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Midrash in the Core

Yedida Eisenstat

Among my favorite courses to teach at Colgate University was the ancient texts component of the liberal arts core curriculum, which I taught as a historian of biblical interpretation. While the relevance of such a core course of “Western” texts is being reevaluated, I submit that in this moment during which the study of the Humanities is collapsing and biblical illiteracy has become the norm, there is a strong argument to be made for the continued study of such texts in that they illuminate our own contemporary culture, inform manifold current cultural debates—from abortion to assisted suicide to questions of gender and patriarchy—and even help us understand the resurgences of white supremacism and of antisemitism in the present. Within this framework, the study of the Hebrew Bible, midrash, and biblical interpretation have the power to help students unlock the many ancient religious texts that continue to inform the ways our own culture debates these questions.

I begin my course with a foray into the history of the ancient world for context and to explain cultural contact and influence. We then turn to the text of the Hebrew Bible, initially to generate questions about the text, to become more sensitive to what it says and what it doesn’t say, and what it leaves open to imagination and interpretation. In a recent iteration of this course, I gave students the option to write an annotated screenplay of a Hebrew biblical narrative for which they would seek out ancient Jewish and Christian interpretations to fill out the gaps in the narrative. My goal was to deepen student understandings of the process of ancient biblical interpretation and to motivate students to read more carefully. While many of the quirks of the text to which its interpreters attend are less than obvious without access to the text in its original language, students find their way by making use of the many excellent annotated translations and other resources. In the process, they develop their research skills; gain deeper understanding of the biblical interpretive process; begin to appreciate the hermeneutic stakes of the ways in which the biblical text is used to this day; and gain confidence in their ability to access and make sense of what is often an entirely new mode of thinking—both Jewish and Christian midrash. Students are typically proud of the product, and a whole new world of exegesis opens to them.

Developing students’ understanding of how Jewish and Christian interpreters of the same texts can reach vastly different conclusions brings into relief how one’s assumptions in approaching a text have the power to determine the meaning of the text in one or another tradition. This in turn raises student awareness of their own assumptions as they approach all kinds of texts—an invaluable lesson to the developing intellect and citizen—and also allows us to thoughtfully consider others’ assumptions when they read the same text but reach a vastly different conclusion, surely an urgent goal of the humanities in our time.

Yedida Eisenstat is a visiting assistant professor of Religion and Jewish Studies at Colgate University.