(I’m dedicating my HOTS teaching to my beloved Julie Batz, on the occasion of the 14th anniversary of our kiddushin, and to our mesader kiddushin, R. Margaret Holub for being such an incredible teacher, guide, and friend.)
On the homepage of the SVARA website, it proclaims that we serve up Talmud “the old fashioned way—hardcore, queer, and radically inclusive.”
I love that phrase. I am drawn to the aspirational, inviting, and poetic promise that radical inclusivity suggests. It calls to mind the yeshiva of R. Elazar b. Azaria, which—the Talmud teaches in Masechet Brachot—under his leadership, went from being the exclusive domain of a select and elite few scholars to being open and accessible to whoever* wanted to come learn. Celebrated by bench makers everywhere, R. Elazar b. Azaria had to add 700 new seats to accommodate all the new learners who showed up, and the yeshiva thrived.
I also love the irony of the phrase itself. Radical is one of those delicious English words that shares an annoying and delightful quality with many Hebrew words, of the meaning itself and its opposite. Let’s take a little etymological side trip here: The original meaning of “radical” derives from the Late Latin word radicalis, meaning root. The three letters that form the basis of most Hebrew words are its radical in linguistic parlance. Radical is found in many arithmetic terms. If my numerophobic memory serves, square roots are also called radicals. Between the 14th and 18th centuries, radical was commonly used in sociological and political conversations to mean identifying core ideas, traits, or principles of individuals and movements. For example, someone who was predictably and repeatedly prone to inflict injury on others, was assumed to bear a radical vice, that is to say, they were rotten at their root. And so, it follows that if that person experienced a sudden awakening—recognized and regretted the damages for which they were responsible—and made tshuvah/reparations for past injuries they caused, it was said that they had made a radical change, i.e., a root change. People who left one political, religious, or cultural base for another exhibited radical change—a noun plus a verb. Since these changes were often dramatic, or even extreme, a slight grammatic move turns the noun: radical, meaning root, into a shiny new adjective: radical, meaning extreme, edgy, drastic, revolutionary, even dangerous. So now, with that “inside” understanding, let’s unpack what might be happening when we say “radically inclusive”.
As far as I can tell, the term became popular as first coined by one of the Burning Man founders, Larry Harvey, who in 2004 laid out the Ten Guiding principles of the festival. Principle number one is “Radical Inclusion” which states: “Anyone can be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.” That sounds very expansive. But note the words WE and OUR lurking in there. Obviously, there is an implied inside and outside, which establishes a tension between the idea of radical as root (We are the root of Our festival) and radical as fringy, extreme, distant (stranger). Note also that Burning Man has transformed from a core group of 30ish friends observing the 1986 summer solstice by burning an wooden effigy on Baker Beach in San Francisco. In 2019 more than 78,000 folks paid between ~$200-1500 to attend the event in a remote and barren area of Nevada. They provided—at least for themselves—enough food, water, shelter and protection to survive for up to nine days. Not sure if that is a cautionary tale or an aspiration, but a shift like that certainly begs a lot of questions.
Originally, when I encountered the idea of being “radically inclusive” at SVARA it seemed like a big old “Hey, you wanna study Talmud from the ground up? Welcome!!” to every and anybody (with their alef-bet, that is). Over time, I’ve come to believe that what is being messaged is that SVARA is especially inclusive for certain folks who, more often than not, have previously faced exclusion in Jewish learning spaces. Being one of those people, it’s easy for me to feel fully included, celebrated, and encouraged in SVARA spaces. That said, at the last in-person Queer Talmud Camp someone new to the community sheepishly confided to me that they hadn’t realized I was trans but was glad to find out because they had been wondering why was there a straight guy on staff! Like that camper, I look for kindred spirits when I find myself in a queer space. Humans are, by nature, pattern seekers, and with or without my approval, my inner sentinels are always trying to make sense of my environment, and they experience cognitive dissonance trying to sort out the queer from the inclusivity. Until I have a personal connection with someone, I am a whirlwind of questions. “Hmm, I wonder what kind of queer is that one? Are they really queer? Is everyone here queer by virtue of wanting to spend our time trying to figure out if it’s ok to feed dog liver to someone who has been bitten by a canine on Shabbes?” (Well, the answer to that one is a huge YES!! So maybe all the other questions are moot…) It can be unsettling and delightful, confusing and informative.
As R. Benay Lappe teaches in the CRASH Talk, humanity seeks answers to “life’s big questions” ranging from the existential (Why am I here? How did I get here? Who am I?) to the theological (Is there a God? What should I believe? Is there a heaven/hell?) to the practical (What should I do with my life? Do I have a purpose? What happens when I die?). The resultant fixed set of responses to those itchy, keep-you-awake-at-night questions form systems and structures that quell our anxiety and give our lives a comforting path paved with reassuring answers. Those systems and structures are firmly bounded, which means that they are both inclusive and exclusive. If you live within the defined way of being, accept the answers, and give up asking more pesky questions, you are included in that realm. But if you live beyond those fenceposts, you are out. It is simple, and a little cruel, but it is clear. On the derekh/path, or off, that’s the deal.
