Origin stories are powerful. They give names to our ancestors. They lift up voices, honor the courage and power of individual actions, and let us find heroes in our past. In the blur of what movements sometimes can look like, I find power and feel endless gratitude for identifying the rad, Queer ancestors that have so materially transformed how I am able to live my life.
This summer, I’ve had the blessing of Fairy-ing in SVARA’s Summer Shiur, a weekly bet midrash for SVARA-niks to deepen their regular practice of learning, where we have explored a section of Talmud from Masechet Berakhot 26b that is, on the surface, an argument around the origin of prayer:
רבי יוסי ברבי חנינא אמר תפלות אבות תקנום רבי יהושע בן לוי אמר תפלות כנגד תמידין תקנום
Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, said: prayers were instituted by the biblical Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: prayers were instituted based on the daily sacrificial offerings [outlined in the Torah].
The argument is presented: does prayer come from the Patriarchs, or was it an invention of the Rabbis, an innovation they created to update an old practice––making sacrifices–– that was crashing?
In so many ways, it is clear that the structure of praying Amidah three times a day mimics the daily sacrifices of the Temple. We see it in the content of our prayers, and some services are named directly after certain sacrifices (mincha and musaf are two of them). And yet, the Talmud offers a series of unlikely examples in which they argue that our ancestors, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov, institute the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers respectively.
תניא כוותיה דרבי יוסי בר׳ חנינא אברהם תקן תפלת שחרית שנא׳ ”וישכם אברהם בבקר אל המקום אשר עמד שם“ ואין ”עמידה“ אלא תפלה
It was taught [in a baraita] in accordance with Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Ḥanina: Abraham instituted the morning prayer, as it was said: “And Abraham woke up early in the morning to the place where he had stood” (Genesis 19:27), and “standing” is nothing other than prayer.
In the text itself, Avraham does not plainly appear to be praying—it seems as though he is simply standing. But the author of this teaching takes this moment and argues that we should see it as prayer. The text continues to do this with Yitzchak “conversing” for mincha, afternoon prayer, and Ya’akov “arriving” for ma’ariv, the evening prayer. While it is clear in the Torah itself that these ancestors were not praying in a recognizable way to us, the Talmud threads these ideas together, connecting our patriarch’s seemingly mundane actions to our daily rituals.
How could these seemingly singular and mundane events translate to our daily ritualized version of prayer? At SVARA, I have learned to ask: Why would the stamma, the editors and compilers of the Talmud, include this text? What point are they trying to make? What’s at stake here?
One SVARA-nik in our Summer Shiur, Alex, pointed to how singular moments and actions have swelled into collective ritual, practice, and movements that may have seemed unimaginable at the time. Alex said, “you never know if something you do is going to be the first day for the rest of your life, or just once.” They present a challenge for us: how are we living our lives with the awareness of that potential? In what ways are we setting the example, practice, or system that will grow and transform for generations to come?
That sentiment is so powerful, and also scary. A small, random thing I do could set off patterns, rituals, movements? I freeze up when I think of it. But when I think about how movements work, I remember that in alchemy with that “one person” or that “one moment,” there are teams of organizers working for decades, laying the groundwork, crafting the narrative, and working out the kinks of what our future can look like. In the case of our sugya, this team is the Rabbis, and they are laying the groundwork for a new way of practicing Judaism as the Temple model is crashing. At the conclusion of our sugya, in response to the question, “Is prayer derived from the Patriarchs or the Rabbis?” we read:
תפלות אבות תקנום ואסמכינהו רבנן אקרבנות
The Patriarchs instituted the prayers, and the Rabbis leaned them on [the structures of] daily sacrificial offerings.
The sugya resolves that both the Patriarchs and the Rabbis make prayer happen. Singular moments or individuals (in this case, the Patriarchs) can provide inspiration, and the collective (in this case, the Rabbis) can weave these moments into our narrative for new systems and change.
I think about the current uprising in my city of Oakland. With a seemingly sudden swell of support and action from the community, in response to the murder of George Floyd, the Oakland School Board unanimously agreed to eliminate its police force on school campuses. And, this didn’t come out of nowhere. For almost a decade, the Black Organizing Project has been laying the groundwork for this change with its BOSS (Bettering our School System) Campaign, and this summer they used this moment to weave in the story of George Floyd and organize thousands of Oakland residents to tip the scales.
