Posted July 20, 2006
Book: A Christian Encounter with Jewish Midrash: The Burning Word
Author: Judith M. Kunst
Paraclete Press. Brewster. MA. 2006. Pp. 156
An Excerpt from the Jacket:
Midrash invites us to search the Bible for what is unfamiliar and unclear,
and to wrestle with the texts, those "burning words," trusting that the God
of the Bible will meet us there.
"Judith Kunst not only introduces us to the power of midrash, but also shows
how this approach has given new meaning to her Christian faith."
An Excerpt from the Book:
To Study is to Play
From the moment I first began seeking to understand the "something vital"
that midrash has to offer me as a writer and as a person of faith, I have
been struck by the simplicity, playfulness, and almost childlike ease with
which Jewish writers approach both scripture and their own creative response
to difficulties. It's hard to find a resemblance between the delight and
pleasure of scripture study evident in Jewish literature, and the somber,
suspicious, indignant and nit-picky picture the Christian tradition has
often painted of Jewish leaders and teachers.
This is not to say Midrashic rabbis consider their work frivolous or
insignificant. Much the opposite, say the Biblical scholar Avivah Zornbert,
who points to a passionate verse in Psalm 119:92: "If your Torah had not
been my plaything - sba'asbu'ai - I should have perished in my affliction.
The play-activity of Bible study, says Zornberg "is the secret of [Jewish}
survival, enigmatic, never fully understood." She explains that the Hebrew
word sba'asbu'a "has at its roots the word sba'a (al yishb' u) to pay
attention, in its doubled form, this becomes sba'asbu'a, which means play,
the diffuse attention to multiple aspects of an object."
If I think about how small children go about their play, Zornberg's
sophisticated definition becomes clear. My three-year-old, Aidan, will
zigzag around a single room for an hour, using just a few toys to play out
three or for totally different, complex scenarios. I once met a
five-year-old girl named Emma who held up the end of a telephone cord and
said earnestly, "Today this is a bumblebee, but yesterday it was a trumpet."
To say a child has a short attention span is inaccurate, a child's
attention, rather, is diffuse, spread out over many objects of intense
focus, or using one object in many different ways.
Play - whether the game is a child's hide-and-seek or a rabbi's midrash -
has a set structure, a flexible form that varies according to different time
periods and cultures. Key ingredients to structured play usually include a
leader, a community (real or imagined), a challenge, and an outcome (success
The folk tradition of medieval Hasidic sermons represents perhaps the high
point of playfulness in the history of Midrash. Medieval European-Jewish
congregations, their minds uncluttered by television, radio, or even books,
took zesty pleasure in listening to a rabbi's imaginative play with
scripture, expecting to be both edified and entertained as they followed the
preacher's meandering path through the Bible.
The structure of this midrash sermon was simple: The preaching rabbi, called
the darshan or "midrash-maker," would always begin by reciting the assigned
weekly Torah portion. Then, without commenting on that scripture at all, he
would immediately recite another verse, called the "verse from afar," that
seemed to bear no relation whatsoever to the original portion. The challenge
for the preacher was first to raise a question or problem in this new verse,
then to imaginatively show how the initial verse could be used to solve the
originally stated problem, and in the process, draw from the entire exercise
a spiritual lesson or insight.
In one example, a rabbi named Judah ben Simon draws his opening verse from
the Torah portion Leviticus 19:23: "And when you shall come into the land,
you shall plant all manner of trees." He recites this verse, then
immediately cites his "verse from afar", Deuteronomy 13:5: "After the Lord
your God shall you walk." These two seemingly random verses now need to be
connected to a problem and a solution by the bridge of the rabbi's
The problem Rabbi Simon discerns in his "verse from afar" is: How can a
human being "walk after" God himself? He weaves in other verses from the
Bible to intensify the question: God's path goes through "the great waters"
(Ps. 77:20), God's footsteps are "unknowable" (Deut. 4:24), and God's
presence is "all fire" (Dan. 7:9) - how then can any person walk as he
Up to this point the rabbi takes the Bible's command literally: How can we
physically walk after a divine being? But suddenly he turns back to the
opening verse and finds a playful, non-literal way to obey the command. "But
in fact the Holy One, blessed be He, from the beginning of the creation of
the world, was occupied before all else with planting. For thus, it is
written "and the Lord God planted a garden at first in Eden' (Gen. 2:8), and
so you shall also - when you first enter the land you should occupy
yourselves first with nothing bu planting.
God plants, says the rabbi, and this is a divine activity we can emulate.
Thus the midrash-maker arrives at the place he started, having solved the
problem of the second verse and infused the first with spiritual import.
"Thus it is written," he says, "And when you shall come into the land, you
shall plant all manner of trees . . ."
Why should we plant? Because planting was God's first act after the creation
of the world, and in our own acts of planting we imitate God.
Table of Contents:
1. Intimacy: turn and return
2. Reverence: the word is real
3. Curiosity: the word is burning
4. Community: to argue is to love
5. Suffering: the yeast of exile
6. Attention: to study is to play
7. Imagination: bring the whole tithe
8. Repetition: the mirrored voice
9. Truth: freedom in the rough
10. Creation: a fire in the belly
11. Revelation: word without end