Midrash = Fanfiction
Updated: Dec 31, 2019
Several weeks ago, I was teaching at a Hebrew School assembly, and I asked my students if they could tell me what midrash is. After a moment of watching them nervously attempt not to make eye contact with me, I offered the definition that has been rattling around in my brain for a while now. This is what I told them:
MIDRASH = FANFICTION
The more that I think about it, the more that I am convinced that this is true.
Importantly, embracing the connection between midrash and fanfiction will do more than make you seem “hip” to your students (side question- does using the word “hip” negate something’s hipness? A question for the ages...). In fact, understanding that midrash and fanfiction are one in the same will have explosive and revitalizing effects on this central category of Jewish writings.
Let’s start with some definitions.
It is harder than you might think to define fanfiction. Many have tried (including Merriam-Webster who angered many in the fanfiction world by spelling the term in a way that the community itself does not). So, rather than attempt my own definition, I will use Vox’s:
“Fanfiction: Fanfiction — or fanfic or fic, but never "fan fiction"; the two-word construction is considered incorrect — is fiction written about a previously existing work, or a previously existing source of some kind. This previously existing source can be virtually anything, including reality...”
There are traditionally two kinds of midrash: Midrash Halakhah (writings that use the biblical text to determine ritual practice/ observance) and Midrash Aggadah (writings that focus more on the exploration of the biblical text as a means of discovering new insights). There is SO muchto be said about the different kinds of midrash and how the category of midrash as sacred literature has evolved over time. (If you’d like to learn more about this topic- click right here.) But, the main thing to know about midrash is that it is an exploration of the themes, language, stories, and characters of the Hebrew Bible.
When I met with my Confirmation students this past weekend, I began our class by asking them to define midrash. One student offered a tentatively delivered (although correct!) answer. Then, I asked them to define fanfiction.
This time, my request was met with the same smirks and giggles that appear every time I reference something that falls within the category of contemporary culture (FYI- these are the same looks that my younger students give me when they see me in the grocery store or somewhere that isn't temple). But after they smiled, several of my students explained that fanfiction is a work that expands the existing world of a book, movie, TV show, etc. I smiled, thanked those who had offered definitions, and then asked, “What if I were to tell you that midrash is fanfiction?”
One student mimed that I was “blowing her mind.” (I’m pretty sure that this was for my benefit, but I appreciated it anyway.)
We went on to talk about the ways that both midrash and fanfiction allow us to identify gaps in the canon where we can insert ourselves, members of underrepresented groups, and more into the text. I showed the class examples of midrashim that weave strong women and members of the LGBTQ community into our biblical stories. We read a beautiful midrash from Queering The Text which tells the story of Miriam stumbling through the Red Sea, arriving at the shore that represented freedom, and celebrating this new chance at happiness by embracing her beloved, Zahavah (who, in the language of fanfiction, would be labeled an “OC” or original character).
Then, I stood up and announced to the group that we would spend the remainder of our class period writing midrashim about biblical stories. Again, I was met with some blank faces. For my students (and, I would argue, for most members of the Jewish community), midrash is something that was either written by long-ago rabbis or is currently being created by people much more qualified than themselves. I reassured them, “Remember, midrash is fanfiction, and both are just explorations of the text. It doesn’t have to be wonderful or profound. It just has to include something that you think will make the story more full, more relevant.”
Even with my reassurances, there were some in the class who struggled to come up with something. And, that’s ok. This way of engaging with our text isn’t for everyone. But, the connection between midrash and fanfiction seemed to liberate some of my students. And, when class concluded, I was presented with a collection of midrashim that included Joseph’s Instagram posts from his journey to Potiphar’s home, an account of Noah’s struggles with his sister (an OC who, in this story, was the one responsible for organizing the pre-flood rescue of the worlds’ animals), a reenvisioning of Jacob’s time with the angel as a romantic experience, a “behind the scenes” story of Shiphrah’s defiance of Pharaoh and service to the Israelite women in Egypt, a transcript of Joseph's tweets from the moments when he was being sold into slavery by his brothers, the story of a OC’s struggle with the biblical theology of God blessing those who follow the rules and cursing those who don't, and the story of Benjamin as a transgender young man who spoke with his father about what it would mean to embrace his true identity and be counted amongst his brothers.
Now, maybe my students would have created these stories even if I spoke only in the language of midrash, but I believe that they felt much more free to embrace the creative possibilities because I told them that I wanted them to write fanfiction rather than midrashim. There is a democracy to the world of fanfiction. Anyone and everyone is able and qualified to create something new from the foundation of an existing world. You don’t need to master a language or offer scholarly credentials in order to begin creating.
In contrast, the world of midrash has for much of our history been the domain of those who followed the traditionally accepted rules of exploration and understanding. Despite both the relatively small number of “approved” authors and the limitations that come from the underlying assumptions of the rabbinic world, the vast and remarkable collection of midrashim that contemporary Jews have inherited includes many startlingly “off the wall” headcanons. (In the fanfiction world, the term "headcanons" is used for ideas that fans create to add to the existing canon.)
Headcanons are critical to a fan’s interpretation and understanding of the canonical world- a phenomenon we very much see in the Jewish community's interaction with midrashic literature.
Examples of Rabbinic/ Midrashic Headcanons that are so well known that people think they are in the Torah:
Abraham smashed the idols in his father’s idol store because he was a passionate monotheist even before God called to him. (Genesis Rabbah 38:13)
Moses burned his tongue on a coal and was therefore “slow of speech.” (Exodus Rabbah 1:26)
There’s a “sky’s the limit” sensibility to fanfiction that allows for endless possibilities. But, what many people don’t know is that midrash is often as bonkers as fanfiction is (for further proof of this assertion, you will need to attend one of my Torah Study classes). We can fix this misconception about midrash by celebrating the similarities between the two worlds. When we do that, we will allow those who are unfamiliar with midrash to see how much space still exists for people who want to create new interpretations of our ancient stories.
In fanfiction and midrash, friendships and relationships can blossom between any people; the least important character can be transformed into the hero; and villains can be redeemed or further condemned as long as someone cares enough to create their backstories.
The boundaries of creators’ imaginations provide the only limits for both fanfiction and midrash. And, by equating the two, those of us who value the biblical cannon but wish we saw more of ourselves and our friends in the stories will receive all the permission that we need to make the Torah our own.
So I suggest that we embrace the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the generations who have created beautiful, wacky, and meaningful midrashim. Let’s use our creativity to explore the lives of our patriarchs, matriarchs, and everyone else who exists in the Torah. I for one can’t wait to read stories where an OOC (out of character) Adam defends Eve’s curiosity, or where Jonah convinces the whale not to swallow him, or maybe even where Lilith and Vashti open a feminist bookstore in an alternate universe.
There’s space for these stories and more. We just have to be brave enough to embrace the challenge and start creating.