Is There Still Midrash Today?

Finding midrash in your local synagogue and your local movie theater

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Art, Music, & Literature

The process of Midrash can also be seen in art, music, and literature. Chagall's paintings are often modern expressions of traditional themes. The spiritual hymn "Let My People Go" took a well-known phrase from the Bible, one that Moses directed to Pharaoh, and reframed it as referring to blacks talking to Southern slave owners.

Let's look at a modern midrash on Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3. Here is a [partial] translation of verses 1 to 8:

"To everything there is a season,

And a time for every purpose under heaven:

"A time for being born and a time for dying,

A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;

A time for slaying and a time for healing...

"A time for loving and a time for hating;

A time for war and a time for peace."

The 1960s hit "Turn, Turn, Turn," sung by the Byrds and written by folk singer Pete Seeger, begins as a fairly straightforward musical presentation of the Bible text.

Chorus:

"To everything, turn, turn, turn,

There is season, turn, turn, turn,

And a time for every purpose under heaven.

"A time to be born, a time to die,

A time to plant, a time to reap,

A time to kill, a time to heal,

A time to laugh, a time to weep."

And the second stanza is also faithful to the biblical text:

"A time of love, a time of hate,

A time of war, a time of peace,

A time you may embrace,

A time to refrain from embracing."

Seeger leaves out certain verses and rearranges the sequence, but the song retains the flow of the biblical text--untilthe last lines. Where Ecclesiastes ends with "A time for war, and a time for peace," the Byrds' hit adds a 1960s anti-war postscript to reflect the mood of the time:

"A time to love, a time to hate,

A time of peace, I swear it's not too late."

The author of Ecclesiastes states that there is a time for everything in life, predeter­mined by a power beyond our control. Pete Seeger's song completely changes the mean­ing: War and peace are in the hands of human beings; the choices that people make can change the world.

The list goes on and on: Leonard Bernstein's Jeremiah is an example of music-as-midrash. John Steinbeck's East of Eden, Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers, and (more recently) Anita Diamant's The Red Tent each took a biblical theme and wove it into a story, creating a literary midrash of its own.

Making Midrash

The Rabbis took the Bible seriously, searching for new and deeper meaning from the text and for an understanding (or, better, understandings) that spoke to their day and age. Our attempts to understand and interpret the Bible today--be they lit­erary (like classic midrashim), musical, or artistic--demonstrate that we, too, are trying to incorporate sacred scripture into our own lives.

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Gershon Schwartz was the rabbi of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, Penn., from 2000-2003. He co-authored Swimming in the Sea of Talmud: Lessons for Everyday Living.