Torah as a radical act. What happens to Judaism – and to us – when we break that ancient conversation wide open can be truly radical.
Growing up, an interfaith, secular-leaning Jewish kid from Utah, I was reasonably active in my local Jewish community, but I had never heard the word “Talmud.” At some point, the Rabbi mentioned it in his sermon – and I was nerdy/bookish enough that I went to look for it with my step-Dad at Barnes and Noble. They did not have a copy. I let it go.
In college, I rediscovered the Talmud, but basically, the only thing I knew about it was that it wasn’t for me. Talmud was something, apparently an important something, but it was something studied by men, Orthodox men, straight men who had twelve years of day school education and a couple of years in yeshiva under their belts. Certainly not something for a person like me, no matter how curious I might be.
Then, one day, a friend, an accomplished Talmud studier herself, pulled a section off her shelf and cracked it open in front of me. “You know you are allowed to read this, right?” she said. I had no idea. We started. It made no sense. But fun and fascinating and beautiful and intellectually rigorous no sense. I was hooked.
The rest is ongoing history. I have now spent many years studying Talmud, and hope to do so for many more years. I now can tell you that the Babylonian Talmud is the core text of Rabbinic Judaism, a gorgeous scramble of case law and legal debate and stories and narratives of many kinds. It is the highly edited transcript of hundreds of years of great rabbinic debates at a moment of incredible foment and formation. It is a record of the rabbinic tools and process for reinventing Judaism for their time and circumstances, for staking a claim for their leadership of the Jewish world. It is still often hard to read, and it continues to be gripping to study.
I also now know that the Talmud is a tool of power. Knowing what’s in it and how to read it allows you to jump into – and thus influence – the conversation about what Judaism is and should be because that conversation often takes the discussions of the Talmud as its jumping-off point. And for most of the 1500+ year history of this text, it has only been accessible to a very small group of elite Jewish men. Grabbing that power, demanding a seat at the table, particularly if you are a woman, or queer, or in any other of a number of ways have been excluded and alienated from this text and our tradition – is a radical and moving act.
So: if that idea speaks to you, I hope you will join me in reclaiming the texts and wisdom that are ours. I hope you will consider expanding and growing our tradition by adding your voice to it.
There are lots of ways to get started, but here’s one: join me at Base LNCLN on Tuesday evenings starting May 17 and running through July. We’ll be studying parts of the section of the Talmud called Sanhedrin, which deals with fascinating questions having to do with capital punishment and criminal intent. Our focus will be on skill-building (learning how to learn Talmud), the radical nature of the rabbinic tradition, the cultivation of Talmud study as a spiritual practice, and grappling with the contemporary implications of our sugya (section).
All you need to participate is the ability to recognize Hebrew characters (and if you don’t have that yet, you can connect yourself with resources to learn them before we start!) and you will be studying in the original (no translations!) by the first session. I promise. And if you’ve learned Talmud before – I promise you will be drawn in by this new approach pioneered by SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, as I have been.
Our learning will be rigorous *and* warm and supportive. It will center our life experiences and identities *and* listening deeply to the wisdom of the texts. Each session will combine chevruta learning (studying in pairs) and unpacking the text in a shiur (full group discussion). If this is for you, sign up here. If you think it might be for you contact me at email@example.com and let’s talk.
Meet Rabbi Sarah
Rabbi Sarah Mulhern serves as the Rabbi of Base LNCLN, opening her home and her heart to young adults in Lincoln Park, Chicago. She passionately believes that the Torah matters and that Judaism can enrich human life and better society. Be in touch! Learn more about BASE Lincoln Park and contact Rabbi Sarah (firstname.lastname@example.org) directly for more.