On Transformative Works

by Rachel Barenblat (North Adams, MA)

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.

3.

I was working at The Women’s Times in those days. I planned issues of the newspaper, hired writers, wrote articles, and helped women in my region tell our stories. Meanwhile, I was also beginning to engage with womens’ stories via the creative community of media fandom. (More on media fandom, and fanworks, in a moment — stay tuned.) Maybe because women’s voices were central to my professional work, and maybe because of my collegiate experience with the feminist seder project, media fandom — as a “predominantly female community with a rich history of creativity and commentary” (Our Values) — felt immediately like home.

In 2000 I left The Women’s Times to found Inkberry with Emily and Sandy, two dear college friends. Inkberry is a literary arts nonprofit organization which still offers writing workshops and a reading series to the Berkshire region. Before we launched the org, the three of us sat around my living room and argued about the wording of our mission statement as only a trio of committed writers could do. In the end, we settled on this: Inkberry’s mission was to strengthen the connections between writing and life, and to help every writer to find their own unique voice.

Our central theory was that everyone can write, that everyone can become better at writing if they work at it, and that writing can be life-changing regardless of whether or not one ever publishes the Great American Novel or makes it into the Yale Younger Poets series.

What I remember most from those early years are the people who entered our team-taught introductory mixed-genre workshop saying things like “I’ve never shown anyone my writing before” and “I’m not sure I’m a writer,” and emerged with confidence in their writing abilities and the value of the unique stories they had to tell. The act of writing was personally transformative for them.

4.

During the Inkberry years, I was also writing poems and doing liturgical work. I created a wedding for two dear friends; wrote other lifecycle events, prayers and psalms. I started studying Jewish liturgy, wanting to know more about the tradition of which my creative liturgy was a part. In 2002 I attended my first retreat at Elat Chayyim, where I found Jewish Renewal.

In Jewish Renewal we talk a lot about Paradigm Shift ([pdf]). The term has its origin in science, but Reb Zalman (and others) saw it unfolding in Judaism. Moving from Biblical Judaism (based around sacrifice of animals on the Temple mount) to rabbinic Judaism (based around study and prayer and a set of texts which are entirely portable) was an enormous paradigm shift. A lot of folks in Jewish Renewal argue that we’re in the midst of another paradigm shift now, from rabbinic Judaism to whatever comes next. The next turning of the spiral.

I see the groundswell of creative liturgy work as part of this paradigm shift. In today’s world we presume that everyone has the capacity to add our voices to the conversation, whatever that conversation might be. On today’s read/write web, (almost) anyone can start a blog, post photos to a flickr feed, participate in online culture. Why would we be any less proactive in shaping our religious lives than we are in shaping our relationship with the news or the blogosphere? People who are writing our own prayers and psalms, our own wedding vows and our own baby-naming blessings are taking the tradition into our own hands, shaping it as we allow it to shape us.

Of course, the work we do wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the broad base of the classical tradition on which we build. And that classical tradition matters a lot to me. I cherish the texts in the siddur as they’ve evolved over the centuries; I thrill to the melodic motifs of traditional nusach as they shift over the course of each day and week and year.

But I might never have realized how much I love the classical tradition if I hadn’t started writing my own prayers, and been drawn through that into learning more about the deep structure of the liturgy as it’s been handed down. I think that creative liturgy work has the capacity to enrich and enlarge that tradition, even as it also enriches and enlarges our own spiritual lives. Writing liturgy is an act in which both the pray-er and the prayer are transformed. Writing liturgy is transformative work.

5.

Judaism has long been a read/write tradition. (Indeed: one of the last commandments in the Torah is for every Jew to write a Torah scroll — see Deut. 31:19.) Most of us don’t have the intense training and focus required for sofrut (the scribal arts), but we can fulfil the commandment by each adding her own voice and interpretations to the body of tradition.

At the heart of Jewish life is the Torah, and the shell of commentary which surrounds it, and concentric circles of commentary and conversation which surround that. It’s entirely reasonable for an author in the sixth century to be engaged in a conversation on the page with an author who lived four hundred years before, and for a twenty-first century author to cite (and argue with, and respond to) all of them at once.

Torah has often been termed The Law, and yeah, there’s a lot of law there. But there’s also a lot of storytelling, and the Jewish textual tradition mixes the two all the time. Halakha and aggadah (law and storytelling) are like yin and yang. They complement and complete one another.

