Together at the Gates—Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779
The first time I looked at a page of Talmud, my initial thought was, “what have I gotten myself into?”
This was the first day of my second semester of rabbinical school, not much more than a year after I learned the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet, about two and a half years since I announced to my baffled parents that I intended to become a rabbi, three years after I realized that it was possible to go deeper into my Jewishness without changing anything about who I was. I was getting familiar with the feeling of “What have I gotten myself into?”
To my great good fortune, I had a teacher, who led us word by word and line by line, with unfailing patience and unmistakable love for her subject. I didn’t understand that love right away. For the first few weeks, I only saw the challenge of Talmud study, which was exciting in its own abstract way. Talmud was a puzzle, a code to which I had only fragments of the key. I believed it was amazing because people I trusted assured me it was, but I didn’t know what it had to do with me.
Then, one day, I did. It was a morning in the beit midrash—the place of study and investigation, where students at my school prepared for class—like any other. I sat across from my chevruta, my study partner, parsing the text word by word and line by line. I noticed that the task was shifting from impossibly hard to manageably hard, that I could hold enough of it in my mind at once that I was suddenly able to see what it was we were learning. I saw the way the text would shift between one genre and the next, one moment poetry, then narrative, then intricate legal debate. I saw the way conversations happened across generations of sages, creating a time-traveling fellowship of opinionated nerds. I saw the way a sugya—a chunk of Talmud text—would more often refuse easy resolution than yield a simple yes or no answer.
This text—this difficult, poetic, polyvocal text—was so undeniably queer that at first I hardly believed what I was seeing. When I say queer, I do mean queer like those whose gender and sexuality aren’t straight, aren’t binary, aren’t quite what most people expected or imagined. But that’s not all I mean. I mean the queerness that belongs to all of us on the margins. All of us who live out our truth in a world that didn’t see us coming.
I don’t mean that the Talmud is necessarily queer or feminist in content—though that does happen sometimes as well! This ancient sacred text was assembled by human hands, limited by their particular historical context and biases. But it is queer nonetheless, in the way it is weird and challenging and brave and relentlessly itself, even in the face of opposition and oppression.
Later, I would encounter the brilliant Talmud teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe, who teaches that the Talmud is a work of queer resilience, an apocalypse-survival handbook. Through her teachings and the teachings of so many who study with her, my vocabulary for these facts would get much more refined.
But on the day I first truly met the Talmud, I felt what I would only later have words for. Queerness was not something Judaism tolerated or or shifted in order to accomodate. Queer people owning and creating Jewish tradition was not something that had happened in the past few years or decades. Marginal people owning and creating Jewish tradition was not new or tenuous or anything that could be stopped. What I had previously perceived as a recent innovation actually went all the way down to Judaism’s roots.
Sitting there, in the beit midrash, I felt like I was breathing air with a higher concentration of oxygen than before. Something that was true inside me was also true on the page and seeing that reflection amplified my own truth, made it more real and easier to claim.
It wasn’t the first time I’d had that feeling. In the age-old tradition of nerdy teens, I spent much of my middle school years hiding in the stacks of libraries, hands reaching for the spines of books. Hands reaching for the spines of my most reliable friends. I know grown ups around me worried sometimes. Was I missing out socially? Was I lonely?
The answer was yes, of course I was lonely—but all that reading was my way out of loneliness. I was reading with a hungry kind of hope that anyone on the margins is likely to recognize. I was seeking queerness in those pages, even a hint of it, a drop, collecting the fragments of a code that might add up to mean that I was not alone. That the truth inside me, the truth I didn’t yet have words for, was real.
It is a deep and particular kind of work to dream the truth of ourselves into being, especially for those of us whose truth is not always affirmed by the wider world. This is the work my twelve-year-old self was doing in the library stacks and my twenty-five-year old self was doing as I studied my first daf, my first page of Talmud.
And that daf told me that Rabbi Elazar said, from the day that the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer were sealed, as it says—in the book of Lamentations—even when I cry out for help, the Holy One shuts out my prayer. Which is to say that Rabbi Elazar imagines a time in our history when we had a direct channel to the Source, and in the cataclysmic moment in the year seventy, when the Temple—the geographic center of Jewish practice at the time—was destroyed, that channel was closed. Even though Rabbi Elazar lived in the time of diasporic Judaism’s formation, his statement tells me he felt alone, cut off from a connection he imagines being available to previous generations.
But he continues: in spite of the fact that the gates of prayer were closed, the gates of tears are never closed, as it says—in Psalm 39—Hear my prayer, Holy One, and lend your ear; You will not be silent at my tears.” Even in a world where connection can be challenging, there is a direct line to the Source that cannot be cut off. Crying out invites accompaniment, companionship, solidarity.
The tears of this gate carry a truth that only later gets put into words. It is the truth of our innermost hopes and fears, of our very being. It is the truth of the dignity within everyone, in our particularity and unity— perhaps especially the truth of those whose humanity and dignity is too often denied in the public discourse. These are tears that cut through static. These tears are the cry of the shofar, opening the gates of the year. This cry cannot be denied. This gate cannot be sealed. When we cry out, when the gate of tears receive those cries, we are no longer alone. What this piece of Talmud teaches is exactly what I was experiencing in the beit midrash and in the library: finding myself right there on the page opened up space inside me. And when I was no longer the sole custodian of my truth, I had so much more capacity to attend to the truth in others.
This is why representation—in leadership, in literature—matters. This is why it is so critically important that we take care with the stories we tell our children, with the stories we tell each other, with the stories we tell ourselves. We owe it to our community to strive to see the truth of each other’s beings, to reflect that truth back, to amplify and affirm its realness. To help each other be less alone.
We live in a time not so different from the one depicted in the Talmud. The structures of society, the way things have been for a long time, are shifting and cracking. It’s hard to tell right now what is falling apart and what has the potential to transform into something new and unimaginably beautiful.
It might be easy to think that we’re outside of the fight, right now, in this hall. Yesterday, today, and in the coming days, indigenous leaders and other local activists are assembling in San Francisco to call for climate justice, to urge the officials meeting this week to use their power to bring about the change we so desperately need. Many in this room were part of yesterday’s massive, fabulous assembly.
Maybe you don’t feel any tension between showing up there and being here in prayer and contemplation, but maybe you do. Maybe it’s hard, at times, to see the connection between this space and the spaces of more concrete action. But what the gate of tears teaches me—what I hope it can teach us—is that turning inward, attending to our internal truths and witnessing those truths together, is every bit as much of the work of healing and change as our outward actions. When we gather to affirm what we hold true and dear, what is real in our world and in ourselves, it opens up so much space.
This is where we come together and cry out, letting the shofar blast open the gates, where we get strong and clear and grounded in our truth so that in the year to come we can do the necessary work in the streets and in our homes, in our online communities and in our local communities, in our paid and unpaid organizing, in our survival and in our growth. We can do the work that brings us towards the world we want to live in, word by word, line by line, one outstretched hand at a time.
As we gather tonight at the gates of the new year, may we be blessed to cry out our own truths and hear the cries of others. May we bear witness to what is real in each other. May we all feel a little less alone. I cannot wait to see what our witnessing and connection make possible. Shanah tovah.