A couple of weeks ago, I attended a poetry reading called Shelter in Poems, hosted by the Academy of American Poets. About 15,000 people were in attendance over an online streaming platform, as 25 writers and public figures each read aloud a favorite poem that has accompanied them throughout this time of global pandemic. I sat on the floor of my living room listening deeply, my body exhaling a long-held breath, my clenched hands starting to open. I’ve attended lots of online events over the past two months: concerts, webinars, dance parties, birthday hang outs… But sitting there, letting the rhythms of poetry wash over me, I felt healed and nourished in a unique way that almost no other virtual gathering space has allowed for.
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
(from Thank You, by WS Merwin)
when you send the rain,
think about it, please,
not get carried away
by the sound of falling water,
the marvelous light
on the falling water.
(from Untitled, by James Baldwin)
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back
(from Blessing the Boats, by Lucille Clifton)
Poetry is spacious– allowing the breath to be part of the reading or listening experience. It is non-linear and at times enigmatic– in poetry, things don’t have to tie together in obvious or rational ways, things don’t have to “make sense.” It is concise– a poem is about the length of text my attention span can handle in times of crisis. It is sparse– I am invited to slow down and engage attentively, to sink into the depth of each word, one word at a time. For all of these reasons, poetry steadies and soothes me in times of fear and anxiety, and has been an important part of my own personal resilience practice in these months.
I say that almost no other virtual gathering space has nourished me in this particular way. SVARA’s Drop-In Mishna Collective is another space akin to this reading, and in our daily half-hour learning space, I have many times felt a similar anchoring and presence as the one that comes over me through poetry.
וֶהֱוֵי מִתְחַמֵּם כְּנֶגֶד אוּרָן שֶׁל חֲכָמִים, וֶהֱוֵי זָהִיר בְּגַחַלְתָּן שֶׁלֹּא תִכָּוֶה, שֶׁנְּשִׁיכָתָן נְשִׁיכַת שׁוּעָל
Warm yourself before the fire of the wise, but beware of being singed by
their glowing coals, for their bite is the bite of a fox, and their
sting is the sting of a scorpion. (Avot 2:10)
מֵאַיִן בָּאתָ, מִטִּפָּה סְרוּחָה, וּלְאָן אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ, לִמְקוֹם עָפָר רִמָּה וְתוֹלֵעָה
From where do you come? From a flowing drop. Where are you going?
To a place of dust, worm and maggot. (Avot 3:1)
גְּדוֹלָה תוֹרָה שֶׁהִיא נוֹתֶנֶת חַיִּים לְעֹשֶׂיהָ בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וּבָעוֹלָם הַבָּא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר… (שם ג) רִפְאוּת תְּהִי לְשָׁרֶךָ וְשִׁקּוּי לְעַצְמוֹתֶיךָ
Great is Torah for it gives life to those that practice it, in this world, and in
the world to come, As it is said… “It will be a tonic for your navel and
marrow for your bones.” (Avot 6:7)
The Mishnah too is spacious, concise, and sparse. As literature, Mishnah is distinctly sparing when compared to other Rabbinic writings and to the wider Jewish textual canon. And whereas the vast majority of Mishnaic material is halakhic case law, Masechet Avot is uniquely composed of short ethical and moral statements from the early rabbis, articulating their beliefs about what constitutes a meaningful life.
To me, the mishnayot of Pirkei Avot read like poems– they are lyrical and laden with compelling metaphors. They weave verses of Torah into condensed and playful interpretations. They are often mysterious, and require us as learners to think in flexible and new ways, to approach them curiously, in a small group or with a chevruta, to unlock their meanings. They are meditations and reflections on some of life’s biggest ideas, boiled down to the most compact and essential ways of saying them. They almost hum on the page, each sentence dense with possibility.
When I come daily to our Mishnah Collective, the task before me is small but deep. I am expected to interact with a handful of words at a time, and to think like a reader of poetry. For example, this image rises off of the page: “וּמַלְבַּשְׁתּוֹ עֲנָוָה וְיִרְאָה” “Torah clothes a person in humility and awe” (Avot 6:1). What does it mean for a person to be clothed in humility and awe as though they were garments? What does that look like, feel like? Why did the rabbis select the verb “to clothe, to cause to be covered or dressed in,” in order to convey this idea? Have I ever felt Torah learning cloak me in a feeling, a quality, an idea?
