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. Read More
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.
On Wednesday morning I opened my front door, admittedly still wearing pajamas, with a rainbow alef-bet strip in hand. I was headed two doors down, to deliver the alef-bet strip to my neighbor’s front porch. Pulling open the door, I was startled and then delighted to find myself greeted by a loaf of sourdough bread in a bag. No bread fairy in sight, no note, just a loaf in front of my door. If this sounds like the beginning of a Talmudic legend to you, believe me, I also felt that way!
Allow me to offer some context. Over the past two weeks, across the country and the world, SVARA Faculty, Fellows, and Grassroots Leaders have begun convening online batei midrash (lit. houses of interpretation/study) as part of SVARA’s Spring Learning series, The Way of Talmud. These batei midrash are loosely local–– our intention is, whenever possible, to help folks connect to local networks in order to build relationships around mutual aid and ongoing coronavirus relief activism, and with the hope that when we are able to gather physically again, local learning communities will be even stronger. Of course, anyone is welcome to sign up for these batei midrash, which have become a hybrid of geographically local and geographically spread out. On Tuesday night, in the opening session of the bet midrash I’m teaching, I had folks learning with me from as close as my own block, and as far away as the Bay Area.
My neighbor Noah is learning in the bet midrash with me, and after our opening session he reached out to see if I had a spare alef-bet strip. If so, he asked, could I get it to him? Noah and I have been sharing all kinds of objects over these weeks of quarantine. I know where the basket on his front porch lives, where anything from face masks and grocery items to electric drills are borrowed and returned, delivered or traded, by neighbors in need. So I grabbed an alef-bet strip from my stash, and was making my way over to his porch when I discovered the loaf of bread. I didn’t know who had delivered the bread, and in fact I’d been on multiple text threads with neighbors who are baking, sharing yeast and flour with one another when needed. When I returned from Noah’s porch and brought in the loaf, I checked my phone, and saw a message from Sarah, also a learner in my bet midrash. The message read: “Check your front door before breakfast. It’s an old wives tale about the last Wednesday in April–I read about it in the Talmud last night 😉.” My heart filled with gratitude. She was joking about the old wives tale, but the underlying truth was our interconnectedness, facilitated by Talmud learning. Read More