By Rabbi Gray Myrseth
During the week of October 15th, Rabbi Dev and I had the honor and privilege of gathering in Chicago as members of the inaugural cohort of SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva’s Transformative Talmud Teaching Fellowship. Alongside our teachers and colleagues—including Maggid Jhos Singer of Chochmat HaLev— we learned the following Talmudic text, where the ancient sages Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Hanina are deep in a debate about Torah. Rabbi Hiyya asserts that he has acted in such a way to ensure that Torah, the sacred story of the Jewish people, will never be forgotten.
“What is it that I do?” Rabbi Hiyya asks with a rhetorical flourish. “I go and sow flax seeds, and plait the flax into nets, and I catch deer in the nets, and I feed the deer meat to hungry, vulnerable children. I prepare parchment from the hides and I write the five books of Torah on them. Then I go to town and teach five children the five books of Torah, and I teach six children the six orders of Mishnah, and I say to them: Until I return, recite Torah to one another and teach Mishnah to one another. This is what I do in order to ensure that Torah will never be forgotten among our people.” Rabbi Hiyya’s model of transformative teaching and learning is slow, messy, unglamorous work, and his leadership is mostly in the background. His is a detailed, patient, long-arc pedagogy. It is wholly motivated by love—for one’s students, for the process, and for our sacred texts.
I arrived back in the Bay in time for Kehilla School on Thursday, where during our all-school tefillah gathering, eighty or so students and I were going over the words to Modeh/ah Ani. I shared that the two “usual” options—one masculine, one feminine—for beginning the prayer left me with a question. “Does anyone else have a question about this?” I asked the students, who range in age from first through sixth grades. About 15 hands shot up. I called on one, who replied “Yeah! What do people who aren’t boys or girls do?” Every other hand-raiser nodded vigorously. This was everyone’s question.
What followed was a thoughtful, detailed, engaged conversation about gender and language. Points were contributed by students across the age range, who shared the way gender worked in the languages they speak (Mandarin, Spanish, and others), as well as how they or their family members identify. We talked about the way language changes over time and how people are helping Hebrew catch up with the way genderqueer Jewish people think and talk about themselves. I shared how my own Hebrew name includes the non-gendered “le’veit” (belonging to the household of) rather than “bat” (daughter of) or “ben” (son of). Towards the end of the conversation, one student said, “We get to figure out what words we use as we get bigger.” At dismissal, as I related the conversation to a parent, they said to me: “I am so amazed and moved that this is part of what it will mean to my child to grow up in Jewish community.”
All this, in the week leading up to the Trump administration’s leaked memo proposing that trans peoples’ very existence be rendered invisible by our federal government. All this, two weeks before the horrific shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Shabbat morning.
Rabbi Benay Lappe, the founder of SVARA, teaches in her Crash Theory of history that every one of us is living inside a master story—a narrative that imbues our lives with meaning and helps us answer the world’s big questions—and that every single master story will ultimately and inevitably crash. In the wake of a crash, we can behave as if nothing has truly changed (option one), we can jump ship to a new master story (option two), or we can engage in the challenging, paradigm-shifting work of retelling the best parts of the old story in light of the new post-crash reality (option three). Rabbi Lappe proposes that the Talmud is the product of our ancient sages choosing to go “option three” and that by engaging in the study of this text in the present, we can sharpen our capacity to be as resilient, as creative, and as courageous as they were.
These are challenging times to be alive, in oh so many ways. It is also true that when I consider the astonishing gift of learning with each other and with our young people, I feel resolute and often even hopeful. There is no other time in Jewish history during which I could be an openly queer, transgender rabbi who not only studies Talmud, but who actually gets to train to be a teacher of this powerful tradition, with teachers and alongside colleagues from whom I learn so much. There is most likely no other time in Jewish history when our Kehilla School students could have had the conversation I described.
We live in a time where master stories are crashing down around us day by day. Some of these crashes are excruciatingly painful, while others hold glimpses of liberation and untold possibility. Harnessing, or even witnessing, that liberatory potential is hard work. It demands that we slow down, get clear about our goals and values, and open our minds to new ways of thinking. I believe that Talmud study is one way to access and hone these skills.
This winter and spring, Rabbi Dev, Maggid Jhos Singer, and I will convene Beit Midrash sessions throughout the Bay Area, where we’ll engage in the transformative practice of Talmud study. Our Yeshiva (place of Jewish learning) is called 700 Benches, inspired by a story in the Talmud of radical inclusivity and the overturn of old power structures. Stay tuned for dates and locations. We hope you’ll join us.