On Wednesday morning I opened my front door, admittedly still wearing pajamas, with a rainbow alef-bet strip in hand. I was headed two doors down, to deliver the alef-bet strip to my neighbor’s front porch. Pulling open the door, I was startled and then delighted to find myself greeted by a loaf of sourdough bread in a bag. No bread fairy in sight, no note, just a loaf in front of my door. If this sounds like the beginning of a Talmudic legend to you, believe me, I also felt that way!
Allow me to offer some context. Over the past two weeks, across the country and the world, SVARA Faculty, Fellows, and Grassroots Leaders have begun convening online batei midrash (lit. houses of interpretation/study) as part of SVARA’s Spring Learning series, The Way of Talmud. These batei midrash are loosely local–– our intention is, whenever possible, to help folks connect to local networks in order to build relationships around mutual aid and ongoing coronavirus relief activism, and with the hope that when we are able to gather physically again, local learning communities will be even stronger. Of course, anyone is welcome to sign up for these batei midrash, which have become a hybrid of geographically local and geographically spread out. On Tuesday night, in the opening session of the bet midrash I’m teaching, I had folks learning with me from as close as my own block, and as far away as the Bay Area.
My neighbor Noah is learning in the bet midrash with me, and after our opening session he reached out to see if I had a spare alef-bet strip. If so, he asked, could I get it to him? Noah and I have been sharing all kinds of objects over these weeks of quarantine. I know where the basket on his front porch lives, where anything from face masks and grocery items to electric drills are borrowed and returned, delivered or traded, by neighbors in need. So I grabbed an alef-bet strip from my stash, and was making my way over to his porch when I discovered the loaf of bread. I didn’t know who had delivered the bread, and in fact I’d been on multiple text threads with neighbors who are baking, sharing yeast and flour with one another when needed. When I returned from Noah’s porch and brought in the loaf, I checked my phone, and saw a message from Sarah, also a learner in my bet midrash. The message read: “Check your front door before breakfast. It’s an old wives tale about the last Wednesday in April–I read about it in the Talmud last night 😉.” My heart filled with gratitude. She was joking about the old wives tale, but the underlying truth was our interconnectedness, facilitated by Talmud learning.
Scholar Daniel Boyarin argues that moreso than any particular physical location, the Talmud, and the modalities and practices with which we learn it, has been the diasporic homeland of the Jewish people across history. In his book A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora, Boyarin writes: “What renders Jewry diasporic are the connections with other Jews in other places all over the world, owing to common cultural discourses and practices, primarily the study of Talmud.” More than even the Torah, the Talmud has been the foundational text, the blueprint and launch pad for nearly all of Jewish practice as we live it today. And over centuries of diasporic migration, the Talmud has connected Jews. Even when we are radically different from one another, we have studied this text together, developing and exchanging discourse about it across borders and regions.
I felt this sense of Talmud as diaspora and homeland deeply last night, gathering virtually with learners both near and far, and knowing that in six other cities, similar hubs of hybrid local and distance learning were studying from the same text. In this historic time of physical distancing, I felt distinctly that the study of Talmud offered all of these different people, living in different circumstances, a shared place to dwell, play, explore and reflect together. A really big sandbox. And one that has played this role throughout many periods of suffering, uncertainty, and communal crisis throughout history. The Talmud itself is a diaspora– its pages full of voices across Palestine and Babylon, across the 1st through the 8th centuries, voices that were never able to speak to one another in person, but whose ideas are woven together to create an entirely new kind of conversation. A new place to gather and dwell.
In our bet midrash we’re studying a sugya from Berakhot 6a. It opens with Aba Binyamin, a 2nd century teacher, making a statement: “The prayer of a person is only heard in a synagogue.” Immediately, our group erupted into a collective: Really?! We’re praying for so much these days, and the idea that our prayers, needs, and longings would go unheard, because we can’t physically enter a synagogue, doesn’t make any sense.
The word for synagogue in Hebrew is bet ha’knesset, literally translated as “house of the gathering.” The root of k’nesset (כנס) has many meanings: to collect, gather, cover, shelter, bring home. One learner pointed out: “A house of gathering can be many things–– like gathering outdoors with other living creatures in nature, or gathering together over a Zoom call. It’s so helpful to use the inside translation. It shows us that the idea underneath ‘synagogue’ is much broader.” Another learner considered a different meaning: “I’m thinking about k’nesset as a place of shelter and protection. Maybe a bet ha’knesset is a place where we’re brought home to pray and advocate for one another, to intercede on our own behalf.” I was struck by this idea that precisely the places where we shelter are the places where our prayers for one another, prayers for protection and justice for our whole community, are heard.
There are so many ways to gather and to pray. There are so many ways to support each other these days. So many small and large gestures we can take to weave our lives together, to distribute resources, to advocate and intercede for those most impacted, to show kindness and generosity. And there are many modes of diaspora. Throughout our history, one of these modes has been the way of the Talmud. When we show up to the bet midrash we show up for one another’s growth, reflection and spiritual practice. We help each other crack codes, uncover meanings, and access ancient words. We offer each other a bit of respite from the anxiety of these times. We listen, witness, and share in the delights and struggles of our lives.
Our gathering in the bet midrash can yield other kinds of support and care as well. I was reminded of that on Wednesday morning, in a moment of simultaneous giving and receiving, with an alef-bet strip in one hand and a loaf of bread in the other. The bread of our homes and kitchens, the learning and teaching of ancient languages and wisdom, all linked by Talmud, our shared communal homeland, a place to dwell together and care deeply for one another. A place to be sheltered by our relationships and our learning.