Rabbi Benay Lappe leading a May 22-23 SVARA workshop at Palo Alto JCC (Photo/Michael Kohn)
Rabbi Benay Lappe leading a May 22-23 SVARA workshop at Palo Alto JCC (Photo/Michael Kohn)

Chicago rabbi in Palo Alto: ‘Queer lens’ on Talmud could revitalize faith

“Queer Talmud Nerd.” Those three words on the cover of a welcome pack greeted a couple of dozen folks last week at an offbeat Talmud study workshop in Palo Alto. The phrase is one way to describe the organizer of the workshop, Rabbi Benay Lappe, who uses nontraditional methods to inspire people to re-engage with Judaism.

Over the course of the May 22-23 workshop at the Oshman Family JCC, part of the JCC’s Architects of the Jewish Future series, Lappe sought to empower participants with the knowledge and tools needed to read Talmud.

“Learning the Talmud is the core spiritual practice of our people,” said Lappe, arguing it provides a better spiritual connection with God than reciting prayers. She believes modern-day Judaism needs a new way of learning in order to stay relevant in an age dominated by everything DIY.

Lappe, ordained by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, is the founder of Chicago-based Svara, described on the website as a “traditionally radical yeshiva” dedicated to Talmud study through a queer lens. One goal of her project is to shed the notion that prayer must be led by a rabbi. Instead she gives individuals the opportunity to learn texts themselves in the hope that a small army of highly engaged individuals will usher in a renaissance of Judaism.

The talmudic text studied was Shabbat 88, the image of God enclosing the Jews beneath Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:17).

At the workshop, participants were paired according to their Hebrew language skill level, then asked to translate the text and decipher the meaning of a section of the Midrash. They flipped through dictionaries, examined words using alphabet converters and scribbled notes as they studied the text. Afterward, the group debated the meaning of the text, concluding the passage involved a double entendre.

Rabbi Benay Lappe leading a May 22-23 SVARA workshop at Palo Alto JCC (Photo/Michael Kohn)

“There was a great joy in learning, in this community that brought Israelis and Americans together,” Bruce Feldstein, a Jewish chaplain and physician at Stanford Medicine, said after the workshop. “The way she laid out the materials and presented the steps to study the Talmud was really impressive. In previous attempts to study the Talmud, I would feel lost or left behind, but she created an atmosphere that allowed us to start at any level.”

Participant Daniel Libenson, a law professor and co-host of the podcast Judaism Unbound, which partners with the JCC, agreed that Judaism is being remade at a grassroots level and admitted the source of these changes are somewhat unusual.

“If you would have said to anybody 15 years ago that we would have a Jewish world [in which] LGBT people and straight people would be sitting in a room defined by the queer experience and studying Talmud in the original Aramaic, even though half the people don’t speak any Hebrew or Aramaic … no one would have believed you,” he said.

Lappe, who has studied Buddhism and whose hobbies include flying airplanes and shoemaking, pointed out that radical changes in Judaism go back centuries.

She referenced events from the first century, as well as changes that occurred after the destruction of the Second Temple. At that time, after the disappearance of the Temple and the priests, rabbis emerged, founding small synagogues and study groups. This was a clean break from the establishment of the past.

Learning the Talmud is the core spiritual practice of our people.

While the destruction of the Temple stands as the most notable crash in Jewish history, a less-visible one is occurring today, Lappe told the group. That contemporary “crash,” as she describes it, is occurring mostly on an individual level as Jews leave the faith. They leave because what she calls the Jewish “master story” — as gleaned from Genesis and the moral codes, and passed on through families and traditional sources — no longer answers the questions they ask about life. As individuals “crash” out of the religion, the entire faith is also headed for a crash, she added.

She described three possible reactions to such a crash: denying it and clinging for dear life to tradition; discarding the master story in favor of a different one; or working with the story to retell it and make it better.

The master story will begin to crash for the queerest folk first, said Lappe, defining queer as not only people among the LGBT community but also those who have an “outsider experience,” such as people of color or the disabled. After that, she said, the faith will crash for Jews of all other stripes.

However, the “queer, fringy, radical hippie guys who accept the crash go back to the driving questions and retell the master story,” said Lappe. This will result in a radically different religion in the future, she added.

What that future Jewish religion will exactly look like is unknown, but for Lappe it will be a more communal and inclusive faith that looks to alternative ideas for inspiration.

“I am trying to speak to those on the margins and let them see that the insight they have gained from being marginalized are essential and critical to the tradition and it’s important that they see themselves as having a prophetic voice,” she said. “Revolutions are always created by those on the margins and I want to empower those on the margins to see themselves as change makers.”

Michael Kohn
Michael Kohn

Michael Kohn is a Bay Area-based freelance reporter and has written about Israel for Lonely Planet.