Throughout this pandemic, in my learning, in my teaching, and beyond, I keep returning over and over to the same anchoring questions: What does it mean to be a yeshiva during a pandemic? How do we understand our work during a time of upheaval? What is the role of a yeshiva in a revolution?
Several weeks ago at SVARA’s inaugural Queer Talmud Camp: Diaspora Edition, we opened that exploration up to our wider learning community and learned one of the Rabbis’ most quoted texts that provided a powerful playground for this question:
וכבר היה רבי טרפון וזקנים מסובין בעלית בית נתזה בלוד
נשאלה שאילה זו בפניהם תלמוד גדול או מעשה גדול
נענה רבי טרפון ואמר מעשה גדול
נענה ר”ע ואמר תלמוד גדול
נענו כולם ואמרו תלמוד גדול שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה
And it happened that Rabbi Tarfon and the elders assembled in the attic of Beit Nitza in Lod. The following question was asked from among them:
Is learning [talmud] greater, or is acting [ma’aseh] greater?
Rabbi Tarfon answered and said: Acting is greater.
Rabbi Akiva answered and said: Learning is greater.
They all answered and said: Learning is greater, as the learning brings [the learner] into the hands of acting.
The Rabbis, who invented the process of talmud, who placed learning at the center of their world, ask each other whether that is really, in fact, the best way that they could spend their days. Tucked away in a secret attic they finally allow themselves to utter their deepest fear, to express their true anxiety over their newly invented system: Is sitting in the bet midrash, learning, really the best use of our time, with everything we know burning around us, as we try to create a more liberated world?
They seem to resolve the question and assuage their anxiety as the sugya ends with the conclusion, “Learning is greater, as the learning brings [the learner] into the hands of action.” But on second glance, it’s not quite that simple. The conclusion of this text screams out “Interpret me!” as so many of our favorite sugyot do. If learning is only better because it leads to action, then isn’t action better? Rabbi Akiva’s position would seem to win the day!
I’ve encountered this text dozens of times (though I’d never learned it in the original until we began exploring it for Queer Talmud Camp: Diaspora Edition!), and each time, this text was brought to explain the emphasis in our tradition on learning, supporting the powerful belief that learning is a transformative tool that can lead to action, and that learning and action, in some cases, can be one in the same.
This is the approach that supports the creation of anti-oppression book clubs or political education, for example, as folks realize that we must learn about harm caused, and build new frameworks in our minds, which will bring us into newly informed and transformed action. When we argue this, we claim, I think, that learning is actually a form of activism, where joining our book club is our first action step. However, as we ask ourselves what it means to invest time, energy, and care into our practice of learning, we should not get confused by this false synthesis. Learning is not the same as doing. Talmud and ma’aseh are not, at the end of the day, the same.We cannot be confused and distracted by the impulse to read this text to justify our learning by claiming that it is the entirety of ma’aseh. Read More
The Talmud’s goal is to teach us how to tell more liberatory stories, and to help us become the people that we need to become to then live those stories out.
And it does this by creating in the learner an experience of ever-shifting perspective, purposely destabilizing us, training us for those inevitable life events which pull the floor out from under us, forcing us to shift our perspective ever wider, and asking us to change the way we see the past, sometimes radically, often uncomfortably, inevitably in ways which will mean loss for some of us, but ever greater and greater liberation for all of us. I’d like to share with you one of the thousands of stories the Talmud tells, of shifting perspective, of ancient inherited stories told and retold precisely in order to teach us how to let go of old stories and tell newer, bigger, more truthful and liberatory ones.
In this week’s Torah portion, we have the infamous passage about the wayward and rebellious son. Deuteronomy Chapter 21, beginning with verse 18, says:
If a man has a wayward and rebellious son who does not obey his father or his mother, and they chasten him, and [he still] does not listen to them,
then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city and to the gate of his place. They shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not obey us; he is a glutton and a drunkard.
