Gender, voice, and canon

Rachel Barenblat

Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA

[0.1] Abstract—The Jewish tradition of midrash (exegetical/interpretive fiction) parallels the fannish tradition of creating fan works in more ways than one. In the twentieth century, both contexts saw the rise of women's voices, shifting or commenting on androcentric canon—and in both contexts today, that gender binarism is giving way to a more complicated and multifaceted tapestry of priorities and voices.

[0.2] Keywords—Feminism; Media fandom; Midrash

Barenblat, Rachel. "Gender, Voice, and Canon." In "Fan Fiction and Ancient Scribal Cultures," edited by Frauke Uhlenbruch and Sonja Ammann, special issue,Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 31.

[1] Fans who grapple with inconsistent or contradictory canon can take comfort in the knowledge that those engaged with Jewish textual tradition have participated in that same struggle for millennia. The Jewish scriptural canon features contradictory narratives right from the start.

[2] The book of Genesis (Hebrew, Bereshit) (note 1) presents two opposing narratives about the creation of the first human beings. In Genesis chapter 1, we read, "And God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.'…God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." But in Genesis 2, the story changes:

[3] God cast a deep sleep upon the man; and, while he slept, He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. And God fashioned the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman; and He brought her to the man. Then the man said, "This one at last / Is bone of my bones / And flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called Woman, / For from man was she taken."

[4] Wait: Is the text saying that God created a man and a woman together, or that God created a male and then miraculously expanded (male) creation to include a female being? On its surface, Torah appears to offer two stories that cannot both be true, and each story potentially gives rise to a different set of attitudes and perspectives on gender and power.

[5] The classical Jewish response to idiosyncrasies or contradictions in scripture is the writing of midrash, exegetical stories that explore and explain. (There are two types of midrash: midrash halakha, arising out of legal material, and midrash aggadah, arising out of narrative material. I'm speaking here of the latter.) Although contemporary scholarly reading of the Jewish scriptural canon presumes that Torah is an anthology of texts written by different authors at different times and stitched together by an editor with human biases and blind spots, early rabbinic Judaism presumed a text with a single author, which meant that for the sages of the classical rabbinic period, every apparent flaw in the text could (and arguably must) be a locus of meaning.

[6] The midrashic tradition doesn't presume a singular correct interpretation. The apparent inconsistency in Genesis cited above has sparked a variety of midrashic responses, none of which need to be treated as the one correct answer, and many of which are in conversation with each other. One of the midrashic tradition's responses is this text, from the classical compilation Bereshit Rabbah (written down between 300 and 500 CE):

[7] Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar said: When the Holy One created Adam, He created a bi-gendered being (note 2), as is said, "Male and female created He them…and called their name Adam." (Genesis 1:27…Genesis 5:2)

Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman said: When the Holy One created Adam, He made him with two fronts; then He sawed him in half and thus gave him two backs, a back for one part and a back for the other part.

Someone objected: But does not Scripture say, "And He took one of his ribs (mi-tzalotav)" (Genesis 2:21)?

Rabbi Samuel replied: Mi-tzalotav may also mean "his sides," as in the verse "And for the second side (tzela) of the mishkan…" (Exodus 26:20) (

[8] The rabbis are saying that "male and female created He them" means that God created a man and a woman glued together at the back, like the two-faced Roman god Janus, and then had to saw them apart. As their prooftext for this, they draw on an alternative translation for the word usually translated as "rib."

[9] Another midrashic answer takes an entirely different tack. This is from the anonymous medieval text The Alphabet of Ben Sira, written between 700 and 1000 CE:

[10] When God created the first man Adam, 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!" (

[11] I've always found this story hilarious—she refuses the missionary position, speaks God's ineffable Name and flies away! Take that, patriarchy! But its author continued in a darker, more misogynistic vein. In the continuation of that passage from The Alphabet of Ben Sira, Lilith is depicted as a homeless outcast demon who comes to the bedside of newborns with the intention of killing them unless they are protected by amulets inscribed with angels' names.

[12] The midrash of the classical tradition were almost entirely written by men because in earlier eras men were the ones who had literacy, knowledge of the canon, and the opportunity to contribute to the interpretive conversation. But in recent decades, that paradigm has shifted.

