Sharpening Our Wildest Dreams

by Elaina Marshalek, SVARA Fellow

A group of SVARA-niks learn with chevruta across a table in an indoor bet midrash. On the left, the SVARA-nik closest to the camera is smiling contentedly.

The tension between rigor and affirmation is at the heart of our learning. In the bet midrash, we’re always navigating a holy, complex, fine line between these two ways of being, which seem opposed at times. We sharpen each others’ translations with so much clapping up and love at each step. At the same time, we rigorously hold ourselves and each other to meticulous inside definitions that account for each and every letter. 

Navigating this dynamic as a facilitator has been challenging for me. I love that in our bet midrash we bring out of the text some of the most creative, outrageous, wide-ranging interpretations. It feels empowering to be in a learning space where the text is so consistently transformed by the glittery creativity of our chevrutas in the room and the multiple meanings we surface together. This is core to the work we’re doing in the bet midrash: as a queer yeshiva, it often feels to me as though we’re dusting off and uncovering understandings of the text that have been waiting thousands of years for us to do so. This group of people, this creative, wild, fringy group of folks is unearthing the Torah that is so deeply needed, and needs to be revealed. It is our creativity and our ability to read texts against the grain—to transform them through our sacred creativity as the Rabbis taught us to do—that will help us imagine a more healed and just world. Unleashing this creativity and allowing it to thrive in an affirming learning space is essential. We need to do this!

And yet, there are moments when our interpretations can get muddled and confusing. Without landing on a precise, singular definition of the text, we sometimes get it wrong. Sometimes we mispronounce words, we misremember words, we pick some definitions that don’t quite fit together when we’re building a sentence and moving from inside to outside. This happens to all of us, whether we’ve just learned our alef bet or have been learning for years. As we are all constantly developing the tools we need to be players, we make mistakes. 

As a facilitator, I’m not always sure what the right move is when this happens. In so many of the places I’ve learned, and so many places in the world beyond the realm of learning, there is a narrow definition of what’s “right” or “correct” that defines what’s possible. Pushing back against this narrow notion of right-ness and leading into a space of unlimited possibility feels so precious and important. What if, in our narrow-mindedness and quest for precision, we end up “correcting” away the Torah that we need? How do we know when we are making deliberate changes to the tradition that will transform what it is and nurturing what it can be? What if we are just making a mistake?

This last zman, I found powerful mirroring in the Rabbis, as they lifted up this tension through a debate between Rabban Gamliel and his comrades. During the time of the Mishnah, the Rabbis had a complex system for setting the calendar. In order to mark the start of a new month, a pair of community members would travel to the Sanhedrin (the legislative body of Rabbis who set the calendar) after they had seen a new moon to act as “witnesses.” These witnesses would travel sometimes from faraway towns to share their accounting, and the Sanhedrin would ask a series of questions to confirm that what they had seen was, in fact, the new moon. If the Sanhedrin accepted their testimony, they would declare a new month. 

In Masechet Rosh Hashanah, the Mishnah gives us an account of this system going terribly wrong. Two witnesses come forth and travel to Rabban Gamliel, the head of the Sanhedrin, to give their testimony about the new moon. They claim to have seen the moon, and then the next night it disappeared. Their testimony is clearly erroneous, and the mishnah tells of two responses:

       אמר רבי יוחנן בן נורי, עדי שקר הם. כשבאו ליבנה קבלן רבן גמליאל

Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri said, they are false witnesses! When they came to Yavneh, Rabban Gamliel accepted them.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri recognizes that these witnesses are false—whether with malice or just by accident. Their interpretation of the moon cannot be correct. Rabban Gamliel accepts their testimony anyway, and the new month officially begins despite the inaccurate witnessing of the moon. This is no mistake. The evidence is in the sky (as the moon doesn’t lie!) and in the words of Rabban Gamliel’s peers. 

When we learned this text in the bet midrash this spring, we debated why Rabban Gamliel would accept their testimony despite knowing full well that it was wrong. Some argued that Rabban Gamliel’s decision to accept this incorrect testimony is a move to affirm and support his community members. Perhaps Rabban Gamliel wants to clap up the effort and hard work of these witnesses, to show that he believes them, his students, and the people to whom he is accountable as a leader. 

There’s something that I find beautiful about this notion of accepting and believing witnesses, even if they saw something that was altogether improbable. Centering the vision and experience of people in the community is a special way to determine the calendar and call time. And yet, for those who are tracking the moon, how unsettling would it be to know that the days you are marking as holidays do not line up with the moon! 

In this story, Rabban Gamliel embodies this tension between love and rigor, between correction or precision and creating the impossible. I feel this tension when I teach, and I feel this tension when I organize. In movement building, we imagine worlds that don’t yet exist (a lot of creativity needed there!) and empowering new leaders and new players is core to what brings about change. As we level up each others’ skills, this tension comes up everywhere—between experienced folks and new folks, between more involved folks and less involved folks, between elders and youth, the list goes on. On top of it, these dynamics come with a mess of power and rank wrapped up in it. It begs the question: What does it mean to step into leadership? Does it mean having all the “tools”? When do we follow the lead of others, and when do we intervene?

When we debated this question in class—whether Rabban Gamliel did the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thing by accepting the witnesses’ testimony—one SVARA-nik drew from their experience in our shiur. They had brought some definitions of words that didn’t quite fit together, and Laynie corrected them, guiding them toward a cohesive, precise reading of the text. In this case, the learner shared that the correction didn’t deter participation, but instead was empowering. In this case, precision didn’t eliminate dynamic possibility, but created a pathway for the multiplicity of meanings to be rooted in and informed by precision and rigor. Sometimes the best way of bringing people in is by bringing people with us, making our learning visible, and sharing the tools and histories we have with each other.

As we support each other to be players, may we strive to both sharpen each others’ learning and build up the most outrageous and improbable ideas, and may this balance between rigor and affirmation be rooted in love.

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