Last week I watched the Netflix film Disclosure. I’m never going to be the same.
It’s a documentary about trans representation in film and media. Only trans people appear on screen—which is revolutionary in and of itself—but as I watched it, and listened to each of the artists on the screen speaking, something else became almost immediately obvious to me—the people they were talking to, off-camera, the interviewers whose voices and questions and responses you never hear, were also trans. Even as a cis (though queer) person watching it, I recognized in the way the folks on screen spoke—not only what they said but how they said it—that they were speaking to people offscreen who got it. It was apparent in the laughter that was shorthand for the words they didn’t need to say, in the tears that didn’t need to be justified, in the fragments of sentences that didn’t need to be finished, in the insider language that no one bothered to explain for any one else’s benefit.
There was incredible power in the profound insights the artists shared precisely because none of it was translated. It wasn’t diminished by the need to make it palatable to someone who didn’t understand it viscerally. It didn’t have to shrink to fit into someone else’s frame of reference, or become more tame than someone else might be able to tolerate. What was radical to me about that documentary wasn’t merely who was speaking, but who they were speaking to. They were speaking to each other. And the truths that surface when we, people with marginalized experiences, speak to each other, are revolutionary. Because we cannot even know the fullest truth of our own lives until we turn them over, and over again, with each other, with other folks who know, deeply, and with their lived life experiences, what we’re talking about, who understand pieces of it better than we do, and who need us to understand other pieces better than they do. And it is only in the not-translating that its full power can be surfaced.
There is a passage in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 17a) in which the Rabbis ask the question: what are the qualifications necessary in a judge who will be appointed to the high court, the Sanhedrin, which adjudicates capital cases and makes determinations of life and death? What would someone deciding life-or-death matters have to know, what would they have to be like, for us to feel that they were most able to carry out justice? The Rabbis know that justice can only be created out of a space in which justice is embodied and experienced. So what they’re really asking is: what would a just space, a space that created justice in the world, look like? Read More
At SVARA we often say, “The Talmud is never really talking about what it says it’s talking about.” We focus on the text as formative rather than normative—the tradition is here to shape us, not necessarily by what it says, but by how it says what it says.
In our own chevruta, as two Queer learners committed to bringing our full selves and our radical politics to our learning, this has allowed us to have a more spacious relationship to texts that might otherwise be harmful, painful, or antiquated. When we focus on the process and see the content as secondary, we are opened up to the possibility of being deeply aligned with the methods of our Sages, even when we find that their rulings conflict with our values. We emphasize process over content, noticing the radical moves that the Rabbis make in their time, which inspire us to make the radical changes to and through the tradition that we need in our time.
But sometimes, we find genuine glimmers of ourselves, our truths, our ideals, and our experiences reverberating through their words. These moments are a true gift, in which we are seen by our history. This week in the Mishnah Collective, through our daily study of the teachings found in Masechet Avot (the tractate of the Mishnah known as “Avot”), we were blessed with one such moment:
הֱווּ זְהִירִין בָּרָשׁוּת שֶׁאֵין מְקָרְבִין לוֹ לָאָדָם אֶלָּא לְצֹרֶךְ עַצְמָן נִרְאִין כְּאוֹהֲבִין בִּשְׁעַת הֲנָאָתָן וְאֵין עוֹמְדִין לוֹ לָאָדָם בִּשְׁעַת דָּחְקוֹ
Be careful [in your dealings] with the authority for they do not draw near to a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they do not stand by a man in the hour of his distress. (Masechet Avot 2:3)
This teaching, potentially given over anonymously, is a popularly-quoted warning given to the community (in the plural, perhaps most accurately translated as “Y’all, be careful…!”) to beware of those who hold power. Read More
…שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר עֲשֵׂה תוֹרָתְךָ קֶבַע אֱמֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה
Shammai used to say: Make your learning fixed. Speak little, do much… (Masechet Avot 1:15)
Last Friday, SVARA’s Daily Mishnah Collective celebrated the completion (for now!) of our learning of Chapter 1 of Masechet Avot, where we found and explored this teaching from our sage Shammai, calling upon us to take action. And while we were learning it, extraordinary, inspiring, Black-led uprisings were taking place throughout our country and around the world.
Shammai uplifts the importance of doing more than we say—both doing more than we say we will do (perhaps under-promising and over-delivering) and also doing more than we talk. It’s not that Shammai intends to erase the power of speech here. We know that words are essential, that words create worlds. G!d famously speaks the world into being, and the rabbinic project is one of world-building through creative speech, giving us the “Oral Torah,” a Torah that is dreamed up and shaped by words. And we all know first-hand the pain of silence when our comrades fail to speak out about systemic oppression and harm done in our society to those like us. Speaking up is important, and is indeed a holy action.
But what we do is more important than what we say. We are, thank G!d, witnessing an uprising, one in which white & non-Black folks must act, right now, to do the sacred work of realizing our commitments to Black liberation. In this moment when many of us are exploring how to shape our behaviors and actions to align with the vision of liberation that we are all so desperately seeking, we have a timely reminder from our teacher Shammai about how this work happens. It happens when we do it. Read More