Well, this review has been much delayed but I have read through three chapters of Judith Kunst’s The Burning Word, so today we’ll cover these chapters. The themes through these initial chapters go as such: intimacy, reverence, and curiosity. Let me just say that the first couple of chapters didn’t captivate me, but I can tell that it is progressively getter better and chapter 3 was excellent. And now we’re off…
“Jewish Midrash views troubling irregularities not as accidents or errors or cultural disparities to be passed over, but rather as deliberate invitations to grapple with God’s revealed word- and by extension, to grapple with God himself” (pg. 4) Midrash is a way of study, a pathway of reflecting about the scriptures that deals with the unfamiliarity of the text. Midrash wrestles with scripture, and in this struggle there is an ever deeper awareness that the reader or readers are going toe to toe with God. Remember the story of Jacob and the stranger, they fought and in the end Jacob became Israel. Any true engagement with God does not leave the person unchanged. The emphasis here also implies that there is a constant turning of the text, as we meditate on it we can think of the image of someone looking at a diamond in the light, and seeing the many ways the light refracts off of the stone. And if God lives in the scriptures, then no part of it is devoid of meaning. “Every word, every letter of the text has been put there by divine purpose” (5). No matter how much we struggle to find the meaning, no matter how clueless we are, there is meaning in the text. Midrash calls for us to be attuned to the language, the rhythm of the passage, and to play imaginatively and yet reverently with God’s word. It is an intimate and long relationship, sometimes including a lot of work from us to hear the voice of God.
“The Torah, like the ancient Temple, is a place to enter, experience, and revere” (18). The most interesting section of this chapter is Kunst’s description of the difference of how Jewish midrash treats the scriptures compared to how most Christians approach it. Christians normally refer to pieces of scripture as “passages” while Jews mostly call them parsha, or “portion”. One implies movement while the other reminds us of eating. In fact, many of the scriptures give the metaphor of eating scripture, we taste it and consume it and it fills our stomachs. It is a necessity, it is something that vital for our lives. Kunst also discusses the realness of scripture, the importance that it is something that is not vague or abstract, not something apart from our lives, but entangled in the very substance of who we are.
“Perhaps that is the meaning of the burning bush… that to reveal He must conceal, that to impart His wisdom He must hide His power.” – Abraham Joshua Heschel
Using the image of the burning bush gives us insight into the God we encounter in the Bible. God’s presence “hides” in the text, and each encounter we have with it can be an experience of us being on holy ground. “If I want to come close to the God of the Bible, to step onto the holy ground of his presence, then I must wake up my curiosity and look for God in the strange, hidden, and burning places of scripture. Curiosity is the starting point of midrash” (29). Often the Bible stumps, confuses, and bewilders us. Yet the difficulty of it calls us out. Therefore, questioning is the appropriate response for those seeking to encounter God in the scriptures. In fact, midrash equates questioning with intimacy (33). So any serious student who seeks to gain any wisdom and knowledge should in fact first learn to question, to practice not shying away from the mystery of God. His presence may scare us, it may cause us to be utterly confused, but if we fail to question then we may never find the meaning that we need in our lives.