[13] One well-known feminist midrash was written in 1972 by feminist theologian Judith Plaskow. She takes the story that we heard in The Alphabet of Ben Sira and tells it anew in her contemporary midrash "The Coming of Lilith" ( It begins more or less as The Alphabet of Ben Sira text does, but then posits that after a while, Eve became curious about Lilith, whom she had heard was outside the walls of paradise:

[14] One day, after many months of strange and disturbing thoughts, Eve, wandering around the edge of the garden, noticed a young apple tree she and Adam had planted, and saw that one of its branches stretched over the garden wall. Spontaneously, she tried to climb it, and struggling to the top, swung herself over the wall.

[15] She did not wander long on the other side before she met the one she had come to find, for Lilith was waiting. At first sight of her, Eve remembered the tales of Adam and was frightened, but Lilith understood and greeted her kindly. "Who are you?" they asked each other, "What is your story?" And they sat and spoke together of the past and then of the future. They talked for many hours, not once, but many times. They taught each other many things, and told each other stories, and laughed together, and cried, over and over, till the bond of sisterhood grew between them…

[16] Lilith and Eve meet and become friends. They are sisters. They have much in common. The midrash ends just before the two of them re-enter the Garden to start a new future—changed by their encounter and their togetherness. Plaskow's rewriting of the Ben Sira rewriting of Bereshit centers Eve and Lilith and offers a lens on friendship between women.

[17] I see the interpretive move made by the authors of classical midrash as a fundamentally fannish move. Faced with contradictions or disjunctions in the classical canon, normative (male) Jewish tradition responds with storytelling.

[18] Admittedly, classical midrash approaches narrative in a slantwise way, reflecting a narrative sparseness that mirrors the source texts of the canon. It tends to focus on word interpretation and creative textual hyperlinking, rather than emotional dynamics or character motivation as we find in the work of Plaskow, Rabbi Jill Hammer, and most (though not all) female midrashists of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Nonetheless, even narratively minimalist classical midrash expands on the scriptural canon. And like fan works writ large, midrash arises out of a community context and fuels further conversation within that community context.

[19] The reinterpretive move made by Plaskow is also a fundamentally fannish move—and a familiar one to me as a media fan. Plaskow's voice entering the tradition to reframe an androcentric source text (Torah) and a male-authored commentary on that source text (Ben Sira) mirrors the emergence of media-fannish and slash-fannish spaces created by women as an alternative to male-centered mainstream science fiction and fantasy fandom. It's not coincidental that media fandom and slash fandom ( arose around the same time as Plaskow's religious feminism. The move Plaskow makes is precisely the move that fans make when we center women's voices in our communities—the OTW's Founding Board of Directors was intentionally all-female (—and female characters in our fan works.

[20] Those of us who came of age fannishly in late twentieth-century Western media fandom grew up fannishly in a paradigm wherein fandom as practiced by boys and men tends to mean consuming, collecting, and indexing, whereas fandom as practiced by girls and women tends to mean interpretive and transformative storytelling (fan fiction, fan vids, fan art, and so on). The classical (male-authored) midrashic tradition disrupts that gender binary somewhat, though midrashic texts written by women in the late twentieth century and beyond are even more firmly akin to late twentieth-century media fandom in their centering of (so-called) feminine concerns such as emotion, relationship, internal motivation, and connection.

[21] Jewish tradition's understanding of gender has shifted and evolved: from Torah (which evinces a gender binary), to Talmud (compiled and edited around 600 CE, reflecting an understanding of six possible genders) (, to today's scholars and rabbis exploring tradition, practice, and halakha ("Jewish law" or "the Jewish path") through a gender-inclusive lens. Media fandom writ large also has an evolving sense of gender and how that spectrum interacts with fannish practice and privilege, as evidenced in a shift in how the OTW describes itself:

[22] The OTW represents a practice of transformative fanwork historically rooted in a primarily female culture. The OTW will preserve the record of that history as we pursue our mission while encouraging new and non-mainstream expressions of cultural identity within fandom. ("What We Believe,"

[23] The second sentence of that paragraph was not present on the About Us page during the early years of the OTW and reflects fandom's changing sensibilities about gender and inclusion.

[24] The gender binarism of the origin story that old school science fiction and fantasy fandom was male-dominated whereas media fandom and slash fandom are spaces created by women may not resonate with fans today whose sense of gender possibility is broader than that of their fannish forebears. It falls to today's fans to create fan works out of that more expansive sense of gender possibility—just as it falls to today's Jews, rabbis, scholars, and interpreters to create midrash that moves beyond both the classical tradition's androcentrism and Plaskow's first-wave religious feminism.


1. The first word of Torah is variously translated as "In the beginning," or "In a beginning," or "With beginning," or "As God was beginning," or "In the beginning of God's creating…"

2. The Hebrew here features a transliteration of the Greek word androgynos.