New essay on midrash and fanworks

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I'm delighted to be able to announce that a new essay of mine has been published in the Symposium section of Transformative Works and Cultures, the fan studies journal published by the Organization for Transformative Works. The essay is called Fan fiction and midrash: making meaning.

Here's how the essay begins:

Because I am a Jew, the Torah is part of my inheritance, and along with that inheritance comes the obligation to read and to interpret. Reading and interpreting are also things I do professionally as a rabbi, though they're open to, and arguably the responsibility of, every adult Jew.

One of the ways that Jews interpret Torah is through midrash, exegetical stories that seek to explore and explain idiosyncrasies in our holy texts. The word midrash comes from the Hebrew lidrosh, to interpret or explain.

Midrashim (the Hebrew plural of midrash; in English, "midrash" can be either singular or plural) work in a variety of ways. They may fill lacunae in the Torah text, resolve contradictions in the text, or articulate character motivations and emotions that aren't explicit in the text. Sometimes they make a meta-point, an argument about where we should focus our attention, how we should live, or how we should read the text at hand...

After offering examples of midrashim which do each of those things, I draw a connection between midrash and fanworks (of all genres, though I focus here on fanfiction, because like midrash it's a written form):

As Jews constitute community through our interpretive storytelling about Torah, fans constitute community through our interpretive storytelling about pop culture or literary source texts.

I've written about this before -- see Transformative work: midrash and fanfiction -- though that essay isn't available online in full, so all you can read at the blog post is a teaser. Also, in Religion and Literature I presumed I was writing for an audience which might know about midrash but didn't know about fandom; TWC's readers, in contrast, presumably know about fandom but may not be familiar with midrash. Anyway, the big idea of this essay is that fanworks function like midrash, both in terms of the narrative moves they make and in terms of their community-building function. Ultimately I argue that when we think of fanworks in this way, we open up new understandings of both fanworks and the fans who create them:

Thinking of fan fiction as midrash is a useful alternative to Henry Jenkins’ textual poachers analogy. Whereas Jenkins' analogy positions fans as serfs poaching game from the lords' estate in order to make meaning and to reclaim ownership of the storytelling which fans see as our birthright, the midrash analogy positions fans as respected interpreters, analagous both to the classical rabbis who for centuries have interpreted scripture and to the modern midrashists who continue that work today.

(I'm actually a big fan of Henry's book Textual Poachers; it was hugely formative for me. But I think the poaching metaphor also has some limitations, and one of them is that it necessarily posits fans on the margins.)

One of the reasons I wanted to write about this for TWC is that  TWC is an open-access journal, which means that everything they publish is available online, for free: no need to pay for access to JSTOR or other academic databases. Go and read: Fan fiction and midrash: making meaning.

And while you're at it, check out the rest of the issue. I'm looking forward to reading the whole thing.


New beginnings, Doctor Who, and teshuvah

Last spring, just before Shavuot, I brought two classical midrash about the giving of the Torah at Sinai to my Hebrew school class, and one of my students made some fannish connections.

Rabbi Yochanan said: When God’s voice came forth at Mount Sinai, it divided itself into seventy human languages, so that the whole world might understand it. All at Mount Sinai, young and old, women, children and infants heard the voice of God according to their ability to understand. Moses, too, understood only according to his capacity, as it is said (Ex. 19:19), “Moses spoke, and God answered him with a voice.” With a voice that Moses could hear. (Shemot Rabbah 5:9)

I brought this midrash to my class, and one of my bar mitzvah students -- a big fan of the television show Doctor Who -- raised his hand and said, "It's like the TARDIS was there, translating!" I knew exactly what he meant.

TardisWith some prompting he explained to the class that the TARDIS is a time machine. It appears to be an iconic blue police box, though it is famously "bigger on the inside." And it contains a translation circuit which ensures that no matter where or when its inhabitants travel, everyone can be understood. I told him I thought that drawing an analogy to the TARDIS was an interesting way to think about the teaching that everyone heard Torah in a language they could understand. The tradition also teaches that "Torah has 70 faces; turn it and turn it, for everything is in it." Arguably the Torah too is "bigger on the inside" -- always containing more than we imagined.

