This past week I gathered (online!) with 160 fellow queer Talmud nerds at the first-ever Queer Talmud Camp: Diaspora Edition. It is our practice to begin every camp with what is known as The CRASH talk, in which Rabbi Benay Lappe gives over her core theology. (If you have never heard it, I highly recommend it.)
Crash begins with the premise that all human beings share the same basic big questions of life. [Insert your own!] Benay then goes on to explain that every religion comes into being to answer those core questions by developing a master story. But every master story will eventually and inevitably crash. Which births an even bigger question: How do we respond to the crisis of a crash?
There is no question we are living through a crash. We are undoubtedly living through many crashes. The collapse of public education; the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; the fear and uncertainty of this uncontained, deadly virus; rising sea levels and tropical storms. And we are called to respond to the many crashes. To be unbelievably responsive. I entered my time off with one primary question: What will it take to center and ground myself for the year ahead? I had a few goals -- daily yoga, limited screen time, lots of ice cream, and very few time-bound obligations.
As it turns out, our spiritual ancestors were also living through a seemingly endless series of crashes and they recorded both their questions and their answers to the same overarching big question: How do we stay whole in the face of unbelievable brokenness?
At Queer Talmud Camp, we began our learning with a mishnah (found on Kiddushin 40b in the Talmud Bavli) that suggests that a person who is steeped in mikra / scripture, mishnah / oral teachings, and derekh eretz / ethical living will be slow to miss the mark and cause harm. How do we know this? the text asks. Because it says in Tanakh, "A braided (literally 3-ply) cord does not easily fray" (Kohelet 4:12).
I was struck by this image because it is the opposite of how I have been feeling. These past five months, I have felt utterly frayed. Between parenting, protesting, and working (not to mention worrying!), there have been few moments when I have been able to offer my dedicated attention to any one thing. I have felt pulled in every direction, utterly distracted by the competing needs for my attention and the endless hours staring at my computer. And that takes a toll. And has led me in many moments to miss the mark. And so it begs the question, What can I do to center and ground myself? What can we do to bolster ourselves?
As it turns out, the Mishnah not only provides the image but also the answer. According to the Mishnah, we need to focus our attention and dedicate our time and energy in three ways. First, spend time learning our inherited tradition -- mikra. Second, cultivate our relationship to an interpretive tradition -- mishnah. And lastly, engage deeply with the world around us -- derekh eretz. And in this way, we will stay more deeply connected to ourselves, our Source, and our purpose.
In this time when we are called to take action, let us not think that what is needed is activism instead of dedicated contemplative spiritual practices. But rather, activism born out of our spiritual practice. We need to be in deep relationship with mikra and mishnah in order to be in right relationship with derekh eretz.
This is what we are to aspire to. To see ourselves, like the braided cord, woven together at our core, so that we can live lives of meaning and purpose. As we prepare to enter this new year together, I am very much looking forward to tightening our weave by deepening our personal and collective practices.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.