Making Sh*t Up: On Learning as a Radical Act

by Bronwen Mullin, Faculty

A large group of SVARA-niks are sitting at tables in a bet midrash. In the center, one SVARA-nik, wearing a grey shirt, has their hands on their head and a smile on their face.

If you had told me growing up that to study Talmud was a radical act, I would have told you, “You need to get out more.” I might have hooked you up with the Free Mumia protests, or Amputation Nation at the Trocadero, or taken you to the local anarchist bookstore. These things were radical for me. There was nothing radical about Talmud, or Judaism in general, and back then, I was needing something truly radical. I had master stories crashing left and right, and I was definitely looking for some Option 2 realness. As it turns out, 2020-2021 has legit been a crash-fest too, and I’m finding myself longing for that radical energy, that radical direction, a way to wake up and act up from what has been a nightmarish web of complacency and brutality in our communities, in this country, and in our world. 

So at a time when so many of us are questioning (or should be questioning) our underlying assumptions, I find myself asking, “what does it mean to be truly ‘radical’, and why hasn’t Judaism always felt ‘radical’ for me?” For me the word ‘radical’ evokes crashing waves, the storms of change, the power that comes from breaking away from the oppressive indoctrinations of the past, and the most radical ones leading the way often viewed as aggressive and always transgressive. Judaism, on the other hand, seems to be about tradition, the sturdy tree whose roots run deep into the ground, the inherited wisdom of ancestors and days long passed, available to be picked and plucked from to nourish and sustain later generations. Now this is not to say that there is something wrong with tradition. Indeed, tradition, in essence, is about that which sustains and is sustained, whereas something ‘radical’ is in a state of change. And herein lies the crash for me: something ‘traditional’ is in a state of stasis, so how does that work when my whole being is telling me—things need to change. Now.

There are two essential phrases I’ve learned recently in my SVARA studies that have helped me to navigate the realm of the radical and the traditional. The first comes from Bava Metzia 58b in which the rabbis are concretizing the idea of ona’at devarim (verbal oppression). Of course people of marginalized communities know exactly how concrete verbal oppression can be. We know the way harm done is felt in your body, how being shamed can literally feel like your life is being taken away, and that this harm has no real way of being undone (and fiercely enough, the sugya comes to the same conclusion!). At one point in the sugya, however, our fairy-rabbi ancestors are trying to prove that there is a Torah verse that supports the concept of ona’at devarim, proving that verbal oppression is a d’oraitta (Torah-derived) prohibition, and therefore of the greatest significance. 

While considering a number of different verses with some being concluded to refer to ona’at mamon (monetary oppression), our fairy-rabbi ancestors are left with the one verse that seems to fit just right, and they say the following:

הא מה אני מקיים

If you look up this phrase in Frank (which you surely will, I mean, you’re reading HOTS in your free time, aren’t you? Look it up as הא + מה אני מקיים) and you’ll see that it gives a somewhat contradictory definition: 

“How do I establish…? “What interpretation do I assign [this Biblical passage]?” “What do I learn from…?”

The contradiction might not be immediately apparent, and yet it is essential—when we say 

הא מה אני מקיים, are we asking “What interpretation am I assigning/establishing from this verse?” or are we asking “What do I learn from this verse?” i.e.- what is this verse telling me? In other words, am I the one applying meaning to this verse, or does the verse already have this meaning? Let me complicate the matter further—there is no place in the Torah that explicitly refers to verbal oppression. So the question in the use of this phrase really becomes: am I adding something radically new to the picture, or is the concept of ona’at devarim already inherent in the tradition and my role is just to uncover it? 

 The phrase continually blows my mind because for most of my life, I’ve had the experience of people in authority in Jewish spaces telling me that my opinion only matters if I can “prove” that it was in the tradition originally. Have you had that experience? Many rabbis and academics often feel the need to justify new ideas by proving that, actually, Rashi or Maimonides, or the Baal HaTurim or whomever actually said a similar idea in this commentary, or that collection, or some teshuvah, etc. etc. The concept of a “chidush”, an innovation in interpretation, is a bit of a Catch-22: it only has validity if you can prove it through the commentaries of others. So is it really a “chidush” then, after all? Or perhaps worse, do we even truly value a “chidush”, a genuinely new idea, or do we only care as long as the radical apple doesn’t fall too far from the traditional tree?

The paradox here is actually the key, and that paradox is well captured by the other phrase introduced to me by our Rosh Yeshiva R’Benay who, when describing the rabbis and their creation of Option 3 Judaism post the crash of 2nd Temple Judaism, said:

 “They made this shit up.”

Sadly you won’t find this phrase in Frank, but for real, SVARA should make its own contemporary Talmudic dictionary. Am I right? 

Now this is the whole point—the radical and the traditional had to be interconnected and interdependent in order for this project of Option 3 Judaism to succeed. There had to be a radical approach to creating and engaging tradition and there had to be a sustainable tradition of being radical interpreters  and re-interpreters for the future. There had to be a way where making shit up wasn’t viewed as fucking shit up, but tapping into the heartbeat of those original animating questions, “Why am I here?” “How does one live a good life?”—that were the animus behind our traditions coming into being in the first place. 

So as I look back on my longing for something radical in these times, I find comfort knowing that the yeshiva I belong to is doing the real work of being traditionally radical, that is- what I would call—being radically sustainable.

How so? Empowering people to be gamirna—knowledgeable in all the tools of the art of our queer Talmudic ancestors- and savirna- deeply connected to their own intuition and the wisdoms gleaned from their own lived experiences. And for me, in my work in the world,

הא מה אני מקיים What will I establish? What meaning will I make from all of this? What will I learn from this? I’m looking to be a part of a future that is radically sustainable—where striving for equity means implementing long term reparations for Black and Brown bodies, descendants of slaves and Native peoples’ displaced. I want to be a part of establishing a radically sustainable future for our planet which somehow carried us through, majestically and steadily, during this terrible pandemic. And in the end, studying Talmud really can be that radical act from which we learn how to make up good shit, and get in good trouble, because while our fairy-rabbi ancestors did it differently than we will, it’s our inheritance to get traditionally radical in our own ways. 

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