Then we moved to the second midrash I had brought:

Because the Holy One appeared to Israel at the Red Sea as a mighty man waging war, and appeared to them at Sinai as a teacher who teaches the day’s lesson and then again and again goes over with his pupils what they have been taught, and appeared to them in the days of Daniel as an elder teaching Torah, and in the days of Solomon appeared to them as a young man, the Holy One said to Israel: Come to no false conclusions because you see Me in many guises, for I am God who was with you at the Red Sea and I am God who is with you at Sinai: I am Adonai your God.

The fact is, R. Hiyya bar Abba said, that God appeared to them in a guise appropriate to each and every place and time. At the Red Sea God appeared to them as a mighty man waging their wars, at Sinai God appeared to them as a teacher, as one who stands upright in awe when teaching Torah; in the days of Daniel, God appeared to them as an elder teaching Torah, for the Torah is at its best when it comes from the mouths of old men; in the days of Solomon God appeared to them as a young man in keeping with the youthful spirit of Solomon’s generation. At Sinai, then, when God said, I am Adonai Your God, appropriately God appeared to them as a teacher teaching Torah. (Pesikta de-Rab Kahana 12)

This, too, made my student think of the Doctor, because the Doctor also appears in different guises at different times: young and old, warrior and scholar. He was so enthusiastic about drawing out these lines of inquiry that I promised him that he could speak about this at his bar mitzvah if he were willing to do a bit of extra learning with me, a bargain which he eagerly accepted.

As I worked with him over the summer on his d'var Torah ("word of Torah" -- the spoken-word teaching he would offer at his bar mitzvah which would relate Torah and Jewish tradition to his own life), we talked both about how he understood his Torah portion and its relevance to his life, and about how these midrash evoke his favorite pop culture hero. (Of course we also talked about how Jewish understandings of God are different from the Doctor, because that matters too.) When he spoke from the bimah, he spoke about his Torah portion; about his participation in one of our congregation's social action projects; and about how he related Doctor Who to his understanding of what it means to be a Jew.

Continue reading "New beginnings, Doctor Who, and teshuvah" »


Where fandom and religion coincide

TARDIFA surprise arrived for me in the mail this morning: a complimentary copy of Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith, a new anthology which explores the role of religion in Doctor Who, coedited by Andrew Crome and James McGrath, newly released by Darton, Longman & Todd.

The copy came courtesy of one of the book's contributors, Joel Dark, whose essay "Doctoring the Doctor: Midrashic Adventures in Text and Space" draws on my 2012 essay for Religion & Literature, Transformative Work: Midrash & Fanfiction. He sent it to me as a sort of thank-you for having written that article in the first place, which was awfully kind of him. It's neat to see how Joel uses my essay to support his thinking about Doctor Who.

Joel writes:

A second happy accident for Doctor Who's midrashic future was the almost impossible contradictory complexity of its twenty-six year narrative. This was actually a long series of accidents. If 'surface irregularities of the text,' in the words of the biblical scholar James Kugel, are 'the grain of sand which so irritates the midrashic oyster that he constructs a pearl around it,' the original Doctor Who series was a beach.

That last sentence made me laugh out loud. A beach indeed. And, Kugel's point about midrash is a delightful one to bring to bear on Doctor Who -- and on any imperfect source-text which accrues a dedicated fandom in part because its irregularities give fans hooks on which to hang ideas and interpretations.

I've only had the chance to read two other essays in the book so far. One is Brigid Cherry's "'You're this Doctor's companion. What exactly do you do for him? Why does he need you?': Doctor Who, Liminality, and Martha the Apostle." I like her analysis of Martha (the companion) as an apostle, and she makes good points about the show's treatment of apocalypse and of spreading the good news.

And the other is Kristine Larsen's "Karma, Conditionality and Clinging to Self: the Tennant Years as Seen Through a Tibetan Buddhist Lens." I like her Buddhist reading of the show, and particularly her analysis of David Tennant's final episodes. (His Doctor really wasn't ready to accept his impermanence, was he?)

