Can a New Form of Midrash Help Bridge our National Divides?

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“What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” (Gen. 3:10).
Trump and Clinton. As the 2016 Presidential Election reminds us, we are a deeply divided country. Consider the razor thin margin of the election. A shift of fewer than 55,000 votes across three states (PA, MI, and WI) would have flipped the outcome, and a shift to Clinton of only one out of every 100 Trump voters would have given her an Electoral College victory similar in size to that experienced by Trump. As Nate Silver reminds us, these shifts would have led to a different narrative, but the deep divisions within this country would of course have remained fundamentally the same.
We saw these divisions over the summer when we mourned the heartbreaking deaths in July of African-American men, killed by police officers in Minnesota and Louisiana, and police officers, killed by African-American men in Dallas and Baton Rouge. We’ve seen them in the competing narratives around Black Lives Matter, the Occupy Wall Street movement, Obamacare, abortion and so many other issues.
Many are viewing the election as a call to arms – to fight for what we believe to be right. This is consistent with the long and honorable history of Jewish activism in support of civil and economic rights and our fundamental commitment to making the world a better place. This is surely part of the solution.
But while activism may help address the symptoms of our divisions, it will not help us transcend them. So it is not a complete solution.
There is no magic elixir that can quickly heal our fault lines of race, ethnicity, class, and political party, and our urban/rural and north/south divides. But I do believe there are lessons we can we draw from our Jewish tradition and heritage that may help us make progress in improving our understanding of one another, which is a critical first step in bridging our many divides. My suggestion is to repurpose tools from the Jewish tradition of midrash to increase our understanding of the diverse perspectives held by Americans across the U.S.
Following the traditional distinction between ‘mitzvot ben adam l’makom’ (commandments that involve the relationship between humanity and God) and ‘mitzvot ben adam l’chavero’ (commandments that involve the relationship of one person to another), I propose introducing a similar distinction between two categories of midrash. Rabbinic midrash, which focuses on increasing our understanding of Torah – the revelation of God – may be thought of as ‘midrash ben adam l’makom.’ A new form of midrash, designed to increase our understanding of one another, may be thought of as ‘midrash ben adam l’chavero.’ By exploring in detail the diverse perspectives held by different members of our country, midrash ben adam l’chavero will help to improve our understanding of one other, clarifying our differences while underscoring the elements we hold in common as human beings. By affirming the shared humanity of all people, this process will simultaneously affirm the unity of God, who tradition tells us created humanity in God’s own image.
To understand why I propose introducing this new form of midrash it is helpful to explore briefly some of the salient characteristics of the traditional Rabbinic midrash. Midrash comes from the root ‘derash,’ which mean to seek or to search, and represents at its core a search for an improved understanding of the Torah. While there are rules – for example, most midrashim are motivated by a ‘problem’ in the text, such as an unnecessary word, a text whose plain meaning seems to contradict other verses, etc. – the process by which midrash addresses those problems is non-linear. Rather than insisting on a single answer to each problem, the midrash often presents alternative answers, each shedding a somewhat different light on the problem. Often, the answers come in the form of stories – narratives created by the Rabbis to fill in gaps left by the biblical narrative – even, on occasion, putting words into God’s mouth.
Rabbinic midrash thus embodies a different form of truth-seeking than we are used to through the scientific method or the legal process. The goal is not to arrive at a single ‘answer’ or ‘truth,’ but rather to explore the different dimensions of a problem from various angles, each one contributing to our understanding, with no need to decide which one is ‘right.’ The midrash is also not only tolerant of, but embracing of storytelling as a means of improving our understanding. And it is not afraid to ask tough questions, even of God. In a midrash on the line from the Cain and Abel story quoted at the outset of this article, for example, Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai asks why God complains to Cain about Cain’s murder of Abel when God had the power to stop the killing in the first place. While acknowledging “It is difficult to say this thing, and the mouth cannot utter it plainly,” he nonetheless makes clear his concern by analogizing Cain’s killing of Abel to a situation in which two athletes are wrestling before a king who has the power to stop the match before one kills the other, but chooses not to (Gen. Rab. 12:9).
It is also common in Rabbinic midrash to see linkages established between two verses found in very different part of the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible. The ‘petichtaot’ (a form of midrash) at the beginning of Leviticus Rabbah, for example, follow a formula of starting with a verse seemingly far afield of the opening line of Leviticus and then, through a series of clever interpretive maneuvers, showing how that verse sheds light on the opening words of Leviticus: “and [God] called to Moses.” As David Stern wrote in his analysis of Leviticus Rabbah,this shows an “urge to unite the diverse parts of the Scripture into a single and seamless whole reflecting the unity of God’s will,” which he terms “a fundamental tendency of midrash.”
Midrash ben adam l’chavero represents the application of similar techniques to improve our understanding of one another. Through the use of narrative, respect for different interpretations, a willingness to ask tough questions, and ultimately an urge to uncover the connections between people of different races, ethnicities, religions and regions, we can lay the groundwork for greater understanding in the world.
There are surely many examples of this in the world’s literature. I will highlight one that for me serves as an extraordinary model of this new form of midrash. In 1992, Anna Deavere Smith, an American actress, author, playwright and professor, created Fires in the Mirror, a one-person play that explores the conflict that arose in Crown Heights, Brooklyn between the Hasidic and African-American communities. The play, which was subsequently made into a television film for American Playhouse, consists of re-enactments by Smith of excerpts from interviews she conducted with dozens of individuals shortly after the conflict. Each interview, on its own, sheds light on one aspect of life in the multicultural Crown Heights community, and ultimately on what happened on the fateful day that led to the deaths of a seven-year-old Caribbean-American boy and a Jewish student visiting from Australia and the subsequent riots. The play makes no attempt to reconcile the many voices, allowing each to stand alone. In the process, we are left with a deeper understanding of the hopes and fears of the individuals she interviewed and an appreciation of our differences, but at the same time, an affirmation that at the end of the day – Black or White, Jew or non-Jew – we are all human beings that want to live safe and fulfilling lives.
We need the improved understanding of each other that works like Fires in the Mirror provide if we are to make progress in addressing the root causes of our conflicts in the United States and elsewhere (for example, the conflicts between secular and religious Jews in Israel and between Israelis and Palestinians). This is not just a social and political imperative, but a religious one, given our fundamental obligation as Jews to seek to repair the world. Just as Rabbinic midrash achieves a religious purpose by affirming the unity of scripture and thus God’s will, so too the affirmation of our common humanity that emerges from a greater appreciation of our shared hopes and fears through midrash ben adam l’chavero will reaffirm the oneness of humanity and ultimately God, helping us make progress to the day foretold in the Aleynu prayer when “God will be one and God’s name will be one.”

Jeffrey Lubell is a resident of Norwich, VT and a member of the Upper Valley Jewish Community. His perspective on Rabbinic midrash draws on research conducted for his undergraduate thesis, “The Life of a Biblical Narrative: Jewish Retelling of the ‘Binding of Isaac’ into the Twentieth Century” (1990).