Dan Libenson: This is Judaism Unbound: Episode 56—A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva.
Dan Libenson: Welcome back, everyone. I'm Dan Libenson . . .
Lex Rofes: . . . and I'm Lex Rofes.
Dan Libenson: And we're really excited to be starting our second year with the first guest that we ever had in our first year. Rabbi Benay Lappe is the founder and Rosh Yeshiva of SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva. She was the first guest that helped us launch Judaism Unbound a year ago, way back when, and we're really excited that, even though Benay has been helpful to us over the last year in analyzing our big questions, we haven't had a lot of chance to talk about her work on the ground as an entrepreneur.
She's one of the most exciting Jewish educators on the ground today. She recently was awarded the Covenant Award by the Covenant Foundation—that's kind of like the Nobel Prize of Jewish education—and she was also recently selected by the Joshua Venture Group as one of only two people in the country to receive an investment from them in their dual investment program, which helps entrepreneurs accelerate their work. So, today we're super excited to jump into the meat of what SVARA is all about, and Benay, thank you so much for joining us again, and welcome back to Judaism Unbound.
Benay Lappe: Thank you. It's great to be back.
Dan Libenson: So, Benay, actually, today what we wanted to talk with you about . . . you know, it's funny that you're one of the most exciting innovators in the Jewish space today, and what we've spoken about with you in the two times that you've been on Judaism Unbound previously hasn’t been, really, the work that you do, but, really, having you to help us think about the big picture. And today we actually want to put you on the other side and interview you as just somebody who's doing some of the most exciting work in the Jewish world today, and to really understand deeply what your organization, SVARA, is all about. So, we're really excited to take a deep dive into SVARA with you.
Benay Lappe: Great. It's my favorite topic.
Dan Libenson: So, we wanted to start out . . . if you could just, for the sake of our listeners, describe briefly what SVARA is as an organization, and then we'll jump into the analysis of it.
Benay Lappe: Okay. So, SVARA is a “traditionally radical yeshiva.” And what that means is it's a learning-centered community, centered around the experience of learning Talmud, for the purpose of . . . it actually has a number of purposes: One purpose is to create “players”—to create people who are confident, informed, steeped in the ways the tradition works and the values and the principles of the tradition, in order to “play” with the tradition, and make it better, and bring their insights to it. Another reason SVARA exists is to create a distribution system for what I think is the smartest version of Judaism that we have.
And lots of unexpected things have happened since I started SVARA, which have taught me what actually is happening—not only what I hoped to make happen, but what actually happens. And one of those things is that people are falling in love with Judaism because of what they see in the Talmud. It may turn out, at the end of the day, that what SVARA is really about is a way to get people to fall in love with Judaism.
But another unexpected thing that's happened is that we've seen that people come to SVARA, they learn and they find a community which becomes their home, and learning Talmud becomes their way of doing Jewish. And I really never set out to create a new way to do Jewish, but that's what's happened, and I'm finding it really interesting, and it's shifting how I see the future of SVARA and the future of Judaism in general.
I grew up in Skokie, where there was a shul [synagogue] on every corner, and part of what I see in our future is that there may just be a beit midrash [house of study] on every corner, and instead of going to shul, some people might go to the beit midrash. It may become a spiritual practice the way prayer caught on as a spiritual practice after the destruction [of the Second Temple].
Dan Libenson: Can you explain just a little bit about how studying Talmud at SVARA is different from studying Talmud in more traditional yeshivas, which . . . I think probably a lot of our listeners are familiar with the idea of what a yeshiva is—basically, all these people studying Talmud—and probably say, “That's not something that I could imagine myself doing.” And yet, you have rooms full of people that are a lot like our listeners, studying Talmud.
Benay Lappe: So, I think one of the ways that SVARA is different from a traditional yeshiva is our lens—our lens on the Rabbis and what's going on in the Talmud and the tradition—and I would call it a “Queer lens.” And what I mean by “Queer” at this moment is not LGBT, but queer in a much bigger sense, meaning: coming from and influenced by a profound experience of marginality or otherness, which informs—if we're talking about a person—how that person walks through the world and the critique that that person brings to the world.
