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Why Can’t I Write a Midrash?

When the official Jewish Bible was closed, the rabbis still had questions they wanted to answer, so they started writing the Talmud (The Mishnah and then the Gemara), a compendium of (endless) arguments, commentaries, word play, stories and Gematria (a method for finding deeper meaning in the text, using the number values of the letters). And then, after the Talmud was considered closed, the next generation of Rabbis still had more questions, and answers, about what God really meant in the Bible, so they kept writing and collected the work in new books of Midrashim (a Midrash is a general term for the way the rabbis interpreted and elaborated on the biblical text, and Midrashim is the plural of Midrash).

Midrashim exist in many different forms: stories, homilies, parables, and legal exegesis. In a way, Midrash is the earliest form of fan fiction, where we take existing characters and situations from popular TV shows or books and imagine new scenarios for them. Just like we want to enter the world of Harry Potter, or J.R.R. Tolkien, or Little Women, our ancestors wanted to enter the world of the Bible and imagine themselves in the role of Abraham or Sarah or Miriam or Moses. They liked to think about how they would have behaved in front of the Burning Bush, or facing the Sea of Reeds with the Egyptian soldiers coming up behind them. And they wanted to imagine what it would be like to face God, and speak to God, and criticize God directly the way the characters in the Bible were able to do.

“I tell God my opinion all the time.”

The best known Midrash may be the legend of Abraham as a young child smashing his father’s idols. He tells his father that the idols destroyed each other, and his father didn’t buy it, because idols aren’t living beings. To which little Abraham says, exactly. According to MyJewishLearning.com, this Midrash, collected in Genesis Rabbah, was created to explain why God would choose Abraham in particular to be the father of the Jewish people, because he was willing to challenge the conventional wisdom of his time.

            Midrash fascinates me because it allows us to reinterpret the Bible through our own eyes. It’s about more than just figuring out what the original writers meant, it’s about finding something in the story that rings true for us in particular. A Midrash doesn’t have to be factual in order to express a deeper truth from the Bible, and therefore, possibly, meaningful to the reader as well.

            Unfortunately, since we have such a long tradition of rabbis (aka men) telling us what to think, many people still feel too intimidated to read the Bible through their own eyes. They imagine that the rabbis, who were often already a thousand or two thousand years distant from the source material themselves, must have heard the voice of God. But just because they had the confidence to believe they knew what was right, doesn’t mean they were right. Or that their answers are right for us.

“My answers are always right.”

            Midrash writing wasn’t just popular in the distant past, modern writers have taken it on as well. Consider Anita Diamant’s book The Red Tent, a reimagining of the story of Dinah in the Bible. Judith Plaskow is another modern feminist Midrash writer, who embarked on Midrash writing as a way to include the female voice in the story of the Jews, while still respecting the Bible itself and the traditions of Judaism. She wrote an essay called “The Coming of Lilith,” re-imagining Lilith as a woman who was wrongly punished for wanting to be considered equal to Adam. The original Lilith Midrash was written by men, as an attempt to make sense of the two different versions of the Adam and Eve creation myth in Genesis. In the first version, both Adam and his wife are created from the earth, and in the second version Eve is created from Adam’s rib (or his side), and the rabbis decided that these were two separate creation stories. In the first, the wife God created for Adam, Lilith, was too uppity and thought that she was equal to Adam, so, of course, she turned out to be a demon who defied God and threatened to eat children (no, really). When God created a second wife for Adam, Eve, God decided that she needed to know her place, so she was created out of Adam himself, as a subsidiary to him. Of course she still went and ate that apple, so, women, feh. It’s all their fault.

“That’s not nice!”

Judith Plaskow’s version of Lilith isn’t a demon at all, she’s a woman who refuses to be submissive to her husband and leaves him. Eve, the second wife, is told that Lilith is a demon who has to be kept out of the Garden of Eden because she’s a threat to children and women, etc, etc. But Eve gradually recognizes that Lilith is just a woman, like herself, and someone she could be friends with.

