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.  Read More

Hot Off the Shtender: The Talmud’s Queerspawn: Going Inside-Outside on the Siddur

by R’ Mónica Gomery and R’ Ari Lev Fornari, SVARA Faculty Members

This week, in the wake of a white supremacist insurrection, incited from the highest powers of government and abetted by all levels of law enforcement, we have found ourselves returning over and over again to Jewish prayer. 

One of the iterative messages that appears throughout Jewish liturgy can be summarized as אין לנו מלך אלא אתה, “There is no ruler or rule of law beyond You.” According to the Rabbis, every expression of human power is secondary, if not subservient, to the spiritual sovereignty that is at the heart of Jewish theology and prayer.  

In the fourth chapter of Mishnah Brachot we learn what to do if a person is in transit at the time when one would classically recite the Amidah, explaining:

If a person is riding on a donkey, they should get down and pray. If they are unable to get down they should turn and face towards Jerusalem, and if they cannot turn their face, they should direct their heart (יְכַוֵּן אֶת לִבּוֹ) to the Holy of Holies.

הָיָה רוֹכֵב עַל הַחֲמוֹר, יֵרֵד. וְאִם אֵינוֹ יָכוֹל לֵירֵד, יַחֲזִיר אֶת פָּנָיו, וְאִם אֵינוֹ יָכוֹל לְהַחֲזִיר אֶת פָּנָיו, יְכַוֵּן אֶת לִבּוֹ כְּנֶגֶד בֵּית קֹדֶשׁ הַקָּדָשִׁים

From this we learn that the essential posture of Jewish prayer is the ability to direct one’s heart.

Which is why it has always bothered us that the most iconic aesthetic of Jewish prayer is the image of cismen gathered close in a room as they speed through hundreds of words written thousands of years ago. At our lefty shul in West Philly, we often refer to this as “mumblefest davenen.” There is a both longing and contempt in our shorthand description, a kind of frustrated alienation that results from the feeling of quickly saying words without real attention or intention. (Now nine months into this pandemic, oh how we long to gather close and mumble words of prayer together.) Read More

Hot Off the Shtender: Delighting in Our Learning

by Laynie Soloman, Associate Rosh Yeshiva

As we wrapped up our semester of weekly learning for the Teaching Kollel, I declared (as I often do!), that the text we had learned is my favorite sugya. One Fellow noted, “Laynie, I’d love to find some time to hear more about what you love about this sugya.” The text hadn’t quite landed for them in their body, they noted, and they wanted to do some extra thinking and learning together to explore the “magic”  that’s underneath this text. This is the true blessing of learning at SVARA, y’all.

In 2020 we’ve learned more text than ever before: we’ve explored the mishnah in Masechet Avot through daily study over the past 10 months (and learned almost 70 mishnayot in almost 250 sessions!), we’ve learned over a dozen sugyot (sections of Talmud), we’ve sat with folks in countless Fairy Hours, and we’ve had our hearts expanded infinite times. 

More SVARA-niks are learning more Torah, and finding new ways to bring the wisdom of our ancestors to life. We’ve spent this past year deepening our learning personally, and deepening our learning together as a yeshiva. For many of us this year brought the first time we’ve delved into Mishnah, or the first time we worked our way through a page of Talmud. For some of us this year we learned a new grammatical structure, explored a new root-meaning (or found new meaning from a familiar root!). For others this year brought our first moments of owning a text, or new realizations about the role we want our tradition to play in our lives. We’ve experimented with new practices, taken on different forms of observance, and we’ve lived our tradition in new ways. 

As I am clapping up this learning community for the deepening we’ve done, for the ways in which we’ve moved along our spiraling non-linear paths to becoming players—people who are transformed by and in turn transform—our tradition, I’m struck by the invitation from our Fellows to take the time to name and unpack the places of love that we’re experiencing in our learning and our teaching.  Read More