When I say storytelling, one of the things I mean is midrash, the body of exegetical stories which seek to delve into loopholes or explain idiosyncrasies in our holy texts. There’s a vast body of classical midrash, of course, some of which makes astonishing and delicious assertions. (I’m partial to the teaching fromMidrash Tanchuma that the Torah is written in black fire on white fire; the “black fire” can be understood as the plain text and its basic meaning, while the “white fire” is found in our interpretations, the ways we creatively read between the lines.)

There’s also a growing body of contemporary midrash, including feminist midrash which aims to restore women’s voices to the tradition. All of this arises out of and often comments upon the classical material, which in turn is arising out of and commenting on the Torah texts. Like an infinite set of Matryoshka dolls, with the Sinai theophany at their ineffable heart.

It’s possible to be a Jew without engaging in this infinite conversation. But from where I sit, the conversation is the fun part. Reading, writing, talking back, using stories to make arguments — this is the fabric of Jewish life. And it’s also the fabric of fandom.

6.

Just as Jews create community through engaging around our shared stories, so do fans. But instead of writing stories or essays or making short films which offer exegeses of Biblical or Talmudic texts, fans write stories and essays and make short films which explore pop culture texts. We respond and re-purpose, turning and turning all kinds of stories to see what might be found inside. Often what we find there — what we foreground, or what we add — says as much about us as it does about the book or movie at hand. That’s part of the fun.

Fanfiction is fiction which takes an existing story as its starting point and then goes somewhere new. (This happens outside the fannish world, too. You could think of Jo Graham’s Black Ships as Aeneid fanfiction, or the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat as Bible fanfiction — part of the rich tradition of contemporary midrash.) Fanvids are short amateur films which use found footage and music to tell a story or make a point. (See What is vidding?, part of a series of short films on vids and vidding; if you want to learn more, read Remixing Television.) Historically, these are womens’ arts. In crafting fanworks together, with and for one another, we create community.

My years in the community of media fandom have helped me feel empowered not only to savor stories, but also to respond: with love, with criticism, with new stories which build on or diverge from what I’ve received. Learning to put on these lenses, to encounter story with/in this interpretive community of friends, has enriched my reading and my writing alike.

Creating fanworks transforms us from consumers to producers. Instead of just imbibing stories, we become part of the cultural conversation. It’s like the paradigm shift of remix culture and the read/write web, only we’ve been doing it a lot longer than even the most old-school of bloggers. (Media fandom has been around since the 1970s; the broader term fandom has been in use since 1903. And, of course, generating creative work in response to existing creative work is about as old a practice as I can name; just ask Cory Doctorow.)

Fandom is very like Judaism in a lot of ways. And fanworks are transformative work.

7.

Full disclosure: “transformative work” is a technical term, and I’ve been using it in a slightly creative fashion to mean two things at once. The primary meaning of transformative use is a use which, in the words of the Supreme Court, “adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the (source) with new expression, meaning, or message.” (Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, 1994.) I think my customized liturgies and homegrown psalms fit that bill, as do fanworks writ large.

The other kind of transformation I’ve been talking about here isn’t a legal matter, it’s an internal one. In the four-worlds paradigm I reference so often, the legal definition of a transformative work is an assiyah issue, relevant in the world of actions and physicality. But I’m most interested in how transformation plays out in yetzirah (emotions), briyah (thought), and atzilut (essence.) I’m committed to supporting the kind of transformation we work in ourselves and in our communities when we allow our work to transform us in those realms. (Then again, legalism and storytelling do go together like chocolate and peanut butter in my tradition, so maybe the dichotomy isn’t so stark afterall.)

It seems to me that whether we’re writing rituals and psalms, or writing poems, or creating fanworks, the net result is both transformed works and transformed individuals. It’s a two-way street: we transform works, and the work transforms us.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat was ordained by ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal in 2011. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and is author of three book-length collections of poetry: 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011), Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia, 2013), and the forthcoming Open My Lips (Ben Yehuda, 2014), as well as several chapbooks of poetry. A 2012 Rabbis Without Borders Fellow, she participated in a 2009 retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders in 2009, and in 2014 will serve as faculty for that retreat. Since 2003 she has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi; in 2008, TIME named her blog one of the top 25 sites on the internet. She has been an off-and-on contributor to Zeek since 2005. She serves Congregation Beth Israel, a small Reform-affiliated congregation in western Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband Ethan Zuckerman and their son.

This piece first appeared on The Velveteen Rabbi (http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/) and has been reprinted here with the kind permission of the author. 

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1 Comment

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One response to “On Transformative Works

  1. Great piece, Rachel! I’ve had a tough time understanding the phenomenon of fanfiction, but you draw interesting parallels to engagement with Jewish texts. I look forward to checking out your poetry.

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