Both Midrashim represent the mindset, and the time period, of the writers themselves, and both give us new ways to read the original stories in the Bible and try to understand the inconsistencies and mysteries therein. Can I believe that there are women whose power to seduce or manipulate men can seem demonic? Yes. Are there women who are called demons who are really just people being held back from living their own lives? Yes. Are either of those readings what God, or the authors of the Bible, meant us to learn from the original stories in the Bible? We can’t know. The truth of the stories, and the lessons of the stories, are up to us to decide. And we can each decide differently.

“I don’t think Cricket believes that.”

I want to help my students, children and adults, see that Judaism isn’t a religion of passive obedience, or at least that it doesn’t have to be. If you are willing to engage in the storytelling, and the story-hearing, and take ownership of your own beliefs and values, Judaism can be as dynamic and meaningful as you need it to be.

            And yet, I keep struggling to write my own Midrashim, or to plan a way to teach people how to write Midrash. I’m intimidated by exactly those people who I want to thumb my nose at, and I think this happens in a lot of areas of my life. I know what I think, and what I believe, but I don’t feel like my beliefs matter, or have value, compared to the people who are RIGHT. The dichotomy between my confidence in my own opinions, on the one hand, and my belief that I have no right to that confidence on the other, is a constant.

The Bible is so tempting to work with, because it is notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to certain details. Don’t get me wrong, you will be bored to tears with lists of ancestors and sacrifices and tribes and kosher and unkosher animals, but the storytelling style is very lean and leaves a lot of room for the reader’s imagination. It’s instinctive to start asking questions like, what must have happened behind the scenes to make the characters act that way? What might they have been feeling or thinking that they didn’t say? And what else happened that the writers of the Bible decided to leave out, if we assume that these are true stories?

            But I keep hearing the rabbis (ancient and current day) yelling at me that I don’t know what I’m talking about, and I keep hearing my imaginary students telling me that this work is too hard and not worth the effort, because we could just read the existing commentaries and Midrashim, or we could write new stories of our own instead of dragging meaning from such a stubborn book. And I can’t disagree. But I’m still compelled by the possibility that I could find a way to place myself in the world of my ancestors, and see more of what was there than I’ve been able to see so far.

            I just don’t know where to start. Maybe with Lilith. Maybe, for me, Lilith isn’t a demon, or even a separate person from Eve. Maybe I can see both creation stories as part of the same story, with one woman seeing herself as equal to her husband, and subsidiary to him, at different times. Because, why wouldn’t the first woman be as conflicted over who she thinks she is, or who she thinks she should be, as I am?

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

88 responses »

  1. I would love to read your midrash. I know it would be well thought out and enjoyable to read. This was such a wonderful explanation of how and why we question everything.

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  2. Thank you (and thanks, Izzy!): this is sort of what I tried to do when I wrote my first NaNo practice novel, Creator: Friend or Foe. I noticed, however, that following the parshiot gives you an episodic, rather than a plot-based storyline, so didn’t work for me as a novel.

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    • So interesting! When I finally understood that the Bible had multiple writers and editors, it made so much more sense than a single writer. For some reason, though, no one will let me at the Torah scroll with my red pen. Harrumph.

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  3. This is a very interesting post. I think you could indeed write a midrash. You have such a way with words and are very thoughtful in what you write. I think you should do it.

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  4. Wow, you have set yourself a good challenge. Keep us posted.

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  5. Don’t leave us hanging–please write a Midrash and post it here for us to read.

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  6. I think this kind of thing happened and still happens with science too. One day we will rewrite those tales.

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  7. Imagine being the first ever woman with no preconceived ideas of what women should be able to do or be. The possibilities bare fabulous
    It seems to me (and remember I am without religion) that the rabbis interpreting the scriptures thousands of years later are inflicting their preconceived ideas of femininity on what is a story of something newly birthed and imagined. Like a father seeing his child born and already expecting her to have exactly the attributes of her paternalgrandmother. And the expectation being so strong that it may indeed hamper the freedom of that child to grow into her own person. I am totally unqualified but the idea of writing a Lilith character sounds like this amazing liberating landscape. That’s not to say I don’t understand your being intimidated by all the weight of history. I totally do. But I am excited by the possibility.

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    • The fascinating thing about the Lilith stories is that they clearly forget that Lilith or eve would have been the second person and first woman ever in the world. For example, Lilith supposedly threatens to kill babies; what babies?

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      • Indeed! That does sound illogical.

