Okay, midrash isn’t really a Christian word. A midrash is a reaction to scripture, a sort of derived extension of the words of the Bible into the larger ideas and stories of faith. Sometimes a midrash becomes an extra-biblical story (about Abraham waiting by his tent flap every day for visitors whom he can proselytize, for example). In other cases, the midrash can be an allegorical interpretation or an application of the words of the sacred text into some vital area of Israel’s faith and practice.
It’s harder to describe midrash than it is to read and understand midrash.
As a non-expert, perhaps due to be corrected, let me say that Christian tradition has the same thing as midrash, whether that name is used or not. For one thing, the apostles used this genre at times (consider Galatians 4:21 and following or Hebrews 3:7 and into chapter 4).
I used to resist this sort of thing. I want to study historically and critically. Midrashic discourses often miss completely the historical or contextual meaning (though they can also hone the reader in to a key issue of the context or the inner biblical context in ways that normal commentary will miss).
Yesterday, I spoke about the edgy, the radical, and the mystical and how I am drawn to writings which instill in me a sense of irony or wonder or challenge or mystery. I mentioned a number of authors whose writing has thrilled me over the years (why can’t we just read books and discuss them full time?).
You may have noticed a mix of Jewish and Christian writers in my musings. For me now, the world of my faith and practice can easily navigate back and forth between good Christian and Jewish thought. The borders I once imagined between Christ-Land and Jewish-Space are more like transitions than hard boundaries.
At an earlier phase of my development, I became fascinated with Bernard of Clairvaux, or I should say with his writing. As a person, his flaws are readily apparent (he did not surpass the anti-Judaism of his day and he was an authoritarian who needed to chill out). Still, people imperfect in some ways can excel in others and usually do.
It is a well-known fact that Judaism and Christianity interpret the Song of Songs in parallel but different ways. Of course, a historical critical scholar will tell you that Song of Songs is a collection of love poems wrapped around a proverb (see Songs 8:6-7 for the proverb). But in Jewish tradition, Song of Songs is an allegory of the love between God and Israel. In Christianity it is an allegory of the love between Christ and the Church.
As a Messianic Jew, standing between these two streams, as Mark Kinzer would say, I can easily propose here a repair or tikkun. It’s not as if I have to be a genius to do so as this one is kind of obvious (if you are used to thinking of the issue of Israel’s election and the church’s election and how they go together).
Since I spoke about Bernard and rabbinic literature yesterday, and how I look for the edgy, radical, and mystical where I can find it, I decided to reread some of Bernard’s homilies on Song of Songs.
Lightning from Sinai!
I recognized right away that Bernard makes a major point identical to a major point from Song of Songs Rabbah. The Song of Songs Rabbah is a 5th Century midrashic text about Song of Songs put together in Tiberias, Israel. Bernard wrote his homilies about 700 years later (he was born in 1090 in Dijon, France).
At the recent Hashivenu Forum, MJTI Provost and rabbinics professor Carl Kinbar read us a delightful paper based on some texts in Song of Songs Rabbah. That paper and the others will soon be available by subscription on Hashivenu.org.
Kinbar shared a midrash on Songs 1:2, “O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!” Some anonymous rabbis, geniuses of old, devised an understanding of this verse related to Israel’s larger story.
In the background of this verse, they suggest, is one of Israel’s great problems. At first, Israel, had the direct word of God coming from the mouth of God, but in fear asked for a mediator between them and God (see Exod 20:19).
According to the midrash, when Israel studied Torah before the disastrous decision in Exodus 20:19, they remembered everything they studied and never forgot (remember, in rabbinic imagination, Torah was studied and known before it was given on Sinai, so that even Cain and Abel had a Talmudic academy).
But after the request for a mediator in Exodus 20:19, Israel’s study of Torah became more laborious. The same ideas and texts had to be studied repeatedly because of the problem of forgetting.
Rabbi Yehuda says, “When Israel heard I am the Lord your God (Exod 20:1), Torah study was fixed in their heart and they would study and not forget.
The sense of loss is palpable in Song of Songs Rabbah. After rejecting direct revelation from God and asking Moses to be a mediator, something precious was lost and its return is passionately awaited:
They returned to their studying but would forget what they had learned. They said, “Just as Moses is flesh and blood and will pass away, so also his learning will pass away.” Immediately they turned and came to Moses. They said to him, “Moses, our rabbi, if only He [the Holy One] would be revealed to us a second time. If only He would kiss us with the kisses of his mouth! If only He would fix the study of Torah as He did before!
When I read that, my spirit leaps inside. I can feel that longing for direct presence. I know that this sad story has a hopeful promise.
Moses said to them, “It will not be granted now but in the future, as it is written, I will put my Torah within them and on their heart I will write it (Jer 31:33).”
In other words, in the Messianic era, God will again kiss Israel with the kisses of his mouth, the direct words of God perceived in the heart perfectly and without forgetting. Amen.
It’s a beautiful story. And in Bernard of Clairvaux’s homilies on Song of Songs, we find a parallel idea, also worthy of deep longing and wonder. Is it strange that a Christian writer might share such a similar passion and mysticism about the future and about the love relationship with God? Some Christian readers might feel it is wondrous that Jewish thought reaches the same heights of love and some Jewish readers might feel it surprising that a Christian writer can make such good midrash:
The good men of those days [days before Jesus came among us] could say, “Of what use to me are the words the prophets have uttered? Rather, let him who is beautiful beyond the children of men (Psa 44:3) kiss me with the kiss of his mouth. I am no longer content with what Moses says, for he sound to me like one who cannot speak well (Exod 4:10). Isaiah is a man of unclean lips (Isa 6:5). Jeremiah is a child who does not know how to speak (Jer 1:6). All the prophets are empty to me.
But he, he of whom they speak, let him speak to me. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. . . . That is why I ask him, and not any other angel, to kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.”
Did Bernard read the Song of Songs Rabbah? I could ask if any readers here know whether Bernard read Hebrew and rabbinic literature. Or is this one of those revelations of the Holy Spirit running through Israel’s life and history and in the Church’s life and history?
Some will say it is a literary coincidence. Believe that if you will. But all evidence can be called coincidence. Or we can perceive it and and take it into our heart and believe.