Turn In It

by Jhos Singer, SVARA Fellow

Two SVARA-niks high-five over a table in the bet midrash.

בֶּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ. וּבָהּ תֶּחֱזֵי, וְסִיב וּבְלֵה בָהּ, וּמִנַּהּ לֹא תָזוּעַ, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ מִדָּה טוֹבָה הֵימֶנָּה 

בֶּן הֵא הֵא אוֹמֵר, לְפוּם צַעֲרָא אַגְרָא

This is one of my favorite Mishnaic sound bites. Ben Bag Bag, a slightly mysterious Talmudic character, says regarding Torah, “Turn in it and turn in it, because everything is in it. Look deeply into it and get grey and faded in it, and do not move from it, for you can have no better portion than it.” His buddy, or some say his alter ego, Ben Hei Hei follows with “According to the effort is the reward.” (Pirke Avot 5:22-23)

This is a core text for me. It explains how and why I study Jewish sacred texts, engage in Jewish ritual, and have centered Jewish learning/teaching in my life. In many ways it all comes down to one word:  הֲפֹך: to turn, change, pervert, reverse, subvert, destroy—an accurate description of the intimate and powerful relationship I have with my Jewish identity as refracted through the lens of Torah. Never static, ever morphing, being born, growing, fading out, dying. That’s the plan. And the adventure is getting from one stage to the other. That’s the story. And yes: according to the effort, is the reward. 

Thirtyish years ago, I realized I wanted to become a rabbi. I had been an active member at Sha’ar Zahav, which was then among the handful of pathfinder queer shuls in America. I took Hebrew classes, learned some liturgy, bought myself a Chumash and slowly read my way through it. I got more serious with my studying and davening and eventually started participating as a lay service leader. I was good at it, I liked doing it, and people responded well to my leadership. After about a year, I finally plucked up the courage to tell my rabbi and a few of my teachers about my aspiration. I was studying with a wildly divergent group of teachers—some queer, some Chassidic, some Chassidic and queer; women, apikores, and rabbis of any and all denominations. Most of them had nothing but Torah in common, yet, to a person they all roundly discouraged me from pursuing rabbinical school. All of them said to me, each in their own unique dialect, something to the effect of: “Jhos, just keep learning for the sake of learning, and teaching for the sake of teaching. Rabbinical school will douse your fire. Protect your svara.” And since it was unanimous, I didn’t apply to a seminary. But I still wanted to be a rabbi.

I talked with my teacher Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man about my predicament—how do I become a Rabbi without going to Rabbinical school? Rabbi Omer-Man said, in his luscious English accent, “Well Jhos, what is your lineage?” Having arrived within the Children of Israel as an adoptee, I think my face must have fallen because he quickly added, “Your spiritual lineage. Have you discovered yet who are your teachers?” I had not. He told me to sort that out, and when I did, go and learn there. I resonated with Judah, and Hillel, R. Akiva, the Besht, Zusya, and in my own time and universe, R. Gershon Winkler with whom felt an immediate kinship. I loved his humor, doubt, reverent irreverence, the way he revealed the majesty and absurdity of Jewish thought, his tragi-comic lens on life, and especially his loving, slap-stick relationship to the Infinite Oneness in all of Her/His/Their glorious guises. I asked him if I could study with him towards rabbinic smicha/ordination. He said, “Jhos! You’re already a rabbi!” I was not buying it. “No, Gershon, I want to really learn.” He said, “Like what? What do you need to learn that you don’t already know?” I stammered, “I don’t know! But I want to learn, like, real rabbi kinda stuff. Like Talmudy stuff, I guess.” He gently shook me off.  That was our first conversation on the matter. It would not be our last.

After a year or so of pestering—during which time I studied Talmud with the incredible Dr. Ron Reisberg (whose method, inclusivity, and classroom culture was startlingly similar to what I would experience a decade later with SVARA) and improved my davening and Hebrew skills—I made some progress with my rebbe. I called him, asking again if he would take me on as a serious rabbinic student. “Gershon, I feel called to serve as a congregational rabbi.” I explained. “So, what’s stopping you?”, he asked. “I’m not a rabbi!!” I answered. “Yes, you are!”, he said. This went on for a while, and finally he sharply demanded, “So, what do you want from me?!?!?” And I said, without hesitation, “An assignment!” He said, “Fine.” Click. The phone went silent. A few days later I got a fat envelope in the mail. Inside was a dot matrix printout of 15 pages of text citations. Typed at the top were two questions which, to the best of my recollection, were:

1) If someone came to your shul to say Kaddish Yatom (the Mourner’s Prayer) but you didn’t have a full minyan, would you accommodate that person?  

2) If the only time a person might hear the shofar during the chagim was on Shabbat would you allow it to be blown?  