So, a person can be “Queer” even though they may be heterosexual if they happen to have an experience of marginality that comes from, perhaps, a disability, or the color of their skin, or any number of other ways in which they are not in the mainstream.
As a Queer person myself, when I learned Talmud, it was so screamingly obvious to me that the Rabbis were Queer—not LGBT Queer, I'm not talking about, you know, Jonathan-and-David and Ruth-and-Naomi stories. I'm talking about . . . that's Queer 1.0. I'm talking about Queer 2.0—in other words, inheriting a tradition or a story that you know very well doesn’t work in this or that regard, and being willing to bring your life experience to bear on that story to change it.
And I saw the Rabbis, who inherited a biblical story that not only couldn't work in many ways because of the destruction, but even while the Temple was standing, wasn’t working for them in so many ways. And because of what I think had to have been experiences of otherness for them—and I'm really curious exactly what that looked like—they upgraded the tradition and made it better, even overturning Torah.
And that's what I see in the Talmud. It's this enormous document recording example upon example upon example, case upon case upon case, of where the Rabbis bring that outsider insight to bear, whether it's to improve the lives of women or poor people or children or you-name-it.
Dan Libenson: Before we just jump into a little bit about the founding of SVARA, I just want to bring out one other point in your pedagogy which I think is very interesting and significant in this, and I think it would be surprising, which is that a lot of your programs that you run these days are these six-week one-night-a-week sessions, where people come for two, three hours and study.
And you insist that people read the text in the original Hebrew and Aramaic. There are no translations allowed in your room. You give people dictionaries so they can look up words, but no book Talmud translations. And as a result, of course, it's very slow going, and—you tell me—but, over six weeks, how many lines or how many words do people actually cover? This is not a way of learning Talmud that's covering a lot of ground. And so, the question is, then, kind of, why do you insist upon that style—which has been very successful and beloved by people? (I think it's really important to note that people come into your sessions not knowing a word of Hebrew, and certainly not a word of Aramaic, and they love it.)
Benay Lappe: Ooh, there are so many parts to the answer to this. The first is, if you want to know what the Talmud says, if you're really interested in the content, you should probably go to Barnes and Noble and get a book called Wisdom of the Talmud, and you can read it in a couple of hours, and you'll know a lot about what the Talmud says. And at the end of those couple of hours, you'll be no different, fundamentally, than you were before.
There's an epidemic lack of confidence among liberal Jews, and one of the things we're trying to do is to instill a sense of confidence, because you don’t become a bold, courageous, risk-taking player until you feel confident and until you feel you have a sense of authenticity and authority. That's one of the reasons we learn in the original.
And another reason—and it could be that at the end of the day this is really what drives all of us to learn Talmud and why Talmud has survived as one of the core Jewish practices for 2,000 years—is that it's fun. But it's not just fun. It's joyful.
It creates an experience that is deeply, deeply pleasurable. There's a professor, who used to be at the University of Chicago, I believe his name is Csikszentmihalyi, and he wrote a book called Flow, and he studies those experiences that people find most pleasurable and rewarding, that create a sense of total involvement, in which you completely forget what is going on in the world around you, and where there's just enough challenge to keep you engaged, and you have just enough skill, but you're always trying to be better. There's this narrow window of balance between your skill and the demandingness of the task, where you are absolutely present and focused when you're doing it. And people find that while they're doing sports, or playing chess, or learning Talmud. And it's a very rewarding experience.
But in the beit midrash, add to that you're doing this with another person, which becomes a very intimate experience, and you're doing it—that's your hevruta [literally, companion, but with the meaning of study partner in the beit midrash]—and you're doing it in a roomful of people who are doing the same thing.
And that becomes a very intimate experience among the group of people, and very community-building. I've had students who have described to me running into another student from the beit midrash out in the street or at the grocery store, and when they see each other, even if they didn’t talk much in the beit midrash, they feel like they both climbed up Mount Sinai together.
