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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.

Here's how that essay begins:

Judaism has long been a read/write tradition. We are not expected to be passive recipients of revelation; we are expected to join the conversation. Receiving Torah at Sinai was the beginning of our story, not the end. The Jewish daily liturgy describes a God Who every day renews the work of creation; just so, revelation is an ongoing process, and we are expected to take part.

Torah itself urges the reader to find a voice, since one of the last commandments in Torah is to write one’s own Torah. (Deut. 31:19) This is an injunction which can be interpreted either literally (mastering the scribal arts of sofrut) or metaphorically (adding our perspectives to the body of commentary surrounding Torah—or, in another interpretation, donating money to a qualified scribe who can write Torah for us.) The canon is never closed. New interpretations are always being created.

One story (in Midrash Tanchuma) holds that Torah is written in black fire on white fire. The black fire makes up the letters of the received text, while the white fire contains the silent stories which contextualize the received stories and which we ourselves are called to write. Another story (in Talmud, Menahot 29a) shows us Moses witnessing God putting artful tagin, crowns, on the letters of the supernal Torah. God is doing this work so that untold generations to come will have hooks on which to hang our interpretations and our stories—our midrash.

Through midrash we reveal Torah’s meanings. Midrash allows us to posit answers to our questions, to explore hidden motivations for mysterious moments in Torah, to offer explanation. Sometimes through midrash we temper Torah, rendering it more comprehensible to a contemporary audience or more in-tune with contemporary values. Midrash allows us to celebrate the loopholes and inconsistencies in Torah. They are not (only) accidents or signs of where the text was stitched together from disparate elements, but rather the hooks placed there by God precisely for the purpose of giving us something to work with.

I am speaking here primarily of midrash aggadah, midrash arising out of non-legal material in Torah. Jewish tradition also encompasses halakhic midrashim which explore and explain Torah’s legal texts. The body of Jewish midrash not only expands the universe of possible stories in our tradition, but also explores and teaches how we should live. But whether halakhic or aggadic, midrash is transformative work.

“Transformative work” is a technical term which comes from the language of legal scholarship. According to the United States Supreme Court, transformative work “adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the [source] with new expression, meaning or message.” (Campbell v. Acuff- Rose.) This is, I think, what midrash is and does. Through the lens of midrash, Torah texts take on new meanings.

The Supreme Court’s description of transformative work also suits another kind of transformative work—a form of storytelling practiced primarily by women for an audience which is likewise mostly women, (Jenkins, 476) in which the central texts of literature and modern pop culture are explored, remixed, and interpreted: fanfiction. Fanfiction is “a work of fiction written by fans for other fans.” (Fanlore, web) It is fiction which takes an existing story as its starting point and then goes somewhere new. In fanfiction, Sherlock Holmes can solve mysteries he never encountered; the USS Enterprise can explore even more new worlds and civilizations; Harry Potter can become a side character in Hermione Granger’s life story, instead of the other way around.

The tradition of derivative works (artistic creations which are rooted in other people’s art) is as old as literature itself. But what makes fanfiction unlike Virgil’s retelling of Homer or Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone (which recasts and reframes Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind) is that fanfiction arises within the context of community...

Alas: Religion & Literature does not seem to make their material available to the general public, so I can't point you to the whole essay in a readily-available online format! Of course, you could always choose to buy a copy of volume 43.2 or to subscribe. And the journal can be found online at JSTOR, so if you have access to that online academic database, feel free to check out the essay and let me know what you think.

When I first sent the essay to Alicia, she responded with great enthusiasm. "You are showing me a whole world I knew nothing about and making radical connections between Torah and pop culture," she wrote to me, and asked all sorts of terrific questions about the ways in which midrash and fanfiction intersect. It was a joy to have the chance to spend a while writing about midrash and fanfiction, and to be able to share my thoughts with Alicia and with all who read this journal now and in days to come.