Sunday, May 27, 2007

Personal Midrash

Over the recent holiday of Shavuot, I helped a friend of mine to put together a workshop on Personal Midrash at a synagogue in Las Vegas. It was an effort that I am very excited about and it went extremely well.

Midrash is the ancient rabbinic practice of interpreting the Bible. The text of the Bible can often be extremely terse, giving few details of events and sometimes refraining from explicitly describing important elements. The rabbis who created the ancient Midrash, loved to fill in these gaps with highly imaginative descriptions of what they thought might have happened. Sometimes they did this to explain things that seemed troubling or inexplicable otherwise. Sometimes they did it to enhance the spiritual meaning of the text for them.

A wonderful example of this process is a midrash on the Akeidah (the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Avraham). The text (Gen 22:2) says that God told Avraham to "take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering." And, then the text says, Avraham promptly got up early the next morning to perform this deed. No objection is recorded

But the ancient midrashists were not satisfied with this. And so they imagined an entire conversation between God and Avraham, where Avraham expressed objections and disbelief. In this way, the midrashists gave the text a richer meaning for them and helped it live spiritually.

It's worth pausing to consider something peculiar about the way the Rabbis added meaning to the text. They did not, for example, say, 'this is the meaning of this passage' or 'this passage is the Bible's discussion of this abstract concept'. (An abstract concept would be something like obedience or free will or grace.) Instead, they added meaning by adding concretes to the text. That is, they added meaning to the story by telling another story. They added another layer onto it that shifts what it means to us.

This adding stories to the story is a fascinating way to create meaning. The question for us is, can we do the same thing with our own lives?


We generally think of texts as something written down on a piece of paper. But our lives are texts, too. They are full of stories and experiences. They are rich and varied and complex. Just as the Rabbis put an intense focus of examination and imagination on the biblical text in their attempt to find meaning in it, so too can we find spiritual meaning by doing a midrash on our own lives. And this meaning, just as it is with the Bible, can be taken to the next step -- we can use it to find insight and wisdom. Insight and wisdom that can lead to action that can transform our lives for the better and can give us a better understanding of what God wants from us.

Clinical Pastoral Education -- a type of chaplaincy education I am deeply involved with these days -- is based on a process that is something like this. Its founder, Anton Boisen, taught us to think of our patients as being "living human documents" -- that is, as texts -- from whom we can learn. We engage in an intense examinations of these "documents" by holding seminars where we talk about our encounters with our patients in great detail. From these seminars comes a greater sense of the meaning of the encounter and what was spiritual about it. And we also gain wisdom and insight that helps us take actions in the future that can allow us to better serve our patients.

During the course of my own training in Clinical Pastoral Education, I was introduced to a fascinating book (The Art of Theological Reflection by Killen and De Beer) about how Christians can find meaning and direction by going through a process of finding meaning through a way of intensely examining events in their own lives and then reflecting about it. My effort to create a path to Personal Midrash owes a debt to Killen and De Beer's work.

They postulate that there is an observable pattern to the way people form insight that changes their lives (page 31):
When we enter our experience, we encounter our feelings.

When we pay attention to those feelings, images arise.

Considering and questioning those images may spark insight.

Insight leads, if we are willing and ready, to action.
I will explain how I understand and use this process as we go, but I want to start by focusing on the question of experience. What Kileen and De Beer propose is akin to a core theology of mine (and, I believe, to an important part of the theology of the branch of Judaism to which I belong, the Conservative Movement) -- that God's transmitting of God's message to us did not just happen at one place and time.

Rather, this revelation happens constantly, in every generation. It happens through our various efforts to connect with the Holy. It can happen through study. It can happen through prayer. And it can also happen through our meditating on the moments in our lives that had the most meaning for us and attempting to reenter those experiences to find meaning in them that we might have missed the first time. Just as Jacob was surprised (
Genesis 28:16) to realize that God was in the place he was but that he did not see it (until he dreamed), we often miss the full presence of God on our first look, even when we feel deep meaning on that first look. Like Jacob, we need to dream.

The way we make ourselves dream is by reentering our experience. But we do not do that alone. Because we need God to help us find true meaning. And the way we bring God in is by bringing God's word -- Torah -- in. It is one of the arrogances of the modern mind to imagine that we can find true spiritual meaning without God's help. In our search for meaning, we must do as the ancient Midrashists did. They read the Bible intertextually. That is, they understood one part of the Torah by reading it as if it was intimately related to another part, no matter how far away in the narrative the two parts might be.