And the learning as a spiritual practice shapes us into people who think differently.
As for another goal of the Talmud—or of Talmud study—which is understanding those mechanisms of radical change in order to be able to utilize them when you need to, that can be conveyed in a relatively short period of time.
You know, I audited once—with your help—a law school class at the University of Chicago, and the required textbook was about three inches fat, and it was a casebook, and . . . it was a torts class, and in this torts casebook, there had to have been 300 or so cases. And in the entire semester of torts, we covered a few dozen cases. First of all, the content of the cases was not the point of the cases. Many of the cases were 100 years old and they dealt with steamboats and ferries and trains, that, it was obvious, weren't meant to teach us about the laws relating to steamboats and trains and ferries, but rather how to think about complex issues.
Dan Libenson: I think that that's actually a powerful statement, and something that I think you're trying to say, which is that you could look at the Talmud and say, “This is full of a million different laws about a million different things, and that's what this is—it's a library of Jewish facts and figures, and rules and regulations.” And I think that what you're saying is that it might just be that the Rabbis are actually only telling us like two or three important things, and they're telling it over and over and over again in different examples, and . . . maybe it's more than two or three, but it's—
Benay Lappe: No, I think it's probably two or three.
Dan Libenson: Yeah? Well, I want to know what they are, because if the real task here is to, you know . . . different people might need to read different numbers until they kind of get it, but maybe one of the innovations is that we figured out a way to connect people with it fast, and to really understand the big, deep idea.
Benay Lappe: Yeah, I think that's true. And another reason that we don’t learn Talmud the way it's learned in traditional yeshivas is that, if the material is working for you, you want to learn the material for practice. But if it isn't working for you as you have received it, that's not when you teach for content; that's when you teach for process of change.
And that's one of the reasons we don’t read the Talmud for content. Although I think even those who do . . . Talmud is not the best way to get content; that's why codes were written. If you really want to know the laws of kashrut [kosher food], you shouldn't be going to the Talmud to learn that; you should be going to the Shulchan Aruch [a major Jewish law code] to learn that, or to Rambam [Maimonides] to learn that. That's never what the Talmud was for, and to the extent to which it's used for that, to me it seems like a shame.
Lex Rofes: One curiosity I have—and I've heard bits and pieces of this from you, but every time I do, I feel like I gain a new level of insight both into Talmud and to you, so I'm itching for another chance to do this—but what is it that led you to find Talmud?
Because, for people who are entering into SVARA, they have this organization and they have this platform that they can enter into and grow through. You didn’t have that—you built it. So, I'm curious what brought you to this place and what is your narrative that led you to found an organization devoted—I'm almost hesitant to say devoted to Talmud study, because it sounds like it's devoted to something bigger than Talmud study—but that uses Talmud study to channel some really important concepts?
Benay Lappe: All right, I'll start a little bit from the beginning. I think an important part of my story that connects to where I've ended up is that I was raised in a traditional home. We actually weren't that observant, but we went to an Orthodox shul, I went to an Orthodox Hebrew school, and we knew the Judaism that we were supposed to follow. We didn’t always follow it, but we knew what we were supposed to do. We actually didn’t keep kosher in my home, and we kept a kind of “Friday night Shabbos,” and Saturday was going to the mall. But we observed all the holidays very carefully, and the tradition was very much a part of my life.
And when I was a teenager, and I came out, I felt estranged from the tradition and felt that the tradition also was not very happy with me. And so, I left, and that was very painful. And I became a very happy, devout Buddhist, and I lived in Japan for nearly ten years, and Buddhism became my practice, and that was wonderful, until it started . . . you know, until I started to miss what, it became obvious, was a part of myself, that I couldn't set down and that I couldn't leave. And that was my pintele yid [a Yiddish term meaning, essentially, “Jewish essence”]—you know, that part of me that was Jewish.
And I realized I was born Jewish for a reason, and I was probably not going to ever be a whole human being until I found God in a Jewish way. At least, I suspected strongly that that was the case. And I was on the verge of becoming a Buddhist monk, and I thought, okay, I know more about Buddhism than I know about Judaism—before I make this decision, I'm going to learn more about Judaism so that I can reject it in good conscience.
