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Handmade Midrash

Symbols and Rituals

The seed that became The Handmade Midrash workshop of the last twenty-five years germinated from a momentary flash of insight in a public school classroom in Richmond, Virginia  in 1963.  My daughter was in the 6th grade at Mary Munford School ecstatic in her ancient history class. I had to see how Mrs. Smith was teaching ancient history that could arouse such passion in an eleven-year old child.  Mrs. Smith taught the history accompanied by the visual art and archaeology of the period. Why not teach Bible this way! I asked myself in a moment of wild inspiration.

In December, 1964, Life Magazine published a double Christmas issue on Bible and Art which I distributed to each of my students. Together we learned how the artist could be a commentator on the Bible:  Rembrandt in the 17th century could say something as valid as Breshit Rabbah and Rashi in the Middle Ages and in late antiquity, six centuries earlier.  And the students could follow in their footsteps and also become commentators on the biblical text.

This started out as a Diaspora adventure. How was one to foster Jewish identity in teen age youth who were virtually illiterate in Jewish learning and uncommitted to Jewish life? This challenge is just as valid in Israel, for the vast majority Israelis.  Jewish learning, at least in the Hebrew language, is theoretically in the hands of all, but not necessarily the spiritual and symbolic aspects of the sacred books that can nourish the soul.

Soon after achieving academic status with a Ph.D. in Theology and the Arts I learned that the academic study of Bible and Art was insufficient to capture the heart of the student. I needed a way to unify Head, Heart and Hand.  The resultant experiments produced my book Handmade Midrash, Exercises in Visual Theology  where study ceases to be only cognitive and academic and becomes personal, even intimate, as strangers in a group become known to one another through the expression of their individual concerns and dilemmas and as they recognize the commonality of the human condition.

There are no requirements to participate in a Handmade Midrash workshop, except the willingness to step out of old patterns of doing things.  New meanings emerge from making the familiar strange (not the other way around, making the strange familiar). The non-verbal imagination is disarmed by the ‘no right or wrong,’ by the absence of expectations and the honoring of the ordinary materials of daily living.

“Don’t try to make something beautiful. The idea is to make thought visible. It can be an ugly blob. But what is its meaning for you? And don’t go out and buy expensive material. Find stuff in the house; fish in the drawers, in the basement, in the attic for the discarded shmates you almost threw out.”

One of the goals is to help the interfering ego to step aside.  Participants embark on an inner journey in search of what Erich Neumann calls  “the hidden treasure that in humble form conceals a fragment of the Godhead”.  The idea is to give the hands autonomy, to be a child, (childlike not childish) to allow the soul to play and make shapes that the rational mind may at first consider worthless.  Once these forms find their voice they can become powerful personal metaphors resonating with the individual’s nature and embodying a deep personal experience of the text.

The biblical text is studied prior to making the visual midrash and reviewed once more after discussing the handmade midrash.  The art aspect is never detached from a relationship with the biblical text. In the interim, one moves imaginatively far away from text before the return.  The result can be dramatic.  The words are not the same as before.   Neither is the student. Midrash is thus a two-way avenue enlightening the maker and simultaneously deepening understanding of the biblical text.

Who comes to such a workshop?  Handmade Midrash brings together groups of different religions, race, education, profession, trades, age and gender. Because the common element is a degree of life experience, Handmade Midrash workshops are successful in interfaith, inter-religious, and inter-generational settings. Scholars, housekeepers, priests, rabbis,  policemen, can sit together not intimidated by wealth, education and social status and find a common language.  The human commonality is all that matters, not unlike the Turkish bath where you don’t know whether you are sweating next to the secretary of state or a bank clerk, nor does it matter.

An example follows: In one workshop a student struggled to make visual what it felt like to encounter God on Mt. Sinai.  He tore black and white construction paper to create a visual metaphor for radiance and awe and placed a human figure within an eye. Was it God or Moses within the eye, he asked himself.  He resolved the tension when he realized that the more centered he was, the greater his awareness that one perceives and reflects the Divine,  both within and without.

The student did not know the surrealist painting by Salvador Dali,”Moses After Michelangelo” in which an eye surrounds the head of Michelangelo’s radiant Moses in the Church of St. Peter in Chains. (See accompanying pictures). Dali was making a midrash on Michelangelo’s Moses, and the student was doing the same. Often student work can be directly related to an existing midrash or work of art giving evidence of the common reservoir of timeless human images and concerns.

The workshops are based on Carl Jung’s discovery that the psyche of an individual spontaneously produces images with a religious content, that the psyche is “by nature religious” and that many emotional disturbances spring from a disregard of its religious nature, particularly during the second half of life.

The process touches an integrative life principle that brings together the fragmented and opposing parts of the self. Handmade Midrash thinking is non-linear and associative, resulting in a holistic experience.  Holistic incorporates the concept of holy, healing.

Dr. Jo Milgrom is a lecturer in the Judaism and the Arts M.A. program at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. She is the creator and facilitator of the Handmade Midrash Workshop, a course offered in the Judaism and the Arts M.A. program of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies

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