All the men of his city shall pelt him with stones, and he shall die, and you shall eradicate the evil from amongst you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.
So, how ya feelin’ about that??
Yeah, me, too. But first of all, let’s remember that, as cruel and archaic as that biblical text may seem to us now, this story was a major upgrade for its time in the ancient Near East where patria potestas, which grants a father the power over the life and death of his children, was the law of the land. That was the accepted norm, even, by all evidence, within our own community. But in comes the Torah as a first-round upgrade, saying: Well, not so fast. A father shall no longer be able to just out and out kill his child for no reason. Now, he’s going to have to a) have reasons (he doesn’t obey us, he doesn’t heed our voice after we’ve reprimanded him, etc.), and b) the father’s going to have to involve the elders of the town, and only they will be authorized to carry out the killing.
But, fast-forward 1,500 years to the Rabbis of the Talmud in the first few centuries of the Common Era, and even this extra step of having someone else step in to murder your wayward and rebellious kid now seemed unconscionable, and no longer our best guess at how God wanted us to deal with difficult teens. So, the Rabbis listened to their svara, their moral intuition, and with a little sleight of hand and creative, albeit forced reading of these verses, they interpreted up enough evidentiary requirements for such a killing to take place, that they made it essentially impossible to carry out.
First off, they said: The torah says “ben” and not “bat,” “son” not “daughter” (knowing full well that “ben” means “child” of any gender as often as it means “male child” when it appears in the Torah), so clearly, the Rabbis said, this verse only applies to boys not girls, eliminating 51% of the potential children who could be killed. Then they deduced, based on an even more outlandish read of the verses, that the eligibility period was only about three months after a boy’s bar mitzvah. Window closing, check.
And then they dealt with what behaviors the boy would have to engage in, during those three months, in order to qualify for wayward-and-rebellious status. Well, the Rabbis said, in order to qualify for such an unfortunate status, the boy would have to eat a certain precise amount of meat, and drink a certain precise amount of a particular, expensive, Italian wine, and have stolen the money to purchase those things from his father’s home (and nowhere else), and have eaten the meat and drunk the wine in someone else’s house (not his own), and what’s more–based on a ridiculously farfetched read of other words in the verses—both the mother and the father of this boy would have to be of precisely the same height and have the same appearance and exactly the same pitch of voice, and, well, you get the idea.
As I fully believe the authors of the Talmud intended their readers to do, most learners of this sugya are, by the end of this famous passage, chuckling at the obvious absurdity and heavy-handedness of the midrashic license taken to reach the interpretive conclusions that they portray as having been built into the biblical verses all along. And just as the passage brings most readers to the point of laughing out loud, the gemara wraps up the entire passage by concluding that, as a result of all those conditions needing to be met, ben sorer u’moreh, lo haya, v’lo atid lihiyot—“a stubborn and rebellious son never was and never will be.” We never have, they’re saying, and we never will, put this law into practice by causing physical harm to rebellious teenagers. And don’t worry, they’re saying, no difficult kid has ever been stoned according to the directive of this verse, no parent has ever brought such a child to the elders, and the elders have never carried out this Torah-sanctioned killing of any child.
Well, if that’s so, and God never actually meant for us to carry these verses out, the gemara then asks, why would God have even put them in the Torah in the first place? The gemara’s answer is even more radical: drosh v’kabel s’khar. Literally: Interpret and receive reward. In other words, God put those verses there so that you should interpret them out of existence, and then be rewarded for having done so.
With those three words, drosh v’kabel skhar, the Rabbis have turned the entire tradition–and our relationship to God and Torah—on its head. From that moment forward, the Torah would no longer be a simple guidebook for how God wants us to live that we are supposed to follow, verse for verse. You know what those three words—drosh v’kabel skhar—make the Torah? A treasure hunt! Basically a Where’s Waldo (with God-knows-how-many Waldos in there) of stuff God wants me to do and a bunch of other stuff God put in there with a red striped shirt, davka for me to find and know I’m not supposed to do—just to make sure I’m on my toes and sharpening up my svara. The Torah becomes a mandate to us to use our svara to suss out what systems of oppression–particularly those that come from our own tradition—need to be written out of existence, and then to do the work of making that happen.
