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Friday, January 3, 2014

"Midrash" (Sandy Eisenberg Sasso)

TITLE: Midrash: Reading the Bible with Question Marks
AUTHOR: Sandy Eisenberg Sasso
PUBLISHER: Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013, (170 pages).

This book has a subtitle that can scare off the pious and those who revere the Word of God. How can we question the Holy Scriptures? Aren't we suppose to revere the Word and not question it? The key to the book is to understand that there is a difference between "questioning the truth in the Bible" versus "reading the Bible with question marks." The former tries to shut down with skepticism while the latter tries to dig deeper with anticipation for greater revelation. In fact, it is not the questioning of the Bible that is the point. It is letting the Bible question us that makes it all so revealing. In our modern world of science and technological know-how, our basic study paradigm is to search, analyze, take apart, and to understand the broken pieces. It takes the wise and discerning to sieve out the Word amid the words, to observe the specifics without forgetting the nuances, to separate parts with an eye on the whole, and to appreciate the bigger picture collectively once the smaller parts are understood for what they mean individually.   The first part of the book explains the origins of Midrash, which is to learn to approach Scripture as if God is speaking to us directly. Sasso gives us an insight into Midrash not just as a document but a way of understanding the Bible, through the awareness that the Word of God is not truth stuck in the concrete of time, but is Truth that continues to flow in a continuous stream of truth revealed and truth to be revealed. There are connections to be learned. There are messages that are relevant through all time. There is room for human imagination as God's Word gets revealed more and more. Midrash reminds us that reading the Bible is beyond literal understanding. It includes appreciation of the literary beauty. It means learning to look at truth through stories of life past, present, and future. The famous words of Amos Oz are instructive: "Fundamentalists live life with an exclamation point. I prefer to live my life with a question mark."

Sasso writes with a keen understanding of many non-Jewish readers. She gives an explanation of what Hasidism, Mishnah, the Talmud, the Midrash, and other Rabbinic literature. Hasidism is a mystical tradition that started in the 18th Century, reminding us that God's revelation is a continuous process. The Mishnah comprises of 6 sections. Each section comprises 63 tractates which is further subdivided into chapters and paragraphs. This Mishnah can be understood as the "Oral Torah" while the written text is the "Written Torah." The commentary to the Mishna is called the Gemara. This original Mishna (oral Torah) and the Gemara (commentary) together forms the Talmud. The situation gets more interesting as there are two versions of Talmud: Palestinian (completed 4CE) and the Babylonian (completed 500CE). The midrash is a kind of a "meaning maker" comprising both a product as well as a process. The product is in the form of a group of literature that interprets Holy Scripture. The process is the time of which the interpretation is continually done. Thus, in Midrash, one is able to venture into the ancient texts and at the same time, try to make sense of the present contexts and how the Scriptures can speak into every era. This is done in four levels.
  1. The first is the "peshat" which is a straight reading of the text.
  2. The second is the "remez" which connects one text to the other to find out what each text is pointing to or hinting at.
  3. The third level is that of "drash" which requires one to search out deeper meanings, and try to fill in missing gaps through their best understanding available.
  4. The fourth level is "sod" which is mystical.
What is fascinating is how Sasso tells how the first letters of each word are put together, and after adding vowels, it sounds like "pardes" which means "orchard." After establishing the basics of what Midrash is, Sasso brings us through 11 chapters of practical application of Midrash as product as well as process. Readers will learn how:
  • Midrash speaks to us in the present tense and to build our faith;
  • How God's revelation continues to touch us as we let questions open us up;
  • Midrash teaches us to consider other opinions respectfully and to treat our own humbly;
  • Midrash shows us how to see the world of pain and hurt through the eyes of grace and forgiveness;
  • Using the example of Cain and Able, Midrash instructs us about the content of the quarrel that led to the murder. Is it over economics or over personal property rights? It makes one understand Cain's rage over fairness, even though one may not agree with the eventual murder. It tells us how anger can lead us to sin even in matters we think are right.

Reading this book helps me appreciate the place of Midrash in Jewish holy literature and the process of interpretation and commentary. Some may not be comfortable with the flood of imaginations and creative filling in the gaps when reading the Word of God. Some may even accuse the Midrash as a way to add-subtract-modify the Holy Word. Midrash does not do that. It simply casts some light to enhance the understanding of the contexts using questions to guide appreciation. Questioning of the text does not mean subjecting the text to human scrutiny. Asking questions of the text simply means subjecting ourselves to the texts, for the Word to teach and guide us, and for us to be open and revere the Truth revealed. After all, the Word of God is also called the Living Word. Why then should anyone of us be stuck with paradigms that treat the Bible as a history book or a book written by human hands that cannot be changed. In other words, the Word of God does not change, but because of the Word of God, we change. The Midrash is one way to facilitate that change.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Paraclete Press in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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