A Mothering Text: Method and Meaning
Midrash as a Tool For Involving the Student In a Creative Relationship with Torah

Yael Wieselberg

The nature of interpretation remains a key question, particularly in the domain of midrash. What happens in the space between the exegete and the text? How do chazal conceive of the relationship between them? According to the principle of ‘the seventy faces of Torah’ (shivim panim laTorah), the words of Torah invite interpretation, rather than merely commentary. One model, advocated several times by chazal, exploring the nature and effects of interpretation, connects the relationship between the Torah and its readers to the relationship between mother and child. This paper will examine the work of D. W. Winnicott, a leading psychoanalyst dealing with the inter-relation of infants and mothers, a nd its implications for Torah study (limmud torah).

Central to our thesis is the understanding that interpretation is in fact a form of connection. Just like the relationship between mother and child, which undergoes various stages in the Winnicottian model before arriving at maturity, the exegete will involve himself with the text as a means of connecting with it. The ‘good interpretation’, I have argued, depends upon an understanding of the text as mother, in which we view the text as productive and generative, while at the same time providing security, direction and insight. Primarily we need to appreciate the text as an independent entity, to trust in its capacity to withstand destruction, while remaining sensitive to the inherent virtue that it contains.

For Winnicott, the child’s departure from the mother is a significant step in the development of identity because it marks the beginning of recognition, of objective perception. When the child learns to view his mother as an entity in her own right, with her own clear messages and truths, he becomes able to engage with her in an individual mode. When approaching the text of Torah, we likewise need to acknowledge an aura of Divine truth that is separate from our worldly conceptions. Torah has its own being.

This is the first stage in ensuring that we maintain the integrity of the text. Rather than imposing our readings upon her, the responsible reader, like the infant in the Winnicottian model, will attempt to discover the meanings that are already contained within her. Chazal’s view that all future exposition was already ‘given’ in unrevealed form at Mount Sinai, acknowledges the eternal nature of Torah. Insights are given and hidden, suggested but not spoken. And the reason for the reticence is human nature. If the mother-child relationship is to be developed, the child must experience discovery.

In practical terms, this takes place through object-relations. In fact, the theory suggests that only when the child learns to use the objects the mother presents to him, may he develop himself and his relationships. Later, in the playroom, it is through the interpretive choices made by the child in his ordering of objects, that profound comprehension begins. By identifying the relationship between objects and language, this paper shows the significance of individual interpretation. The position is voiced by many, including R. Naftali Tzvi Berlin (the Netziv), for whom creative interpretation (hitchadshut), is an essential element of the mitzva of Torah learning. Included in the positive precept of keeping and enacting Torah (lishmor ve’laasot), are the activities of ‘adding’, ‘clarifying’ and ‘expounding’ anew in each generation. In other words we may recognize the importance of doing, or shaping, in the learning enterprise. Our interaction with Torah is a constructive process. And this is the central understanding that teachers need to convey in the classroom. Torah is not a dry, abstract collection of ideas that exists at a distance from our essence as individuals. In a very real sense it is the key to our development. If we do not experience the pleasure of involvement, of playing with Torah (sha’ashua), we cannot succeed in connecting with Torah or with G-d. And the reason for this is that it has not become part of our personality. We have not looked to Torah to define our relationship to the world.

How then may teachers enact chazal’s approach of playing with Torah? First, they may encourage a rooted understanding of texts, and then the associative thinking that illuminates the concepts it treats. By enabling students to view the words of Torah, and the ideas within it as objects to be turned, re-evaluated in different contexts and reconsidered in terms of their relationship to the world beyond, teachers prove relevance. They show that it is up to the student to find a response within Torah that accurately reflects his inner world at a given time. When students succeed in finding a representation of self that parallels the integral truth of Torah, they experience a Torah relationship.

The process described here depends upon creativity and creative expression. It involves construction. Teachers need to provide students with a sense of autonomy, in which their response to the text is recognized as essential so long as it remains consonant with the traditional body of Torah. While relationship depends upon reciprocity, it also involves a respect for boundaries. Interpretation remains healthy when it is motivated by a love of truth and tradition, by the urge to discover rather than destroy.

Having asked the question as to how teachers may introduce creativity in the classroom, a large number of questions are presented for the teacher of midrash to consider. Methodological possibilities for interpretation are raised, but the conclusion presented is that in the final analysis, the message is more important than the method. Inherent in the ‘good interpretation’ is loyalty to our words, and this involves maintaining morality and the love and fear of G-d as our primary goals.

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