      • In fact, on thinking about it, it reminds me of an ex Prime Minister of ours who wanted to make refugees into monsters and claimed that the refugees coming by boat to Australia were “throwing children overboard”. It was complete fabrication – despicable propaganda. It’s very saddening to think that this kind of manipulation has been going on for thousands of years.

  8. Amazing that the Southern Baptist churches of my childhood had their own version of your midrash: priesthood of the believer. Each person stood on her own interpretation of her beliefs and relationship with God. There was no priest to interpret for the individual believer. I loved the idea that I could interpret the scriptures on my own.
    Unfortunately in 1988, the group of ultra political right wing conservatives that had control of the denomination made a resolution that pastors of churches had the final say in scripture interpretation and doctrines. I almost always disagreed with the pastors. I left the church somewhere around that time.
    Write your own midrash. I think that’s what God intended.

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  9. “It’s about more than just figuring out what the original writers meant, it’s about finding something in the story that rings true for us in particular.”

    Your writing causes me to pause and think and remember. Thank you. Here’s to a wonderful New Year for all.

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  10. I’m with Leggy Peggy and Marie Q Rogers. I can’t wait to read more! 😊

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  11. Really interesting, Rachal. Can’t wait for more.

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  12. This was very interesting to read! I think I’ve got some more reading to do about Midrashim, now.

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  13. I found this very enjoyable. Best of luck!

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  14. Your beliefs do matter! Fascinating post as always. Happy holidays.

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  15. Rachel, I strongly encourage you to follow your soul and heart yearnings and write your own midrash and you’ve really got me thinking about those old Bible stories. I watch quite a lot of archaeological documentaries and it’s fascinating seeing the places where the stories took place and that always adds so much texture and meaning.
    I’ll mention the story of Jonah and the whale. He was told to go to Ninevah but he baulked and went the other way. It sounds like you’ve been given a mission to carry out there, and not to let doubt get in the way. You need to believe in yourself. That you can do it. You’ve dedicated yourself to writing your book and writing all the stories in this blog over an extended period. So, clearly you’re able to do this. Good luck with it.
    Best wishes,
    Rowena

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  16. Rachel, as I read this post, I thought of Lectio Divina, a prayer method that engages Scripture with the question “What are these words saying to me today?” In my imagination, I can place myself within the setting of a Bible story and listen for what it is telling me about me.
    Happy writing in the New Year.

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  17. Once again, a very thought-provoking post. My Episcopalian priest is very interested in and respectful of Judaism…think I’ll forward this to him. Have a feeling parts of it will end up in a sermon. 🙂 Wishing you and your mother a happy and healthy new year.

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  18. Thank you for writing a sort of Midrash in your wonderful explanation of the term today and your thoughts on Lilith and/or Eve. I’d never heard the way you explained it, as two possible women, in fact I’ve heard so little about Lilith, that I thought she was a modern construct! I was raised on the rib story; and in Mormonism (sorry LDS-ism) patriarch ‘rule’ (men are over women) is a real thing. I wasn’t raised traditionally, and have struggled a lot with that concept; because I see that everyone is flawed, and that includes men. We all have trials and struggles. So perhaps you were worrying a bit too much about the Rabbis ‘yelling’ voices and failed to realize you’ve made a heckuva start on your own Midrash. Just my thoughts.

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  19. Interesting analysis. The demonization of women reached a height, perhaps, in the Salem witch trials. Any independent woman who voiced her own opinion or chose her own life would probably have been victims. It’s not just a biblical interpretation. Good luck with your own stories!

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  20. Well said, Rachel. You make clear that Scripture is alive and interacts anew w/ every generation. ❤

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  21. Well said is right. I actually find I really enjoy learning all this stuff from you.
    Thank You and Merry Christmas

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  22. I had a midrash but fortunately some cortisone creme cleared it up. I kid, I kid. You know that I am a staunch believer that women should be free to voice their opinions except when I’m watching football. Okay, I think I got your blood pressure up, I’ll leave now. Kidding aside, I didn’t know anything about this topic and it was a quite interesting post. Learn something every Saturday! Happy new Year to you and yours, including of course the canine stars!

