HOT OFF THE SHTENDER: THE FUTURE IN ITS INFANCY

by R’ Benay Lappe, Rosh Yeshiva

 

I remember what it was like to be on the road, and get lost, before I had a GPS. I’d pull over, rummage through the glove compartment to find the right map, unfurl it across the entire front seat (because it was the size of a bedsheet), and then try to figure out where I was. Which was really hard because I’d be sitting on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere with nothing around that told me where I was! What I needed was one of those shopping mall map-signs that always has a big circle somewhere on it that says: YOU ARE HERE! But that’s not the way maps work. 

But then came the GPS. The genius of the GPS isn’t so much that it tells you how to get where you’re going. It’s that it tells you where you are. But that is also its downfall. Because it is not enough to know where we are, if we have no idea how we got here or where we are going without a little electronic device. True orientation requires an inner road map. 

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been feeling more than a little lost and disoriented since the events of January 6th…since March 13th, 2020…since November 8th, 2016 (and so much longer!). Like you, I’m sure, I’ve been trying to figure out: What does all this mean? And where are we now, really? 

The map I unfurl to figure that out isn’t in my glove compartment any more. It lives on the white board in my office. It’s that ridiculously chaotic, multi-colored hodge-podge of words and arrows that, by now, is familiar to so many of you–the graphic of the crash theory the way it looks after one of our two-hour sessions of working it out together. It is, of course, a map of sorts. But the kind that–I hope–also helps us do that important, gut-check GPS work that helps us figure out exactly where we are right now, where we need to go next, and how to get there.

I am feeling guided by my teacher April Aviva Baskin, who wrote last week, “We are watching the beginning of white supremacy’s death rattle, not its rallying cry.” In the language of the crash theory, we’re at the tail end of the crumble and the beginning of the real crash. You know how the story goes–full-on crashes don’t just happen out of the blue. They are preceded by a long period of “crumble” during which time most folks are blissfully happy with how the master story is working for them, while that very same master story is crashing for the rest of us on the margins, one at a time. 

Living in and witnessing the crumble is hard, to be sure, but also really good. Hard because, well, it’s just hard to be in the wilderness. To be between master stories that actually work. But really good, because late-stage master stories totally suck. They’re the worst version of themselves and finally reveal to those who hadn’t woken up to it before, that they have profound cracks and deep, foundational inadequacies.  And that’s always ugly, and heartbreaking. But something of a relief, because–as hard as it’s going to be, and it’s going to be even more violent, and really hard–it means that there’s going to be more space for the new, liberatory master story that so many of us have been working on for so long, to take its place.

Many of you have been in the crumble for years. And I want to remind you of that familiar crash principle that: the queerer you are, the earlier you crash, and the queerest folk–queer writ large, the folks on the margins, for whatever reason–the folks for whom the master story crashes early, are prophets. You are the ones who move through the world embodying the truths which manifest the possibility of a more liberatory future.

The Rabbis envisioned and created their more-liberatory Jewish future–what we now call “Judaism”–while they were in the middle of a crumble. That’s where all liberatory prophetic futures are born. In the crumble. Not too long ago in the Mishnah Collective, we learned a teaching that came from one crumble and can guide us through this one. 

It’s Pirke Avot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 10. It’s a text that records a question asked by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. You remember him. He’s the one who faked his own death and had his students carry him out of Jerusalem in a casket, and who joined those early scholars who were already in the town of Yavneh, to create the first Jewish queer Talmud camp/think-tank/zendo/learning collective–that they called a yeshiva–from which the new Jewish master story would eventually be birthed.

אמר להם צאו וראו איזוהי דרך ישרה שידבק בה האדם רבי אליעזר אומר עין טובה רבי יהושע אומר חבר טוב רבי יוסי אומר שכן טוב רבי שמעון אומר הרואה את הנולד רבי אלעזר אומר לב טוב אמר להם רואה אני את דברי אלעזר בן ערך שבכלל דבריו דבריכם

Go out and see, he said, what is the most important asset a person should have? Given the crumble that he and his students were living through, I think what he was really saying was: Our world is crashing around us. And these crashes are going to keep happening, again and again. Look around you, look at one another, go out and look at the folks who’ve been doing this work even longer than we have, and figure out: What kind of person do you really need to be, what skills or tools or resources do we really need to have, to make it through the crumble to the crash that will inevitably come, over and over, to create the world of our dreams? 

His students came back, and gave him their answers. 

One said, “A good heart.” Another answered, “A good eye.” Another concluded, “A good friend.” Another decided, “A good neighbor.” One student, Rabbi Shimon, gave a very different answer: Haroeh et hanolad, he said. 

Now, while Rabbi Shimon’s answer is typically translated as something like “One who can see the consequences of their actions,” if you dig more deeply into the word nolad, SVARA-style–and look at the text through this traditionally radical lens–you see that the inside meaning is something more like “that which is being born,” or “that which is in its infancy.” [Interestingly, it is also the same word used to describe the new moon, under which I write these very words.] 

For me, given the crumble and crash of Temple Judaism that they were living through, and the creation of the new, then-embryonic and radically re-envisioned Judaism that they were creating, I think a better outside translation is: One who is able to recognize the significance of that which is still in its embryonic state. One who is able to see the future in its infancy. 

What we are building together–an antiracist, queer-normative, non-ableist, liberatory tradition, a secular one for America and a spiritual one for Judaism–is in its infancy. But to live as a queer person is to be haroeh et hanolad, to live the truth now which will one day be a part of that liberatory future for everyone. Each one of you is living your fabulous queer life into this sacred crumble. 

Own your prophetic wisdom in witnessing this crumble. Continue to hone your spiritual and political imaginations. Trust your inner compass–your svara–and trust each other. Be present for each other. Love each other. Pay attention to those who have been standing in the crumble even longer. Stand in solidarity with them and fortify them as best you can. Know that the future we need will emerge from this moment.