Following these was a note that I remember quite well: 


You wanted an assignment. Here it is. I know you can answer these questions using your own intuition and insight. You know the right thing to do in your gut. But if you want to be a Rabbi, you need more than your kishkes. You need to know what came before you and how to draw from that to support your sense of what is right, even if it conflicts with standard practices or your own sensibilities. So, you want to be a Rabbi? Study. Read all of these citations and based on what you learn and what you know,  formulate and send me solutions to these two situations that are both informed and authentic to you. That’s your assignment. Love, Gersh

I was totally excited! I couldn’t wait to get started! With gusto, I unfurled the full 12-foot long printout. I couldn’t decipher a single citation, which were all in Hebrew and Aramaic. I had no experience with any of the sources he had listed other than a few biblical verses. All of a sudden, I felt totally overwhelmed. In those days there was no Talmud on-line, no Sefaria, there wasn’t even a CD-ROM version of most of these works yet. It was all old-school and I was no-school. I didn’t have the skills to even find the page in a masechet/tractate of Talmud let alone how to find Hilchot anything, or what the SMaG was, or the Tanya. But I was determined and young, so I crowd-sourced. Any person with some yeshiva background was not safe in my presence. I begged, borrowed, and pleaded with them to help me, teach me, or learn with me. And they were kind and patient and generous. And little by little I started making some progress.  

One of the references was Rosh Hashana 29a. I managed to get my hands on the masechet, and with some help from a former Yeshiva bocher, Avi, found the daf. I didn’t know where or what on the page Gershon thought I should be learning, so I just started at the top. The daf starts with a Gemara riff that wonders: If someone is walking past a shul, and someone is blowing a shofar or reading the scroll of Esther inside, do you get credit for hearing it? This is followed by lots more questions and possible answers. Next a Mishnah comes along and offers some thoughts on intent in ritual/worship that is followed by a continuation of the inquiry about blowing shofar. The topic of who is obligated is introduced. The Gemara follows by polishing the points raised in the Mishnah. It opens like this: 

גְּמָ׳ תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: הַכֹּל חַיָּיבִין בִּתְקִיעַת שׁוֹפָר. כֹּהֲנִים וּלְוִיִּם וְיִשְׂרְאֵלִים. גֵּרִים וַעֲבָדִים מְשׁוּחְרָרִים. וְטוּמְטוּם וְאַנְדְּרוֹגִינוֹס

The Rabbis taught: All are obligated to sound the shofar—Cohanim, Levi’im, and Yisraelim; converts, freed slaves. And tutmtum and androgynous…..  

OK, WHAT?!?  I was floored. I had never encountered genderqueer references in any traditional text before this. Inferences to queerness, yes. Jonathan and David; Ruth and Naomi, sure. But Tumtum? ANDROGYNOUS?!? I sat there absorbed in those words, turning, twisting, and changing in it. I felt exhilarated, frighted, and completely unprepared for the rabbit hole that it opened up. I had to put a big sticky on that page.

After 18 months of plodding through the sources, I wrote a well-researched answer to Gershon’s question. In SVARA parlance, he clapped me up with a letter and a teudat/certificate conferring upon me the title sagen rabbanut/deputy rabbi and authorizing me to do lifecycles, lead services, give pastoral counsel, and teach. As he predicted, the answer was what I would have answered by way of my gut in five seconds. But the journey of turning and turning the rabbinic sources and eras led me into a process that changed me, if not my solution to the kashia/problem.

I returned to Rosh Hashanna 29b and learned even more how much I didn’t know. I found out that the chachamim understood, very well, that humans come in more than two genders. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. And the more I studied the more behind I felt. So, a few years later when my rebbe called me up and said, “I think it’s time.” I was perplexed. “For what, Gersh?” I asked. He said, “It’s time to ordain you, it’s time for your smicha.” I said, “I don’t want smicha.” Now he was perplexed, “What do you mean? You begged me to make you a rabbi. You’ve been serving a congregation for 2 years. You’re ready.” I said, “Nah. I’m not ready.” This went on for a while. We settled on making me a Maggid.

That was three years before I started learning with R. Benay in the early days of SVARA; which opened yet another portal into the delightfully queer and still overwhelming world of rabbinic thought, innovation, and provocative creativity. I savor all the learning I’ve been blessed with here, and I still struggle with who I am and is there a place for me in the rabbinic lineage, and if yes, could I accept that place. I guess I will always feel the more I learn the less I know. I know I’m not alone in that quandary. I’ve been running towards and away from the rabbinate for nearly 30 years, and at this point it is doubtful that I will ever find peace in that relationship. But, whatever my title or lack thereof, I still have my svara, still have my fire, still have the learning I have. And the reward has certainly proven to be worth and equal to the effort. So I will just keep turning in it and turning in it, because the older and grayer I get, I am sure that everything really is in it. 

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