Hot Off The Shtender: Our Learning Lives Inside Us

by Ayana Morse, Executive Director

A few months ago, I woke myself up from a nap sobbing. I don’t recall whether I was dreaming, or what exactly was going on around me at the time, but the feelings of deep exhaustion and overwhelm had clearly rooted in deep and needed an outlet that I hadn’t otherwise made space for. I come back to that moment periodically, a moment that defines for me the ongoing tension of living in the present while keeping the stress and worry so far away as to feel surprised (and caught asleep and unawares!) when it catches up again. 

There is no common experience of this time in our world. We are each making our way through on our own paths, seeking connection and like experiences to help keep us grounded. This tension sits on top of all the other trauma we held even before this pandemic — racism, antisemitism, transphobia, queer trauma, ableism, and more — there is so much that we carry and it’s underneath us whether we’re able to access it or not, moving with us through our days and intertwining with everything else inside us. Read More

Hot Off the Shtender: The Trans Halakha Project: Moving Us Toward the Next Unrecognizable Future

by R’ Becky Silverstein, SVARA Fellow & Board Chair

In 2014, a few weeks before I was ordained a rabbi, SVARA’s President & Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Benay Lappe, gave an Eli Talk called “An Unrecognizable Jewish Future: A Queer Talmudic Take.” Much of this talk is what SVARAniks and countless Jews around the world know as “The Crash Talk.” This version opens with Benay sharing a story from the beginning of her time at rabbinical school, where the president of the university was late for a meeting with new students. He had been on the phone with a sociologist compiling the statistics of the 1990 National Jewish population survey. The sociologist shared with him that the data showed that “the good news is that Judaism will exist in 100 years, the bad news is that it will be unrecognizable to us.” Benay goes on to share why this bad news wasn’t so bad. 

What does it mean that the future would be unrecognizable? Unrecognizable to the university president and the sociologist. To who else? And in what ways? 

Reflecting on this moment in SVARA’s organizational development and from my position as board chair, I am aware how much SVARA has grown over the last seven years since Benay’s Eli Talk and eighteen years since its founding. I wonder how much of what SVARA is today would be recognizable eighteen years ago. How much of SVARA today feels like natural growth that brought us to this point in the organization’s history, whether it is recognizable or not. Two SVARA projects are present for me in this reflection. The first is SVARA’s Strategic Plan, which charts a path for growth that will propel us toward the expansive yet unrecognizable future. The second is the Trans Halakha Project

The Trans Halakha Project aims to curate existing resources that have been developed for trans Jews and by trans Jews, identify new areas of halakha that have yet to be developed, and finally to create opportunities for developing new halakhic literature and practice guides that speak directly to these areas of need we identify. Reading these project objectives I am overwhelmed by the possibility of what might emerge from this work. I am ready to dig in to the work of creating law that addresses trans experience authentically and without reservation with trans Jews from all over the world. I can feel the impact of saying to other trans Jews that not only do they matter but that their experience will now be woven into our Jewish tradition. I know that this work can save lives. I can barely glimpse what we might offer the halakhic project in new understandings of obligation, consent, and who knows what else. I can hear Laynie telling me that the Jewish tradition will never be the same. Most of the time I believe that that is a good thing.   Read More

Hot Off the Shtender: Finding Comfort in the Curmudgeonly

by Ren Finkel, Mishnah Collective Coordinator

Between our one-year anniversary and our Masechet Avot Chapter 4 siyyum, it has been a really big couple of weeks for the Mishnah Collective. As is so common during the pandemic, going through this last chapter felt like it took both a second and a year. This last mishnah, especially, has lingered. In a week that has felt particularly overwhelming for me, Rabbi Elazar HaKappar’s teaching has felt both challenging and indulgent. 

Throughout our journey in chapter 4, a variety of teachers have commented on how wonderful the mishnayot continued to be. Texts that felt entirely out of line with our personal, contemporary values were few and far between, and so many fit so nicely into a framework of justice. And then came along Rabbi Elazar Hakappar in Mishnah 21-23, where suddenly we’re talking about desire taking us out from the world and a God that sounds really harsh and judgy! I felt, initially, at odds with his perspective. 

Each day, though, I would read through the comments and take in our incredible teachers’ lessons, and I would be consistently struck by how expansive this community’s wisdom is. Without pretending that harsh texts were soft, participants were able to shine a light on the most beautiful aspects of his lessons. I feel especially drawn to a line in Mishnah 23: Read More