And I went to the rabbi in Tokyo, and I told him that, and he handed me Pirkei Avot. So, this is a very thin little volume of the Mishna [part of the Talmud]. And from that point on I was just totally screwed, because the Mishna is a really accessible book that shows how wise Judaism is. And I realized that Judaism was as smart as Buddhism and that I needed to know more.
And, being the slightly obsessive-compulsive person that I am, I decided to go to rabbinical school. JTS [the Jewish Theological Seminary], at that time, which is the seminary of the Conservative movement, did not accept openly gay and lesbian students. And I remember having read at that time something that Art Waskow had written, and it was about the idea that all of us stood at Mount Sinai—every one of us, any person born Jewish or converting to Judaism who ever would live stood at Mount Sinai, and that the Torah was the inheritance of all of us. And I thought to myself, “Right, this is mine too, and they can't keep this from me.”
I decided to go into the closet—to go into hiding—to get the Torah.
And in my first year of rabbinical school, there's a Talmud class. And as soon as I began learning Talmud, it became very obvious to me that, as I said earlier, the Rabbis were not believing what I had been taught as a kid: that says so in the Torah, and that's the last word. And I think that's a dangerous myth that we perpetuate when we teach people about Judaism—that if it says this in the Torah, this is what God said, and that's the end of the story. And that just hasn’t been true for 2,000 years, and the Talmud is a record of that not being true. And I thought, wow!
The Talmud also . . . it made me feel smart, and I didn’t feel very smart. And it gave me a lot of confidence, and as a woman and as a lesbian and as a person in hiding, and as someone who, I knew, would be challenged on my authenticity, it gave me a lot of confidence to learn Talmud and to feel like, you know, I know my shit.
And then the last part of the story, which resulted in SVARA as an institution, as a yeshiva, was one day I was sitting on a train—it was June 27th, 2003—and I was in New York, on the subway, and I opened up the newspaper, and there in three-inch-high letters was the headline “Supreme Court Overturns Sodomy Laws.” It was the Lawrence decision, that had just been passed the day before.
And I sat on that train and I cried. Because when I came out, I knew two things: I knew, number one, they put people like me in jail, because when I came out . . . when I was born, it was illegal to live as a gay person in all 50 states. And when I came out, it was still illegal in half the states of our country. So, I knew that.
And I knew that, number two, being gay was against God and Torah. I just somehow had soaked that in, even though I don't remember any one of my Hebrew school teachers ever saying that or my parents ever saying that. I just understood that. And I cried because I realized that no kid was ever going to come out and think, “They put people like me in jail” ever again, and I knew the world had just changed. And I knew that case had come to the Supreme Court because Lambda Legal, a gay legal advocacy organization, had brought it forth.
And I realized that the world had just changed because Queer people went to law school, and I knew the Jewish world wasn’t going change until Queer people went to yeshiva.
Lex Rofes: There's a lot of thoughts swirling in my head, but I wanted to come to a point that you made, that I think came up a couple times, which I had never thought about, but which rang very true to me, which was the point you made that there's sort of a sweet . . . there's, like, an achievement, there's a deep pleasure in learning Talmud because it's a challenge enough that you have to wrestle with it, but you succeeded, and you achieve something, and that pleasure is very real.
And you compared it to playing sports, and that's exactly where my mind was, because it felt like sort of winning a game that you've fought hard and . . . . And looking back at my own experience, like you, I had sort of a distancing period. It wasn’t as long, I didn’t live in Japan, but I had a distancing period from Judaism, and my entryway back was actually Mishna, and it was deeply important for me to experience this text for the first time, that I had heard the name of, but never actually read a page of.
And what I try to communicate to people is that, for me, I set a goal of learning my way through this big text called the Mishna, and I achieved a goal, and everything changed, because Judaism at that point was like a landmark in my life, almost like sort of a graduation moment. I could point to something concrete that Judaism had done for me, and that I had grown from . . . and I didn’t get any certificate, nobody patted me on the back, but it was very real. And pleasure is the right word.