And, understanding how movements and rituals come out of a tapestry of individual actions and collective power, I feel relieved to think of myself as a weaver crafting the story, rather than a lone actor under a microscope. Knowing that this win was the combination of a singular event and a group of smart, rad people with a vision for change encourages me to think about how I can reach backwards–– drawing inspiration from an ever longer lineage of activists–– and also reach across–– seeing the collective of people at work to turn a single action into a movement.
Our movements and rituals do not come out of nowhere, and the actions weren’t spontaneously made in isolation. They came out of lineages and collectives of people who, each and every one of them, were needed in order to make the thing happen. And Baruch HaShem, thank God, I get to be in this rad, Queer community and live within a brilliant, diverse collective to imagine and create what’s next.
With gratitude for Alex Dillon for chevruta-ship and an inspiring reading of this text.
What counts as Torah? Who decides? What makes it into the canon, and what remains on the outside, seen as merely a “folk tradition”? These are the questions at the heart of Pirkei Avot, the tractate of the mishnah that we’ve been moving through in the Mishnah Collective’s daily learning.
As a Queer person, and as a person who moves through the world often erased, ignored, or objectified by traditional canons and the teaching of them, I’ve learned to be suspicious of ‘canon’ itself, of notions of fixed texts with parameters defined by external authorities. To define a canon is to exercise power, to declare that someone is “in” and someone else is “out.” Naturally, I bring this suspicion to the bet midrash, as I know many of y’all do, too. The more we’ve explored Pirkei Avot these weeks, the more I’ve felt seen by our Sages, who answer these questions of fixed Torah as radical theologians.
So often textual tradition is seen as in opposition to popular piety, to the wisdom of the people, and the experience of folks who were expressing their faith and religious intuitions outside of what is often seen as the elite, dominating space of Torah-learning and literacy.
While there is beauty and power in this suspicion, for me, in my own exploration of Masechet Avot, our sage Hillel has, over and over, provided an antidote to this critique. Many of Hillel’s teachings, which become embedded into our canon—our Torah—appear to be none other than proverbs of the people, sayings that were commonly spoken by the people around him. We first see this in Avot 1:13:
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר נָגֵד שְׁמָא אָבֵד שְׁמֵהּ וּדְלֹא מוֹסִיף יָסֵף וּדְלֹא יָלֵיף קְטָלָא חַיָּב וּדְאִשְׁתַּמֵּשׁ בְּתָגָא חָלֵף:
Hillel used to say: One who stretches a name destroys his name. And one who does not increase, it will cease. And one who does not learn is bound by death. And one who uses the crown, goes.
Hillel’s teaching is in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, as he “shows his work” in incorporating the spoken language of the people into the mishnah. Here, it seems, Hillel is offering a proverb, a “folk saying” of the people in their own language as part of his own contribution to the Mishnah. Hillel has brought the spirit and the energy of his time so deeply and powerfully into the “fold” of Torah, so to speak, uplifting and naming the traditions of his time by passing them on as Torah.
Proverbs play a powerful pedagogical role in any given society. Several scholars (George J. Sefa Dei, Isaac Nortey Darko, Jodie McDonnell, Suleyman M. Demi, and Harriet Akanmori) in a beautiful treatment of African proverbs argue that proverbs themselves can function as an “epistemology of decolonization,” as a way of knowing that supports a group’s ability to assert power, resistance, and wisdom in the face of forceful hegemonic powers. Proverbs are disruptive to canons that attempt to dominate us:
“As epistemologies, proverbs shape our thinking processes and engage our embodiments, as well as our social, material, and emotional connections and acts like prisms of decoloniality. Proverbs offer spiritual dimensions to the realities of everyday life and social existence that are not always known and/or easily understood, and thereby offer multiple understandings of the world around us” (African Proverbs as Epistemologies of Decolonization, p. 11-12).
Hillel is at it again in Avot 2:4-7, where it feels as though he simply shares proverb after proverb after proverb:
הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּפְרֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר, וְאַל תַּאֲמִין בְּעַצְמְךָ עַד יוֹם מוֹתְךָ, וְאַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ, וְאַל תֹּאמַר דָּבָר שֶׁאִי אֶפְשָׁר לִשְׁמֹעַ, שֶׁסּוֹפוֹ לְהִשָּׁמַע, וְאַל תֹּאמַר לִכְשֶׁאִפָּנֶה אֶשְׁנֶה, שֶׁמָּא לֹא תִפָּנֶה:
Hillel said: Do not separate yourself from the community, Do not trust in your-Self until the day of your death. Do not judge your fellow until you have arrived at his place. Do not say something that cannot be heard, [trusting that] in the end it will be heard. Do not say: When I am free I will learn. Perhaps you will not be free.
