The Word That Changed The World

by Benay Lappe, President and Rosh Yeshiva

Until I came out and went Option 2 on nearly everything in my life, I had wanted to be a doctor since I was a small child. I was pre-med in college and, in my sophomore year, took that first biology course that all pre-meds take, the feared Bio 110. There were literally 2,000 students in the class, all pre-med, and it met in the university’s auditorium, the only space large enough to handle the numbers. It was well known that one of the goals of the professor was to flunk out as many students as he could, to cut down the number of pre-med students who would continue on in the major. And when we sat for the first Bio 110 exam, we realized exactly how he was going to do that. 

We knew that, for some of the test items, slides would be shown on the screen in front of the auditorium, and that we would be asked to identify what was being projected. And we knew it would be the various microscopic slide images that we had studied in our textbook. You remember those slides, the photographs taken from electron microscopes showing the components of, say, an animal or plant cellthe nucleus, the mitochondrion, the ribosomes, the cytoplasm, all that. We knew those images by heart, with all their little circles and ovals and squiggles, and what each of those components was called. 

And then it happened. The slides appeared on the screen, but they didn’t look like any cells I had ever seen! Identify the nucleus, the cytoplasm, the mitochondrion, the ribosomes, the test questions asked. What?! I didn’t see anything that even remotely looked like any of those things! What the professor had done was project onto the screen not the familiar images of cells in transverse cross-section, as they appeared in our textbook…but those very same cells in a vertical, top-to-bottomwhat I later learned was called a sagittalsection. Andeverything looked completely unrecognizable to me from that perspective! 

I think I got a C on that exam, but the experience of that surprise shift in perspective and how powerfully altering it was to my ability to recognize something I thought I knew well, was a life lesson that I never forgot. It would come back to me over and over in my life as a reminder to be always just a little bit ready when that disorienting but possibly crucial perspective shift was happening. 

I had one such life-changing perspective-shifting experience in 1997, months after my ordination, with a word I think you’ll recognize: svara. I had spent six years learning Talmud at JTS, and never once heard the word. Not once had any of my teachers ever uttered, much less taught, the word. It never appeared in a single talmudic passage we learned. It was never mentioned in any class I ever took. It never showed up in any of our textbooks or readings. 

I didn’t learn the word svara until I stepped into my first rabbinic job after ordination. I was a fellow at a Jewish think-tank called CLAL, in New York City, and it was my mentor and supervisor there, Dr. David Kraemer, who finally taught me the word. What was funny was that he had been one of my Talmud teachers at the Seminaryhe was the Chair of the Talmud Department, in factbut, oddly, he had never taught it to me there! But here, in the subversive halls of this very radical Jewish think-tank, he taught it to me. 

“It’s on every page of the Talmud,” he said, “whether the actual word appears or not.” “No..” I said, in disbelief. “Go pull a masechet from the shelf, any masechet,” he replied, pointing to the set of Talmuds in the CLAL library where we were sitting. “Open it up to any page, and put your finger down anywhere,” he instructed, in what felt like some kind of radical, new-world “pin test”that test that typically child talmudic geniuses were given, in the old country, where someone would put a pin on a random word on a random page of Talmud and the ilui, the talmudic prodigy, would instantly be able to tell the examiner which word that pin would go through, on every subsequent page, front and back, of the volume! 

I put my finger on a word, and he read a few lines from there forward, out loud, then translated, and explained what the story in the text was saying…and then he sliced the story sideways, from the transverse cut to the sagittal cut, and revealed how svara was at work and what was really being conveyed. 

Svara was a word which would change my life, and which would finally name what I had long suspected was going on in every text I had learned. What I had deeply sensed was happening in every sugya I had ever learned suddenly snapped into focus and I realized that I hadn’t been just imagining things. Those courageous moves to overturn Torah whenit seemed obvious to methe Rabbis could no longer morally tolerate what the Torah was commanding them to do. The Rabbis’ willingness to prioritize their moral intuition over the actual words of the Torah itself. It was not my imagination. Or a projection. It was real. And it had a name. Svara

It would become clear to me in time that svara actually drove the entire tradition. Not only its evolution, but its creation. And, I realized, svara isn’t just equal to Torah or able to trump Torah, according to the Rabbisthough those were astonishing enough realizations. For the Rabbis, svara not only created Torah…svara is Torah

For me, the word didn’t just name what was going on in the Talmud, or in the tradition. It named that inner voice that told me, as a young teen who had never even met another queer person or seen one on TV, that yes, I could stand up for that tiny truth inside of meand reject so much of what passed itself off as truth around meto live my life as a queer person. And that I had to, no matter the cost. 

Suddenly the journey of the Rabbis to reject the Jewish authorities and authority structures of their time and radically re-envision a tradition driven by the authority of their moral conscience, “snapped to grid” onto my own personal journey of coming out as a queer person in a straight world. We were kindred spirits, and I loved them for creating a Judaism I could fall in love with. This word, svara, suddenly unlocked for me a Jewish tradition that was smarter than I had ever realized, that trusted me and my inner voice, and that gave me a small group of queer ancestors on whose shoulders I could stand to be as confident and courageous as they were. 

