Hamilton: An American Musical as Midrash
Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman
Hamilton: An American Musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda is a midrash on the founding of the United States. The ancient rabbis composed midrashim – creative stories and interpretations based on the Torah – to teach their followers lessons and explore the meaning of the text. So too, Hamilton retells the story of the founding of the United States, and the biography of Alexander Hamilton, in creative ways that teach us important modern lessons and explore US history.
Rabbinic midrash is fan fiction on the Torah. The ancient rabbis wrote entire new scenes, invented dialogue, and quoted Scripture out of context to make their point. The midrashic voice is human intervention in divine revelation, an intervention that keeps the sacred text poignant and relevant for the current generation. Midrash is an act of radical truth telling precisely because of how it bends the text away from its contextual truth toward the truth the reader needs to hear.
Hamilton as fan fiction strikes such a powerful chord in America today because its intentional misreading and retelling of the US history brings light and healing where we so desperately need it as a nation. The story is told through rap, hip hop, and R&B – music of latino and black Americans. To see the founding fathers and the women in their lives played by men and women of color reframes our early history. As our country struggles to value black lives, to welcome immigrants, to have every vote count, we need to reimagine our founders so that we can deeply answer the question: "Whose country is this anyway?" As a white Jew, whose family has been here only three generations, power, privilege and opportunity are more easily mine than they are for a young black man whose ancestors were taken here by violent force 300 or 400 years ago and on whose backs this nation's economy was built. That is not right.
As a story-telling species, we need new stories, new national midrashim, to help us heal fromsystemic racism.
Last summer I saw a sketch of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr at their famous dueling grounds. The sketch showed two white men, pistols drawn. I remember thinking: "Why are they white?" In my mind, these figures were now men of color who looked like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom.
Hamilton has changed the image of US history for me and many others. I know it is not historically true that Hamilton and Washington were latino and black respectively. But when I imagine they were, the truth of America today is clearer to me, and the racism I have imbibed along with all of us in this country starts to loosen a bit. The US belongs to people who look like them, as much if not more so than to anyone who looks like me. Midrash is not factually true. Fan fiction is not historically accurate. But our origin stories need to be revisited and retold to lay bare the truth we need to hear.
Stay tuned for Hamiltorah: The Revelation, a class for all ages taught by Rabbi Shoshana later this year!