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אֵין בּוּר יְרֵא חֵטְא, וְלֹא עַם הָאָרֶץ חָסִיד, וְלֹא הַבַּיְשָׁן לָמֵד, וְלֹא הַקַּפְּדָן מְלַמֵּד, וְלֹא כָל הַמַּרְבֶּה בִסְחוֹרָה מַחְכִּים. וּבְמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ:
אַף הוּא רָאָה גֻלְגֹּלֶת אַחַת שֶׁצָּפָה עַל פְּנֵי הַמַּיִם. אָמַר לָהּ, עַל דַּאֲטֵפְתְּ, אַטְפוּךְ. וְסוֹף מְטִיפַיִךְ יְטוּפוּן:
Moreover he saw a skull floating on the face of the water. He said to it: because you drowned others, they drowned you. And in the end, they that drowned you will be drowned.
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, מַרְבֶּה בָשָׂר, מַרְבֶּה רִמָּה. מַרְבֶּה נְכָסִים, מַרְבֶּה דְאָגָה. מַרְבֶּה נָשִׁים, מַרְבֶּה כְשָׁפִים. מַרְבֶּה שְׁפָחוֹת, מַרְבֶּה זִמָּה. מַרְבֶּה עֲבָדִים, מַרְבֶּה גָזֵל. מַרְבֶּה תוֹרָה, מַרְבֶּה חַיִּים. מַרְבֶּה יְשִׁיבָה, מַרְבֶּה חָכְמָה. מַרְבֶּה עֵצָה, מַרְבֶּה תְבוּנָה. מַרְבֶּה צְדָקָה, מַרְבֶּה שָׁלוֹם.
He used to say: More meat/pleasure/ripeness, more worms. More properties, more concern. More women/wives, more sorcery. More maid-servants, more lewdness. More man-servants, more robbery. More Torah, more life. More sitting, more wisdom. More advice, more understanding. More justice, more peace.
According to Hillel, this is Torah, y’all! Hillel names and uplifts these sayings, and claims it as part of the transmission of Torah that came from Sinai itself.
Hillel’s teachings are not about ensuring that a specific saying would be known to folks who were reading the mishnah hundreds of years after he spoke these words. I don’t think Hillel names these traditions because he wants us to follow them. I think he names them because he wants us to follow his lead. This is Torah!, Hillel is proclaiming. This is Torah—it is the wisdom of the collective that guides and shapes our lives.
We know about Hillel from other places in our tradition that he became, in the rabbinic imagination, a true model for looking out at the people, following what they were doing, and legislating their practices into the tradition. (As some of y’all might remember from Queer Talmud Camp 2019!) Hillel is known for inventing Prozbul, a legalistic loophole that enabled a cessation of loan forgiveness in the sabbatical year, overturning a Biblical law because he looked out in the world and saw that the people were not lending to each other as they should. A story in Masechet Rosh Hashanah teaches us that when Hillel forgot how to rule in a specific case, he stated “if they are not prophets, they are the sons of prophets,” suggesting that we follow the lead of what the people are doing. This phrase, presumably first uttered by Hillel, has become a powerful meme in our tradition, attesting to the power of ordinary people to behave prophetically.
As players-in-training, we have a bigger task than just learning the words and ideas of our tradition. We need to do more than look to the teachings of our ancestors for wisdom that we can apply in this moment. We must also root ourselves in the mechanisms, tools, and approaches that they drew upon in their creation of a new Jewish movement that enabled them to bring their deepest truths to the tradition. Our Sages, perhaps following Hillel’s lead, take every opportunity to expand what we mean when we say “Torah,” ensuring that our notion of canon never gets too fixed, defined, or limited. As they themselves define what counts as Torah, they do so in a way that models expansiveness and democratization: reinforcing the notion that what the people do—the experiences and wisdom of those who are the most disenfranchised and whose life and experience live outside of the bet midrash—is precisely what we must find, learn from, and uplift as Torah.
May we do the same: may we live into the legacy of our sages by expanding who and what counts as “Torah,” seeking and uplifting the proverbs of our people, and understanding the wisdom embedded in and beyond all corners of our community as essential parts of our canon.
