Tackling Talmud at the Queer Yeshiva

A new programme next month promises a fresh perspective on the classic rabbinic text


On Monday week, 60 people will gather at an Essex synagogue for a four-day intensive course on the Talmud. It is the first summer school to be organised by a new educational enterprise, the Queer Yeshiva, which launched earlier this year.

While its unique feature is that it is aimed — particularly but not exclusively — at the LGBT+ community, perhaps what is most remarkable is that it is sold out, demonstrating a wider interest in classical rabbinic literature beyond the Orthodox yeshivah world.

The course draws inspiration from SVARA in Chicago, a “traditionally radical” yeshivah that approaches the Talmud through “the lens of queer experiences”. Credit is also due to the Open Talmud Project, an initiative for young people that began at Moishe House in London more than a decade ago, and which has already spawned another educational venture, the UK’s first egalitarian yeshivah, Azara, which is holding an open day on Sunday.

It was at the Open Talmud Project that two of the four tutors for the Queer Yeshiva first met.

Joanna Phillips, who now works for a disability charity after a spell with the Reform movement, had just returned from her gap year in Israel with BBYO. She was feeling “quite disconnected,” she said. “I felt I didn’t have much of a Jewish community and so I saw this event and felt, that’s something to fill my summer with.

“I had never studied the Talmud before, but I completely fell in love. I never expected to be able to take this text that had been written so long ago and feel it was so incredibly relevant to my life and these really big issues I was grappling with.”

At the Open Talmud Project, she was paired as a chavruta, study partner, with Lev, now Rabbi Taylor, who grew up in the small liberal community of Reading and was ordained by Leo Baeck College just a few weeks ago. For his first three years at the college, “we did Gemara all morning, every morning”, he said, led by Dr Laliv Clenman, “who is an incredible Talmud educator whose love for rabbinic literature is so infectious.”

His rabbinical vocation began at the South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue and the study partners, Ms Phillips said, were “able to go to quite an honest and vulnerable place with each other quite quickly and allowed us to have quite deep conversations”.

In the publicity for the Queer Yeshiva, they describe the Talmud as “a beautiful and subversive text at the heart of traditional Judaism” that was “created by radicals who wanted to reinvent their religion” and “teaches people how to think outside of binaries and assumptions”.

This source of sacred knowledge had been “kept locked by elite straight men”, they said. “We want to break it open.”

For a lot of queer people who “feel on the margins of Jewish life”, said Rabbi Taylor, the programme is an invitation to come in and “talk with your ancestors about fascinating issues — what is justice, what matters, what does a good life look like, how does the people survive?

“Those are such big questions that faced the authors of the Talmud and face us today, and so already it is this really great platform from which to discuss
our experiences.”

And it is an opportunity to do so not as passive consumers of knowledge but as active players who, as they wrestle with the language of the original text, have the freedom to come up with fresh interpretations. The idea for the yeshivah emerged as “a pipedream between me and Jo during lockdown”, Rabbi Taylor said. They founded a small group and earlier this year began their first weekly series, with online sessions led by Ms Phillips and Rabbi Taylor taking classes in person.

“The massive advantage of online was that it meant we could reach people all over the country,” Ms Phillips said.

Some of the participants said they “were living in places where there really isn’t much going on in Jewish life and certainly not Talmud learning”. As with Rabbi Taylor’s class, “nearly all of them had not studied Talmud before”.

Their studies included “fascinating discussions” around the body and “what if your body doesn’t look like what norm is for a body”, she said. “We talked about issues of disability and things like that. It was a very radical reading of the text and reimagining what bodies are and can do — that, I think, may not come out of a group that wasn’t approaching the text in this way, that was so explicitly from the margins.”

Their choice of text for the summer programme might, on the face of it, seem rather obscure: it is a section from tractate Sanhedrin about letaher et hasheretz “to purify the creepy-crawly”, as Rabbi Taylor explained it.

On the one hand, there is the notion that the sheretz is “completely unclean and can’t be purified”, he said.

And yet the Talmud makes it a condition for a judge to sit on a court with the power to pass a capital sentence that he “has to be able to purify the sheretz, make that creepy-crawly clean.

“I think that’s wonderful. For some of us, it is a way of seeing ourselves as the people who get to decide what is clean or unclean, as a way to undo some of that trauma that many queer people have about feeling excluded, unclean, unwelcome. Some of us see the sheretz in ourselves, as that creepy-crawly thing from the Bible that couldn’t possibly be purified and yet here the Talmud is doing it.

“Here we are, doing it ourselves by studying the Talmud in that way.”

The number of people who responded to their initiative was a surprise, he added.

“I knew there was some demand for it, I didn’t know that there was that much demand for it. It is so exciting. I think there was a time when people thought that Talmud was this really niche activity that nobody was interested in.”

People were “crying out for access to their tradition and to their texts in a way that they haven’t done in a long time,” he said. “It is a wonderful time to be a Jew in Britain”.

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