“I don’t think the students who come to SVARA are coming primarily to learn Talmud–they’re not sitting at home, wishing they could learn Talmud–they are wishing that they could fall in love with the Jewish Tradition. And SVARA offers them that: They find a tradition that is smart, bold, courageous. They come because this is the place where they love doing their Jewish.”
-Rabbi Benay Lappe
SVARA seeks to engage, educate, and empower a community of learned and innovative players—people who transform the Jewish world into a more creative, representative, and engaging place. SVARA offers accessible, complex, and highly accountable traditional Jewish education from a Queer perspective. SVARA presents Talmud as the best way to instill confidence, a feeling of authenticity, and love for Judaism in the Bet Midrash. SVARA consciously recruits diverse learners and creates a learning experience in which students are responsible for each other’s learning and bonded across traditional lines. SVARA builds mutually beneficial partnerships with other Jewish organizations, in which our partners draw on their membership to fill classrooms and SVARA, in turn, is able to reinvigorate established organizations and to help to build new educated, grounded communities.
SVARA is named for the Jewish concept that moral intuition informed by serious Jewish learning is a source of Jewish law that can “trump” Torah. SVARA’s work follows the direction of the Rabbis of the Talmud, who were willing to make radical moves—sometimes overturning the Torah itself—to make Judaism more meaningful, compassionate, and responsive to the human condition. Through rigorous short- and long-term Talmud learning programs, SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva builds and activates a radically inclusive and interpretive community of ‘players’ who seek to restore Judaism to its radical roots so that it might once again be a voice of courageous moral conscience in the world and reflect the truest possible vision of what it means to be human.
SVARA’s commitment to the Queer experience means that people who have traditionally experienced Judaism as an outsider—in any conceivable way—can find a home, learn to give voice to their narrative from within the Jewish story, and gain the necessary text skills and halachic (Jewish legal) expertise to enrich, push, and contribute to the evolving Jewish tradition. Through short and long-term learning, those who were once outsiders become trustworthy, courageous, and authentic transmitters of the tradition.
Mastery of Talmud confers a legitimacy and confidence in one’s leadership that cannot be gained otherwise. Through traditional methods of study in the original Aramaic and Hebrew, SVARA develops and empowers innovative Jewish change agents who are then learned, empathetic, and experienced in both worldly and Jewish sources, thereby creating a dynamic, inclusive, and accessible tradition.
SVARA’s name comes from the 2,000-year-old Jewish concept that one’s moral intuition informed by serious Jewish learning—together called svara—is not only a legitimate source of Jewish law, but can even “trump” Torah. Svara has been central to the philosophy and evolution of the Jewish tradition for two millennia and underlies the unique nature of Jewish thinking itself, but has been carefully guarded and virtually hidden by talmudic scholars and rabbis in recent times–until now.
In the ten years since its founding, thousands of students have learned at SVARA and participated in its vision through SVARA’s year-round weekly shiurim (classes) in Chicago, and intensive weekend and week-long bet midrash programs hosted by Jewish and secular institutions around the country.
All texts are taught in the original Hebrew/Aramaic, but most classes are open to students who have no experience in Talmud study and minimal Hebrew skills. An ability to decode the Hebrew alphabet (merely sound out the letters without comprehension) is the only requirement for most classes. Students are taught how to use Talmud dictionaries and reference works and given supplementary materials to help them along. Learning is done b’chevruta, in paired partnership, and students learn to master the texts to the point of “ownership.”
At SVARA, we strive to create a space in which folks historically excluded from the tradition can engage in intimate and intense conversation with it—and each other—through serious text study and dialogue. We are a place where complex and challenging issues get brought to the table with love, compassion, and honesty. To that end, SVARA works to imagine a just world and strives to model such a world within its walls. We ask its learners to be active participants with us in that act of ongoing creation.
1. The serious study of Talmud. To learn how to learn. In order to achieve this goal, a rigorous approach to the acquisition of text skills is followed. Attention is paid to the vocabulary and technical structures of the talmudic sugya as well as to the deeper messages of the Rabbis whose ultimate concern in creating this new tradition and this new record of it—the Talmud—was not so much how to act but, rather, how to think.
2. To help our students gain insight into what is most deeply Jewish about Judaism. In other words, how does the “Jewish system” work? This goal of our learning is to discern—and resuscitate in order to apply to Judaism today—those radical principles of the Jewish tradition which have been long submerged or reserved only for the elite rabbinic class in every generation. The texts we study are, typically, representative examples—and reflections—of the traditionally radical nature of Judaism and the Jewish legal tradition, texts which reveal the deepest values of the Jewish tradition. We attempt to gain insight into the rabbinic mind and the ongoing endeavor of the Jewish tradition to “upgrade” Torah in every generation. Students witness, firsthand, how courageously and radically this transformation has been carried out over the past two thousand years and how it might continue in this traditionally radical fashion today.
3. To help our students gain the confidence and halachic (Jewish legal) expertise to enter into the communal Jewish conversation on a sophisticated level. Our hope is to begin to nurture a cadre of Queer “players” who will bring their insights and life experience to bear on the reinterpretation of Judaism today using a traditionally radical, i.e., Rabbinic, approach.
4. To expose our students to the experience of Talmud study as a spiritual practice. While the content of the texts themselves is a crucial component of our learning, the process of learning from the original talmudic texts, b’chevruta (with a study partner), is at the core of the millennia-old spiritual practice known in the Jewish tradition as derech ha-shas, The Way of the Talmud, whose ultimate goal is self-awareness and the ability to access otherwise inaccessible inner truths.
5. To create interpretive communities in which Queer folk can engage with Judaism as a courageous and radical tradition. We hope to inspire and equip our students with the necessary text skills to set up for themselves batei midrash (study halls) in which they can continue to learn on their own to penetrate, challenge, enrich and contribute to the continuity of the evolving Jewish textual tradition—and be challenged, enriched, and shaped by it.