How SVARA Is Making Talmudic Learning Accessible

My first solo outing as a new mom was to a gathering of queer Jews studying Talmud in a heimisch, if simple, room in Brooklyn. It was September 2019, back when gathering with a bunch of unmasked folks for hummus, tortilla chips, and Talmud study was a harmless activity. The gathering was part of an Elul series hosted by SVARA, the yeshiva that creates space within which LGBTQ+ folks study Talmud.

I was nervous about attending — I hadn’t really hung out with adults in a few months (besides my wife and my parents), and I hadn’t studied Talmud since high school. Would there be someone there fluent in Hebrew who I could study with? Would I, an Israeli Jew of American heritage, find my footing in an atmosphere that was made for and by folks of the diaspora? Being a bleary-eyed new mom, would I manage to read a difficult text and have any original ideas? As I stepped inside, my heart was like a marching band in my chest. 

I needn’t have been so concerned. At the door, I was greeted by one of the hosts, who grinned and offered me a folder, emblazoned with the words “fall in love with your tradition.” In it were all the papers I’d need for the evening. SVARA had also provided dictionaries, and upon entering I was asked to choose a sticker in a color that represented my level of Hebrew comprehension. In this way, we could all pair off into Chevrutot (study groups or partners) without putting anyone on the spot. 

‘We’ turned out to be a group of smiley, chatty queer folks of all stripes and all Jewish backgrounds. I’d guess that there were about 20 of us there that evening. Laynie Soloman, Associate Rosh Yeshiva, brought those of us who hadn’t attended previous sessions up to speed with a lively introduction. We discussed a section from a daf (page of Talmud) that discussed the idea, brought forth by Rish la-Kish, that sins can become righteous deeds by virtue of true and honest repentance. It was Elul, the season of introspection that comes before Yom Kippur. All too soon, the time came for me to head home—my baby was due to nurse—and so I snuck out the back, wishing I could stay for more. I hadn’t felt so alive with Jewish thought in ages. 

As I drove home, the writer in me thought about how more people need to know about this magic community. 

Recently, I got to speak to Soloman again. We spoke (over Zoom, this time) about the work that SVARA has been doing amidst the madness of pandemic life, how the yeshiva came into their life, and what it means to be a SVARA-nik. 

Soloman is bright-eyed, the kind of person who you just know has both a really good heart and a very sharp mind, from the moment you meet. We laughed a little about the travails of doing all our work on Zoom; they have the same room partition as I have at home, the kind that folds out and hides the mess in your house from whomever you’re meeting with.

Growing up outside Philadelphia, they’d been surrounded by Jewish culture, despite their family not being particularly adherent to Jewish laws. “We went to shul every Shabbas, and then went out to brunch,” they said, by way of explanation. The Jewish culture and tradition was “thick” on the ground around them. Beyond going to shul, for example, they also attended Jewish summer camp every year for a decade. As a result, it wasn’t a total surprise when Soloman ended up engaged in Jewish education. “It felt like a natural trajectory,” they told me, explaining that after a brief stint studying Talmud full time at Yeshivat Hadar on the Upper West Side they ended up at Rabbinical school. 

It was around then, circa 2013, that Soloman found SVARA at a minyan-sized gathering in Rabbi Benay Lappe’s home. Rabbi Lappe was the one to pioneer SVARA’s particular method of study, and Soloman was attending a retreat with two friends. “It changed my life,” they told me. When I asked if it was the study or the people attending the retreat that had been a game-changer, they answered that it was “everything, just the whole soup.”

These were the early days of SVARA, and, although it was already what Soloman calls a “consistent learning community,” the organization was still finding its exact footing. That is to say, the community largely rested upon the shoulders of Rabbi Lappe. Scaling the community up meant that community members would have to figure out a way to teach the SVARA-esque way of approaching the text so that it could be replicated in communities around the country. 

Soloman, Rabbi Lappe, and many other SVARA-niks began asking themselves what it would look like to teach in this way. “We started to gather thoughts, dream dreams, about what it would look like to train teachers,” they said, “How do we recreate this soup?”

You may be wondering what’s so special about this soup, and the truth is that it’s not a secret spice blend or a few magic ingredients. It’s more like a rethinking of what it means to be soup, or what it originally meant to be soup. Originally, they believe, the rabbis of the Talmud were engrossed in the process of challenging and rethinking text. To them, studying didn’t mean learning verses of Torah by rote; studying was about being actively engaged with how the text could be understood in their time. Who’s to say that we can’t think about studying in this exact way, in our time?

Soloman described the idea as being, “invested not in getting people to know things but in how they get to know things.” In other words, it’s not about the bowl of soup, it’s about the time the ingredients spend together in the pot.  

“We forgot about the radical relationship that the Rabbis have with the text,” Soloman told me, and I nodded because, if you’ve read a daf, this makes total sense. After all, what is the Talmud if not an ancient text that encourages the art of challenging the status quo? The Rabbis are, quite literally, disagreeing and challenging one another’s perceptions of the Torah on every single page. SVARA-niks are asking a simple question: why aren’t we engaging with the text this way in the modern-day? This is what SVARA-niks mean when they say that their work is “traditionally radical.” It is a radical restoration of the inherently Jewish tradition of growth through engaging with adversity. 

In practice, this method has two basic levels. First, providing the materials (dictionaries and such) that empower learners to translate the text for themselves. This, in itself, is a revolutionary statement to many who have grown up in institutions that tell them what the Hebrew (or Aramaic) text means. By acknowledging multiple translations, this first level recognizes Hebrew and Aramaic for the multidimensional languages that they are, and trusts learners to create their individual meanings. 

Once learners have translated the text, the second level commences: Reclamation of what the text might mean to LGBTQ+ Jewish folks sitting at a table (or on a Zoom call) together in the 21st century. In an open letter to learners on SVARA’s website, Rabbi Lappe says that this is “the place where so many of us realize that we were not just going to be allowed to sit at the table of Jewish learning and decision-making, but that it is essential that we be there.” This second level of meaning-making is what I believe that she meant when she wrote those words. 

When it comes down to it, we cannot evolve as a faith unless we acknowledge the richness of experience that all of our members bring to the table. And we must evolve. The Rabbis of the Talmud, Chazal, knew this—that’s why they engaged in the intellectually rigorous practice that we can read on every Talmudic page. Every day brings with it new sugiyot (issues) that can be turned over and over, viewed through the prism of Jewish law and, therefore, better understood. To deny ourselves this radically traditional, this oh so queer, way of challenging the status quo is to deny ourselves the birthright of every Jewish person—to practice a living, breathing religion.  

These days, SVARA’s educators are bringing their transformational learning sessions to thousands of people around the United States. The pandemic, and resultant shift to online learning, has actually made it easier to access more people, and now they are engaging with more than 7,000 learners nationwide. You don’t have to be queer to participate; allies are welcome, although the organization makes sure that 90 percent of those at any gathering identify as LGBTQ+ in some way. Every day, at 1:30 p.m. EST, they host a drop-in Mishnah Collective learning session. Anyone can register and spend 30 minutes discussing the Mishnah with a group of SVARA-niks. 

Soloman recognizes what SVARA is doing as part of a larger cultural shift that society is seeing, in which people are reclaiming the practices of their ancestors and making them their own. For them, the future is wide and full of possibilities. “The exciting part,” they told me, “is not seeing which direction people choose, but how they made that choice.”