So, I'd love to hear, what is it about that pleasure that you see? And, if maybe you have anecdotes of particular people who have experienced SVARA and articulated this, but what is it about the Talmud and the achievement of learning your way through a difficult text that is particularly meaningful for people?
Benay Lappe: There's an enormous sense of accomplishment in learning Talmud. A lot is left out, so it requires a teacher, and it requires a lot of concentration. And as one of my students says, it requires more than a single brain to do it. It requires a second brain, it requires two people to create a dynamic that will allow ideas that neither could have had alone to come out. And that's a very exhilarating experience.
I believe we all walk around with half-completed discernments and insights. We walk around with, kind of, the shards of our life experiences that are not yet completely processed and integrated and understood, and usable. And when you learn a text with a partner, as you're trying to figure out what the text says, you'll say something, your partner will say something else. You'll then say something, they'll say something else. And something about the text that you're trying to figure out will trigger a memory, will trigger one of these half-figured-out insights, and all of a sudden it will become whole, and there will be a light bulb, there will be a click.
That's a beautiful moment, and it's a wonderful feeling. And that's one of the ways that a text, which can be about who-knows-what—can be about the laws of lost and found, it can be about, as I was saying earlier, truth-telling and lie-telling, but it's triggered for you something that has created now a full insight, about yourself or about the world, that may be completely unrelated to what the text was about. And that's very satisfying.
For some people, the satisfaction is, “I did this really, really hard thing, and I can do it.” And for others is how much I've learned. And I think at the end of the day, what SVARA is about is just that we figured out a way to take this material, this experience that's been used by not even one percent—it's probably more like a tenth of one percent of Jews—and we figured out a way to make it accessible to the other 99.9%.
Lex Rofes: So, I have a question that relates to a question Dan and I have been talking about a lot lately, which is the issue of Jews and those who aren't Jewish, and the ways in which that boundary between the two is becoming blurrier, and lots of people are converting to Judaism, and people are becoming less connected to Judaism who are born Jewish—all of these interesting questions. And I guess I'm curious . . . from what you described, SVARA’s work is all about taking a text, the Talmud, which happens to be native to the Jewish tradition, and bringing a Queer lens to it, and finding the elements of the Talmud that speak, in particular, to Queer people.
And first off, that mission is so inspiring to me, even as I'm not LGBTQ-Queer, but what's interesting about it is that it seems like it could apply not just to Jews, but anyone who comes from a Queer lens, who comes from an LGBTQ lens. So, I guess I'm wondering, do you work with folks who aren't Jewish, but who are interested in connecting to this ancient text from the Jewish tradition through a Queer lens? And, if so, what does that look like, and is it different for somebody to come at this from a Jewish lens in particular?
Benay Lappe: There's nothing about learning Talmud that requires you to be Jewish to do it. I think there's . . . for Jews, there is, sort of, a redemption that happens that's probably absent among non-Jews who learn Talmud—is that moment when you realize that your tradition is really smart, and you trust it, and it trusts you, and all of a sudden I feel better about myself as a Jew, that I don't think is at work when non-Jews learn Talmud.
But there are lots of people who are not Jewish in the beit midrash at SVARA. And if we're right that learning Talmud actually can shape who you are as a person, this is something that should be available and accessible to the whole world as a practice, and I would love that to happen. We have lots of seminarians from other traditions, and seekers, and people are just curious who are not Jewish, who come to the beit midrash, and if they don’t already have their aleph-bet [that is, know the Hebrew/Aramaic alphabet], we put them through a one-day aleph-bet marathon, and they're ready to go.
It only enriches the conversation. I think, as Dan has talked about in the past in his observation that the early Rabbis were disproportionately converts or children of converts, the role of people who are not even on the map in the Jewish world right now, or in any world after a crash, is very significant.