Or this: “כַּךְ הִיא דַּרְכָּהּ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה, פַּת בְּמֶלַח תֹּאכַל” “This is the Way of Torah: Eat bread with salt” (Avot 6:4). What do bread and salt have to do with Torah? What do these images evoke in me when I read them? I’m surprised to encounter bread and salt amidst a passage about Torah learning. What does the element of surprise add to my experience, how does it enliven and enhance my understanding of Torah, giving it a burst of life like the taste of salt on a slice of bread?
Poet George Oppen writes, “One must not come to feel that he has a thousand threads in his hands, / He must somehow see the one thing; / This is the level of art.” When I study Mishnah with intention and focus, I am able to see one thing at a time. I’m not expected to hold a thousand threads in my hands, to develop an analysis of the changing economy or the failing healthcare system, to address the barrage of bad news that inundates my inbox all at once. I am able to slow down, plug in, and breathe into the simplicity and specificity of the text. This tends to have a ripple effect on the rest of my day. On days laden with both monotony and overwhelm, the practice of tending to one task at a time, or one conversation at a time, makes it possible for me to care for others, to get my work done, to feel, sometimes, ok.
At SVARA we often talk about scholar Moshe Halbertal’s idea that the Talmud is a “formative” text rather than a “normative” text, meaning that the literary form of the Talmud, and the modes with which we study it, are intended to shape us into a certain kind of person. Rather than simply convey rules and give over information, the Talmud, so full of unanswered questions and discursive exchanges, cultivates in us a capacity for paradox and multiple truths. This capacity, carved through our minds and spirits when we study, can equip us to navigate a changing world with compassion and creativity. In this way, it is a “formative” text, a text that transforms us from the inside out.
The Mishnah, on the other hand, the rabbinic rulebook of Torah 2.0, is often characterized as a “normative” text, one that delivers a clear set of instructions, without much back-and-forth or complexity. But studying daily in our Mishnah Collective has shown me that Masechet Avot is also a formative text, whose genre, shape, and content is intended to make us into a certain kind of person. The person I have been able to practice being over the past two months is someone who can listen deeply, who is less afraid of the unknown, who remembers to return to an open moment of breath, and an open page of possibility. When I study Masechet Avot, as when I read poetry, I don’t have to tie everything together, I don’t have to take it all on at once. I become, as our text describes, one who listens carefully, speaks deliberately, discerns with my heart, and reflects with my heart (Avot 6:6). And these days, that makes all the difference.
Each daf of Talmud presents us with a fantasy.
The fantasy is the record of an impossible intergenerational conversation across time and space, between queer folk (OK, ok, sages, but you know what I mean) who lived in different centuries from one another–some a millennium apart, on different continents, speaking different languages. Most of them, of course, never met or even knew of one another, but the Talmud’s editors wove their voices together in such a way that they appear to be talking to one another on every page. And they don’t just talk– they rejoice, they play, they question, they spar and parry, they challenge each other, and resolve each other’s challenges. They revel in creating new problems for one another, and sometimes solve each other’s problems, and sometimes just hold each other in their collective uncertainty.
Their conversation is a joyful, curiosity-driven, open-ended inquiry, modeling a process that seeks not to find answers but to stimulate questions; not to reinforce certitude, but to cultivate doubt; not to create a sense of independence, but to remind us how deeply and desperately we need one another. It is a kaleidoscope of never-ending interpersonal encounters that holds up an aspirational vision of how, in some fantastical, time- and space-traveling future world, some imaginary community of people might one day sit together in a yeshiva…and be with one another in just this way. They called it the yeshiva shel ma’ala, the Yeshiva On High. And they imagined that that’s what it would look like to be in heaven, to be in the World to Come.
I feel quite certain that those sages never really believed that such a yeshiva shel ma’ala could ever actually happen on earth, IRL, in This World. But in this fantastical digital world of ours, from 12:30 – 1:00 pm CT, their fantasy has become our reality. During this time, I feel as though I’ve fallen through the Talmud Looking Glass and am experiencing the daf coming to life in a literal and visceral way. It’s our daily drop-in Mishna Collective. Every day, sixty to eighty mostly queer and trans folk, along with some straight cis folk, representing three or four generations, gather from all over the world, and create a joyful, chaotic living Talmud page of conversation and commentary.
