About a year and a half ago, I was lucky enough to be at the graduation for our first cohort of Fellows in the Teaching Kollel. I had captured glimmers of how SVARA’s learning community touched people before that, but I was caught unawares by the sheer power of that moment, as eight brilliant, glittery queer and trans humans stepped into the lineage of Talmud teachers with open hearts and open minds, together. I cried a lot that day, without exactly knowing what had cracked me open so deeply, but knowing that it was right.
I’ve been lucky to have had powerful experiences in my life, to have been part of many different communities that were resonant and intentional. They were communities of dance, political theater, puppets, pagan ritual, Jewish ritual, they were each one incredible in their own ways. And yet, on that day a year and a half ago, sitting and bearing witness to the embodied act of owning tradition in such a deep way, I was struck by how tangible, how three dimensional the transformative nature of our bet midrash is. I find myself crying often when I join the bet midrash, tears of awe for the community we’re growing and the people who are part of it, tears of pain and anger that this holy space doesn’t exist in all parts of the world.
Over the past several months, SVARA has been wrestling with what the role of a yeshiva is in pandemic and uprising. One answer that we return to frequently is that of connecting our learning to action. That the work we do in the bet midrash anchors our work out in the world, as the insights of the Rabbis help inform and shape the change we seek to bring about today.
But another answer, one that gets at the heart cracking I experienced that day and so often since in SVARA’s bet midrash, is that our role is to beam out love and connection, not just to the study of Talmud but to each other.
חֲבִיבִין יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁנִּקְרְאוּ בָנִים לַמָּקוֹם
חִבָּה יְתֵרָה נוֹדַעַת לָהֶם שֶׁנִּקְרְאוּ
So beloved are Israel, that they are called “children to G!d.” And even more love [was shown to them in that] it was made known to them that they are called “children to G!d.” (Mishnah Avot 3:14)
After teaching this text that lifts up the love G!d demonstrated for the People of Israel, in the Mishnah Collective last week Benay offered up a story of a pedagogy seminar she attended years ago. The one thing that still, to this day, stands out to her with clarity, she said, was the moment when the instructor said, “It’s not enough to love your students. You have to make sure they KNOW you love them.” That distinction is one piece of what makes SVARA’s bet midrash the deeply connective space that it is for so many of us.
חֲבִיבִין יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁנִּתַּן לָהֶם כְּלִי חֶמְדָּה
חִבָּה יְתֵרָה נוֹדַעַת לָהֶם שֶׁנִּתַּן לָהֶם
כְּלִי חֶמְדָּה שֶׁבּוֹ נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם
Beloved are Israel in that a precious vessel was given to them. And even more love [was shown to them in that] it was made known to them that they were given a precious vessel—Torah—because with/in it the world was created (Mishnah Avot 3:14)
The text continues here with an expansion of the earlier teaching, the gift of G!d’s love, to include that the world was created within the gift of Torah. Laynie offered the frame that “Perhaps this teaching is telling us that the extra love is that we know and recognize the power of the container we’re given through the Torah—that we understand the ways in which it is truly a vessel, and that we use it to shape and make new worlds.” That’s quite something, to know that you have the power to create worlds. That it’s a gift of love given to us through Torah, through learning. Here again, like in the story Benay recalled, the power of recognition–of knowing the love, deeply, in your body– is what brings about a sense of wholeness, and then purpose.
In her victory speech on election night, Cori Bush, the first Black woman from Missouri to be elected to Congress, shared: “My message today is to every Black, Brown, immigrant, queer and trans person, and to every person locked out of opportunities to thrive because of oppressive systems, I’m here to serve you. To every person who knows what it’s like to give a loved one that “just make it home safely, baby” talk; I love you.” To name that love, whether it’s for constituents, students, or co-conspirators, to own it, and offer it up as a gift of empowerment, that is the inarticulable feeling that brings me to tears in our bet midrash time and again.
It’s not an accident that this sense of love and connection, this commitment to seeing each other as whole and brilliant, is so intricately woven into our learning spaces. The culture that infuses SVARA’s learning community is one that has been carefully nurtured and cultivated over the years, one that is shaped by Queer insights, radical welcoming, and a commitment to our collective liberation from all forms of oppression. It is palpable in the dedications that open our learning each time we come together and the gratitudes we share before we leave the space. It is rich and powerful and indeed has within it the power to shape new worlds.
May we each take strength from knowing that we are loved, in the bet midrash and outside of it, and may we use that strength to bring about a world where that love becomes a foundation for all people.