A “Brady Bunch” view of eleven smiling faces filled the screen, as lively debate pinged about, and Fellows quoted complex academic articles about the Talmud. How does the reader transform what’s being read? In what ways do our experiences as learners and teachers shape the content we’re teaching? These are some of the questions that animate our personal inquiry and exploration about the nature of Talmud through conventional interpretations. We know these interpretations serve as a placeholder for the stories and frameworks yet to be written for and by us.
This is a scene from the monthly book club of SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva’s second cohort of our Teaching Kollel, a two-year fellowship that is training queer and trans leaders and educators to create bet midrash communities of their own, inspired by SVARA’s methodology and approach to democratized Talmud learning. The Fellows hail from across the country (and the world!), and bring with them varying degrees of formal Talmud study and represent a multivocal and diverse array of Jewish journeys. The thing that they all have in common is a commitment to, through the practice of Talmud study, centering and lifting up the marginalized voices that have historically been missing from Jewish learning spaces.
At SVARA, we see the Talmud as a blueprint for personal and social transformation, handed down through generations to help guide us toward solutions and dispositions that can make the world a better place in the present moment. And we see the bet midrash as a cornerstone of Jewish spiritual practice and meaning-making, where we are building a movement of players—leaders, rabbis, educators, artists, and activists—who see the Talmud as a primary vehicle toward a more just and vibrant Jewish future.
Democratized Learning From the Talmud Itself
The Talmud tells the tale of two rabbis, Rabbi anina and Rabbi iya, who were Torah comrades, learning in chevruta together and often engaging in great debates. When their debates would reach a peak, Rabbi anina would declare his superiority by saying to his friend, “Do you dare to debate with me?! If God forbid, the Torah were forgotten by the Jewish people, I myself could restore it alone through my powers of analysis and intellectual acumen!” Rabbi Hiya would respond, “Do you dare to debate with me? I prevent the Torah from being forgotten by the Jewish people.”
In other words, none of your intellectual acumens has any relevance, because I prevent the Torah from being forgotten in the first place! In contrast, to sustain the legacy of Jewish learning, Rabbi Hiya takes a process-oriented approach: he travels to the cities on the outskirts of town to find groups of young children. To each child, he teaches one of the five books of the Torah, and to another group, he teaches each child one of the six orders of the Mishnah, saying to the group, “Until I return, each of you should teach each other what you know,” knowing full well he will never return.
Rabbi Hiya was a SVARA-nik, and his teaching paves the way for an approach to Talmud study that embodies our core values. The Kollel reflects these values, rooting us in an ancient lineage and giving us a deep sense of hope for the future.
Shift the role of teacher from expert scholar to facilitator of learning.
The key to the survival of the tradition, according to this Talmudic tale, happens when Rabbi Hiya takes a back seat. Unlike his adversary, Rabbi Hanina, who offers a vision of leadership that relies on a singular expert-scholar, Rabbi Hiya actually ensures the flourishing of Torah by getting out of the way. His insights, intellectual acumen, and personal expertise are decentralized in this story, which offers an alternative that we invite our Fellows to embody in their learning and teaching; good teaching is not about being an expert, it is instead about modeling “public learning.”
“Your job,” we tell our Fellows, “is to make your own learning transparent to the rest of the folks in the bet midrash.” Successful learning in this method shouldn’t engender a feeling among participants of “WOW, that person is so smart! I could never be like them!” That’s the old, tired, Rabbi Hanina way. It keeps power localized to the teacher, and doesn’t invest in the process of raising up new learners and leaders. Instead, learners should feel, “WOW! I can be like that person!”
Make Talmud accessible to those on the margins of our communities who have been denied access.
For centuries, Talmud has been learned by approximately 1% of the Jewish population. Like Rabbi Hiya, we’re all about bringing Talmud to the 99%. Rabbi Hiya travels to the outskirts of town, finding children who presumably had not had any prior learning. He invests all of his time in that population, rather than heading to the elite academies to support the learning of the already-immersed rabbinic scholars.
Our faculty, our Fellows, and all of our students who learn in our batei midrash belong to this 99%, and it is because of this that our learning spaces are so vibrant and full of joy. One student shared, “to... be here feels like coming home.”
Create communities that teach each other / foster a learning space of empowerment.
In the intro session for our second cohort of Fellows, each person was called upon to reflect on the most impactful teacher they’d ever had. By and large, the theme that emerged was the teacher’s willingness to see their students as their true selves. Each of our Faculty members and Fellows hold this openness to their students as a core value, and we see this reflected in the way our students respond to the learning environment. Like the children that Rabbi Hiya charged with the responsibility of teaching each other, we are committed to supporting our Fellows and their students on their journeys to take the Talmud they’re learning and actively translate its lessons into building an empowered Jewish community today.
The history of Talmud is being re-written. By changing who the transmitters of our tradition are, we’re changing the way the tradition is transmitted and therefore transforming the tradition itself. Our Fellows are leading SVARA-Method batei midrash across the country, expanding the reach of this learning, and ensuring that the tools to shape our tradition land in as many hands as possible. This is the work that drives us each day, that keeps us rooted as we navigate the uncertainty and complexity of our world. We hope you’ll join us in reshaping this powerful tradition, either in the bet midrash or in the Teaching Kollel, and together we will bring about a new Jewish future.
Laynie is a passionate teacher of Jewish text, thought, and tradition, and they believe deeply in the power of Talmud study as a healing and liberatory spiritual practice. They are the Director of National Learning at SVARA and the program director of the Teaching Kollel.
Ayana is a community builder and change agent, whose work focuses on sustainable organizational growth and designing authentic community experiences. She is the Executive Director of SVARA.