These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

I first fell in love with midrash…

Posted on June 4, 2012 by Deborah Galaski

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Here’s a little bit about my article:

“For the Sake of the Righteous:
Divine Love and Human Responsibility in Bereshit Rabba”

I first fell in love with midrash when I read a passage in Bereshit Rabba, describing the moment when God created the first human being. I was in my second year of graduate school, where I had come (or so I believed) to study Jewish theological responses to the problem of evil. My first year, while exhilarating, had also been challenging. I didn’t feel at home in abstract philosophical conversations, and my newly developing Hebrew skills made deep engagement with classical Jewish sources difficult. So when a professor decided to offer a course in midrash to students of all Hebrew levels, I jumped at the chance.

Struggling my way through the translation of each passage, I watched an incredible story unfold before me. Bereshit Rabba teaches, in the name of R. Berechya, that God foresaw that it would not be possible to create the first person without giving rise to future generations of both righteous and wicked people. In response to this inevitability, God did not turn away from His creation. Instead, according to the midrash “He removed the ways of the wicked from before his face, He aligned himself with the attribute of mercy and He created him (i.e. the first human).” In other words, God engaged in an act of self-deception; in the very moment of creation, God placed the consequences of his choice to create humanity out of sight and out of mind. In the next passage, R. Hanina highlights the moral tensions and problems inherent in this choice. Prior to the creation of the first person, he teaches, the angels asked God about the character of humanity. God, in response, “revealed to them only that the righteous would spring from him (i.e. the first man) because otherwise the angel of justice would not have allowed Him to create humanity.” As both interpretations make clear, God knew that to create humanity was not a perfectly just act and that evil would come into the world as a result – and yet God chose to create humankind anyway! In fact, God had such a strong desire to create humanity that He was willing to lie to the angels (and even on some level, it seems, to Himself) in order to do so!

These passages from Bereshit Rabba stayed with me for years. Perhaps it was simply because they were the first midrashim that I had read. But I think it was also because they spoke to my deepest theological questions: Why would God create a world in which evil existed? What does God want from humanity? Who is God, after all, and why would He want to be in relationship with us? These midrashic narratives are far from offering conclusive answers. The rabbis offer many interpretations of creation (I have only cited two among a number of others here) and often those interpretations conflict. Sometimes, their answers seem fantastical or difficult for me to understand. But I do not think midrash was created primarily to answer questions; instead, I find that the study of these narratives offers me space to explore my questions and to be changed by the process of asking them.

For two years, now, I have been asking about these passages I first read from Bereshit Rabba. What did it mean, I wondered, for a person to read these narratives which portrayed what my friend and colleague Andrew Guffey so accurately termed God’s “reckless love for the righteous”? Did reading them change me in some way (and was it supposed to)? How should I respond to a God who loves humanity in this deep yet problematic way? What might that depiction of divine love have to teach me about the kind of person I should strive to be? Over this past year of study at Pardes, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to return to these passages and explore them more in depth. The culmination of that reflection and study appears in an article published in the most recent issue of the University of Toronto’s Journal of Jewish Thought, entitled “For the Sake of the Righteous: Divine Love and Human Responsibility in Bereshit Rabba”.