Hot Off the Shtender: Elevating Wise People Elevates Wisdom

by Ayana Morse, Executive Director

Many moons ago, I was part of a political theatre collective in Boston. We were a small group, performing original work and reimagining plays that touched on themes of oppression, community, and humanity. Our work was set against the backdrop of the War in Iraq, not long after 9/11, in a moment that felt charged and challenging in ways that echo today. Within the group, we held many experiences and perspectives that often aligned beautifully and occasionally clashed brilliantly. The clashes stick with me, even years later, because within this cohesive group, where we held many shared values and ideals, we didn’t have a process to navigate disagreements and challenges as they arose. We had an unstated sense of mutual respect and appreciation, our decisions were made by consensus, but there was no broader container to hold the culture of the group. 

I’ve been sitting with the memory of my theatre collective times over the past month as we crafted and codified SVARA’s community norms. Our work at SVARA is deeply intentional and the culture of queer magical awesomeness is one that we aim to embody at every level. And, like my theatre experience, while many of us could pinpoint the ways in which being in SVARA’s learning community feels good and right, having our community norms documented cohesively and available for everyone to engage with allows us all to understand the foundational values that our learning community is built on.

Our Rabbis lift up an idea in the Talmud, kinat sofrim tarbe chochmah, “competition among scholars elevates knowledge,” a principle that has shaped the learning culture of so many Jewish learning spaces over the ages and to this day. We see this idea modeled in and beyond the Jewish community as people race to prove they are better at something, smarter in something, faster at doing something, and that it’s positive, and healthy even, to push ourselves to exceed another’s successes. 

This is not the culture of our bet midrash. We believe that by welcoming each person as a chacham, a wise person, from the outset, and by recognizing the insights of each person in our learning spaces, fully, just as they are, we are collectively elevating our knowledge. It is not competition that elevates chochmah, it is through the elevation of chachamim. Learning is not at the expense of another but in partnership as a community. As one SVARA-nik shared, “Studying with you has been one of the most affirming, inspiring, life-changing experiences I’ve ever had, it has been such a gift to have the opportunity to study and build community in such a loving and supportive space. I have spent most of my life feeling so alienated from Jewish community and the inclusivity and limitlessness of the group’s energy and passion for building Queer Jewish Community has been so healing.”

We start from a place of care and love, of empowerment and ownership, which sets the stage for a connective and present learning community. Sharing our foundational values, we hope, will create a space able to hold each of us, with our many backgrounds, identities, and experiences, with dignity and clarity. In his reflection on teaching in our Mishnah Collective a few weeks ago, SVARA Fellow R’ Becky Silverstein wrote “In my own experience learning Torah, creating a container in which that learning happens with reverence and intent results in a deep sense of grounding and connectedness.

We hope that our community norms will offer a sense of grounding and connectedness. We welcome your input and reflections on them and invite you to join us in the messy, beautiful process of building intentional community. Feel free to reach out to me at [email protected] if you’d like to connect more. We know these norms will evolve and grow over time and we are so grateful for your partnership on this incredible journey.