Traveling queer yeshiva hits the books

As a way to ease the tension of Talmudic study, the rebbes at Svara often wear fairy wings — which should be the tip-off that this is not your ordinary yeshiva.

But make no mistake, despite the degree of levity invoked with costumes, Svara takes its studies very seriously.

And at the end of last month, Svara, which calls itself a “queer yeshiva,” sponsored a weekend of Talmudic study at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Lisa Szer, of San Francisco, a 53-year-old who participated, has always identified as a Jew, but said that coming out as a lesbian changed everything.

“I felt I was breaking the worst of all rules,” she said.

But after beginning to study the Talmud from a queer perspective, she said, “I understand that those rules and decisions were made by human beings, and they could be wrong, and that I could actually be right. And that it actually is in God’s image to be a lesbian.”

The group is led by Rabbi Benay Lappe, a 1997 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where, she said, “I had to be in the closet because then, as now, JTS did not accept openly queer people.”

Svara is a rabbinic term that Lappe defined as “an internal ethical impulse informed by Jewish learning.”

Lappe — who continually emphasizes the word “queer,” as opposed to gay or lesbian — founded the yeshiva in Chicago two years ago with Ellie Knepler, a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia.

Until that point, Lappe said, Jewish educational programs could be divided into two categories: yeshivas that offered in-depth learning where LGBTs “weren’t welcomed,” and those where they “were tolerated or welcomed, but where the learning wasn’t serious.”

While LGBT Jewish groups have proliferated in recent years, Svara is believed to be the only one whose focus is Talmud study.

Svara has expanded beyond Chicago to include joint programming with the Center for Jewish Studies at the GTU at U.C. Berkeley. Its latest innovation is a sort of road show that brought it here, as well as to New York.

Lappe says that at these new Jewish studies programs, queers are more than just observers and can study Talmud through the prism of their own personal experience.

“In those places that queer Jews are most welcome, they are merely welcome — they are not recognized as essential in providing insights into life experiences that are crucial to our understanding of the Jewish tradition,” said Lappe.

Svara’s learning does not differ much from more mainstream outlets in the methods used to read Jewish texts, but in the perspectives students bring to the texts.

“The presentation of the text is really no different — what’s different is what happens in shiur [the lesson], when the students begin to integrate the text themselves,” Lappe said. “Svara recognizes queer Jews as absolutely essential.”

Miriam Grant, a 26-year-old San Franciscan who grew up observant, had never seen anything like this before.

Grant identifies as queer, noting that the term describes not only her sexuality, but her worldview and politics. She said that she appreciates having a space to discuss, for example, the offending line in Leviticus that a man should not lie with another man.

There’s a tendency among the more liberal Jewish institutions to just say “‘Let’s kick that out of the tradition,’ but that’s not very meaningful because it’s there,” said Grant.

“Part of [what makes Svara meaningful] is having the space to look at who we are as a people and our history in a really honest way. It’s liberating to really look at that because there is so much complexity.”

Steven I. Weiss writes for JTA in New York. Alexandra J. Wall is a staff writer for j.