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Issue Date:  May 26, 2006

By Judith M. Kunst
Paraclete Press, 166 pages, $15.95
Midrash through Christian eyes


The Jewish practice of Midrash encourages people to question and to wonder. Take for example the familiar story of Lot’s wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back on the destruction of her city. There has always been the nagging question as to what temptation could have been strong enough for Lot’s wife -- her name is said to be Irit -- to risk all by looking back? Midrash has come up with multiple theories, the most common ones centering on a mother’s love. It was suggested that Irit had two daughters whose Sodomite husbands had refused to leave. What mother could resist the need to know what was becoming of her daughters?

In The Burning Word: A Christian Encounter with Jewish Midrash, Christian poet and teacher Judith Kunst tells us that “the name of Moses appears again and again” in Midrash and rabbinic literature, as in the story of Moses and the burning bush. So it goes that Moses, out tending the flock, had his attention drawn to a bush on fire. Doing a double take, curious as to why the bush was not consumed, he approached it to investigate. Only at this point did God call Moses by name -- that is, only after Moses had made the first move did God reveal God’s self. Thus, concludes Ms. Kunst, curiosity is the first step in Midrash.

To practice Midrash, then, “is to search out the questions, all of them, knowing that at any point our questions may pull us into the place where divine mystery dwells.”

“Moses had his burning bush, we have the Bible,” the “burning word” of the title.

Whereas indeed the question is the starting point, equally essential to Midrash is imagination: the creative response to the question and the conversation that ensues. In Jewish practice, Midrash is a communal activity, a “high stakes conversation” in which the text at hand as well as all the various responses to it are given equal weight.

The bottom line is that successful Midrash does not depend on consensus or even agreement. “On the contrary, Jews accept the impossibility of finding clear answers to troubling questions.” What is important is to keep the conversation going. “Ultimately,” writes Ms. Kunst, “from a mainstream Jewish perspective, it is more important to be in conversation with each other and get it ‘wrong’ than to get it ‘right’ but have the conversation stop.”

It should be noted that the “creative response” is not about making up something new, but seeing something new. Practitioners of Midrash are repeatedly reminded to “turn it and turn it again, for everything is contained therein.” Thus, Midrash is never expected to end.

Midway through the book, Ms. Kunst turns to the New Testament to suggest that Christianity itself has been deeply influenced by Midrash, which plumbed the “hidden and sometimes metaphorical connections between biblical prophecy and Jesus’ life and teaching.” Indeed, she goes on, “classical Midrash and the Talmud were compiled and canonized in roughly the same period as Christian scripture.”

Ms. Kunst could have developed this Christian link to Midrash more explicitly in order to shed more light on how Midrashic speculation became literalized into Christian thought. But maybe that is our job. To that end, sprinkled within the chapters are intermissions inviting readers to do their own Midrash. Some are guided, some more open-ended. Book clubs and scripture study groups would find these prompts helpful.

Writing out of the Christian tradition, which values information over conjecture, Ms. Kunst would like to restart the conversation from within at the risk of smashing the idols of certitude. And as a conversation starter, I would like to know why Moses was rewarded for his curiosity and Irit punished for hers. Midrash, anyone?

Judith Bromberg is a high school literature teacher and college counselor in Kansas City, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2006

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