Reading Cherry's Christian analysis of the show, and Larsen's Buddhist analysis of the show, I find myself wondering what a specifically Jewish analysis of Doctor Who would look like. Of course, this being the internet, someone else has had that thought before I did, and has posted about it, too: Liel Liebovitz's Doctor Who? Doctor Jew: Doctor Who is the Greatest Jew on Television, in Tablet. Also, apparently 2011 brought us Naomi Alderman's Borrowed Time, the first Doctor Who tie-in novel written by a Jewish woman -- you can read about it in the Forward, and/or in this interview Doctor Who / Is A Jew?, which explores the Doctor's talmudic reasoning and features a charming visual of Matt Smith's Doctor wearing a kippah.

I'm looking forward to dipping further into the book as time permits. (And receiving it reminded me to put Chicks Dig Time Lords on my Amazon wishlist...)


Firmanent / Tearing

Sea

 "And God said, let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters." -- Genesis 1:6

 

Our sages teach: read not "firmanent"
but "rupture." Swap two sounds
in the original Hebrew
and the vastness of the sky's expanse
becomes the primal tearing
at creation's birth, God wounded.

Our stories teach: all the waters
wanted to be in the realms above
until God, angered, crooked His finger
and the fabric of the cosmos tore.
This dissent is why Torah doesn't say
God saw that it was good.

Only the second day of existence
and God wore that ripped scrap of gabardine
which speaks mourning: "as our lives
are torn, we perform this act of keria..."
God divided the waters of birth
from all our sea-salt tears to come.

Every birth is also a death: the end
of the life that used to be.
Every separation is also a rupture.
Read not "good" but "God:" God saw
that creation was constantly changing
just like its creator, dividing and torn.


This poem arises out of this week's material in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's Heavenly Torah. Heschel writes:

Regarding the waters: On the second day of creation, the Holy and Blessed One said: "let there be an expanse (raki'a) in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water. God made the expanse and it separated the water that was below the expanse from the water which was above the expanse" (Genesis 1:6-7). "God said to the waters: divide yourselves into two halves; one haf shall go up, and the other half shall go down; but the waters presumptuously all went upward. Said to them the Holy and Blessed One: I told you that only half should go upward, and all of you went upward?! Said the waters: We shall not descend! Thus did they brazenly confront their Creator... What did the Holy and Blessed One do? God extended His little finger, and they tore into two parts, and God took half of them down against their will. Thus it is written, 'God said, let there be an expanse (raki'a) -- do not read 'expanse, but 'tear' (keri'a)." (Midrash Konen, Otzar Midrashim, p. 254)

In a footnote, translator and editor Rabbi Gordon Tucker adds:

The Hebrew keri'a is an anagram of raki'a. This is quite an impressive midrash, coming from the early medieval collection known as Midrash Konen. This passage makes obvous analogies between God's creation and human birth. Both involve waters breaking, both involve pain and a tear. The tear in the waters was necessary to create space in which life could develop, and the tear of birth is necesary for the baby to begin an independent life. Keri'a is the rite for the dead, when Jewish law requires the tearing of clothing. The message then is twofold: the tear of death is just the continuation of the tear of birth. Both are necessary for life to continue, and we are powerless to change that. The other message is that God is as much bound by these truths as we are. God also could not create without a day of division and tearing, and thus we and God are both in need of comfort and strength in the wake of the cruelties of nature.

It's a tremendous chapter. My poem is offered in humble homage.

Photo taken at South Padre Island.


Charlotte Mandel's The Marriages of Jacob

MarriagesCharlotte Mandel's The Marriages of Jacob (Micah Publications, 1991) is a "poem-novella" which explores the story of the Biblical patriarch Jacob and his wives, and it is extraordinary.

As a reader, I relate to this volume on at least two levels. It's been more than thirteen years since I finished my MFA at Bennington, but I'm still interested and invested in contemporary poetry. So on the one hand, I approach this collection as a poet and a reader of poetry.

