Modern Midrash

Contemporary artists expand the Jewish bookshelf.

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"Not trying to be a prophet
but he who parted the sea,
is a part of me
and when I look in my heart I see
the same mystery."

These opening lines of a song by Matt Bar, a contemporary Jewish rapper, describe his inspiration to dip into the waters of Jewish tradition, and interpret it through hip hop and folk rap. Like many contemporary Jewish artists, writers, and musicians, Bar sees himself as part of an unbroken chain of Jewish textual interpretation, and he views his enterprise as modern midrash.

storahtelling

From Storahtelling's original production of
Becoming Israel. Featuring Storahtelling artists
Sarah Sokolic, Emily Warshaw and Jon Riddleberger.

Many have been tempted to label all works of art inspired by traditional themes or biblical characters as midrash. While appreciating these diverse works of Jewish art, from Agnon's written words to Chagall's painted scenes, perhaps we can sketch a more circumscribed set of boundaries for the rabbinic genre of midrash and its modern counterpart.

Traditional midrash, written and compiled between the first and 11th centuries, are commentaries on the books of the Bible which often focus on specific words, verses, or chapters. In these works, which include Genesis Rabbah and Midrash Tehillim, a darshan, or interpreter, looks for unusual words, curious plot twists, or contradictions and uses these textual anomalies as a window for interpretation or re-imagination of the back-story to the brief biblical tales.

While Bar's hip-hop beats are new to Torah study, many of his songs maintain the rabbinic method of close reading and a love of word play. For example, in Bar's rap Exodus 5, he responds to an odd plot twist: The Israelite elders seem convinced that redemption is near at the end of Exodus 4, but in the next chapter Pharaoh's decree for increased labor instantly crushes all their hope. Why this sudden loss of faith?

Bar fills in the gaps, putting these words into Pharaoh's mouth: "Listen to me Moses because I know that you know my name…I don't even know His name, I know you know my name."

In Bar's version of the story, Pharaoh claims tangible power, and points out that the Israelite God is invisible and doesn't have a reputation or a name. To explain the elder's wavering faith, Bar evokes an earlier conversation between Moses and God, in which Moses persuades God to reveal His name as a means of assuaging the doubts of the people (Exodus 3:13-15). Like many midrashim, this rap answers a local question by connecting the dots between various parts of the biblical narrative.

Bar's Bible Raps Project is also similar to traditional midrash insofar as both are polyphonic--bringing together many diverse voices. Traditional midrash includes many opinions on a single verse often in dialogue or disagreement. Bar and his creative director Ori Salzberg (brother of this author) also endeavor to make their concept democratic, by running workshops in camps and schools that encourage kids to write their own musical midrash and add their voices to the mix.

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Alieza Salzberg

Alieza Salzberg is a graduate student at the Hebrew University where she studies Rabbinic Literature. She is a fellow at the Hartman Institute's Seder Nashim, Beit Midrash for Judaism and Gender. She lives, writes and studies in Jerusalem.