A mountaintop in Vermont may not be the most typical setting for Talmudic debate.
But for one pair of study-buddies, it’s the perfect place to connect over the ancient Jewish text. Every week, 20-something Maddy drives up to where cellphone reception is clear, Talmud and dictionaries on the passenger seat, and calls 60-something Sandy in New Jersey for their weekly chavruta, the Aramaic word for this type of two-person study group.
Maddy and Sandy first met in August at the Perlstein Retreat Center in Lake Delton, Wis. for a unique annual summer Talmud experience hosted by Svara, a “traditionally radical yeshiva” based in Chicago. Maddy and Sandy’s mountaintop “classroom” bears out Svara’s philosophy: Talmud can be savored anywhere, anytime, by anyone curious enough to open the 2,000-year-old record of how Jewish law was debated and interpreted to keep Judaism alive in exile.
“Svara” is a Hebrew word, referring to an opinion or a plausible reason. The term is used by observant Jews in connection with interpreting Jewish law.
Svara, the organization, was founded in 2003 by Rabbi Benay Lappe, ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1997. Lappe serves as Svara’s director. The yeshiva is both dedicated to studying Talmud and committed to the queer experience, defined by Lappe as that of an outsider – whether because of gender expression, sexual orientation, disability, race and so forth.
As a queer person in rabbinical school, Lappe was most struck by the sections of Talmud where the rabbis shone as radical innovators, guiding the Jewish people through a period of seismic change. Lappe sees them as abrogating the Torah when necessary.
“I came to understand the Talmud not as a code for how to live your life, but as a handbook for how to take a tradition and make it better,” Lappe said. “I believe that the Talmud was the rabbis’ attempt to hand down to future generations the record of how they did what they did, knowing that in future times of enormous change, future leaders would need to make similar kinds of radical change, and that it would be very helpful for those leaders to know that they can stand on the shoulders of insiders from the past.”
Rabbinical student and Milwaukee native Nom Lerman attended the original 2013 retreat and returned to QTC at Lake Delton in 2015 and 2016.
“Svara is the only yeshiva I know of that has a woman as the rosh yeshiva, and queer women and transgender people teaching Jewish text and having educational and organizational power,” Lerman said. “Part of Rabbi Benay’s core teaching is that, as Talmud-learners, we bring our own Svara – life stories and experiences – to the table. We get to be part of the winding conversations shared between the Rabbis, inserting ourselves into the sichat hadorot, the conversation between the generations.”
The camp draws students from 30 U.S. states and four countries who range in age, religious background, and gender expression, Lappe said.
“Talmud – the thickest, smartest, most sophisticated version of what it means to be a Jewish human being – has traditionally been given to just one percent of us: male, Orthodox, straight, Jewishly educated to a high degree, and practicing and observing in a particular way,” Lappe said. “Svara exists to bring that version to the other 99 percent, along with the experience of learning it in its most powerful form – in the original.”
For one Perlstein alumnus who requested anonymity, the camp provided a long-sought welcome into Jewish community: “Living in southeast Wisconsin, there are plenty of places to learn Talmud, but none where I could bring my whole self and my husband.”
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Queer Talmud Camp will return to Lake Delton from Aug. 5-9, 2018. For more information: Svara.org.