Learning Myself & the Text Inside/Outside

by Jhos Singer, SVARA Fellow

A Jastrow dictionary sits on top of a source packet, titled "Thinking Like the Rabbis," taught by Rabbi Benay Lappe.

Fifteen years and four months ago, on an inside tip from a friend, I squiggled, crawled, climbed, and connived my way into a weeklong intensive on Rabbinic Literature at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. The friend told me the teacher was a lesbian rabbi and that she was doing something called “Queer Talmud.” And while I had no idea what Queer Talmud was, I was hell-bent on finding out. So, I showed up, just barely on time, flustered, nervous, and thoroughly unprepared for what was about to unfold.  

In the front of the room was Benay—lit up with twinkly eyes, in a tailored black blazer, and a perfect butch coif, her dark hair just beginning to reveal a hint of silver. Her face sported a smile that said, “I’m about to take this chevra on a Talmudic road trip they will never forget!” She greeted each learner like they were her oldest friend, whether she had ever met them or not, filling the room with a sense of community and care. Anticipatory excitement gyred around the room as the session began. 

Each student received a binder filled with resources—hand-written decoding guides, Xeroxed articles, and a treatise on Talmud study as a spiritual practice. Seminal elements of what we now call the “SVARA Method” were already in place: this would be a free-style encounter with the text; no translations except those we created by way of a dictionary, our chevruta/studymate and our svara; we were responsible for each other’s learning. We were given our assignment and instructions to first go “inside” (“a word-for-word translation”) and then, and only then, should we attempt to go “outside” to produce a “loose, colloquial, and contextualized” translation. My chevruta and I burrowed into the text, and I had what can only be described as a psychedelic experience. My mind expanded to meet the demands of the study, and I’ve been a practicing SVARA-nik ever since.  

For the last fifteen years inside/outside text study has become a spiritual practice for me. It demands that I see, touch, feel, know, and honor the rawness and essence of all that I encounter in my life before taming it to conform to my worldview. It calls on me to celebrate my Queer eyes—eyes that have always apprehended the curves and loops before and beyond the linear.  Understanding there is a connection between marrow, bone, muscle, mind, and demeanor makes it possible to comprehend the whole being. Going inside and then outside unmasks layers of significance in every expression of self, society, and system. And most profoundly, this practice forces me to face the mirror, to ask: What is my inside? What is my outside?  Because knowing that whatever enters through the root, no matter how bitter, no matter how sweet, will assuredly be tasted in the fruit.

Hebrew was built for this way of thinking. Virtually every word in the language is constructed around a three-letter root that conveys a core idea, which when viewed through Hebrew grammar’s kaleidoscope, yields meanings that deepen, depart, and diverge from the original concept. Shalom—to be whole, complete, finish, end, cease; to perfect, be virtuous: to pay off, compensate, reward; soundness, health; hello, goodbye, peace—shalom. Conversely, English takes myriad linguistic materials from disparate places and times, and cobbles them together to solve problems of expression with a unique word. Latin, Greek, French, German, Arabic—these semantic influences interface, tangle, and twist into the twine of the English language. As a native English speaker, my brain was wired to think one word at a time. As a student of Rabbinic Hebrew I am rewiring my mind to simultaneously envision multiple, parallel, and perpendicular concepts and meanings. My mind moves from the global to the particular and back again, in a single word. I’m training myself to travel between universes through word portals. And through this discipline, I begin to comprehend just how interconnected everything and everyone in this world really is. I have moments of being able to trust the paradoxical entirety of this life and to encounter my fellow humans with a bit more trust, patience, and compassion.

 Fifteen years and four months into this Queer Talmud adventure, I am more convinced and committed than ever that we need both the inside and the outside to make peace with the dizzying complexity, heartbreaking imperfection, exquisite marvels, and delightful surprises that pave our path through life—as we take it one moment, event, situation, step, and word at a time.

Read More