Midrash for the 21st Century

You might be surprised to learn that the most popular Tanakh curriculum is not being used by any day schools. You won’t find it in synagogue or at camps either. Surprisingly, you can find it in more than 125,000 homes across North America.

I am talking about PJ Library, an organization that sends a Jewish-themed kids book to families once a month. A quick glance at their titles reveals that many of their books draw on Biblical material. This may well mean that Jewish children are reading more about Tanakh from PJ library books than they are from any other source. Although the books are not consciously chosen as part of a Tanakh curriculum, it is nonetheless important to ask the question: what are kids learning about Tanakh from PJ Library? I want to explore one book from PJ Library in this post and conclude by thinking about what this new genre of midrash might mean for our formal educational settings.

In Noah’s Bark, the Biblical flood, a story about mass destruction is transformed into a story about finding one’s own unique voice in community. Gone are sin and death. In their places are teamwork and identity. What is left of the Biblical story is only an ark and animals. The story reads:

“All this noise was a problem for Noah. He was trying to build an ark, and it was hard to concentrate.”

Two pages later:

“Then it started to rain. And it rain and rain and rain. Some of the animals grew frightened. Luckily, Noah had finished his work. He told the animals about the great flood that was coming. ‘But don’t worry,’ he said, ‘you will all be safe on my ark.’ Some of the animals believed him. Others did not. The ones that did got in line and climbed on board.”

These are the only allusions to the Biblical flood story. Noah’s Bark goes on to tell a story about the animals finding their voices. On the ark Noah cannot communicate with the animals because the animals all talked at the same time and made all the same noises. The book narrates:

“Now Noah quickly gave directions. The pigs oinked if anyone fell overboard. The parrots squawked when a big wave was coming. And the lions roared when the roof leaked. Noah was pleased.”

PJ library reinforces this theme of teamwork with individuality in a note on the book’s back cover.

“By giving every creature a unique sound, Noah helped the animals see that each had its place a contribution to make to the group. In other words, Noah helped them form a community- in Hebrew, a kihillah.”

And so the Biblical Flood story is transformed. And 125,000 Jewish families participate in the transformation.

It’s easy to question Noah’s Bark’s author’s editorial choices on the Biblical flood story.  He seems to have watered down the story (no pun intended).  Not only has he transformed the victims of the flood into animals, but he has made it their choice whether or not to get on the ark. Looked at another way, however, Noah’s Bark is doing exactly what we, as teachers, hope our students will do: make sense of the text in light of their own values, experiences, and interpretive priorities. 

This approach is nothing new.  In some sense, PJ library books represent new midrashim.  Rather than bemoaning the fact that students sometimes get confused about what is peshat and what derash, their supposed misunderstandings represent an opportunity for Tanakh teachers.  Whether students are searching for the story where Avraham breaks the idols or wondering where Noah gives each animal its own sound, the important thing is that they are engaged in making meaning of the text.  One could imagine teachers using midrashim or PJ library books as points of entry into deep textual discussion.

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