Hot Off the Shtender: Towards Halakhic Euphoria

by Laynie Soloman, Associate Rosh Yeshiva

When I started planning to have top surgery, I never wondered whether I could get top surgery according to halakha. While my life is guided by the yes’s and no’s of halakha in other realms, the question of permission in this case never crossed my mind. Instead, I wondered, “What is the language I can use from the tradition to describe this experience?” This shift in concern from “Can I do this?” to “How do I talk about this?” is, for me, a way of claiming our trans experiences as subjects of halakha rather than objects. We are the authors and the actors, not the material to be talked about. When it comes to questions of identity, dignity, and self-determination, halakha does not give us “yes” or “no” answers. Instead, halakha, in its most powerful moments, becomes the language we use to express our deepest truths.

I had read treatments (teshuvot, essays, and the like) of gender-affirming medical care as “permissible” because of the principle of “Pikuach Nefesh,” an animating framework in Jewish law that enables one to transgress the Torah when in a life-threatening situation. But for me, top surgery wasn’t a case of Pikuach Nefesh—my life wasn’t at stake. While for some this principle might accurately reflect their needs, I found it dysphoric, suggesting that I was transgressing some Torah-based norm, and allowed to do so because of this principle.

Too often our conversations about trans realities and traditional norms are about solving perceived problems and figuring out how to make adjustments or concessions to a normative system. How do our leaders and teachers respond when our bodies and our realities “do not fit”? Why do we take the cis-normative, binary system of applied Jewish law and maneuver, reconfigure, and contort trans experiences to find ways in which we fit within the system? Pages of ink have been spilled (or perhaps, pages have been typed!) in recent years by cisgender rabbinic authorities that ask and answer questions about the ways in which we do not fit. This is none other than dysphoric halakha, a halakha that defines trans-ness by the ways in which we aren’t right, we don’t work, and we are out of place. Dysphoric halakha seeks to get us to “fit.” Read More

Hot Off the Shtender: Knowing That We Are Loved

by Ayana Morse, Executive Director


About a year and a half ago, I was lucky enough to be at the graduation for our first cohort of Fellows in the Teaching Kollel. I had captured glimmers of how SVARA’s learning community touched people before that, but I was caught unawares by the sheer power of that moment, as eight brilliant, glittery queer and trans humans stepped into the lineage of Talmud teachers with open hearts and open minds, together. I cried a lot that day, without exactly knowing what had cracked me open so deeply, but knowing that it was right. 

I’ve been lucky to have had powerful experiences in my life, to have been part of many different communities that were resonant and intentional. They were communities of dance, political theater, puppets, pagan ritual, Jewish ritual, they were each one incredible in their own ways. And yet, on that day a year and a half ago, sitting and bearing witness to the embodied act of owning tradition in such a deep way, I was struck by how tangible, how three dimensional the transformative nature of our bet midrash is. I find myself crying often when I join the bet midrash, tears of awe for the community we’re growing and the people who are part of it, tears of pain and anger that this holy space doesn’t exist in all parts of the world. 

Over the past several months, SVARA has been wrestling with what the role of a yeshiva is in pandemic and uprising. One answer that we return to frequently is that of connecting our learning to action. That the work we do in the bet midrash anchors our work out in the world, as the insights of the Rabbis help inform and shape the change we seek to bring about today. Read More

The Radical Act of Becoming a Talmud Person

by R’ Benay Lappe, Rosh Yeshiva


I want to tell you why I’m in the Talmud business. 

And I want to tell you today because, perhaps like some of you, and in spite of the likely outcome of the election, I’m still feeling decidedly less joyful than I had hoped to feel. 

Even though many of us may be happy about the ultimate result of this election, my heart is still a bit heavy. Yes, I am gratified that a majority of Americans have chosen to repudiate a candidate who represents, encourages, and further entrenches White supremacy, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, anti-semitism, and general hatred, bigotry, anti-science, anti-democracy, and anti-truth values. That is definitely a victory to celebrate.

But I am also profoundly disappointed—though not surprised–that 48% or so of our fellow Americans–some our very own neighbors and family members—would knowingly vote to support these very things, or vote to support their own financial or other interests in spite of those things.

And at the center of this disappointment, frankly, is incredulity. I have always struggled to understand how it is that people—masses of people—can believe things told to them that are so obviously untrue (and then act in harmful ways as a result). That is the problem that has always vexed me, and the one I am out to solve. I understand why corrupt leaders lie—that’s easy—but that people believe those lies—often against their own self-interests—that is what has always struck me as not only profoundly mystifying, but actually terrifying. 

As Jews, we know, with our lived life experience, with our bodies and our lives, what happens when people simple-mindedly believe obvious lies. And as Queer and Trans people, as People of Color, as Indigenous people, as people with disabilities—just to name some of us on the margins—we, too, have been on the receiving end of the violence of such baseless and hateful lies—both literal, physical violence as well as the systemic violence of the policies and laws created, or allowed to be created, by the people who believe them. We have spent so much of our lives, so much of our precious time and energy, fighting back against those who, without seeming to be able to think or feel their way through them, believe lies, about us, about others, and about the world.  Read More