We must take this same bold spirit to the task of rereading our own lives. We must read our lives as if they are part of the Torah and as if the Torah's story was our story. This is the essence of the central command of
Pesach -- to explicate the verse "a wandering aramean was my father" (Deuteronomy 26:5) in a way that is in accordance with what the text of the haggadah states: that "in every single generation one is obligated to look upon himself as if he personally had gone forth out of Egypt."

And, so, to do our own Personal Midrash on our own lives, we cannot abandon the text of the Torah -- we need it to bless our lives with a link to Eternal Meaning and Wisdom (that is, to bless the 'text' of our lives with a link to God). Nor can we abandon our lives and have only the text. This would make the Living Torah a dead thing. It would be a desecration.

Here is how we do it. We reenter our Holy experiences by slowing ourselves down. We must perform a kind of Tzimtzum -- withdrawal -- to purge our minds of judgments. Our judgments are our opinions that we have already formed. They block us from seeing things anew -- from singing a new song (a Shir Hadash) from our experiences. We must withdraw from them. We must purge our mind of them, and get back to just the event itself.

We do this slowing down and this withdrawal by retelling the story (it is best to do this with a group). But we must retell it with this discipline -- no judgments. No how's and why's. Just the facts, as they used to say on Dragnet. Just the things you can recount with your five senses. What your eyes saw. What your hands felt. What your ears heard.

[This process of clearing the judgments you created from your mind in order to try and get closer to where the Divine was in the experience reminds me of one of my favorite Heschel quotes: Things created conceal the Creator.]

When you're done with this, you can move onto feelings. Feelings, like experience, are neither judgments nor opinions. Feelings tend to be something that has resonance in our bodies. 'I felt tension in my shoulders.' 'I felt excitement as my breathing sped up.' Feelings, then can lead us to come up with images in our heads.

It's here -- with images -- that the wisdom of Torah can come back into the Midrash process. We (and, again, a group is helpful here) try to read our lives along with the Torah. Are there stories from the Torah that resonate with the images we have conjured up? Does an image of being visited in our sorrow remind us of Avraham greeting visitors from his tent door at the Oaks of Mamre? Does a feeling of emptiness we had remind us of the pain of Sarah when she thought she was barren? Can we use these connections to conjur up new stories to add onto the stories of our lives?

We can then ask ourselves what we have learned from bringing the text into our own lives. Has it increased our insight and understanding? Has it deepened our sense of the spiritual meaning of the experience? Do the actions of our foremothers and forefathers with whom we have now connected give us new paths of action that we did not see before? How have we grown through this process? This is Personal Midrash.

I would call this "Midrash on Ourselves -- the search for meaning, the search for God. Letting Torah be our guide." It means anything but Midrash being anything we want it to be. It's a dialogue with the tradition and its texts. The texts give our lives meaning and our lives give meaning to the text.

In the coming weeks, I hope to have time to compare this process with some other things that are already out there, especially Bibliodrama. I am only just beginning my journey of learning about Bibliodrama, but I understand that it understands itself as starting from the text. Personal Midrash, on the other hand, starts from the individual's experience. But, I am sure that the two must have a great deal in common as well.

In Las Vegas, by the way, we imagined the workshop having a little different order than what I outlined above. We talked about something like this:
  • Introducing the topic of finding God by focusing our attention on our experiences by
    • Talking about Jacob's realization that God was in that place, although he did not know it (Genesis 28:16).
    • Holding a discussion asking people to reflect on what kind of experiences are ones people find most meaningful.
    • Asking for a volunteer willing to recount such a meaningful experience.
      • Requiring him or her to do it by sticking to describing it according to the concretes of their senses.
    • Then the volunteer is asked to step aside and quietly observe while the group carries out the next steps in the process:
      • Reflecting together on what feelings were sparked by listening to the story.
      • Reflecting on what images came to mind from these feelings.
        • These should not be complete thoughts, but should arise almost out of a stream-of-consciousness process -- whatever just pops into your mind.
      • Coming up with links between these images and "Holy Writ". These can be stories from the Bible and the Jewish tradition, but they could also be from film (Woody Allen movies are particularly rich for me) or novels or poetry.
      • Finally, the group is asked what spiritual meaning this reflection has sparked for them.
    • And as a last step, the volunteer is brought back into the circle and is asked to reflect on what it felt like to hear people talk about his or her experience like this, and what new insights he or she might have gained from it. Do they now understand the event differently or more richly?
    • #*#

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