Monday, February 01, 2010

Keeping it real -- doing Midrash with the pastoral care pros

I used to think of myself as a person with very little visual imagination. But, a couple of years back I heard about a different way of working with my chaplain students when they share the experiences that they have with their patients -- a way that asks us to pay special attention to the images that come to mind when we hear about these powerful encounters and to then try and connect those images with the "big questions" (about the meaning of life and death and of God's place in the world, etc) that they bring to mind. After exercising my imaginative -- my Midrashic -- "muscles" by leading these workshops (called verbatim as theological event) for a while, suddenly I found that I had grown to have a rich visual imagination, one that was always able to offer visual images in these workshops.
So, I have been anxious to share this work with other Jewish chaplaincy professionals and to put before them this idea that we can increase our imaginative capacity by exercising our midrashic muscles together. So, at the National Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC) conference in Boston last month I presented a workshop I called, Working the midrashic muscle -- using images to uncover the Holy in the mundane. Over 20 people attended the workshop, and they all seemed very excited about the work we did together, offering up many of their own images and associations with our Holy texts and traditions.
I started out by sharing with them how I think about midrash in this context -- because I don't think midrash is just any kind of imaginative thinking. It's an especially Jewish way of doing imaginative thinking, a way that connects us with our tradition -- with God, Torah and Israel -- on the way towards our finding meaning in our most powerful experiences. In thinking about this, today, I was reminded of how Ari Elon -- in his From Jerusalem to the edge of heaven -- contrasts midrashic analysis with scientific analysis:

Science grinds raw symbols in the mill of analytic conceptualization; midrash turns concepts into raw symbols. Scientific discourse abstracts; midrashic discourse makes things concrete. (pg. 37)

That is, midrash -- to use the language of pastoral education -- takes us out of our heads and into our hearts (where feelings and images lie). Midrash draws us towards our meaningful experiences -- towards the concrete details of those experiences and the emotions connected with them -- instead of doing what an intellectualizing analysis does (take us way from the reality of our experiences). Midrash helps us to keep it real.

So, here's what I did in the workshop, step-by-step (and you can follow these steps to do your own personal midrash work, either in groups or with individuals, or just for yourself):

1) Reentering the experience. I asked for a volunteer to describe an experience that felt particularly meaningful, but where the person did not necessarily know why it felt so meaningful. In recounting the experience, the most important thing is to try and put your ideas and judgments about your experience aside for a while. This is because what you already think about these experiences will block you from coming to new insights -- from singing a new song, a shir hadash/שיר חדש, if you will -- about the experience. One of my favorite quotes from Heschel's The Sabbath -- "Things created conceal the Creator" -- helps me here. It reminds me that we often need to put our own creations -- including the creations of our thoughts -- aside to see the Holy in the world.

The path to putting our the creations of our thoughts aside -- the path to keeping it real -- is to focus on the concrete details of the experience when we retell it, especially the things we perceive with our senses, with sight, taste, touch, smell and hearing. And so, as the facilitator, I tried to help the volunteer when she seemed to be moving towards her thoughts in the recounting: "What did you see at that moment?" "Can you tell me about what you saw on the person's face?" "What was the light like in the room?" "What did you smell?"

This volunteer told about seeing a person go into the room of another resident of a long-term care facility she was working at. The one resident gazed down at the face of the other resident, who was in a bed. Something meaningful seemed to be happening between the two faces amid silence. And then the person in the bed breathed her last breath, and the still-living resident left the room.
This simple, wordless encounter is very short and it did not take long for the volunteer to retell it. And yet I am amazed to think about how full and rich the hour of discussion following it was. We were able to slow down, in effect, and search together for our midrash about it. And so here are the rest of the steps we went through. [I do, by the way, owe a debt to a book called The Art of Theological Reflection by Christian scholars Killen and De Beer for helping me think through these steps.]

2) Paying attention to feelings. I asked people to share the feelings that came up for them as they were listening to the retelling of this encounter. I reminded people that feelings are not thoughts, and that feelings are very often things that have resonance in our bodies -- if we're feeling tense, for example, there might be a tightness in our shoulders. Looking to see if there is resonance in our bodies can help us tell the difference between a thought and a feeling.

Many feelings, some of them, contradictory, came up. One person felt sad. Another a sense of connection. There was joy, too. Even some feelings of loneliness.

3) Look for images that relate to the feelings. Images don't necessarily have to be visual. One person's image was just of a flow, from this world to up above. Others were more visual and some were borrowed from art or popular culture. One, very topical one, came from the hit movie Avatar -- the floating, jellyfish-like things, from the great, connecting tree in that work. Another person imagined vertical strands, with beads of lights on them.

The images, at their best reflect what we think the essence -- the ikar/עיקר -- of the encounter is (sometimes, people call this the heart of the matter). Although there is certainly not a single ikar to be found -- the essence may be different for each person who heard the retelling of the encounter.

