Using midrash for self-knowledge

Using midrash for self-knowledge

Dr. Norman Cohen brings modern insight to ancient texts in Tenafly this weekend

Dr. Norman Cohen
Dr. Norman Cohen

Midrash is an old form, and the biblical texts that midrash explains, expands, dances around, and uses to play cat’s cradle with are even older.

But they can be used to help us understand the bewildering world around us today, just as they helped our ancestors understand the bewildering world around them two millennia ago, and in the centuries that separate us from them.

Rabbi Dr. Norman Cohen, the emeritus professor of midrash at the Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan (and not only a widely respected professor there but also a former provost and dean) will explain how those insights are within modern grasp at Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, where he will be scholar in residence this weekend. (See box for more information.)

“I’ve studied midrash for 40 years, and the entire attempt is to study it on different levels,” Dr. Cohen said. “You start with the biblical text, and then move to the rabbinic, and study what the rabbis draw from it. And then, on the third level, I really say that the story is for all people, at all times. What can we learn from the story as modern Jews, as modern people, that can teach us and work for us?

“The meta perspective on my talks at Sinai is that I will try to share the power latent in the biblical text by using the process of midrash — of rabbinic interpretation — to draw meaning for our own lives as Jews, and as human beings,” he continued. “I want to help people feel the power that the text can have over us, to challenge us and to show us who we want to be.

“Most of our lives as spent living in relationships. Most of my teaching and study on the Bible focuses on human relationships in it, and what we can learn from them.”

Because our Torah-reading cycle now focuses on Abraham and his family, Dr. Cohen will focus there too. “What I generally do is not only talk about the text but also share my own reactions and experiences, in a way that elicits people’s own self-reflection,” he said. “The stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, and Joseph and his brothers are all about relationships between parents and children, siblings, and husbands and wives.

“There are 14 ‘hineni’s in the Bible,” he continued. “Hineni” — here I am — is a response to God, in response to an all-seeing God’s rhetorical call to one of the people to whom God talks. “On Friday night, I will talk about hineni, and give five or six examples of them from the Bible.

“In the morning, I will talk about the relationships among Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael. I will bring in some things about how the rabbis responded to the text out of their own experience with Islam” — that’s because Ishmael, Abraham’s older son, whose mother was Hagar, became, according to midrash, the founder of the Arab nations. “But I will talk more about the family relationships, how they managed that dynamic, and what it might mean to us in the context of our own lives.”

On Sunday, Dr. Cohen will focus on the most difficult part of these stories, harder even than Abraham’s decision to cast Hagar and their son Ishmael out into the desert, where most likely the boy and his mother would die. It’s the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, the story of how Abraham took his son up Mount Moriah, there to bind him to the altar and sacrifice him. He most definitely would die. (Except he didn’t. An angel directed by God stayed his hand, and a ram was sacrificed in Isaac’s place.)

“I will talk about the impact of the Akeidah on the family, and particularly on Sarah,” Dr. Cohen said. Sarah, Isaac’s mother, never appears again; instead, her death is reported. “I will tell the biblical story reflected through rabbinic midrash, and ultimately I will challenge us to see what those stories mean to us in terms of our own lives and our own families.”

Dr. Cohen detailed how his method could be applied to other stories. Take the relationship between the siblings Moses, Miriam, and Aaron, he said. “Look at how Moses and Aaron experience their sister’s death,” he said. “Look at how it affected them, how they were striving to continue to fulfill their leadership responsibilities — in effect, their professional lives — while mourning for their sister. They had to bury her, and also to lose her special leadership ability.

“How did Moses, the kid brother, react to the death of his older sister, whom he’d journeyed with in the wilderness for 40 years? Classical midrash focuses on Moses’s struggle to find water after Miriam’s death.”

Midrash tells us that a well of sweet water accompanied Miriam in the desert; once she died, that source of water dried up. “Miriam represents water, and water as a source of redemption,” Dr. Cohen said. “Even her name, Miri-yam, has water in it.” “Yam” means ocean. “Moses’s struggle, from the rabbinic point of view, is to learn how to draw water himself, to learn that there is a source of redemption even after she is gone.

“And then Aaron dies, and the struggle is to complete the journey without Aaron and Miriam.

“The rabbinic struggle emerges in both a corporate and a personal way. How do we survive the absence of those who represent our source of redemption?

“How do we find the ability to continue and to strive? In Miriam’s death the rabbis confront that question.”

Dr. Cohen is a lifelong Reform Jew, ordained by HUC in 1972. “The ride has been a blessing for me,” he said. “To be able to share this blessing with rabbinical and cantorial and educational students, who themselves will become leaders — that is the ultimate blessing.”

Who: Rabbi Dr. Norman Cohen

What: Will be scholar in residence

Where: At Temple Sinai of Bergen County, 1 Engle St., Tenafly

When: At evening services on Friday, November 18, at 7:30 p.m.; at morning services on Saturday, November 19, at 9 a.m.; and at the brotherhood breakfast on Sunday, November 20, at 9:30 a.m.

For more information: Go to  or call (201) 568-3035.

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