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Midrash - The Key to Interpretation

by Doug Lipman

A given action can have different meanings, depending on the context in which we interpret the action.

Suppose the action is two people fighting, physically striking each other. If I tell you I saw two people fight, you might assume the context (or, more accurately, the "frame" - see Framing - the Unspoken Necessity) to be "an actual fight," and you would make assumptions about what this event means. But if I tell you I saw a theatrical production of a play about the fight, the context has shifted, and with it the meaning of my experience. If, instead, I tell you I saw a boxing match - an actual but staged and controlled fight - the meaning shifts again.

Any one of these contexts, however, can be changed by additional information. If I tell you that one of the people fighting on the street just published a book defaming the other, the meaning of the fight may change for you. A still different meaning might follow from my saying, "Oh, these two have fought every month for ten years. They never hurt each other. It's their way of remaining friends." Alternatively, another context for the fight might be created by "They have no hard feelings at all. But someone bet them that they couldn't keep going for a solid hour. In five more minutes they'll have won a thousand dollars each!"

Additional information can always shift our perception of the meaning of an action. This information can be about events that happened in the past ("Someone bet them....") or about the circumstances of the present ("A boxing scout is watching them from the window.") In a story, such information can even be about the future. ("An hour after the fight, one of them will have a stroke and die.")

This shifting of the meaning of an event that occurs when new events are described is a central fact of storytelling and story creation. We can choose any meaning that we want an event to have, then support that meaning by additions to the story line.

Meaning Shift, Through Added Narrative

In Jewish tradition, the sacred texts of the Torah (the Hebrew Bible) have been kept adaptable to changing social circumstances through a form of story called midrash* - stories invented to fill gaps or to explain apparent inconsistencies in the Torah. Midrash is actually a way to change the frame (context) of the stories in the Bible. It does not have the authority granted to the Torah texts, of course, but it is encouraged as a way to explore the rich meanings of the Torah.

A famous tradition of midrash concerns an apparent inconsistency in Genesis: first, God created humans "male and female." Then, a few verses later, we are told the story of it not being good that Adam was alone and God creating a helpmate. How could this be? Could this holy story be flawed?

Not really, says the midrashic tradition. When God first created humans, God created Adam and the first woman, Lilith. Lilith refused a subordinate role, however, and fled the garden to bear the children of demons. Only then did Adam ask for a helpmate.

In the brief version of this midrash given in the previous paragraph, the meaning of Lilith's refusal of a subordinate role remains ambiguous. In centuries past, however, the rabbis were quite clear: Lilith becomes a homeless outcast, jealous of Eve's ability to bear human children. In envy, Lilith comes to the bedside of all newborns with the intention of killing them. In response, God has set three angels to guard infants against her. (In the middle ages, Jewish mothers hung amulets near their babies, inscribed with these angels' names.) In this midrash, then, the result of Lilith's insubordination is that she becomes an evil force.

With a shift in episodic detail, however, the story of Lilith - and therefore the story of Adam and Eve - takes on a different meaning. Modern Jewish feminists usually do not describe Lilith as one who destroys babies but focus instead on her exploration of the forbidden realms. Lilith is the voice of the "wild woman," calling to Eve and to all women from beyond their constrained, ordinary lives, hinting of the possibility of breaking free. In this version of the midrash, Lilith makes a choice between freedom and domesticity.

Thus, the addition of a midrash to the story of Adam and Eve has the ability to change the meanings of the Bible story.

In its older form, the Lilith story makes Eve's disobedience to God more tragic and reprehensible, for it was preceded (and made even more destructive of human life) by Lilith's insubordination to Adam. The negative consequences of female disobedience are more strongly represented.

In the more modern version, however, Eve's tragic disobedience and punishment is countered by Lilith's decision to escape the whole paradigm of woman-as-family-builder-for-men. Now, there are two models of females in relationship to male power: Eve, the productive but long-suffering mother, and Lilith, the independent outcast. Woman, therefore, have at least two choices. And their spirit of independence is embodied by the strong, unbowed figure of Lilith.

As this example demonstrates, midrash is a way of using additional narrative to change the meaning of a story by changing the frame of a given action. In fact, midrash can put a given action in any desired frame. Therefore, adding episodes to a story is not a mere act of "dramatization," but a powerful act of interpretation.

The Historical Equivalent of Midrash

If you have the power to "make midrash," you have the power to make an action mean whatever you want. This is crucial to the study of history, to the manipulation of history for political or other purposes, and to other fields that depend on narrative - such as some aspects of religion.

The meaning of a war, for example (was it aggression or self-defense?) can depend entirely on which episodes are chosen to tell its "story." Does the story start with our enemy's act of violence against us, or with our prior threat against them?

The history of European conquest of indigenous peoples (as told by the Europeans) frequently begins with the story of European explorers voyaging to another land. Imagine how it might be different if the story were to begin with the twin, independent stories of the two cultures - who met when the Europeans landed on someone else's shores.

In the history of psychology, Freud is credited with the discovery of "hysteria" among his female patients who, according to his theory, had desired their fathers sexually and therefore, as children, had imagined episodes of incest. Opinions of Freud's "discovery," however, have been changed by historical research. We now know that Freud first took his patient's memories literally and only later rejected his first theory (and the women's assertions) after being disparaged by some of his colleagues. This additional episode in his story tends to re-frame his "historic discovery" as a "cowardly cover-up" of the widespread sexual abuse of girls.

If you doubt the social significance of midrash's power to change meaning, consider how strictly certain political or religious stories are regulated. In 1996, some two thousand years after the events in question, the Pope issued a strong statement about a detail in the story of Jesus - namely, that Mary remained a virgin after, as well as before, Jesus' birth. The central story of Christianity is a story whose meanings are still being fought over, by way of insistence on a midrashic detail not specified in the Biblical accounts.

As storytellers, we know that any teller has the power to "make midrash," and therefore to emphasize any particular interpretation of a story. Obviously, this power brings a responsibility to be thoughtful about the meaning we choose to communicate. At the same time, we may have another social responsibility: to remind our listeners - and the world at large - of how any story's meaning can be completely transformed by merely adding or deleting certain incidents.


* The word "midrash" means, literally, "to investigate" or "to study"; its root meaning is "to seek." Midrash actually refers to any interpretation of the Torah, whether conceptual or narrative. In this article, I use the word "midrash" to mean "narrative midrash."

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
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