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Can a Jewish Tradition Help Christians?

By the Rev. Howard Bess
February 15, 2010

Editor’s Note: A key inconsistency of the American Christian Right is its readiness to embrace endless war and unrestrained capitalism as if those solutions would be the answer to the bumper-sticker question, “what would Jesus do?”

In this guest essay, retired Baptist minister Howard Bess cites the Hebrew concept of “midrash,” how to bring the word of God to everyday experiences, as he examines the challenge of applying Jesus’s principles -- of advocating peace on earth and railing against greedy elites -- to today’s problems:

Just as I cannot allow my soul to be without worship, neither can I allow the inquiries of my mind to be denied.  I have concluded that my spiritual health needs large doses of midrash just as I need regular worship.   

Midrash is a time honored exercise that has its roots in the Babylonian captivity of the children of Israel in the 6th century BCE. 

The Israelites had seen their holy city conquered and desecrated. The temple built by King Solomon had been destroyed. Their people had been killed or scattered, and only a small remnant remained; and they were slaves of the conquering Babylonians living in a foreign land.

Israelites had tied their faith to a place, Jerusalem, and to a building, .the Temple. City and Temple were gone.

During the 70 years of slavery, they discussed constantly. Their discussions centered on Torah (the law of God). The Babylonians pressured them to set aside their religion and to adopt theirs. The Israelites refused. Instead they discussed the meaning of Torah in a foreign land without a temple.

Midrash is the name given to the discussion.

If midrash is in your dictionary, it will probably be described as investigation, search, or study. It is those things, but it is more. It is a tool of religion that seeks to bring the will of God to every situation in life in every era of life.

Harvard theologian Harvey Cox describes midrash as “a method to fill in the blanks, to span the gap between the general and the specific and between the then and the now. [It is] an instrument to impart contemporary relevance to biblical events.” 

It is midrash that has the power to change minds and find new applications of old teachings.

Jews have been practitioners of midrash throughout the past 2,500 years. No group has maintained their unique identity for so long without a homeland. They have been a scattered people, yet their concern about Torah and its contemporary meaning has not waned. 

While some Jews have had a homeland now for over 60 years, most Jews remain scattered, and still carry on their probing of the meaning of Torah while living in foreign and often hostile lands. Christians would be well served by adopting their practice of midrash.

When I read the teachings of Jesus, I understand that I am reading midrash in the context of the rural poor in northern Palestine in the first century CE. They had become alienated from the religious elite of Jerusalem; they had been victimized economically by absentee land owners and bullied by Roman rulers.

Jesus played the role of a rabbi applying Torah to contemporary life.

Currently I am dismayed with members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. There is little evidence that they are motivated by a desire to provide good governance. There is little evidence that they are committed to using the resources of the nation for the good of all of our citizens.

Selfishness abounds, and the voice of the wealthy drowns out all other voices. The parallels between ancient Palestine and modern Washington DC seem all too apparent.

What is the meaning of the Christian message in a nation that ignores the educational needs, the health needs, the housing needs, and the nutritional needs of its people? What is the meaning of the Christian message in a nation addicted to war and violence? What is the meaning of the Christian message in a nation where there is grace for the rich and jail for the poor?

Many millions of Americans will attend worship services this next week. Research statistics say the number of American worshipers is actually growing. 

The challenge is not to recruit more worshipers, but to foster midrash among the faithful worshipers. Together we need to define the meaning of Torah in 21st century America.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is               

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