Now, that’s a pretty big message and the Talmud could’ve stopped there. And most people learning this passage do stop there. But the gemara then does something even more radical, because it knows that merely writing systemic injustice out of our society is not only not enough, if done the wrong way it can create even greater harm by hiding the mechanisms and history of systemic change, and tying the hands of those who come after us, who will need to do the same kind of work in their time, on issues that are not even on our justice map.
So after this dramatic moment of declaring that the ben sorer u’moreh, the wayward and rebellious son, lo haya v’lo atid lihiyot, “never was and never will be,” in the very next line the gemara brings in Rabbi Yonatan, who then stands up and says—and in my imagination he is not merely saying but screaming—Ani r’itiv vi’yashavti al kivro! What do you mean a stubborn and rebellious son, the one the Torah told us to stone, never was and never will be?! Ani r’itiv vi’yashavti al kivro! I saw one, and I sat on his grave! Don’t try to tell me we never carried out this law. We certainly did! I saw that murdered kid with my own eyes! I sat on his grave! Don’t play fast and loose with history! And stop pretending that we’ve always been so forward-thinking. We damn well used to kill our children!
And Rabbi Yonatan should know.
You see, Rabbi Yonatan was a Kohen, a priest. And what do we know about kohanim and cemeteries? They are forbidden to enter them. With only one exception: A kohen may only enter a cemetery or be present at a gravesite for their seven most immediate family members: father, mother, sister, brother, husband, wife, child.
If Rabbi Yonatan was sitting on a grave of a stoned stubborn and rebellious son, it was most likely that of his own son…a son whom only he could have brought to the elders of the town to have stoned! “What do you mean: never was and never will be? I followed the rules! I did what the Torah told me to do! That’s what you told me God wanted me to do! And now you’re telling me I wasn’t supposed to do that?! That was the law! That was the story you told me!” Ani r’itiv v’yashavti on kivro…you can hear the pain, the anguish, the guilt, in his voice, and his insistence that we not erase the violence and pain of those murdered by the story we are now wiping off the history books.
The gemara’s editor could have left us with the self-congratulatory moment of lo haya v’lo atid li’hiyot, the squeaky clean legal fiction of “never was and never will be.” But what he knows is that having a legislative history of how we got from there to here is crucial. Why? Because you’re going to need it when going from where you are now to where you need to go tomorrow! You need to have precedents for having written out of existence the pain and the violence of what most definitely happened, the story that was in existence once—or else someone’s going to say to you: Oh no, you can’t write Leviticus 18:22—or heteronormativity, or patriarchy or racism or ableism, or anything else–out of existence because that’s real. The stubborn and rebellious son was written out of existence only because it never was practiced! But oh, no, says Rabbi Yonatan, this most certainly was practiced. It was real. And so was the death that it caused.
As we move our way through the month of Elul, and continue toward Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during this season of reflection, spiritual introspection, and stocktaking, let us look at our own stories—both personal and societal. What stories have we been telling ourselves which are no longer serving us? What stories are actually causing us harm? What old stories am I still telling myself—about myself, about my father, about my mother, about my child, about straight folk, about queer folk, about White folk, about Black folk, about those whom I haven’t even considered to even be in my story—that may be holding all of us in a place of suffering? What new story do I want to be a part of? Whose story do I want to be a part of? And what do I need to do to make that happen?
Teshuva is not about rewriting your history. It’s about acknowledging some of the most painful parts of our relationships, honoring and remembering the pain and the violence, and then saying “yes, this happened and it caused death,” and expanding the story so that it has the space to hold not only our painful past, but a more liberatory future, for all of us. May we all be empowered to reinterpret our tradition’s stories through the wide-angle lens of our pain, our loss, our insights, and our svara. Because traditions do teshuva, too. Traditions learn. We are not only its students, but its teachers. And, like Rabbi Yonatan, we can find our place in a new, more liberatory story.