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  23. I am really enjoying your posts! I think if I wrote a midrash it would be about Noah’s anonymous wife. Or maybe the Moses’s mother, Yocheved. She had such a hard life. There is so much scope for imagination!

    I found a small article on women writing midrashim that you might find interesting.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1995/09/02/noahs-wife-revealed/248ad117-ac45-446b-8c18-ea9fa1f81d4d/

    Enjoy and Happy Belated Chag Sameach!
    Renata

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  24. I was going to mention Lectio Divina , but someone already did. I have always imagined myself in the story. The Ignatian tradition asked one to do just that. Maybe you could start with a less known character so you wouldn’t feel so intimidated by the rabbis in your head.

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  25. You can imagine the struggle we (non-Hebrew speakers) go through reading a translated Bible! Plus reading in the Roman way–linear and always having to have a premise/hypothesis. There’s plenty that we’re missing out. Thanks for this post, Rachel. We’re learning a lot from you.

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  26. Do you think maybe your Midrash has already started in the words of your blog over the many posts you’ve written? Thanks for explaining the Midrash and how various iterations of interpretation have developed in the Jewish tradition.

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  27. I love the story of Lilith!

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  28. Hope you write it, Rachel! Many agree with you…

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  29. I love the idea of thinking through the stories we are told from the Bible or any other instructional book. Often children will ask the simple questions that we as adults don’t think of, simply because we take the stories as immutable. I did hear a question on a rather silly tv show last week from a child. If Jesus was able to raise a man from the dead, why did he only do it once? I like your idea that Lilith would be in conflict around who she is or who she thinks she is – don’t we all?

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  30. Keep on writing. I love what you you.

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  31. Rachel, this isn’t just educational and interesting. It’s also a very good read! Thank you!

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  32. Hmm. Thoughtful insights. Stop arguing with yourself and just write it? You can.

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  33. Hi Rachel, my theory is that God created man and woman to be in His image, so that means you and I are in the image of God. Because God is only good, that means that every good, pure thought and intention can only be God. When you share this goodness you are sharing God. God is your words and actions that are good that come alive when they are expressed to us. We are an expression of who He is when we are good. I see God in you, When we recognize God in one another that is when He is here.

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  34. I’ve spent some time wondering if certain biblical texts aren’t an interpretation per say. I find it interesting that so many religions, Jewish, Christian, Islam, & even Buddhism, etc share many common themes.

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  35. Hello again. I have kept thinking about this post and have an idea. In Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving into the Wreck” she mentions a “book of myths in which our names do not appear.” I think it would be rewarding to imagine the nameless women who you can speculate were there but are not mentioned. The first one I thought of was a birth attendant for Sarah when she bore Isaac. We know there must have been such a person. Maybe you could try imagining someone like her.

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  36. I had no idea Lilith was a Midrash. I went to Yeshivah, but I seemed to have missed out on the good stuff. Lilith has always fascinated me. This might be why I write stories of vampires and things that go bump in the night.

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  37. Excellent, Rachel, as always! Shabbat shalom!

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  38. I love the idea of writing a midrash and I absolutely think you should go for it! I also absolutely love your characterization of midrash as fan fic – it kind of is!

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  39. I think you should write your own Midrash, regardless of what the rabbis say. I’ve tried to write my own, but haven’t got very far. I think Midrash looks simple (stylistically, I mean), but isn’t at all, particularly not the more famous ones, which are more polished (as opposed to the ones that are a simple point-to-point analogy).

    Have you read the book Learning to Read Midrash by Simi Peters?

    There’s a fascinating and unclear history to the Lillith story, which seems to be drawn largely from a non-rabbinic (possibly even anti-rabbinic) book called The Alphabet of Ben Sira, which then somehow got absorbed by the rabbinic tradition in the late Middle Ages and then was rediscovered by feminists in the twentieth century. That could be a story in itself, I think.

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  40. Is Lilith a popular or not popular name for people of Jewish descent? It was the name of Frazier Crane’s wife for instance. Does her insubservience make her a no go area like eg Jezebel and Salome?

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  41. Fascinating. I hope you can sidestep your ambivalence about writing your own midrash and incorporate it (the mixed feelings, the ambivalence) into your text. I know you can, judging by t his riveting post. We want more… Kia kaha.

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