So I decided to teach an extract from Echah Rabbah, which is a collection of midrash on the book of Lamentations. Lamentations is traditionally studied on Tisha b'Av, for the fairly obvious reason that it discusses the destruction of the first Temple. I originally learnt this midrash from R. Sheila Shulman, so she gets the credit for the bits of this that are actually scholarly and insightful. I was studying in chevruta with pseudomonas, but our minds were so symbiotic at that point that I really couldn't say how much of my thinking on this is thanks to him. Also, on this occasion I found myself studying the passage with Prof S, and she made lots of really cool contributions. And ideas from neonchameleon about divine suffering, from rahaeli about breakups, and Karen Armstrong about God went into my thinking about this piece.
This particular midrash is unusual for several reasons, most notably that midrash generally is very short, usually a few sentences to a couple of paragraphs at most, whereas this piece is approximately novella-length, and is generally agreed to have been composed by a single author, R. Shmuel bar Nachman. He lived in the 3rd century and was part of the small community of scholars who remained in the northern part of Palestine after the Jews were exiled from most of the country by the Romans in the first century, when the second Temple was also destroyed. In case this isn't obvious, he's writing about the destruction of the first Temple and the first exile, but is using this as a metaphor for his current situation during the second exile.
If anyone wants to read the actual text, there is a Hebrew version (with rather nasty formatting, but I'm afraid it's all I can find) on the Aish site. I used a translation of the short final section which R. Shulman provided (though I'm fairly certain it's not her personal translation, since it uses gendered language to talk about God, something that she would find absolute anaethema), and I translated the rest myself. I've combined both into an HTML document, where I've tried to use the markup to make stuff a bit clearer. Italics are Biblical quotations, with the normal size bit being the part that is actually cited in the midrash and the smaller text being the rest of the verse. Links are to a nice online text of the KJV for appropriate Biblical verses. And the bits that are in light grey are the bits where I'm unsure of my translation. (Any suggestions or comments on the translation are most welcome, including the bits where I'm confident!)
Since the midrash is so long, R. Shulman picked out certain especially interesting sections, and I've not tried to go beyond what she taught me. The scenario is that God is planning to allow all kinds of bad things to happen to the Israelites in order to punish them for various sins, mainly of the worshipping false gods variety. See Jeremiah or Lamentations for further details. In the midrash, various Biblical figures, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Jeremiah try to convince God to have mercy and soften the punishment that the Israelites deserve. They all plead very formally, using lots of bits of liturgy and Biblical verses, and the structure of the story is quite repetitive.
But suddenly, Rachel leaps up from her grave beside the road (she wasn't invited to the original conference between God and the Biblical bigwigs) and starts haranguing God: you're supposed to be so merciful and compassionate, but what do you know about compassion? You've never been a sister, a lover or a mother! Let me tell you something about compassion! (In the Hebrew version, which doesn't have any internal bookmarks, unfortunately, this is the section from באותה שעה קפצה רחל to the end.) I should warn you that the substance of Rachel's argument includes a fairly explicit description of Jacob and Leah's wedding night. Also, Rachel in this story is
This is, in itself, rather a cool story. But it's the following section from towards the beginning of the midrash which I find really amazing. This takes us to the very moment when God starts to enact His planned punishment of the Israelites, with the destruction of the Temple. (This runs from בשעה שבקש הקב``ה to לא הצליח in the Hebrew version.) There is a very poignant description of God's sadness at being forced to punish His own beloved people. The angel Metatron1 tells God that it is not God's place to weep, but God demands to be left in peace to weep. The grief pictured becomes more and more intimate: first God mourns for the destruction of His House, and then for His failure as a god who is supposed to protect His people, and then for the loss of those who loved Him, and finally he compares Himself to a father bereaved of his son. The Biblical figures who are going to make speeches are called up from their graves to join God in His grief "for they know how to weep".
At the end of the section, the narrator reports, very tentatively, making it quite clear that the idea he's hinting at is extremely radical, that God laments in these words: Woe to the king, who prospered in his youth, yet did not prosper in his old age. Somehow, the omnipotent God has become an old man who has overestimated his own strength and let the situation get out of hand, and is bitterly wounded by his loss.
This, I think, is reminiscent of some radical 20th century theology about the suffering or even the death of God in the Holocaust. Prof S pointed out a very important difference: it's extremely unlikely that any modern theologian would claim that the Holocaust was a deserved punishment for the Jews' sins. This midrash is at least couched in a language that fits in with traditional expectations; it comes from a context where being orthodox was much more desirable than being radical. In my view, the way that some of this sort of rabbinic literature approaches text is similar to the way scientists have to deal with established opinion. Of course, it is possible to challenge the received view, but you can't just say, the current theory is a load of rubbish! The scientific community creates a sort of shared fiction that every new discovery builds on what has gone before; we talk about a new interpretation of the old data, or refining the old theory, even if we are actually flatly contradicting the status quo. This means that old work is not simply dismissed out of hand, but is properly addressed and challenged within the accepted framework. So this midrash doesn't say 'that old Biblical idea about people being punished for sins is a load of rubbish!'; instead, it portrays God as grief-stricken over having to inflict this punishment, rather than regarding it as a completely good thing, as the Bible would suggest, because it is just and deserved and entirely according to God's plan.
The destruction of the Temple in this midrash symbolizes the irreperable breakdown of the relationship between God and Israel. The narrative keeps repeating 'at that exact moment', really underlining that the destruction of the Temple marks a dramatic turning point. This is it, there is no turning back now. It is the moment when parents decide they are going to have nothing more to do with their children, the moment when a once-loving relationship is formally brought to an end because the people involved can no longer live with eachother. Things are extremely distressing, but perhaps not entirely hopeless; it is very rare, but it just might be that estranged families may, at some future date be able to build a new relationship, perhaps one of adults with adults who are not emotionally intertwined like parents and children, but who still care about eachother. In this midrash, we reach the point where even the all-forgiving God can not forgive us this time; if we are to have any relationship with God in future it must be on completely different terms.
1] Metatron is a very cool angel; he's formally the personification of the voice of God, or the aspect of God that does all the speaking, but sometimes, as in this story, he's more of a character, a senior angel. I think it was possibly compilerbitch who suggested that his name sounds more like a Transformer than an angel, which is a lovely image...