Every year around this time, as Elul approaches, I begin to think about the weeks and months ahead, and how I’ll make use of this year’s High Holidays to do my teshuva work. While I try to do teshuva on a daily or weekly as-soon-as-I-need-to basis, there are always some number of (typically) messier mess-ups that slip through without being tended to, and here come the Hi-Ho’s to be that booster rocket for picking up those loose ends of teshuva I’ve let drop during the year.
And even though, as a “professional Jew,” I know a lot about teshuva, and I understand, of course, that it’s a very complex and rich technology for reexamining our lives more globally, somehow, even for me, the single impoverished question I end up asking myself right around now is the simplistic: What have I done wrong?
Now, I’m not suggesting that you completely ignore that question this year, but…What if instead of asking ourselves: What are the bad things we’ve done? We ask: What are the good things that we haven’t done? What if focusing on the good that we haven’t done but now realize we want to do, turns out to be a better motivator for changing our lives and actually living out our values than reflecting on what we did wrong?
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book Jewish Wisdom, tells the story of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the leader of the then-new Jewish movement in 19th century Germany called Orthodoxy, who surprised his students one day when, as he neared the end of his life, he insisted on traveling to Switzerland. Perplexed, his students asked him why such a journey was so important to him. In response, he explained, When I stand shortly before the Almighty, I will be held answerable to many questions. But what will I say when God asks—and he is certain to ask—“Shimshon, did you see my Alps?”
Hirsch, I think, is pointing us to a radical, though not so new, theology—a G!d who doesn’t just want us to follow the rules, but one who wants, maybe needs, us to drink deeply from the wells of possibility, beauty, wonder, and potential good that make up our world.
I think the early Rabbis of the Talmud were on to the very same theology. In the last three lines of Tractate Kiddushin in the Jerusalem Talmud (Yerushalmi Kiddushin 4:12), we read about the World to Come, and that moment when, in the Rabbis’ imagination, we die and come before the final judge. The Yerushalmi teaches:
עתיד אדם ליתן דין וחשבון על כל מה שראת עינו ולא אכל
In the World to Come, each one of us will be taken to task [not for our sins or misdeeds, but] for all [the good] that our eyes saw, but of which we didn’t eat.
And then the Yerushalmi adds the story of Rabbi Elazar, who hears this teaching and is so distressed at learning this new and surprising yardstick for how his life will actually be judged, that he saves up his money so that he can buy each and every type of new food that he’s never tasted, in order to not miss the opportunity to eat it. Taking this teaching quite literally, he doesn’t want there to be anything left that he hasn’t eaten by the time he arrives at the final judgment.
But the text, of course, is not just speaking of the things we haven’t literally eaten. According to the Jastrow dictionary, אכל can mean to eat or to taste, but it can also mean to consume, to take up space, or to occupy. Going a bit more “outside” then, what if the Yerushalmi is suggesting: At the end of our lives, we will have to answer for all that we experienced only superficially but did not deeply absorb, for all the human experiences––beautiful and painful, challenging and demanding, inviting and intriguing––that we did not let in fully or pay deep attention to, that did not occupy our inner being.
What if we’re here to hungrily, thirstily, ardently savor the world. Not out of gluttony or hedonism, but out of deep appreciation, gratitude, awe, and love of the world. This is what the Yerushalmi imagines we’ll all be held accountable for in the end, I think. We will be called to account, to give a din v’cheshbon, as the text says, for all the good in the world that we might have enjoyed but did not. The people, the places, the books, the music, the art…the Alps.