At this stage, what we have done is stam/סתם, or plain -- secular -- reflection. We could have gone straight from here to the final step -- trying to assign a new meaning to our experience. But then we would not have done spiritual reflection; we would not have done midrash. To make it midrash, we need to bring our encounter -- the personal experience we found meaningful -- into dialogue with the Holy Sources we find meaningful. In a Jewish context, that means a dialogue with our collective and historical experience, as reflected in our Holy texts and elsewhere. It means a dialogue with God, Torah and Israel.

The below diagram reflects how I think about this. We take our meaningful personal experiences and read them together -- interpret them -- in a dialogue with our Holy texts. The result is a new midrash

And, so, there is a fourth step to do this work of bringing in God, Torah and Israel.

4) Dialogue with our sources of Wisdom and Holiness. Sometimes I call this step, Holy Writ, but I am avoiding that terminology here because I want to make clear that this stage is not limited to ancient sources like the Bible -- it doesn't even have to be religious sources. It can be any source of wisdom or meaning for us, including poems or motion pictures (movies -- especially ones by deep-thinking, if not so religious, Jews like Woody Allen or the Coen brothers -- are particularly important for me here). [PS. If you haven't gone to see the Coen's A serious man, don't wait a minute longer!]
But -- not surprisingly in a group of Jewish chaplains, many of whom were rabbis -- most of the sources in this group were ones from Jewish Holy texts. One person saw a malach -- an angel -- with a shofar, in effect blowing the person upward. Another person thought of the death of Moshe (Moses), with a kiss from God.

Another had an association that made me see the encounter from a totally different perspective -- he thought of the dramatic reunification of the two deeply estranged brothers, Jacob and Esau, as adults and how they made peace in a moment that had so much potential for violence (and how they seem to have never met, again). This raised the possibility for me that there may have been unseen forces and history keeping the two residents apart before the magical moment of unification the person telling the story witnessed, adding added drama to what she saw.

I got a wonderful surprise from another association. There was a man in the room who had been silent through the whole workshop, and his silence made me wonder if he was somehow disapproving of what we were doing. But then he offered this beautiful association from the daily liturgy (from Talmud Shabbat 127): "These are the things for which a person not only enjoys their fruits in this world, but also their principal -- hakeren kayemet, in Hebrew -- in the world to come: honoring parents, practicing deeds of loving kindness (gemilut hasidim) . . . visiting the sick, making marriages possible (haknesat kalah), and accompanying the dead. . . "

The final one is generally understood as attending funerals, but this person's midrash was to extend it to the moment in this story -- to being with a person as they were dying!


I think this final association is especially worth of the lablel, midrash, as it is, in effect, a new story (see new story's place on the diagram above). My good friend, Rabbi Benjamin Katz reminded me that my diagram promised the creation of something new -- a midrash at the end. I'm still working to clarify how we can best do that!


5) Meaning and action. This is where we try to pull the insights we have come found together. We ask ourselves, have we learned something new? Have we taught ourselves (or others) something new about how to be better caregivers? Better people? Better Jews?

There are so many ways this kind of work can be helpful. At the beginning here, I suggested that this is a process of "working our midrashic muscle," of strengthening our spiritual imagination to make us more sensitive to seeing the Holy in the world and to help others also come to a greater awareness.

Those "others" can be other chaplains, as they were in my workshop. Or they could be patients or congregants. This work can be healing (one participant suggested it could be an important part of self-care for chaplains in danger of forgetting how important their work is amid its many stresses -- I agree!).


One participant said the workship reminded her of Rabbi Dayle Friedman's "PaRDeS" method (which you can find in the book, Jewish Pastoral Care). But she drashed it a bit of switching things around into a PaRSaD method:

  • 1) Peshat (plain meaning): the first step in my process -- the retelling of the story with the focus on the plain concretes (of things like touch and smell).

  • 2) Remez ("hint"): the feelings.

  • 3) Sod ("secret): the images.

  • 4) Drash: the association with Holy text, and the new meanings -- and midrash! -- we make out of it.

[Or at least that's how I best remember what she said. I hope I got it right! (I'm not sure who it was? Ruth Smith? If it was you, let me know!]


Rabbi Katz shared wth me that many in theatre have worked on this facilitator's work in step 1 of asking people questions to help them focus on the concretes of their experience. Minna has often suggested that it might be helpful for us both to get some acting training together. Maybe we will!


Minna said...

Which should we do first? Acting or Aikido? Also, maybe you can lead a workshop like this at KZ sometime as part of an ongoing "Retelling Our Story" process.

afinkle221 said...

For more information about Shofar and other Holy Temple instruments.

We have three websites

1) Shofar Sounders WebPage

2) Joint Effort with Michael Chusid, an expert Shofar sounder and commentator
3) Shofar WebPage
If you have any questions or comments, do not hesitate to ask.

Noel said...

I've heard lecturers/teachers use "midrash" to supposedly clarify confusing biblical accounts but to no avail. This "Keeping it real--doing midrash..." is very helpful in understanding midrash---from concepts to symbols. Even the raising of Lazarus can be meaningful and no longer far-fetched.