When I became the rabbi of a small congregation in Jersey City’s Greenville neighborhood I thought this would be a transition job in a small city outside of NYC. Truthfully I was feeling disillusioned about being a rabbi at all—I had been forced out of my previous rabbinic position for speaking out against Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, and because, as a board member put it, “your students would probably prefer to learn with a straight male instructor anyway.” So I said to myself— Jersey City, and a tiny little synagogue that just wants one Shabbat a month and the occasional lunch & learn? I can do this and just get myself back together.
Boi, was I about to get WOKE. UP.
After the violence of December 10th, 2019 which resulted in the murders of Moshe Deutsch z”l, Miguel Douglas z”l, Mindy Ferencz z”l, and Detective Joseph Seals z”l, Greenville and Jersey City were thrust into the local, state, and national spotlight, and the usual response ensued—every block in Greenville, it seemed, was patrolled day-in and day-out by police. All the synagogues in the area were amping up their security measures, and the various Jewish Federations convened what felt like weekly instructional sessions on how to optimize security measures. I was approached by a number of my congregants, however, who were suspicious about Greenville’s portrayal in the media. As I started monitoring the responses of many of our neighbors, mostly POC, I became suspicious too. Greenville is a neighborhood that has been neglected for years by the municipality. Greenville is also a neighborhood rampant with gun violence, and I learned quickly from lead activists in Jersey City that while the JCPD was a regular presence post-incident, there has been little-to-no follow up with regard to violence prevention or culturally-specific youth and family trauma counseling even after a $100,000 Community Violence Needs Assessment, paid for by Jersey City residents’ taxes, had been conducted between August-October 2019.
I have been fortunate these last few months to be learning from some of the most incredible rabbis- teachers, I have ever known—and they are all activists, POC, who have been fighting the good fight to help Greenville thrive. There’s Pamela Johnson of the Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition; Sandra Lovely of the I Love Greenville Neighborhood Association; Educational Gilmore, Lilia Diaz, Nevin Perkins of Blackmen United, Denis Febo of AmendTheThirteenth, and A’Dreana Williams, just 18-years old, of The Black Diaspora Club. To do them and their work justice would take hundreds of pages, but the essential lesson they have taught me is this: in order to fight for our communities, we must truly be a part of the community.
That’s why it is more important than ever for my synagogue, Bnai Jacob, in Greenville, to actively protest police brutality and demand judicial accountability when excessive police force is used, and to deeply question if a police presence at our synagogue for security is actually exacerbating a problem plaguing our community. We have to ask this question because, as the Talmud teaches in Pirkei Avot 2:5 “Do not separate yourself from the community.” We are a Greenville synagogue, Greenville is our community, and police brutality is a problem here.
As protests and riots arose across this country, Mayor Steven Fulop decried calls to defund the police, saying that “it would never work in Jersey City”. The JC municipal budget 2020 shows 44% dedicated to public safety (33% of that allotted to police salaries) and less than 1% donated to Health & Human Services, which includes the divisions of Veteran Affairs, Immigrant Affairs, Women Infants and Children (WIC), Senior Affairs, and Disease Prevention (yes, like COVID-19 testing and tracking). Seeing these kinds of numbers has made me question—what kind of city is this whose government places so little value on human life? And let me be clear—it’s not the citizens. Jersey City residents are fiercely loyal and civically active, and while there are those on the city council and in other departments who are also fighting the good fight, there is clearly something amiss at the highest levels of governance.
My brilliant and courageous teacher, Rabbi Benay Lappe (and yours, too ☺)— wrote last week about the necessity for the needs of a justice system to be understood in and on their own terms, untranslated. Following in her fabulous footsteps, let’s continue from Sanhedrin 17a into Sanhedrin 17b, in which we learn the following:
ותניא כל עיר שאין בה עשרה דברים הללו אין תלמיד חכם רשאי לדור בתוכה בית דין מכין ועונשין וקופה של צדקה נגבית בשנים ומתחלקת בשלשה ובית הכנסת ובית המרחץ וביהכ”ס רופא ואומן ולבלר (וטבח) ומלמד תינוקות משום ר’ עקיבא אמרו אף מיני פירא מפני שמיני פירא מאירין את העינים
We learn in a braita—any city which does not have these 10 things, a Torah scholar is not permitted to live within it: a Beit Din that can flog and administer punishments, a charity fund that is collected by two but distributed by three, a synagogue, a bathhouse, a bathroom, a doctor, a bloodletter, a scribe, a ritual slaughterer, and a teacher for young children. They said in the name of Rabbi Akiva- also different types of fruits because different types of fruits brighten the eyes.
