A learner reads from a masechet resting on a shtender. There are orange sticky-arrows scattered across the page, indicating where a certain line of Talmud starts and ends.

One weekend ten years ago I found myself in Mónica’s living room surrounded by butcher paper with sprawling scribbles outlining a plan for how to teach in SVARA’s method. Earlier that year, Mónica–who was (and is!) my chevruta at the time–had, along with a few other people, approached Benay at Queer Talmud Camp and asked, “Can you teach us how to do this?!” Thankfully, Benay said yes.

Soon after that, we made it to Mónica’s living room, and we imagined what it would take to learn how to teach in the derech (way) that Benay created and modeled at SVARA. We learned a sugya that weekend that tests the limits of kavod–probing when a parent or a teacher has the ability to give up relational respect that is mandated by mitzvot. (Think: if Rabbi Akiva said to you, “Call me Akiva!” could you do it?!) After asserting that a teacher can indeed forgo the respect mandated to them, Rava protests:

!?הָכָא תּוֹרָה דִּילֵיהּ הִיא

הֲדַר אָמַר רָבָא: אִין, תּוֹרָה דִּילֵיהּ הִיא, דִּכְתִיב: ״וּבְתוֹרָתוֹ יֶהְגֶּה יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה״.

Is the Torah [which is the real source of the teacher’s honor] really his Torah? [If the rav is afforded honor because of the Torah he has learned, can he really give it up? Or, does Torah not truly belong to him?]

Rava returned and said: Yes, it is his Torah, as it is written: “For his delight is G!d’s Torah, and in his Torah he meditates day and night” (Psalms 1:2). 

According to Rava, the Torah may start out as G!d’s alone, separate from us and not truly ours. But as we learn it, it becomes ours. 

Those winding notes became the foundation for what is now SVARA’s Teaching Kollel. And at the siyum of our first cohort of the Kollel, we learned that same sugya from Kiddushin.

Just this week, almost a decade after we learned that text together in Mónica’s living room, we celebrated the siyum for the Kollel’s fifth cohort of teachers. As we sat together physically in the bet midrash during our retreat, in our first in-person siyum since 2018, I was brought back to that sugya’s refrain: אִין, תּוֹרָה דִּילֵיהּ הִיא—Yes, Torah is ours. It is yours, it is mine–it belongs to all and each of us. We own it, we hold it in our bodies, our mouths, and our hearts. 

But the ownership that Torah imagines for itself is not one of domination or exclusivity. As Emet Monts, who graduated the Kollel this week, recently wrote of this sugya, this text: “offers us a possibility for texts to come alive so much so that they stop being the Divine’s and become our own through our engagement with them. And just as Gd spoke worlds into being, so too can our ownership of these words and texts speak new worlds into being. We can break down hierarchies, we can shift our culture to honor those who have been discarded… In this view, ownership of the text isn’t violent, it’s stepping into our divine right as co-creators of our traditions and our futures.” 

Perhaps this is why our sages also teach

נִתְּנָה תוֹרָה דֵּימוֹס פַּרְהֶסְיָא בִּמְקוֹם הֶפְקֵר, שֶׁאִלּוּ נִתְּנָה תוֹרָה בְּאֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל, הָיוּ אוֹמְרִים לָהֶן לְאֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם: אֵין לָכֶם חֵלֶק בָּהּ! לְפִיכָךְ נִתְּנָה בַמִּדְבָּר, דֵּימוֹס פַּרְהֶסְיָא בִּמְקוֹם הֶפְקֵר, וְכָל הָרוֹצֶה לְקַבֵּל, יָבֹא וִיקַבֵּל

The Torah was given openly, in a public place. For if it were given in Eretz Yisrael, they could say to the nations of the world: You have no portion in it. But it was given openly, in a public place, and all who want to take it may come and take it. (Mekhilta De’Rabbi Yishmael, BaChodesh 1)

The Torah is הֶפְקֵר / hefker, free and ownerless, given in the wilderness, amidst a diasporic consciousness, so that anyone can pick it up and claim it. It is right there–in an open, vast, borderless expanse, eagerly awaiting us. This is the foundational principle of the Kollel: to support teachers who will know that the Torah truly belongs to us and that our ownership of it demands that we make it hefker for others to hold.

There’s a striking moment in that Kiddushin sugya where Rava changes his mind. After declaring that Torah does not belong to the rav, the Gemara tells us: הֲדַר אָמַר רָבָא, “Rava returned and said: Yes, it is his Torah.” Each time I come to this text in the bet midrash, someone inevitably asks, “What happened to Rava in between?” I like to imagine Rava as a fellow in the Kollel, starting out unsure about whether he could truly claim Torah as his. And then he spent time, as we do, with chevrutot and teachers and comrades who assured him and helped him feel in his body that in, אִין, תּוֹרָה דִּילֵיהּ הִיא / een, Torah dilei hi, that Torah was truly his. 

At least, that’s what happened to me when I first learned this sugya with Benay. And it’s what I’ve seen from the graduating fellows this year, and so many fellows before them. And it’s what I hope happens for all of us, truly, when we allow our learning to move through us. As we move into this season of revelation, I bless us that we carry the knowledge that the Torah is ours with us wherever we go, and that we find the chevrutot and teachers we need to remind us when we can’t yet feel it.

Mazal tov to Cohort 5!

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