Fan fiction and midrash: Making meaning

Rachel Barenblat

Lanesboro, Massachusetts, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Just as Jews interpret Torah through midrash (exegetical stories that explore and explain the text), fans interpret contemporary source texts through fan fiction, which functions just as midrash does to sustain community and enable members of that community to join the communal conversation.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan community; Fan fiction; Judaism; Midrash; Religion; Torah

Barenblat, Rachel. 2014. "Fan Fiction and Midrash: Making Meaning." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 17.

[1] Because I am a Jew, the Torah (note 1) 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.

[2] One of the ways that Jews interpret Torah is through midrash, exegetical stories that seek to explore and explain idiosyncrasies in our holy texts (note 2). The word midrash comes from the Hebrew lidrosh, to interpret or explain.

[3] 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.

[4] An example of a midrash that resolves contradictions arises out of the two different creation stories in Genesis. In one, Torah tells us that "male and female created He them," and in the other we read about woman's creation from the man's rib. So which was it: did God create male and female together, or did God create man and then woman? The Torah text is unclear, but midrash offers a variety of explanations.

[5] Bereshit Rabbah, a classical compilation of midrash on Genesis written down in the fifth century CE but probably containing material from a few centuries earlier as well, offers one explanation: God initially created a bigendered being, male and female glued together at the back, and then sawed them apart. And a midrash in the anonymous medieval collection called the Alphabet of Ben Sirah says that God created two beings out of earth, a man and a woman; but the woman, known as Lilith, refused to "lie below" the man, citing their simultaneous creation as evidence of their equality. When the man wouldn't listen to reason, she uttered the ineffable Name of God and flew away.

[6] Another fertile ground for midrash, especially midrash focusing on character motivations and emotions, is the story we call "the binding of Isaac," in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son atop Mount Moriah. One classical midrash in the Bereshit Rabbah draws on Hebrew wordplay to imagine God saying, "I never considered telling Abraham to slaughter Isaac!" Another posits Isaac arguing with Ishmael (Abraham's first son, born to the concubine Hagar) about which one of them is more beloved and which is more willing to sacrifice himself for God. Still another midrash, which appears in both the eighth-century CE Midrash Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer and the ninth-century Midrash Tanhuma, suggests that ha-satan, "the Adversary," tells Isaac's mother Sarah what's happening on the mountaintop, and when she hears the news, she dies of a broken heart—which is why the next thing we read, in the Torah, is the death of Sarah.

[7] These stories reframe and expand the original text in unexpected ways. And in classical Jewish tradition, midrash are considered to be Oral Torah (note 3). In retelling or reframing the original Bible text, they become part of the continuing unfolding of divine revelation.

[8] The ongoing process of reading Torah, interpreting Torah through storytelling, reading others' stories and responding to them, and so on, is one of the primary ways in which Jewish community is constituted. This interplay is at Judaism's heart.

[9] And the midrashic tradition remains alive today. Many contemporary midrashists are women, giving voice to female characters in Torah and showing how Torah stories might have felt from a woman's point of view. Modern midrashists may have different perspectives and different concerns than did our classical forebears, but we're engaged in the same sacred process.

[10] Much as Jews constitute community through our interpretive storytelling about Torah, fans constitute community through our interpretive storytelling about pop-culture and literary source texts. Fanworks in all media can offer interpretive readings of source texts, though I'm focusing here on fan fiction because, like midrash, it's a written form.

[11] Fan stories, like midrash, fill in lacunae in our source texts: for example, Doctor Who stories that ask, what other adventures might the Eleventh Doctor have had with River Song when they were courting? Fan stories, like midrash, articulate motivations and emotions that aren't explicit in the text: for example, LOST stories that explore what Ben Linus might have been thinking and feeling when he turned the underground donkey wheel to move the island.

[12] Fan stories, like midrash, resolve contradictions in the text. These may be small in scale (in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, for example, who was Spike's sire, Angel or Drusilla? Can the First Evil take corporeal form, or not?) or more substantial (was Buffy's relationship with Spike in-character?—a question that has launched at least a thousand stories).

[13] Fan stories, like midrash, give voice to characters who aren't front and center in narratives as we've received them. For example, we all know how Harry Potter experienced his years at Hogwarts, but how did those years feel to Hermione Granger? Harry Potter fan stories answer that question and more. And fan stories, like midrash, make meta-points about their source texts and about our community's readings of those texts: for example, though Hawaii 5-0's televised narrative privileges its white male characters, fan stories that explicitly focus on Chin Ho Kelly and Kono Kalakaua implicitly critique that focus both on the part of the show's creators and on the part of its fandom.

[14] Just as Jewish communities are constituted and maintained by ongoing engagement with source texts, so are fan communities. In the print zine era, in the online mailing list era, in the journals and archives era, in the Tumblr and Twitter era, fans have created community through writing and publishing stories, and through responding to them via letters of comment, e-mails, comments, kudos, reblogging—and also through writing more stories that are sparked by or that respond to the stories that came before.

[15] Fans are midrashists who explore and explicate texts—usually non-Biblical texts, though there is a subcategory of fan fiction that works with Biblical material. In the 2013 Yuletide story exchange, for example, one story spun the brief story of Michal, first wife of King David, into a novella. The year before that, a piece of fan fiction recast the tale of Noah's Ark as a space opera. That said, the vast majority of fanworks work with non-Biblical source texts. But they remain midrashic in nature and process.

[16] Thinking of fan fiction as midrash is a useful alternative to Henry Jenkins's image of fan writers as textual poachers, an analogy he adopted from Michel de Certeau (Jenkins 1992, 24). Whereas Jenkins's analogy positions fans as serfs poaching game from the lord's estate in order to make meaning and to reclaim ownership of the storytelling that fans see as their birthright, the midrash analogy positions fans as respected interpreters, analagous both to the classical rabbis who for centuries interpreted scripture and to the modern midrashists who continue that work today.

[17] Interpreting Torah is both the obligation and the birthright of every Jew. The Torah has 70 faces, say the sages of Jewish tradition; in the words of the compilation Pirkei Avot (c. 220 CE), "turn it and turn it, for everything is in it" (5:26). By the same token, interpreting the stories that shape modern culture—be they Shakespeare or Elementary—is both the obligation and the birthright of every active reader and viewer. Not only do fanworks not impinge negatively on the source texts of our time, they add value and bring meaning to those source texts. And as midrash, both classical and contemporary, can teach us about the perspectives and values of the time in which they were written, fanworks can teach us and later generations of fans about how we go about the process of making meaning today.

[18] Torah is never read in a vacuum. Engaged Jews always read it through the lenses of commentary and interpretation. And engaged fans read our literary and pop-culture source texts through the lenses of fannish conversation, some of which takes the form of storytelling. Through our midrash, we make meaning.


1. "Torah" can mean the Five Books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy; it can mean the broad scope of Jewish scripture, also called TaNaKh; and it can mean either the whole body of Jewish wisdom or a Jewish teaching that one person is sharing, as in "Today I'm going to give over some Torah I received from my teacher."

2. I'm talking here about Midrash Aggedah, narrative midrash. A second category of midrash also exists that seeks to explicate Jewish law; these are called Midrash Halakha, but are not germane here.

3. The most traditional understanding holds that when God gave Torah to Moses at Sinai, the written word was paired with the Oral Torah, the debates and dialogues of Talmudic rabbis many centuries hence. Midrash is part of Oral Torah.

Work cited

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers. New York: Routledge.