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. The 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.
It’s Time to Write the Modern Midrash http://t.co/ixCrtSBkV7
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) October 24, 2014