And my other set of lenses is my love of Torah and of the midrash which flowers-forth from Torah.  I cherish our stories and the wealth of commentary which form the core of our tradition. I'm interested and invested in stories from Torah and in their various retellings.

This collection moves me and inspires me on both of these levels. I appreciate the craft of this poetry, Mandel's choices of word and turn of phrase. And I appreciate the love of this scriptural story which led her to write these poems, and the ways in which she fleshes out Torah's sparse narrative into something multifaceted, three-dimensional, and real.

Longtime readers know that writing Torah poems is part of both my creative and my spiritual practice; I wrote one every week for a few years, and collected the best poem for each parsha into 70 faces (Phoenicia, 2011). But I've never gone as deeply into a single story, a single Biblical narrative, as Mandel does here. Here's how the collection begins:

Silence veils this bride
no less than her lowered hood
sewn with seven stems of silver wheat

Seven years this virgin groom
has buried his fists in her father's harvests,
bound sheep's wool into humps

A bargain -- the heat of his body
for the fragrance of Rachel,
Laban's daughter.
                      A swollen moon,
thorned stars and fruitful vines
pattern the roof of the wedding tent

loomed by the hummingbird fingers
of girls too young to have bled.
Her bearded brothers are grinning

with closed lips at their father's wit:
"Did he not ask
for my daughter, and do I not give him

my daughter Leah?"

I like the alliteration and assonance of "sewn with seven stems of silver wheat," of "buried his fists in her father's harvests," of "loomed by the hummingbird fingers." (And what images! Fists buried in the thick springiness of wool, weaving fingers flying fast as tiny birds.) And I like the visual prosody of the turn at the middle of the poem, the indented line a hinge between the first half and the second, between one part of the story and the next.

Continue reading "Charlotte Mandel's The Marriages of Jacob" »


New essay in Religion & Literature: "Transformative Work: Midrash & Fanfiction"

Contributors' copies of Religion & Literature volume 43.2!

The genre is an ancient one. Throughout the history of the Diaspora, Jewish imagination has flourished through midrash, elaborating on the tales and characters of the Hebrew Bible. But the postwar period has produced a surge of provocatively original midrashic writing in America, which seems to be accelerating like a kind of cosmic dark energy...

A new midrash is a juicy green leaflet on an ancient tree. Yet contemporary midrash has less to do with faith, or even McClure's "partial faith," than with what Adrienne Rich once called "the will to change."

So writes poet Alicia Ostriker in her introduction to the Forum section of volume 43.2 of the journal Religion & Literature. Alicia edited this issue's Forum section, which consists of essays exploring different aspects of contemporary midrash.

The essays collected here display extraordinary depth and breadth. Rivkah Walton writes about the feminist midrashic poetry of the 1980s and 90s; Rabbi Jill Hammer explores the work of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and American poet Veronica Golos; Eric Selinger explores the theologically and politically challenging poetics of Joy Ladin and Peter Cole; Merle Feld explores her own play "Across the Jordan", which arose out of her experience doing Israeli-Palestinian dialogue in the 1970s; Peter Pitzele explores Bibliodrama as a place of collision between text and improvisation; Norman Finkelstein articulates discomfort with the claiming of the "modern midrash" mantle for contemporary English-language poetry; Monica Osborne writes about how literature of trauma functions midrashically.

And the final essay in the Forum section, I am honored and humbled to note, is my own: Transformative Work: Midrash and Fanfiction.

Continue reading "New essay in Religion & Literature: "Transformative Work: Midrash & Fanfiction"" »


Teaching a class on midrash!

Today I get a rare opportunity: to guest-lecture to a college classroom! The class is on Good and Evil; the students will have just read Genesis 2 and Genesis 3, with which they are probably already pretty familiar. (Hint: Adam, Eve, a garden, and a certain snake.) But what may be less familiar to them are the accompanying essays and other texts they'll be reading alongside the Torah text, which I hope will give them a different way of looking at the story. The first piece they'll be reading is Midrash - The Key to Interpretation:

In Jewish tradition, the sacred texts of the Torah (the Hebrew Bible) have been kept adaptable to changing social circumstances through a form of story called midrash - stories invented to fill gaps or to explain apparent inconsistencies in the Torah. Midrash is actually a way to change the frame (context) of the stories in the Bible...

