Excerpted with permission from Searching for Meaning in Midrash (Jewish Publication Society).
If we define midrash as “homiletic or legal interpretations of the Bible,” that is, interpretive readings of sacred text, then the process of midrash certainly continues today–in two formats. There are contemporary commentaries written on the Bible, often reflecting the needs and interests of the day. And secular culture commonly adapts religious themes for artistic purposes.
As an example of the first, the “rabbi’s sermon” given in the modern synagogue is often a midrash-like exposition on the week’s Torah reading; by attempting to relate Torah to life today, the sermon is the example par excellence of contemporary Midrash. It is not uncommon for a contemporary rabbi to hold an ancient midrashic text in one hand, and a news clipping from the daily paper in the other, as he or she tries to make sense out of the present by searching for meaning in the past.
Works like Ellen Frankel’s The Five Books of Miriam are another prime example. This is a collection of modern midrashic statements put into the mouths of women to answer the question “What did women then, and what do women now, make of the events in this chapter?” Here is one such selection from The Five Books of Miriam:
“Our daughters ask: Why does Jethro advise Moses to appoint only men to help him share the onerous burden of leadership? As it is written: “Seek out capable men who fear god, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain” (Exodus 18:21). We can’t believe that there weren’t capable, God-fearing women among the people.
“The sages in our own time answer: We must be careful not to judge Jethro by the standards of 20th-century Western democracy. After all, in his time and place, women generally did not occupy such leadership roles.
“Lilith the rebel counters: But we can hold today’s Jethros in our own communities to such standards! Especially since the burdens of leadership have not gotten any lighter–and since capable, God-fearing, trustworthy women now stand ready to share them.”…