Queer culture is especially good at helping us to unlearn guilt and self-deprecation, and honors the fact that, as marginalized people, it can be revolutionary for us to love ourselves and choose pleasure and joy. To choose our own liberation, in a world that so often wants us to disappear, may just be one of the ways we were meant to “eat up” life. I can picture the Almighty (actual or proverbial, depending on my theology at the moment), standing at the gates of Olam Haba, the World to Come, asking me: Benay, did you live your best, most fabulous, glittery, outrageous, Queer life?! Did you love deeply and with abandon? Did you discover your passions and live them out? Did you find your peeps and really nerd out together? Did you live fearlessly, knowing you were going to sometimes make a fool of yourself?
The language that the Yerushalmi uses of giving a cheshbon, literally “an accounting,” might ring familiar at this time of year because it is precisely this language that the Jewish calendar uses to name the work that we are to do not just upon our deaths, but each and every year, beginning on the first day of Elul (which is today). It’s work that culminates with Yom Kippur walking us through a simulation of our own final judgment day in order to allow us to “look back at our lives” from the imagined brink of death. The tradition calls this yearly process a cheshbon hanefesh, an “accounting of our life.” But nefesh actually means “breath.” Which makes me wonder: What if the charge is to look inside and ask ourselves: Have I really used every breath that I was given? When is it that I feel myself truly breathing deeply? What do I need, to fully breathe?
This year that word nefesh is especially poignant. After the murder of George Floyd I cannot look at this yearly command to take an accounting of breath without asking myself what I am doing not only to breathe more deeply myself, but to eliminate the barriers that prevent others from breathing freely as well. The list of questions that I think the Holy One will ask me on my day of judgement––which I fully expect the Rabbis meant as a metaphor suggesting what we ask ourselves every day––expands, then, from not just being about savoring, or marveling at, or experiencing the awe of G!d’s Alps, but also about living a life of doing the challenging work to unlearn privilege and oppression, and to make sure that every one of us has the same opportunity to “eat” of all the good in this life.
And so I’m starting to wonder if perhaps doing that work…is the Alps. Perhaps that working for collective liberation and justice is an integral part of a life well-lived, the life my tradition urges me to actively pursue––a fully inhabited, Queer, fabulous, fearless, loving, necesary life. And now I can imagine that the follow-up questions I’ll be asked at those gates are likely to be: Did you push yourself to grow and evolve? Did you listen deeply to the wisdom of people whose lived experiences were different from your own? Did you support movements for change? Did you work to leave the world in better shape than it was when you got here?
So maybe this year, instead of (or at the very least in addition to) focusing on the bad things we did, let’s ask ourselves: What are the good things that we haven’t done? What haven’t we yet done to contribute to the transformative change that needs to happen in the world?
These are deeply personal questions, and they’re going to look different for each of us, depending on the lives we live, the identities we hold, the cards we’ve been dealt. In a racist, ableist, transphobic world, some of us will need to expend more energy on surviving, and fighting to thrive. Some of us ride on our privilege in order to survive and thrive, but what it means to “live our best lives” will always be intimately bound up with redistributing our resources to support those who are targeted by that racism, ableism, and transphobia.
Today is the first day of Elul. Today we begin the process of accounting for our lives, our souls, our breath, and of asking ourselves hard questions about our relationships, our values, and our integrity. Today I want to begin a practice of asking myself: Benay, what beautiful, transformative, creative, fabulous, delicious, courageous, righteous, joyful, truthful, bold, parts of life have you not yet said yes to? Why not? What’s getting in the way? What reflection, what learning, what conversations, do you need to make happen during Elul in order to make it possible to enter the new year living that fuller life? How can you create systems of accountability around yourself, so that you reach for that life in partnership with other people? How can you make a little more space for the good and the just––for yourself and others?
I hope you will all join me in asking ourselves these kinds of questions this year. I am so grateful to teach and learn in a yeshiva where we can support one another to live our biggest, boldest, most truthful, and most fabulous glittering lives. May our teshuva be the kind of return which allows us to live each day knowing exactly what we’re going to say when we’re asked––and we’re certain to be asked––So, did you see my Alps?