Friday, October 21, 2011

A Midrash on Creation

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.”
Genesis 1:20-22

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th Century, once wisely observed that the Bible is a Midrash on creation.

Heschel’s wisdom came back to me as I read the weekly Midrash commentary from the Jewish Theological Seminary, by Rabbi Abigail Treu. One of the ways in which Jewish Bible Study differs from Christian Bible Study is that in Judaism there is a greater self-consciousness about the layering of commentary on commentary. Christian scholars tend to comment on previous work by referring back to the original biblical text. In Judaism (as I observe it) the layers build on top of each other with each insight leading to another new insight.

In commenting on a Midrash (commentary) on the creation story in Genesis, Rabbi Treu refers to a recent theological work by Rabbi Arthur Green, Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition. Green opens the book with the claim that, “the evolution of the species is the greatest sacred drama of all time.” He writes:

“There is a One that is ever revealing itself to us within and behind the great diversity of life. That One is Being itself, the constant in the endlessly changing evolutionary parade. Viewed from our end of the process, the search that leads to discovery of that One is our human quest for meaning. But turned around, seen from the perspective of the constantly evolving life energy, evolution can be seen as an ongoing process of revelation or self-manifestation. We discover; it reveals. It reveals; we discover.”

Life is a process of revelation and discovery.

Technically, Midrash is commentary on the Hebrew Bible. It has two parts: Midrash Halachah, which deals with interpreting the legal portions of the Torah, and Midrash Aggadah, which deals with the non-legal aspects and is filled with morals, legends, parables, and stories. When most people refer to Midrash, they are referring to the parables and the stories.

When Heschel speaks of the Bible as a Midrash on creation, he is not referring to the technical meaning, but to a broader understanding of commentary. In that same sense, one might say that the Gospel is a Midrash on Torah.

And if we wind our way down that road, then we could see Darwin’s theory of evolution as another layer of Midrash. It is both discovery and revelation.

And the evolutionary process, with all of its amazing and miraculous complexity, is the subject of more Midrash.

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