The Radical Act of Becoming a Talmud Person

by Benay Lappe, President and Rosh Yeshiva

A black-and-white photo of a table in the bet midrash, with lots of SVARA-niks learning. In the front, Benay and Ari Lev Fornari are learning together and smiling.

I want to tell you why I’m in the Talmud business. 

And I want to tell you today because, perhaps like some of you, and in spite of the likely outcome of the election, I’m still feeling decidedly less joyful than I had hoped to feel. 

Even though many of us may be happy about the ultimate result of this election, my heart is still a bit heavy. Yes, I am gratified that a majority of Americans have chosen to repudiate a candidate who represents, encourages, and further entrenches White supremacy, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, anti-semitism, and general hatred, bigotry, anti-science, anti-democracy, and anti-truth values. That is definitely a victory to celebrate.

But I am also profoundly disappointed—though not surprised–that 48% or so of our fellow Americans–some our very own neighbors and family members—would knowingly vote to support these very things, or vote to support their own financial or other interests in spite of those things.

And at the center of this disappointment, frankly, is incredulity. I have always struggled to understand how it is that people—masses of people—can believe things told to them that are so obviously untrue (and then act in harmful ways as a result). That is the problem that has always vexed me, and the one I am out to solve. I understand why corrupt leaders lie—that’s easy—but that people believe those lies—often against their own self-interests—that is what has always struck me as not only profoundly mystifying, but actually terrifying. 

As Jews, we know, with our lived life experience, with our bodies and our lives, what happens when people simple-mindedly believe obvious lies. And as Queer and Trans people, as People of Color, as Indigenous people, as people with disabilities—just to name some of us on the margins—we, too, have been on the receiving end of the violence of such baseless and hateful lies—both literal, physical violence as well as the systemic violence of the policies and laws created, or allowed to be created, by the people who believe them. We have spent so much of our lives, so much of our precious time and energy, fighting back against those who, without seeming to be able to think or feel their way through them, believe lies, about us, about others, and about the world. 

So what does all of this have to do with Talmud?

I believe with all my heart that the way we learn Talmud—with the traditionally radical lens through which I believe it was always meant to be learned, in the radically loving Queer-normative spaces in which we learn it, and in the Queer pedagogy through which we teach and learn it—is one of the most powerful ways our tradition offers to create a different kind of person—in short, an empathic, loving, courageous, and critical thinking person. 

And I emphasize all of these qualifiers about the way we learn Talmud because we have to acknowledge that even the spiritual practice of Talmud study can be—and has been in the vast majority of the spaces in which it is learned today—subverted so fully that it not only ceases to create the kind of person I believe it was designed to create, but can and has been used to create the exact opposite kind of person. As Laynie reminded us the other day, the vast majority of Talmud learners in this country voted for Trump. A sobering fact. And a reminder that even the most powerful and radical spiritual technologies can be both misunderstood and misused.

So, what kind of person do I believe the Talmud was designed to create? I believe the entire Jewish enterprise, with Talmud as its core spiritual practice, was designed to create—you’ve heard me say this before—a person who is profoundly empathic, deeply connected to others, and radically loving; challenging rather than compliant, more disposed to resistance than obedience, active rather than passive; bold, courageous, and risk-taking when necessary; who can not only tolerate but appreciate and navigate uncertainty, paradox, and contradiction—because life is that way; who can appreciate and deal with complexity—because life is complex—rather than retreat into the need for and illusion of simplicity; who is resilient and can hold their truths lightly; and who walks through the world bringing the insights from their lived life experience to bear as a critique on a world which needs to be repaired precisely in those ways.

Simply put, I think learning Talmud should and must create people who are less likely to walk through the world believing stupid shit. It was designed to and must be utilized again to create people courageous enough to bring their svara, their moral intuition—refined and shaped by their learning—to bear on the world around them in such a way as to create a liberatory world in which all people can thrive in freedom and dignity, without barriers to being able to live out their fully human selves. And I believe that becoming that kind of person is a radical act of resistance. 

I’ve devoted my life to, and created a yeshiva dedicated to, opening up the liberatory spiritual practice of Talmud study—not just from the 1% of Jews who have claimed ownership of it, to the 99%—but ultimately far beyond our own community to anyone who might engage in this practice to become just that kind of person this radical, transformational, and liberatory spiritual technology was designed to create. 

This practice belongs to the world. It is yours. And our community of learning and practice is growing. Over 7,000 of you, so far this year alone, have learned at SVARA and are part of the worldwide SVARA community. SVARA is where we go to learn Talmud together in order to become that kind of person. And to reimagine and create that kind of world. It is where we go, and what we do, to ground ourselves and re-center ourselves, so that we can continue to work on, and engage in the struggle of creating that world. And it is where we go to remember and experience olam haba—the liberatory world that is coming. 

Thank you, all 7,000 of you—and those who have yet to join the Queer Talmud Revolution but will, and please consider this your invitation!—for creating this community that, even and especially in this difficult week, gives me so much hope.

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