The Rabbis Have Our Backs

by Mónica Gomery, Faculty

A Talmud sits on a shtender, with colored stickies marking various places in the text.

This week, as we all navigate a constantly shifting landscape of change, uncertainty, and global pandemic, SVARA began convening a daily Mishna Collective. It has been incredibly grounding to plug in daily to the diasporic SVARA learning community during such an overwhelming time. The opportunity to move slowly and methodically through a rabbinic text, aka Talmud Torah as a spiritual practice, has been an anchor in this storm.  

We opened with the beginning of the sixth chapter of Pirkei Avot, which explores the merits of studying Torah. We learned beautiful and hyperbolic things, for example that, according to Rabbi Meir, “every person who is involved in the practice of learning Torah… is deserving of the entire world,” and that Torah study makes one into “an ever-flowing spring, like a stream that never ceases.” From where we sit today, the claims the rabbis make in this text about the merits and benefits of Torah study might feel obvious to us. I mean… duh! Torah study is one of the most essential and valued elements of Judaism. What’s so compelling about finding out from Pirkei Avot that studying Torah distances us from wrongdoing, increases our strength and wisdom, or even gladdens the Holy One? I would have assumed as much from our ancient texts. 

“They were replacing the logics of sacrifice with the logics of study, and embedding the DNA of Judaism with a new set of practices and priorities, to help us survive as our best, most spiritually and morally resourced selves in the generations to come.”

However, considering the Mishna’s historical context reveals just how bold its claims actually are.

Written and compiled between the 1st and 3rd centuries, the Mishna is a response to the destruction of the 2nd Temple and the crash of Biblical Judaism. It is a totally paradigm-altering proposal for how to live a Jewish life in the absence of the ritual practices of a Temple-based society. When the rabbis say in our Mishna that Torah study makes a person “modest, long-suffering, forgiving of insult, and magnified and exalted over everything,”  they’re not waxing poetic with Jewish clichés. They’re actually formulating those clichés for the first time, inventing a spiritual practice and boldly creating norms and values around what that practice can
do in the world. If we hear their claims as predictable truisms, it’s only because they so thoroughly succeeded at building a new world in which we now live, the world of rabbinic Judaism. To quote scholar Moshe Halbertal, “In the Bible itself the study of Torah serves a primarily didactic role: to guarantee the continuity of memory and tradition. Scholars are not presented as ideal biblical figures, and the study of Torah is not central to religious life as a spiritual mode of achieving intimacy with God. In the rabbinic period, in contrast, the Torah becomes an object of ongoing reflection, and the ideal of learning comes to be considered a major religious obligation, equal if not superior to other religious obligations such as the practice of mitzvot and prayer.” (People of the Book, 94)

This is a crash moment. In which the already existing cracks and crumbles from our broken society seem to be collapsing entirely, their already existing inadequacy revealed now in stark relief. In a remarkable essay written by Arielle Angel, the editor of Jewish Currents, she offers that “we can take some harrowing comfort in the knowledge that things will not return to the way they were before.” We don’t know yet what our world will look like on the other side of this crisis, or when that will be. In this moment, I’m taking comfort from studying an ancient text that was born out of crumble and crash, born out of tremendous paradigm-altering societal change. I’m drawing inspiration from seeing the moves the rabbis made to imagine a world hinged on a new and evolving set of spiritual practices and accompanying core values. Angel writes, “To pry this opening wide, we will need to begin to replace the logics of capitalism with the logics of care, to make that the basis of our action in the months—and years—ahead.” I think our rabbis were doing just such an act in our Mishna. They were replacing the logics of sacrifice with the logics of study, and embedding the DNA of Judaism with a new set of practices and priorities, to help us survive as our best, most spiritually and morally resourced selves in the generations to come. 

I pray that our learning at this time will help our dazzling crash-flex queer community to collectively feel a bit bolder and more inspired to dream and articulate our own visions for a paradigm shift, knowing the rabbis have our backs and were making similar moves in their own time. 

In this new age of staying home in order to keep one another safe, we may find ourselves surprised by our texts, they may speak to us in new ways. One such insight came from the live Zoom chat during our Mishna Collective on Wednesday afternoon. Our Mishna teaches: “[The Torah] clothes him [the learner] in humility and awe, and equips him to be righteous, pious, upright and faithful.” A SVARA-nik shared: “As someone still in my pajamas, I was struck by the material image of Torah learning being a different kind of clothing that prepares us for internal strength.”

May our learning cloak us, garb us, and costume us fabulously. May it  transform us and support us to face this challenging moment as our best selves, as our most equipped selves, as a community that can, together, navigate great change and evolve toward something new.

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