Go Out and See

by Rabbi Becky Silverstein, SVARA Faculty and Co-Director of the Trans Halakha Project

The Torah serves as the backbone of Jewish life, laying out a communal origin story and providing the foundation of Jewish religious practice. Even if the Torah was only read on shabbatot and chagim (holidays) or studied as an abstract text, there would still be ample inspiration and material for reflection. Reflecting on and learning Torah is one thing; living it is another. For me, the Torah’s potential for transformation lies in our ability as individuals and communities to embody its values through practice. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches, “It is in deeds that man becomes aware of what his life really is, of his power to harm and to hurt, to wreck and to ruin; of his ability to derive joy and to bestow it upon others; to relieve and to increase his own and other people’s tensions.” Heschel describes this awareness as something we cultivate for ourselves. Living in a way that embodies Torah and honors this awareness is not always straightforward in practice. Halakha comes to answer the question of “how” one might do this, in part through ritual.

One key example is the use of berakhot (“blessings”) to uplift kedusha (a sense of profound holiness and sacredness) in our world. The first tractate of the Mishnah, dubbed Mishnah Berakhot, is named for this practice. In it, you’ll find the Rabbis’ early teachings concerning the rituals of prayer and the discussion of what blessings a person might say in various moments. When do we say the Shema? What blessings do we say before and after eating a specific food? What is our response when we experience something miraculous? These teachings are the foundation of modern practices such as saying blessings before and after we eat.

Mishnah Berakhot 6:7 preserves two possible options that one could use to bless water before drinking to quench their thirst.

הַשּׁוֹתֶה מַיִם לִצְמָאוֹ, אוֹמֵר שֶׁהַכֹּל נִהְיֶה בִּדְבָרוֹ. רַבִּי טַרְפוֹן אוֹמֵר, בּוֹרֵא נְפָשׁוֹת רַבּוֹת

The one who drinks water for their thirst recites “that all was created in Gd’s utterance.” Rabbi Tarfon says, “the one who creates many living things.”

The first blessing, often referred to as ‘she’hakol’ (“that was all created in Gd’s utterance”), is offered by the anonymous voice of the Mishnah. The second, known as borei nefashot (“the one who creates many living things”), is offered by Rabbi Tarfon.

The second blessing, ‘borei nefashot’ has other ritual purposes, as it is the blessing traditionally recited after consuming a whole host of food or drinks. Given that context, one might think that the first blessing ‘she’hakol’ is referring to what is said before drinking and the second one, borei nefashot, refers to what is said before drinking. But the Talmud doesn’t seem to think so. It asks (Berakhot 45a):

רַבִּי טַרְפוֹן אוֹמֵר ״בּוֹרֵא נְפָשׁוֹת רַבּוֹת וְחֶסְרוֹנָן״. אֲמַר לֵיהּ רָבָא בַּר רַב חָנָן לְאַבָּיֵי, וְאָמְרִי לַהּ לְרַב יוֹסֵף: הִלְכְתָא מַאי? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: פּוֹק חֲזִי מַאי עַמָּא דָּבַר.

Rabbi Tarfon says “the one who creates many living things and their needs.” Rabba bar Chanan said to Abaye: and they said to Rav Yosef: What is the halakha? He said to them: Go out and see what the people are doing.

In a situation where it isn’t obvious to the rabbis what blessing to say, they turn to the people. The halakha is already out there in the world and the people are already doing what is right. The rabbis only need to go and record it. Puk hazi, the Talmud says: “Go out and see what the people are doing.” This notion, puk hazi, that we can rely on what ordinary folks are doing as an authentic source of truth, is encoded into the halakhic system.

This talmudic principle is not just limited to the question of blessings before and after drinking water. Regarding Ezra’s establishment of the reading of Torah on Mondays and Thursdays, we learn (Baba Kamma 82a):

ושיהו קוראין בשני ובחמישי עזרא תיקן והא מעיקרא הוה מיתקנא דתניא (שמות טו, כב) וילכו שלשת ימים במדבר ולא מצאו מים דורשי רשומות אמרו אין מים אלא תורה שנאמר (ישעיהו נה, א) הוי כל צמא לכו למים

Wasn’t this practice instituted from the start? As it is taught, ”and [the Israelites] went three days in the wilderness, and found no water.” Those who interpret verses said that there is no water other than Torah, as it is said “everyone who is thirsty come for water.”

By drawing a parallel between water and Torah, and a person’s thirsts for water and wisdom, these texts extend the reach of the question “what is the halakhah” and the response, “go out and see.” The question actually begins to examine how a person can integrate Torah into their lives. The answer transcends settings. How can the rabbis know the blessing to say before drinking water? How can we know how to bring the Torah’s wisdom into our lives? How do we embody Torah? Go out and see what the people are doing.

We know that queer and trans Jews have been adapting and creating ways of uplifting the holiness in our lives since the beginning of time. We see the Trans Halakha Project as an opportunity to respond to the challenge of puk hazi: “go out and see”. This aspect of our work, Minhag and Ma’aseh, is about both bringing together existing blessings and rituals that already support trans Jews in embodying Torah, and seeding the work of ritual creation for trans Jews so that when others go out and see, there is more to find. We invite you to submit rituals and blessings that you have already created, and to participate in programming to support new work.

We believe that halakha is a world-building project. Creating opportunities to celebrate trans lives through ritual is one part of building a world in which trans people, and all people, thrive. May it be so.

You can find out more about Minhag and Maaseh, and how you can contribute here.

 

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