Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Working the midrashic muscle -- imagination, the search for God, the path to action

I was heading up a steep wooded trail last week when I saw Daniel Matt -- one of the world's greatest scholars of the Zohar and of Kabbalah -- coming down the other way. He surprised me by stopping to talk. "It's easy to miss the turnoff to the overlook," he said. "Look for the tree shaped like an ayin with a little tzitzit hanging down."

It was a beautiful moment that said a lot not only about what a beautiful man Matt is, but also about how we can make Torah a living thing in our lives: Matt was clearly walking through the woods with his imagination -- an imagination primed to see the things of Judaism and the Torah everywhere -- alive and at work. But this mystical imagination was doing anything but taking him away from the world and his responsibilities to other human beings; he was still very much ready to stop and take the action of helping a person in need on his way.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the role of imagination in our spiritual lives. With my chaplaincy students this summer we did something called verbatim as theological event (VTE). Here, a student shares with a group the story of a visit with a patient. Then the group searches for images that describe the "heart of the matter" in the encounter with the patient.

I don't think of myself as a very visual person, but this summer I found myself growing in my imaginative abilities (what I call, exercising the midrashic muscle) through my participation in these seminars. I saw one encounter as a boat tossed in a storm with somebody on a larger ship reaching out trying to save the person inside, but unable to reach that person. In another encounter, I saw a glass wall standing between two people desperately trying to connect with one another. [Click here for a step-by-step description of how to carry out a VTE seminar.]

If this process stopped with image-making, it would just be an intellectual exercise. But what makes it about faith is that it is in fact meant to lead to action -- action inspired by where we see the hand of God in the encounter and what that tells us about how we can better walk in God's ways in what we do. This process of moving from examining an intense personal experience to taking action inspired by God and Torah is sometimes called theological reflection (see The Art of Theological Reflection by Christian scholars Killen and De Beer for an excellent description of a general approach to this process). But I prefer to call it Midrash HaHayyim, or Living Midrash (I first wrote about this in May).

Midrash, traditionally, was the ancient and highly imaginative process of interpreting the Bible. The ancient rabbis especially loved to "fill in the gaps" in places where the biblical story is especially terse. They did so in a way that often related to the situations they saw around them -- including the injustices from the oppressive empires they lived under. In this way they linked up their experiences with the wisdom of the Torah text. [See what I wrote about in May for a more detailed description of how the Rabbis did Midrash by filling in the gaps.]

This is exactly what we do in Living Midrash. We take an experience that was meaningful or deeply troubling in our lives. By ourselves -- or better, with a group -- we examine our feelings about this experience and the images that arise in our minds from that experience in our search for the heart of the matter. And then we look for what Torah tells us about this kind of experience. What stories in Torah are like our story? What characters in Torah are like us or other people in our story? How is the Torah the same or different from what happened for us? What can we learn from how it was the same or different?

It's the Torah component that makes Living Midrash different from some other kinds of contemporary Midrash. Sometimes people think Midrash is just about imagination and they will call any sort of imaginative process Midrash. But that's not enough. Midrash -- in order to be truly living -- has to be linked back to the tradition, to Torah. It's the link between imagination and tradition that makes it Midrash.

But in order to be truly Living Midrash it also has to follow in the spirit of this famous debate recorded in the Talmud (Kiddushin 40b):

תלמוד גדול או מעשה גדול

What is greater (as a way to serve God), study (Talmud) or action?

נענה רבי טרפון ואמר מעשה גדול נענה ר"ע ואמר תלמוד גדול

Two rabbis disagreed: Rabbi Tarfon says action is greater and Rabbi Akiva says study is greater.

נענו כולם ואמרו תלמוד גדול שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה

The Sages answered and said -- study is greater for it brings one to action.

That is, the study we make in this process of Living Midrash should inform us about what the Torah informs us about how to run our lives. It's not enough to stop at insight and imagination. It has to also lead to action.

But we do indeed need to cultivate our imaginations to be able to do our own Midrash and make it alive. That's what I learned from Dani Matt. Not only did he bring his imagination into the woods with him, but the heart of what he teaches has to do with the Jewish imagination. Few works are more imaginative in the Jewish tradition than that great medieval mystical work in which Matt specializes, the Zohar.

The Zohar imagines God and our relationship with God in incredibly fantastic ways. The Zoharist stares at a candle flame and sees not just the blue, white and red of gases combining, but also images of God and Israel and Moses. God sits above the flame in another invisible light. Israel cleaves to the blue-black light below, seeking unification with God. Moses is in the white. (Zohar Bereishit 1:51).

Unification is in fact is a key concept in the Zohar and in Kabbalah. One of the top three contributions of the Kabbalah, Matt taught, is the idea that it is human action that brings about the unification of the "divine couple." That is, the Kabbalah imagines God as having both feminine and masculine attributes (sometimes called Shekhina and Tifferet) and that the great task of the human being is to help bring the unification of these attributes through the actions of the mitzvot.

For me, the great action where I am involved in the unification of God involves my work with patients and my effort to help bring them comfort and healing. It is a form of Tikkun, or repair of the world.

But I could not do it if I did not know that God was there. I could not do it if I did not have the faith that I am serving Torah. I just couldn't do it on my own. It would just be too hard to stand. I just would not be able to stand before the death and pain and suffering I find in the hospital's halls. I need God.

And it's my need of God -- and my desire to draw God in -- that is truly really the only source of what it is that I have to offer patients. I can't transform bodies. I can't work magic. I can only offer the rewards and comforts of faith. I only have my example of how I have tried to invite God into my own life. That's all.

It is the kind of Torah study I did with Dani Matt -- and my own processes of Living Midrash (including VTE) -- that invites God in and makes my work possible.

That's why it's Holy.

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