We Are The Talmud’s Fantasy

by Benay Lappe, President and Rosh Yeshiva

A computer sits on top of a stack of Talmuds, with a Zoom meeting open. Many faces are visible in the Zoom window. Next to the computer, a person studies from a Talmud, their hand holding a pencil.

Each daf of Talmud presents us with a fantasy. 

The fantasy is the record of an impossible intergenerational conversation across time and space, between queer folk (OK, ok, sages, but you know what I mean) who lived in different centuries from one another–some a millennium apart, on different continents, speaking different languages. Most of them, of course, never met or even knew of one another, but the Talmud’s editors wove their voices together in such a way that they appear to be talking to one another on every page. And they don’t just talk– they rejoice, they play, they question, they spar and parry, they challenge each other, and resolve each other’s challenges. They revel in creating new problems for one another, and sometimes solve each other’s problems, and sometimes just hold each other in their collective uncertainty. 

Their conversation is a joyful, curiosity-driven, open-ended inquiry, modeling a process that seeks not to find answers but to stimulate questions; not to reinforce certitude, but to cultivate doubt; not to create a sense of independence, but to remind us how deeply and desperately we need one another. It is a kaleidoscope of never-ending interpersonal encounters that holds up an aspirational vision of how, in some fantastical, time- and space-traveling future world, some imaginary community of people might one day sit together in a yeshiva…and be with one another in just this way. They called it the yeshiva shel ma’ala, the Yeshiva On High. And they imagined that that’s what it would look like to be in heaven, to be in the World to Come. 

I feel quite certain that those sages never really believed that such a yeshiva shel ma’ala could ever actually happen on earth, IRL, in This World. But in this fantastical digital world of ours, from 12:30 – 1:00 pm CT, their fantasy has become our reality. During this time, I feel as though I’ve fallen through the Talmud Looking Glass and am experiencing the daf coming to life in a literal and visceral way. It’s our daily drop-in Mishna Collective. Every day, sixty to eighty mostly queer and trans folk, along with some straight cis folk, representing three or four generations, gather from all over the world, and create a joyful, chaotic living Talmud page of conversation and commentary. 

Each day, our teacher (sometimes it’s me, more often it’s Laynie or Mónica) leads us through a few lines of text. We work word by word, translating the Hebrew inside and outside–starting with the most primary, “inside” meanings of the root of each word, opening up possibilities for what seem like infinite associations, subtleties, and resonances that are concealed beneath the “outside,” contextual and colloquial meaning. An explosion of meaning-making possibilities–impossible to achieve when learning in translation–is revealed. 

Dozens of questions are raised from every word and phrase. Uncertainty, contradiction, inconsistency, paradox, and complexity are surfaced and savored. As learners, our minds race with associations and connections. New questions, new ideas, and possible interpretations are shared but held ever so lightly, and joyfully surrendered when an even better one appears. Sparks fly and fragments of ideas are thrown down in the chat, scrolling sometimes faster than we can even read them. Virtual claps, high-fives, and praises for resonant insights are interspersed amid cracks and word plays proffered by the “chat rascals.” We rejoice in each other’s aha moments. We watch Torah being created before our very eyes. And we are the creators. 

When each day’s shiur is over, I feel like a better version of myself. Only 30 minutes have gone by and, of course, I haven’t moved from my seat, but it’s as though I’ve been on a journey into some other time and place. I emerge feeling extra alive, with an energy that propels me through the inevitable reentry into the often heartbreaking reality in which we find ourselves, but with a spring in my step and a sense of optimism and strength that might have waned from the day before, now renewed for yet another day. 

And for weeks I’ve been asking myself, what is it, exactly, about this space, this bet midrash of ours, that makes me feel this way?

In Masechet Yoma, on daf 72b, a group of Rabbis consider the biblical verse “וְזֹ֖את הַתּוֹרָ֑ה אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מֹשֶׁ֔ה לִפְנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל ” “And this is the Torah which Moses put [sam] before the children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 4:44)–that song we sing as we point to the torah as it is held aloft each time we finish reading from the scroll in synagogue.

Don’t read שם as “put,” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says there, rather read it as סם, “potion” or “elixir.” If one merits it, he claims, Torah will be an elixir of life. If one doesn’t, it will be an elixir of death, a claim that will resonate as familiar to any of you learning with us in the Mishnah Collective, where our Mishna is asking us to explore how we might become people who embody Torah and walk it through the world. 

And the answer, I think, comes precisely from how we learn, not what we learn. Rava, my favorite of the talmudic sages, my guardian angel Rabbi, puts his finger on it. Over there in Yoma, bouncing off of what Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi threw down in the chat (wink, wink), he types in:

.דאומן לה סמא דחייא, דלא אומן לה סמא דמותא

“For one who is an artisan/artist in their learning, Torah is a potion of life; but for one who is not an artisan/artist in their learning, it is a potion of death.”

When we learn with an openness to that which we don’t know, when we are receptive to the many possibilities of a text’s meaning, we are the artisan, the artist, the “uman,” about whom Rava is speaking. 

To learn like an artisan/artist, one needs to be available to what my friend and teacher Rabbi Dev Noily calls a “proliferation of possibilities”– an ever-expanding orientation to what the text–and every moment of life–could mean. When we learn like an “uman,” like an artisan/artist, we proliferate possibilities in the text. And when we do that, day in and day out, we develop the spiritual dexterity to proliferate the possibilities for what we might make of every challenge we encounter in life. In this way, one’s Torah becomes a Torah of life. The Torah gives us life, I think Rava is saying, when we give it life, when we craft meaning with it as we feed Torah through our svara–that hard-earned moral intuition and the rich insights we’ve cultivated from our life experiences, both the joyful ones and the painful ones–and come out with insights that transform our pain and joy into wisdom, and which we then feed back into the tradition and bring out into the world. 

I know that in the Mishna Collective our learning is that kind of spiritual artistry because I walk away from the computer screen when our half-hour together is over each day, exhilarated, rejuvenated, grounded in my svara, my tradition, and–most importantly–in you, my community. Because it is you, my queer, freaky, radical community-of-love, who appear on my screen every day and make it possible for me, and, I hope, every one of us, to be an artist, an artisan–with the text, with the Torah, with our tradition, and with our lives.

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