Here we see our radical resistance ancestors (who were most likely living in an extensively policed state under Roman occupation) describing a proper city as one that meets the many needs of its community members—charity that is distributed fairly based off of a persons’ needs and number of dependents (see Rashi on Bava Batra 8b:5), a place for worship, multiple safe locales and professionals dedicated to public health, a scribe for the writing of sacred books and legal documents (see Jastrow entry on לבלר) education, and even requires that the city be able to provide diverse foods for nutrition (no food deserts for these fairy-ancestors).
Now check this—here are two other renditions of this tradition in later sources:
משנה תורה, הלכות דעות ד׳:כ״ג
כָּל עִיר שֶׁאֵין בָּהּ עֲשָׂרָה דְּבָרִים הָאֵלּוּ אֵין תַּלְמִיד חָכָם רַשַּׁאי לָדוּר בְּתוֹכָהּ. וְאֵלּוּ הֵן: רוֹפֵא. וְאֻמָּן. וּבֵית הַמֶּרְחָץ. וּבֵית הַכִּסֵּא. וּמַיִם מְצוּיִין כְּגוֹן נָהָר וּמַעְיָן. וּבֵית הַכְּנֶסֶת. וּמְלַמֵּד תִּינוֹקוֹת. וְלַבְלָר. וְגַבַּאי צְדָקָה. וּבֵית דִּין מַכִּים וְחוֹבְשִׁים
Rambam (Maimonides) Mishneh Torah Hilkhot De’ot (12th century)
Any city which does not have in it these ten things a Torah scholar is not permitted to live within it: a doctor, a bloodletter, a bathhouse, a bathroom, excellent running water sources such as a river or spring, a synagogue, a teacher of children, a scribe, charity collectors, and a Beit Din to flog and to imprison.
אוצר מדרשים, חופת אליהו, חופת אליהו רבה רל״ב
כל עיר שאין בה תשעה דברים הללו אין תלמיד חכם רשאי לדור בתוכה, ואלו הן: בית הכנסת, ובית ישיבה, ובית המדרש לתינוקות, ובית דין, ובית מרחץ, וקופה של רוכלים, וקופה של צדקה, ומקוה, ופירות. ר״ע אומר לפי שמיני פירות מאירין עיניו של אדם
Otzar Midrashim Chuppat Eliyahu Rabbah (1915, an anthology of “minor midrashim” collected by scholar Julius Eisenstein)
Any city which does not have in it these nine things a Torah scholar is not permitted to live within it, and these are they: a synagogue, a yeshiva, a beit midrash for young children, a beit din, a bathhouse, a collection for merchants, a collection for charity, a mikveh, and fruit. Rabbi Akiva said this is because different kinds of fruit brighten a person’s eyes.
For Rambam, the emphasis on an excellent source of running water shows his concern and expertise, as a physician, about public health. Otzar Midrashim’s emphasis on the various levels of education (yeshiva vs. beit midrash, and the specification of mikveh!) and different kinds of collections (one for merchants and one for tzedakah) perhaps demonstrates the midrash’s concerns about different levels of access in any given city. The consistent point across the spectrum of these tradents is that the Beit Din is only one tenth (or one ninth) of the full picture of the proper city for a Torah scholar to live in. And even with that, the role of the Beit Din is inconsistent in these sources as to whether their role is ritual or civil (let alone to what degree a beit din ever had independent power from the secular authorities to imprison someone in the Diaspora).
I think the most important lesson in this, however, is that the Torah scholar’s obligation actually goes far beyond living in a city that prioritizes all of these things, but that the Torah scholar has a responsibility to be a part of building such a city. I was devastated when I left my position in NYC and wondered if I would ever feel the same spark I once felt about being an artistic activist rabbi shaking up the system from within, especially when I lost the fight so badly. But learning and teaching with SVARA has taught me to understand my queer rabbinic self as a descendent of radical fairy rabbis who also lost the fight from time to time, but they didn’t desist from the task (Pirkei Avot 2:16). So I say to you, my family, my Am (people)—we still have a lot of righteous work to do that we are not free to desist from. Let’s work towards defunding the police and building the cities that we, as Torah and Talmud scholars, and all people of the earth, should have access to living in.