestalt is a region around a fixed set of sources.

        For what it’s worth, when I write a derashah, I try to do what I mentally think of interpolate rather than extrapolate. To explain the mashal, not that anyone should care that much how Micha Berger darshens…

        If you start with only one point and you continue the line of thought for an inch or two, you could go in any direction. And if the original point was near the border, you could end up past the edge of the map. But if you demand two points, then you only have the lines between two points that you are able to connect with your derashah. It’s not free rein. So, I try to find two sources from which I can expound an idea before presenting one of my own novellae in public.

  • DF

    This post is not wrong in the abstract, but it is in its proposed execution.
    That is, it’s true the ancients had no problem midrashically interpreting Torah to meet their own current conditions. Thus there are countless midrashim referring to Rome, which is obviously completely out of date today (despite all stretches to make it now mean “Western Civilization.”) The whole concept of the “4 kingdoms” has to be seriously re-examined. The problem is, of course, the same old problem which has been present for more than a thousand years – how do you throw out the bathwater without throwing out the baby? No one has figured out a way yet.
    Once you replace chazal’s interpretation with your own, its a short ride to replacing their halachas too. There’s a reasons men like Ibn Ezra and Rashbam are often seen as the forerunner to academic [and hence, Reform] Judaism. If לא תבשל גדי בחלב אמו is simply one of the laws enjoining cruelty to animals, why on Earth is anyone waiting 6 hours after chicken to drink a glass of milk? You’ll notice that the hamon am of orthodoxy still use Rashi and Ramban to understand Torah, and for the most part are blissfully unaware of other approaches. The ones most aware of these other approaches, and the ones most apt to cite them, are often merely orthoprax. In other words, your post is basically championing Reform, or let us say, Conservatism. [Keep in mind you’re a public figure Rabbi, by the way. You don’t have the luxury of musing like private citizens. You keep talking like this and you’ll be, at “best”, an Emanuel Rackman/Yitz Greenberg neither fish nor fowl character. Hey, if that’s what you want….]
    Micha Berger also makes an important related point, and your one line answer [like all one line answers] doesn’t answer anything. Anyone I’ve ever seen speaking of “modern midrash” invariably, without exception, comes from the left wing perspective. Feminism, wage and hour agitators, and with your Noach film, environmentalism. There’s other examples. Can’t you see how tiresome this is for the majority of orthodox Jews, who don’t share these liberal ideas? Infusing Torah with politics is not wise.
    Bottom line: I’m sympathetic to what you say, but it’s not orthodox.

    • Woah. Why are we replacing? I’m just proposing supplementing.

    • And I think it’s hilarious that you think that Orthodox Judaism has to be synonymous with American conservative values. Can’t you see how tiresome it is for all the Orthodox Jews who actually think that Torah supports liberal values?

      • DF

        “…all the Orthodox Jews who actually think that Torah supports liberal values.”
        Yes, all twenty-seven of them. But more to the point, I at no point – not here, and never anywhere else – said orthodox Judaism must be synonymous with conservative values. You just invented a complete red herring, my friend. But since you raised it, I will say this: Simply as a point of fact, orthodox JEWS do identify with those values. You can’t argue that, just like one cant argue that reform Jews identify with liberal values. Look at the voting demographics for orthodox neighborhoods, and really, you can’t seriously debate this. As to whether orthodox JUDAISM must identify with liberal or conservative values – the matter very much depends upon whether Tanach or Shas define orthodox Judaism.
        As for your previous one-sentence, non-responsive answer – you cannot supplement without replacing. That’s why its never been done. Believe me, it’s not because no one in the past 1000 years ever thought, “Hey, you know, I can apply this verse to Henry VII!”

        • G

          Tanach or Shas? Which cuts which way? Not seeing it….

  • “You cannot supplement without replacing?” That’s ridiculous. Never mind midrash, if this principle is true, why even deliver an original drash? You might conflict with a Torah giant and lead some poor Jewish youth astray. Please. Rabbi Fink is a million times correct in calling for Modern Midrash because the sea of Torah is infinite, and the helmsmen of modern commentary will distinguish between truth and falsehood. You don’t like a story? Say so. If your points are valid, many people will hasten to agree with you. But don’t invalidate the attempt to say something original and meaningful. I haven’t seen Noah yet, so I can’t comment on that, but I loved Ushpizin for example. That was a Modern Midrash for me. I learned from it, and I enjoyed it. It didn’t supplant anything I learned in Shas or Chassidus, but it certainly augmented, and I was grateful for that.