Each day, our teacher (sometimes it’s me, more often it’s Laynie or Mónica) leads us through a few lines of text. We work word by word, translating the Hebrew inside and outside–starting with the most primary, “inside” meanings of the root of each word, opening up possibilities for what seem like infinite associations, subtleties, and resonances that are concealed beneath the “outside,” contextual and colloquial meaning. An explosion of meaning-making possibilities–impossible to achieve when learning in translation–is revealed.
Dozens of questions are raised from every word and phrase. Uncertainty, contradiction, inconsistency, paradox, and complexity are surfaced and savored. As learners, our minds race with associations and connections. New questions, new ideas, and possible interpretations are shared but held ever so lightly, and joyfully surrendered when an even better one appears. Sparks fly and fragments of ideas are thrown down in the chat, scrolling sometimes faster than we can even read them. Virtual claps, high-fives, and praises for resonant insights are interspersed amid cracks and word plays proffered by the “chat rascals.” We rejoice in each other’s aha moments. We watch Torah being created before our very eyes. And we are the creators.
When each day’s shiur is over, I feel like a better version of myself. Only 30 minutes have gone by and, of course, I haven’t moved from my seat, but it’s as though I’ve been on a journey into some other time and place. I emerge feeling extra alive, with an energy that propels me through the inevitable reentry into the often heartbreaking reality in which we find ourselves, but with a spring in my step and a sense of optimism and strength that might have waned from the day before, now renewed for yet another day.
And for weeks I’ve been asking myself, what is it, exactly, about this space, this bet midrash of ours, that makes me feel this way?
In Masechet Yoma, on daf 72b, a group of Rabbis consider the biblical verse “וְזֹ֖את הַתּוֹרָ֑ה אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מֹשֶׁ֔ה לִפְנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל ” “And this is the Torah which Moses put [sam] before the children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 4:44)–that song we sing as we point to the torah as it is held aloft each time we finish reading from the scroll in synagogue.
Don’t read שם as “put,” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says there, rather read it as סם, “potion” or “elixir.” If one merits it, he claims, Torah will be an elixir of life. If one doesn’t, it will be an elixir of death, a claim that will resonate as familiar to any of you learning with us in the Mishnah Collective, where our Mishna is asking us to explore how we might become people who embody Torah and walk it through the world.
And the answer, I think, comes precisely from how we learn, not what we learn. Rava, my favorite of the talmudic sages, my guardian angel Rabbi, puts his finger on it. Over there in Yoma, bouncing off of what Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi threw down in the chat (wink, wink), he types in:
.דאומן לה סמא דחייא, דלא אומן לה סמא דמותא
“For one who is an artisan/artist in their learning, Torah is a potion of life; but for one who is not an artisan/artist in their learning, it is a potion of death.”
When we learn with an openness to that which we don’t know, when we are receptive to the many possibilities of a text’s meaning, we are the artisan, the artist, the “uman,” about whom Rava is speaking.
To learn like an artisan/artist, one needs to be available to what my friend and teacher Rabbi Dev Noily calls a “proliferation of possibilities”– an ever-expanding orientation to what the text–and every moment of life–could mean. When we learn like an “uman,” like an artisan/artist, we proliferate possibilities in the text. And when we do that, day in and day out, we develop the spiritual dexterity to proliferate the possibilities for what we might make of every challenge we encounter in life. In this way, one’s Torah becomes a Torah of life. The Torah gives us life, I think Rava is saying, when we give it life, when we craft meaning with it as we feed Torah through our svara–that hard-earned moral intuition and the rich insights we’ve cultivated from our life experiences, both the joyful ones and the painful ones–and come out with insights that transform our pain and joy into wisdom, and which we then feed back into the tradition and bring out into the world.
I know that in the Mishna Collective our learning is that kind of spiritual artistry because I walk away from the computer screen when our half-hour together is over each day, exhilarated, rejuvenated, grounded in my svara, my tradition, and–most importantly–in you, my community. Because it is you, my queer, freaky, radical community-of-love, who appear on my screen every day and make it possible for me, and, I hope, every one of us, to be an artist, an artisan–with the text, with the Torah, with our tradition, and with our lives.
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.