Svara wasn’t merely the “logic” or “reasoning” or “common sense” that I soon learned was the way the few scholars who even acknowledged the concept translated itbut the deep, informed, moral intuition that I sensed was really at play. But now I needed to go back into the Talmud, to see how the Rabbis actually used the concept, to learn everything I could about it, directly from them. I would need to start my learning all over again, from scratch. And unlike the often oppressive, heteronormative space of JTS in which I had first learned Talmud, or among my straight or also-necessarily-closeted fellow students at JTS, I would need a group of other out, queer folk to learn with, and a fully queer-normative, loving space to do it in. 

No such thing existed, of course. So I started it. With the help of so many of you, I created the queer yeshiva that we all needed. And I called it SVARA. And after the colon, “a traditionally radical yeshiva”to reframe the tradition as I now saw it through the lens of this world-changing word, svara. And one by one, you all came. And I got to start my rabbinic education all over again, from the beginning, with you. And, together, we learned. 

I remember, in those days, finding out about a book called Otsar Leshon HaTalmud, The Treasury of the Language of the Talmud. It is an enormous, forty-some-volume reference work that is a kind of concordance to the Talmud. It’s alphabetical, alef-to-tav, and lists every single word that appears in the Talmud, with a separate entry for every occurrence, giving a short excerpt of each phrase in which it appears, and then lists the tractate and page number where it shows up. I learned that Spertus (The Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning, a Jewish college in downtown Chicago) had a copy. 

I excitedly took the subway downtown, and spent the day in the Spertus library, hunting down this set of books that took up three full library shelves. I spent hours trying to figure out how to decipher it, and then stood, feeding quarters into the photocopy machine, to preserve for myself every page in the “samach” volume that contained any entry with a variation of the word svara: savar, ka’savar, svara, b’svara, l’svara, savrei, mistabra, savirna, etc. And I came away with a list of texts that, I was certain, held the key to the entire tradition.

And for these last 18 years, we’ve been working our way through that list, together, one text at a time. And we’ve still barely covered a fraction of them (though, of course, we’ve learned so many others as well). But, this winter, I’ve started to finally pull together the “greatest hits” of that listsome of which we’ve learned together, most of which we haven’tthat will become a multi-year curriculum of The Svara Textsto finally focus in on this essential missing puzzle piece of how our, and other traditions, work, to learn as much as we can, first-hand, about this concept of svara, and to embark upon a project that has been a dream of mine for a very long time. 

I know I’ve shared this fantasy with many of you over the years, sometimes as what I’ve only allowed myself as a throw-away line during the crash talk or in the bet midrash: What if every kid who ever went to Hebrew school not only learned words like tzedaka, mitzvah, and tikkun olam…but also learned the word svara?! What if every Jewish kid who realized they were queer or trans already knew that that voice that told them who they were, was called svarathat their own tradition said that that inkling they had about their own truth was equal in authority to the Torah itself, that it was a sacred voice, straight from G!d?! 

What if every law school, rabbinical school, and medical school, taught the concept of svara, of trusting our moral intuition to guide us through the inevitably complex decisions we encounter? A law student who learned with us in Queer Talmud for Beginner’s Mind last semester shared in their program evaluation: “it’s [svara’s] everywhere…. I am shook and I’m not even kidding I think it improved my legal writing…I think next time I will try to let svara wash over me more to fully experience it- but nonetheless, still transformative.” 

Well folks, consider this our announcement that the project to re-insert the word svara back into the halakhic conversation, and to infuse it into the Jewish vernacular (and, after that, even farther out into the world!), starts in earnest today. And, like all words that change the world, this is going to be an all-of-us, generation-long, all-hands-on-deck, let’s-get-strategic, let’s-get-creative, roll up your sleeves, kind of project. 

We stand on the shoulders of those queer Rabbis who came up with the word, and the concept, 2,000 years ago, and, with it, revolutionized the role of every human being in the process of sussing out of G!d’s will for us. And we stand on the shoulders of my teachers, Professor David Kraemer, the late Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, and the late Professor Menachem Elon. And while these scholars have given us so much to start with, I am convinced that the convergence of this word and our amazing community of queer, radical yeshiva-bochurs, is no accident. I think that this is our word to bring to the world. We get the truth and the power and the life-or-death importance and urgency of this word with our bodies, and with our lives. Our queer rabbinic ancestors used it to legitimate the radical upgrades they made to the tradition they received, to make it more compassionate, more equitable, and more honoring of the dignity of every human being. But like all visions, they could only see as far as their moral imaginationstheir own svaracould take them. And then they left it to us to carry on the work. 

What will a Judaism that is fully shaped by our svara look like? What kind of person will that tradition create? And what kind of world will that person shape, as they walk through it? In the coming months, I will write more about this project, and share what we’re figuring out in the bet midrash, from one another and these new svara texts that we’re learning. 

May we all continue to refine our svara with our learning, and may we restore the queer, radical, svara-dik roots to an ever more perfect, liberatory Jewish tradition that will help us become the kind of people we need to be, to create a more liberatory world, for everyone. 

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