Svara is a 2,000-year-old Jewish concept invented by the Rabbis of the Talmud, to refer to one’s moral intuition informed by Jewish learning. The Rabbis considered svara a legitimate—and sacred—means of figuring out how we should live our lives, in addition to the means they already had—the Torah. But they valued it as so reliable a source of truth that they considered any law that grew out of their svara to have the same status as that of a truth derived directly from Torah, d’oraita (“straight from the Torah”). In fact, according to Jewish law, svara can even supercede Torah when the two conflict. Svara has been central to the evolution of the Jewish tradition and underlies the radical nature of Jewish thinking itself, but has been, until now, something of a secret of talmudic scholars and rabbis. The crucial element in turning one’s moral intuition, insight and life experience into svara is learning. And that’s where SVARA (the yeshiva) comes in!
SVARA understands queerness as shaping the effort to move towards a more just, inclusive and accessible world in which all people are able to live out their most fully human lives. Queerness is about thinking, living, learning, and studying in radical ways—not only to challenge society’s norms related to gender and sexuality, but to speak to the silences and render the invisible seen. Like Jewish insight, queer insight is drawn from the experience of being on the fringe. SVARA centers queerness because it is at the core of who we are and the culture we build as a yeshiva. Many of our learners identify as “straight” and bring radical ways of thinking and being to the table and, therefore, are not just welcomed but necessary to the queer space SVARA creates. When all is said and done, it’s not about who you sleep with or what pronoun you use—it’s about how you think and how you live. The Rabbis of the Talmud were queer. The innovators of the next Jewish future will be queer.
That’s OK! SVARA is a queer space. The presence and perspective of those allies who may not yet see themselves fitting in queer space (see “What do you mean by Queer,” above) is important to community and the learning environment. Being an ally implies more than just being “tolerant,” though. It means being open to learning from the experience of queer people, and being willing to learn from your own experience of sometimes feeling “on the fringe.”
A yeshiva is an academy of Jewish text study—primarily that of the Talmud. In a yeshiva, students traditionally learn texts with a partner, called a chevruta, and then reconvene with other learners and the teacher in a discussion/text-unpacking session, called shiur. A yeshiva is both a school where the Jewish tradition is learned and passed on, as well as a think tank where learners bring the insights of their own lives and gain the skills and the experience to reinterpret and upgrade the tradition, as necessary, in each generation. It is also a place of communal spiritual practice. A contemplative approach to Talmud study and the transmission of the age-old understanding of Talmud study as a Jewish spiritual practice (called derech ha-shas) contribute to the special feel of the learning at SVARA.
As long as you can “decode” (sound out) Hebrew characters (even without comprehension), SVARA is a great place to start your talmudic studies. The learning is rigorous, and you’ll be working hard, but our faculty makes sure that all students, regardless of their Hebrew level, are able to keep up, and feel a sense of ownership of the text.
Talmud is the enormous, nearly 2,000-year-old record of a small group of radical Jewish visionaries struggling to re-imagine how to live life after the assumptions of their world had crashed. This crash was the destruction of the Second Temple, of the notion that God would always protect them, and of certain ethical and practical assumptions of their sacred text, the Bible. These radicals came to be known as “the Rabbis.” The Rabbis knew that “crashes” would continue to happen and laid out a uniquely Jewish methodology for upgrading the tradition when such future crashes challenged our survival or our ethical and moral assumptions. Study of the Talmud and the integration of its Jewish sensibility into one’s life is one of the Jewish tradition’s primary spiritual practices.
While we do not believe that any environment can claim to be a “safe space” at every moment, for every person, we work very hard to create a fully inclusive and collaborative community in which the important and sometimes difficult issues we bring to the text from our queer life experience are not only welcomed, but seen as essential to the health of the Jewish tradition, the world, and each other, and are dealt with openly, honestly, and compassionately. Our goal is to create a bet midrash (house of study) where queer folks are not only at the table, but fully in the room, present in all aspects of themselves and their life experience. We recognize that creating such a rare Jewish space will be an ongoing adventure, but we are committed to making it a reality.
Students come from a variety of backgrounds in terms of race and ethnicity. Though the majority of our current and past students identify as white, we are doing our best to create a diverse Jewish and allied community and are doing more in-depth outreach to people of color within and outside the Jewish community.
SVARA is not affiliated with any denomination and strives to create a bet midrash (house of study) inclusive of and comfortable for students of all Jewish—as well as non-Jewish—backgrounds and beliefs.
SVARA welcomes learners of all faith traditions and SVARA learning typically includes a significant minority of seminarians and people of other-than-Jewish traditions, something which we feel enhances the learning environment enormously.
We work to create a community of learners with a broad range of knowledge and experience. Some students will be fluent in spoken Hebrew, some will not speak at all, and most will fall somewhere in between.
Many SVARAniks over the years who have had learning disabilities have had positive and meaningful experiences at SVARA. We are happy to accommodate different learning styles and paces. Please let us know if you have a specific need.
Come! We love having an intergenerational learning environment! It’s one of the things our learners love best about being at SVARA together.