Thursday, February 9, 2012

Learning from Midrash


In my studies of Jewish teachings, questions are often answered with 'Midrash.' The word comes from the Hebrew word “to seek” and its literal meaning is ‘to investigate’ or ‘to study.’ Without going into technical  explanations of the two kinds of Midrash—legal and narrative—it can be said that Midrash is usually described as a form of storytelling by rabbis and thinkers over the centuries to fill in the gaps of biblical stories, words and teachings; to answer the unexplainable; to comment on the unclear.  Midrashim (Hebrew plural for midrash)  may speculate on human weaknesses ..motivations …nuances..on the available information. Midrashic stories are often told  to shift perceptions of stated actions. (i.e. “why did Cain kill Abel?” “why was Noah chosen to save his family?” “why did Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery?”) The goal seems always to be to find a religious yet meaningful /logical /ethical explanation for questions.
In contemporary terms, the process of explaining answers to difficult questions can be related to the sages’ development of Midrash. “Mommy, why…”
No novel, whatever its subject or goal,  can be compared to the work of rabbis who wrote Midrash, or to learned teachings. But on consideration, I believe that in the process of writing fiction based on real but incomplete or flawed history, it is the author’s task to create secular Midrash…to explain what is unclear or unknown from the available facts; to speculate on the participants' actions and thoughts; sometimes to shift perceptions of accepted dogma by applying a new lens.
My novel about Anne of Brittany, which takes place in France 1488-1515, is based on  a great deal of historical research. But most of the history of that period consists of dates: wars, treaties, reigns, births, deaths, marriages. That leaves a lot of blanks. I’ve learned at least as much from the arts of the period, and from visiting the places in her life. But that is still not sufficient to tell a meaningful story. That’s why I couldn’t write it as a biography or history. I’ve had to extrapolate to fill in the blanks. Why? Where? When? How? What did it feel like? What were the reactions of others? Who are the people without titles who made things happen? It had to be a historical novel. 
I do not intend to be presumptuous or irreverent by using the word Midrash. Instead, again, it has offered me another view of the process of thinking and writing. 

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