Talmud Study and Transformative Theology: Laynie Soloman

“When you learn, you feel more whole, more joyful, and you feel called in to creating these conditions for others,” said Laynie Soloman, who received an MA from The William Davidson School in 2020 and now serves as the associate rosh yeshiva and director of transformative leadership at SVARA, a traditionally radical yeshiva dedicated to the serious study of Talmud through the lens of queer experiences.

Teaching sacred texts, for Soloman, should be an empowering experience. “I see my work as a teacher as being in pursuit of connection, of grounded-ness,” they said. 

Soloman grew up in a mainstream Conservative synagogue, attended Reform summer camp, NFTY, and USY, and gained a sense of piety and religious curiosity from family. “My whole life I felt a calling to religious questioning,” said Soloman.

The draw to Talmud study emerged, surprisingly, out of a deep engagement with Christian liberation theology[1] while an undergraduate at Goucher College. “As I studied progressive theological expressions, I felt drawn to a deeper relationship with sacredness, with God, and with justice,” they said. “At the same time that I was diving in and grappling with liberation theology and its concern for the oppressed, as a Jew I didn’t feel like these texts were mine.”

Soloman wanted to find moving and transformative theological expressions in their own tradition. Graduating early, they studied in Israel at Pardes and were exposed to rabbinic discourse for the first time. “The minute I started learning Talmud, I felt, ‘This is it.’”

Returning from Israel, Soloman went on to study at Hadar, where they first learned about SVARA. Studying with Rabbi Benay Lappe, SVARA’s Rosh Yeshiva, Soloman immediately understood why Talmud had been so powerful. “I used to think I was finding Jewish sources that would support liberation theology, kind of like prooftexts for theologies that inspired me,” Soloman said. “What I have realized from many havrutot and teachers is that we can create Jewish expressions that are liberatory in their approaches.” 

“The core idea of liberatory Judaism is that God is with people who are oppressed. With Benay and at SVARA, I came to understand that the Talmud is a record of that,” said Soloman.

Soloman sees the Rabbis as radical theologians. “What’s amazing is that they show us their work at every step,” said Solomon. “They don’t hide when they make changes or take text out of context in order to serve their ideology. Their ideology was to restore Torah, to create a world in which God could be felt. At SVARA we connect that pious audacity with queerness.”

For Solomon, the Rabbis themselves are a model of how to study and teach text. “The Rabbis did not just do that so we would learn it, but so that we would do it as well. I’m not learning Talmud to find out what the Rabbis said or did but to see how they said or did what they did,” said Soloman. 

The connection between study and action infuses Solomon’s own ideology and guided them to a career in education. Soloman uses the phrase “liberatory Torah” to describe the kind of “permeating learning that moves us toward living into our own freedom and shifting the material conditions of the world so everyone else can too.” 

While enrolled in Hebrew College’s rabbinical school, Soloman started teaching a class through the Boston Worker’s Circle on the Secular Talmud. They found themselves thinking more and more about the class and the processes of teaching and learning. 

“Learning midrash helps students make midrash of their lives,” Soloman said. It became clear that Soloman was drawn to teaching more than to a traditional rabbinic role, and they transferred to The William Davidson School in order to focus more on their teaching and to become part of a community of reflective practitioners.

At The William Davidson School, Soloman found peers who were thinking about “how we shape Jewish human beings.” They also found valuable tools and practical skills in areas such as lesson planning and curriculum design. The community of colleagues explored ways of relating to each other while teaching. “This is the model for the kind of reflective practice I have brought to Svara,” Solomon said.

In class with JTS faculty member Dr. Marjorie Lehman, Soloman gravitated to the emotional aspects of teaching Talmud, even when the texts themselves could be incongruous with contemporary values. “There is no text that is not problematic,” Soloman said. “My expectation is that the Rabbis were misogynistic and that they were shaped by and shaping a patriarchal culture.”

Soloman’s yearlong William Davidson School practicum placement at Hadar led to a teaching position there after graduation. Studying sacred texts, for Soloman, is “an amazing skill that every Jew should have—the ability to read yourself back into the history even when you weren’t there.” Soloman believes that queer people are gifted in their capacity to do just that.

Quoting the midrash about Rabbi Akiva drawing meaning out of the calligraphic crowns on the letters of the Torah, Soloman identifies with the power of the interpretive act. “That makes him even more incredible than if he were simply reading what the text says—he was creatively hooking his ideas—and himself—onto the Torah itself,” said Soloman.

At SVARA, Soloman teaches, stewards faculty teams, and directs the two-year Teaching Kollel. SVARA has various online learning spaces including daily remote Mishnah learning, and a pedagogy chaburah to support educators in existing institutions to incorporate aspects of SVARA’s approach into their own teaching.

Soloman’s core pedagogy when teaching sacred texts is to create conditions that enable learners to construct a Jewish expression that is liberatory. “Our work is not unpacking the prooftexts for why God is with the oppressed but rather to discover how we can all become free ourselves.” 

 Written by Suzanne Kling Langman

[1] Liberation theology generally refers to a theology applied to the core concerns of marginalized communities in need of social, political, or economic equality and justice. During the 1960s, African American and Latin American theologians began to ask new questions about the application of Christian theology to their experiences of oppression. The answers to these questions led theologians to think theologically from the perspective of the oppressed groups rather than ask questions from the perspective of the dominant cultures. (https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/)