Dan Libenson: There are a couple things that you said a while ago connecting to this that really both moved me and got me thinking. Like, when you were telling your story, and you said you had to “go into hiding to get the Torah,” something like that. I'm thinking about people who are sort of living out there with this sense that, “I don't have access to this material, so I don't even know if it's for me or not for me. It's probably not for me in the traditional way, but there are probably ways that I could understand this stuff that would move me.” Actually, we interviewed Shai Held a while ago, and I asked him how he felt about translating the kind of things that he was saying about God, that I actually found very moving if I would translate into kind of my language of God is a metaphor or something like that, and I asked him is that okay with him? And he said, it's not how he thinks about it, but yeah, different people can take what he says and take it where it moves them.
And the difference is that we have access to what he's saying because we had him on our show. But somehow it feels like for people out there, the only way to get familiar enough with the material of Judaism to know sort of what your feelings about it are or what you might want to do with it, are either to, like you said, go into hiding, like somehow to sort of play the game among the people who you know don’t see it the way you do, and that's the only way to really absorb the material. Or you leave with a heavy heart, sort of like you did, maybe, in Japan. And I think that that actually starts to define a continuum, then, where Jews are not necessarily all that different from non-Jews, because the non-Jews—it might not have occurred to them to seek access to this Jewish stuff. And that may be the only difference, because they, too, if they wanted to have access to it, would have to either somehow hide or blend in. And we know cases like that, where there are non-Jews who kind of come and join traditional Jewish communities and kind of “pass,” so to speak, until they've absorbed enough, and then maybe they'll decide to convert, or not.
And I guess that when I hear you describing the later history of SVARA, where you create this thing that comes out of your story and out of the story of Queer—LGBT-Queer people—and you're trying to solve that problem, and it turns out that it's solving a problem for this huge category of people who, turns out, their block is not because they're LGBT, but it's for some other reason. And so, I'm curious if you could talk more about your experience over the last five years or so, having discovered that, and how you think about it in terms of the good about that right now—what you have discovered in the LGBT community is, turns out, so much more relevant to others—but also, I think it loses its distinction, and it loses its capacity, maybe, to also be that home for LGBT people. And how do we sort all that out?
Benay Lappe: It's a very live question for me right now. As we become more and more successful—that is, as more and more people come to SVARA to learn, we attract not only more and more Queer people, but more and more straight people—some Queer-headed, some not Queer-headed. It's very gratifying to see that the Queer lens and a Queer-normative space have something that everybody needs.
You know, the first year that we did a summer retreat, we called it SVARA Summer Talmud Retreat or something like that. Lots and lots of Queer people came, and they all dubbed it “Queer Talmud Camp,” and it became, I don't know, it's probably 95% LGBT-Queer, and there's a very, very special feeling there, and a sense of very deep, deep community. And in other of our programs, we don’t put the word Queer on them—there's “Queer” all over our materials, our marketing, our website, but we don’t call the programs specifically Queer this-or-that. And those programs are about half and half straight and gay. And the feeling in the room is different. At least it is for me. And I think it is for some of the LGBT-Queer people as well. And I think it's a really hard thing to figure out. I think the majority of the people in the room have to be LGBT-Queer.
Their lived experience as Queer people is, as much as I play with the word “Queer,” significantly different than that of Queer-headed straight folk, and that's a challenge because I think we've got something—we figured out this technology for learning Talmud, for bringing Talmud to everybody, that, on the one hand, gives me fantasies of millions of people learning Talmud, but on the other hand, I'm really inspired by and committed to raising up Queer people as players, because I think Queer people have the courage and the boldness and the audacity and the willingness to pay whatever price to put their truth out into the world, and I think that's the kind of leaders that we need.
So, it may just be that right now the investment has to be with those kinds of people. And eventually the Talmud, or the whatever-technology you're working on, can go super-big, but maybe it shouldn't go super-big, even though it could, for a while.
Dan Libenson: You know, in terms of the vision of everybody studying Talmud and a beit midrash on every street corner, I wonder if . . . what is the task that's before us? Is the goal that we should all be studying Talmud, or is the goal that we should all be discovering the message that's hidden within the Talmud, which fundamentally frees us to write the next Talmud, the next version, whatever it is, the next book or—probably won't be a book—but the next iteration of Judaism.
