The Book of You & The Book of the World

by Becky Silverstein, SVARA Faculty, Julie Batz, Faculty

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At Queer Talmud Camp this year, campers had access to a virtual portal which included all the information they’d need for camp. In it, one could read these words, under Expectations for Being Together: “SVARA is a home for queer and radical Torah, and we are committed to building a culture where we are all students and teachers to each other.

Mishnah Kidushin 1:10 teaches: Every person whose existence is in Torah, Mishnah, and moving through the world with integrity, will not speedily sin. In our own words, we’d summarize the whole Mishnah this way: “Anyone whose existence is not bound with these three holy pursuits does not fit within our communal boundaries.” Just as the rabbis created boundaries for their project, so do we. In shiur, one of our Talmud faculty, R’ Mónica Gomery, described this as the rabbis’ “curriculum for being part of their liberatory community.” Could this text also serve as part of our curriculum? Part of building a world open to queer and radical Torah? As a yeshiva, SVARA’s answer is a resounding yes! But how? 

Sitting in Nitza’s attic, a gathering place for the ancient rabbis of the city of Lod, an anonymous voice asks the rabbis, “What is greater: study (talmud) or action  (ma’aseh)?” (Kidushin 40b) This unnamed asker brings a question to the room that challenges the heart of the rabbinic project — learning. To understand the significance of this question, we have to embody the radical hearts of the rabbis. Their openness to receiving challenging questions, even questions that challenge their core values and practices, is part of the alignment between their ancient Bet Midrash and our Bet Midrash today. The text’s answer creates another point of alignment: an anonymous “everyone” (kulam) responds that it is “the learning (HaTalmud) that brings [us] to the hands of action” that is greater. 

By asserting that there is learning that brings us to action, the text raises new questions about these two modes of being. What is the value of action without learning? And learning without action? If we act without learning, there is a chance of doing harm. And yet if we only learn, we are not in the world, engaging each other with integrity, and fulfilling our obligations as members of this community. 

We can imagine (at least) two types of action that the Talmud suggests. In both of these cases, our learning must be transformative, with real implications regarding who we are and the world we are building. 

There is the action that changes material conditions in the world around us. Learning about our world or our religious obligations that spur us into the streets, into changing policies, into redistributing wealth. This is a lifelong spiral dance, one that brings us deeper with each circling. We are invited to engage courageously in a process of learning and visioning; then acting; then assessing; and then visioning again, our next actions informed by our experience and reflection. 

There is also the action that is involved in integrating our learning into our being, thus changing how we walk through the world. In his Laws of Torah Study (1:11), Rambam defines learning as a three-fold curriculum similar to that outlined in Mishnah Kiddushin. Rambam teaches that one should divide their learning into three components: Written Torah, Oral Torah, and the learning that leads to a person being able to integrate Torah into their lives. It is this third piece that reflects the action, or practice (another translation of the Hebrew ma’aseh), that learning must bring us towards. 

Commenting on a text in Masechet Sota, Rashi defines the action of “using our SVARA” in the same way that the  Rambam defines the final third of our learning: doing the work that integrates Torah into our very being. To arrive at a place where learning and intuition, svara, are identical, we need to lift up learning that cultivates both knowing oneself — the Book of You — and knowing the values our tradition instructs us to embody through our actions — the Book of the World. It is an orientation that shapes our commitment to learning about ourselves AND being shaped, changed, and deepened by the interplay of exploration and action, of assessment and growth.

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