A famous tradition of midrash concerns an apparent inconsistency in Genesis: first, God created humans "male and female." Then, a few verses later, we are told the story of it not being good that Adam was alone and God creating a helpmate. How could this be? Could this holy story be flawed?

Not really, says the midrashic tradition. When God first created humans, God created Adam and the first woman, Lilith. Lilith refused a subordinate role, however, and fled the garden to bear the children of demons. Only then did Adam ask for a helpmate.

That story comes from the anonymous medieval text The Alphabet of Ben Sira:

When God created the first man Adam alone, God said, "It is not good for man to be alone." [So] God created a woman for him, from the earth like him, and called her Lilith. They [Adam and Lilith] promptly began to argue with each other: She said, "I will not lie below," and he said, "I will not lie below, but above, since you are fit for being below and I for being above." She said to him, "The two of us are equal, since we are both from the earth." And they would not listen to each other. Since Lilith saw [how it was], she uttered God’s ineffable name and flew away into the air. Adam stood in prayer before his Maker and said, "Master of the Universe, the woman you gave me fled from me!"

Continue reading "Teaching a class on midrash!" »


On Transformative Works

1.

My first experience with writing liturgy came when I was in college. A group of women gathered in a dorm room where we argued passionately over words and metaphors. The question was how to retell the Passover story -- the central narrative at the heart of Jewish peoplehood -- in a way that would speak to us.

What were the critical pieces of the original haggadah text that we wanted to preserve? Where did we want to make radical changes? How would those radical changes sit with us, year after year? One year we excised all of the God-as-king language, preferring instead to use feminine God-language in both Hebrew and English. Another year, we shifted all of the language of sovereignty to metaphors that reflected immanent power rather than transcendence: instead of King or Queen we wanted to celebrate our source, wellspring, creator.

The Williams College Feminist Seder Project is only a memory now. The college community there doesn't feel the need for a specifically "feminist" seder anymore... though I'll bet the standard seder they do there now is still shaped by the ripples my era of students set in motion. (That's how it goes with third-wave feminism.) But the work of creating my own Passover seder has shaped the way I think about Pesach, and about liturgical language, and about creativity, and about my place within the broader sphere of Jewish life.

I'm grateful to the women of the Williams College Feminist Seder Project, because they taught me how to take up the tools of transformation in my own liturgical life. Transforming the text of that beloved ritual was transformative for me.

 

2.

In the years after college, I didn't belong to a congregation. I hadn't yet found Jewish Renewal, and my dreams of the rabbinate seemed improbable at best. But I wanted a connection with Judaism.

Because the feminist seder project had been so formative for me, I tried my hand at writing other pieces of liturgy. I wrote a seder for Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. I wrote prayers for Sukkot and for Chanukah. I wrote, and then performed, a baby-naming ceremony for the son of two dear friends. When my sister became pregnant with her second child, she asked if I would write and perform a baby-naming for him, too.

Writing my own prayers and ceremonies helped me feel engaged. I was shaping my own quirky, idiosyncratic Judaism. I started writing about the fact that I was doing that, and encouraging other unaffiliated Jews -- other Jews on the fringes: intermarried folks, queer folks, those who didn't have a congregational home or who felt that there might not be a place at the Jewish table for them -- to write their own liturgies and prayers, too.

I took my MFA at Bennington. At the end of my time there, one of my beloved advisors (the poet David Lehman) suggested that I try my hand at writing prayers and psalms. Although I'd thought I was keeping my Jewish self and my writerly self somewhat separate, he saw right through that flimsy divide.

Active Jewishness is a writerly thing. We're obsessed with texts, and our tradition includes the strong expectation that each of us will be in conversation with those texts all our lives. Sometimes that conversation takes highly creative forms, so there's a sense that creativity is a legitimate way to respond to the texts we hold dear. All of this was fermenting in me in 1999, the year I was first introduced to fanfiction and fanvids: transformative works of a different kind.

Continue reading "On Transformative Works " »