Because the message of the Talmud, at least as I think I've heard it from you in the past, is that we can be audacious in the way in which we treat what's come before, and that there's a way to do that in a way that is honoring the tradition, but nevertheless a significant departure from it, in order to also honor the Queerness—the things that, maybe, that older version considered “queer,” in a pejorative way, and now we're calling that Queer a good thing.
And so, we need to build a society in which, ultimately, those people . . . they might still call themselves Queer, but they're not queer anymore, in the sense that it is their society that they have built. And that, when you talk about the Rabbis as having been “queer”—yes, that's true in their time, but then they built a whole society in which they were central.
So, what would it look like if the people today who are called Queer, whether that is for LGBT reasons, or just because they are different from the norm, become the new center? And would that be a world in which everybody’s studying Talmud, or would that be a world in which everybody’s studying that next iteration?
Benay Lappe: You know, the trans community, I think, is a really good example of how there will always be another community of people who get it better, who get it bigger than the Queer folk who came before them. And in my generation, what we got was that not everybody’s straight. And we thought we, like, totally had it—we thought we understood it all. And now we're kind of straight compared to the trans folks, who are saying, “You guys totally missed this really big part of life, which is that gender isn't binary.” And now they're the Queer folk, or the Queerest folk. And when the world gets that gender isn't binary, they're going to be kind of straight, and there's going to be another community of really Queer people who are gonna show them that there was something that they didn’t even think of and that they had no idea was coming.
And those people who are on that Queerest cutting-edge are the ones who should always be learning Talmud, because they're the ones who need to know that the tradition has always anticipated them—not in the specifics—and that the tradition gets that there's always going to be a crash that needs to be responded to, there's always going to be a bigger insight that the tradition is going to need to accommodate, and here's how you do it. These are the rules of the game.
I went to the University of Illinois in Champaign, and there's the alma mater statue in front of the Union building, and there's . . . engraved on the statue, it says something to the effect—and I know I'm going get it wrong—but it was something to the effect of, “To the children of the future, the children of the past send their greetings. Class of 1921.” Something like that. And when I began to see the Talmud for what I think it is, that alma mater statue came back to me, and it comes back to me all the time, because that's what the Talmud is.
The Talmud is this gift of the Rabbis, who lived through an enormous crash that was undeniable, but which they had actually anticipated. The Temple, for them, had crashed long before it was destroyed. That way of doing Judaism didn’t work for them when it was working still for a lot of people. And they developed a system that would allow for the good in what was still working of traditions to be saved, while the tradition was also radically reworked to incorporate the insights of the “queer folk.”
Lex Rofes: Did you have any final thoughts to bring to the episode as we come to a close, just about SVARA the organization, or Talmud in general, that you would want to communicate to our listeners?
Benay Lappe: I think my ultimate takeaways from my experience of learning Talmud are that the tradition is really, really smart. It's smarter than you can imagine. We should trust it, we should recognize that it's not perfect, and it needs to be fixed, and it needs to be made better, but that it trusts us, even though we may get it wrong now and then—but it trusts us, ultimately. It believes every human being has svara [moral intuition].
We shouldn't be afraid to mess with the tradition. What SVARA, the yeshiva, is about is giving people not only the confidence, but the learning that it takes to mess with the tradition in a responsible way. The Rabbis never thought that you needed the title “Rabbi” to do that.
You needed to have two things: You needed to be gamirna and savirna—you needed to be learning/learned, and you had to have svara. And everyone can have that.
Lex Rofes: Well, thanks so much for coming on.
Benay Lappe: It's been my pleasure, thank you. I love talking to you guys.
Lex Rofes: And we love having you on. For those who are new to the podcast, definitely go back and look at our earlier episodes with Rabbi Benay Lappe. She is a fantastic guest, there's a reason that we chose her as our very first guest ever, our first two-time guest, and now with today’s episode, our first three-time guest.
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