If you are on the derekh, you know what to eat, how to dress, and who to love, etc. One perk of belonging to a highly defined culture is that it becomes easy to recognize who is in and who is out—and that is a big deal because we tend to trust and privilege those folks who are in our bubble. Being a part of a well demarcated space potentially takes a huge amount of stress and worry out of our lives. And living there is great—until the system fails for some reason. And then we must reckon again with those agonizing queries. When the system no longer serves us, when the answers turn out to be wrong for us, when the bottom drops out of our reality, we crash, and are thrust into the intersection of birth and death, change and stagnation, being in and being out, without answers or clarity about what to believe or how to behave. And that is the exact moment when everything that was previously impossible becomes gainable. Maybe we plow through the intersection and stay on the road, because change is too much to bear; maybe we make a hard right or left, excited about opening up to fresh experiences; or maybe we pull the car over, get out, and start walking into the woods, away from the road altogether.
At 62, after a lifetime of chasing answers, I sense that I’m starting to abandon most of them as well as most of the questions, too. As my life has unfolded, I’ve become increasingly more spiritually non-binary. Those big questions and their crisp answers which seek to obscure with tight division and compartmentalization have become less and less compelling. My mom, of blessed memory, died 21 years ago. But it has become apparent that our relationship was a tightly tangled mat and I feel the tendrils of our intertwined stories as vibrantly now as I did when she was not dead. For sure, I grieve that she never met my beloved Julie Batz, wasn’t at our kids’ b’mitzvah rituals, graduations, or our wedding. And I have missed getting her weigh-in on my many dilemmas of the past two decades. But there’s no question her lingering energy and insight, her perspectives and her answers to life’s big questions float up from someplace deep inside of me, and through that she is present, included, and still a vital part of our family. (Honestly, the best parts of her are readily at hand, while her uniquely annoying qualities have mostly vanished, which, as much as I miss her, is a bit of an upgrade.) So, I wonder, is she dead or alive? How is it possible to occupy both spaces? How is it comprehensible that a relationship can continue to refine, grow, and settle even after the hard line of death has been drawn? What could possibly explain that level of connection? There was a time when I would seek answers to those questions—I would have gone to therapy, talked to my rabbi, davened, meditated on them. Now I just notice. It is a mystery that I have come to accept. It just is, and I love that. She is the dead among the living. I think that might be radical inclusivity.
In contrast to that miraculous porosity, I recall my pre-transition experience in blatantly, proudly, and enthusiastically Women Only spaces. In the 1970s and ‘80s those boundaries were accepted by many as absolute, firm, and powerful. There was an inside and an outside. And for a time, I was on the inside—along with a bevy of other folks who would also one day no longer qualify for inclusion in those spaces. At the time however, it was a haven, even for many carefully closeted trans folks like me. The sense of belonging was a relief, even if imperfect, and it was mostly a place of respite. At least for a while. Conversations and controversies arose at those gatherings—whether intimate dyke dinners or sprawling Womyn’s music festivals or conferences—that could not happen elsewhere. When surrounded by folks with whom I shared at least some common struggles I found it possible to both voice and receive ideas about who I was at my core. Ironically, it was by virtue of the unabashed exclusivity of those Women Only spaces that I was able to concretely grasp that I wasn’t only a woman. It was the focused nature of intentional exclusion that created an unsustainably rarified stratum where a certain kind of truth could emerge. And here’s the kicker: it felt inclusive. Radically inclusive! It was a space that allowed its inhabitants to show up with parts of themselves that couldn’t be safely expressed in the general public, as long as those expressions were within the bounds of the culture, which was paradoxically freeing. I was able to explore what part of me was at home in that space and what in me withered; where I found my beauty and where I was withheld. Those were big questions that I wrestled with in that space. It was bounded by crisp and unapologetically radical lines that defined and protected a vulnerable root, in a world that persistently endeavors to plow those exact roots under. Radical roots, and radical extremes. It was revolutionary, drastic, even a little dangerous. And while I do not wish to return to those times or experiences now, I am eternally grateful for the miles I traveled in WomynSpace. It contributed mightily to my own understanding of radical inclusivity….
Now, I’m thinking about the big questions and corresponding answers that are surfacing as our community grows and our culture adapts. What does it mean to be radically inclusive and a Queer Yeshiva? How do we navigate the complex challenges and new opportunities that arise as we grow? What can keep this space increasingly accessible for folks who are marginalized in other learning environments? When are our boundaries permeable or protective? These are some of my SVARA life’s big questions that I feel rising up. (And also floating away.) I’m grateful to be holding these questions with other SVARA teachers, with SVARA’s leadership team, and all of you. At the end of the day, I come back to what a total blessing it is to have found this space at all. So, I pray that we continue to struggle with being radical and inclusive, and evolve as we must, with grace and kindness; with laughter and generosity; with dedication and mindfulness; with clarity and curiosity, and most of all, with love, sweet love.
*Well, probably not everyone—I’m pretty sure the offer only extended to every male identified person. Ergo, radically inclusive for some, but also radically exclusive for others, and notably more inclusive that its predecessor but considerably less so than SVARA…