In many educational environments, students learn independently through reading and listening to lectures. Learning can also be somewhat competitive when students are pitted against each other to receive the highest grades. Jewish learning is based an a different system entirely. Students learn together, in Havruta (paired study), to work through the texts and challenge each other in an attempt to understand the true meaning.
Learning with empathy
Rabbi Ira Stone, a leading figure in the modern Mussar movement describes the facets of Havruta learning in the following paragraph.
Torah As A Spiritual Garment: The Mussar Of Learning, by Rabbi Ira Stone
…Learning begins with emulation but requires introspection and conscientious steps toward self-transformation. In the course of this process, as Torah more and more adheres to our souls, the specific content of Torah, the mitzvot and the halakhic and aggadic discourses, become the field upon which our Torah-bearing souls express themselves in concrete acts. Some of those acts comprise the middot/values that have been central in our transformation (that is, acts that incorporate the values themselves, such as leaving the corners of the fields unharvested for the poor), while other acts are interruptive (serving as reminders of the original values that aided in our becoming carriers of Torah, such as kashrut or tefillin).
The specific mode of Torah study that Jewish tradition highlights, an interactive mode whereby learning proceeds always in dialogue with another person, epitomizes the coming together of the various levels of Torah and Torah study that we’ve mentioned. In the very act of study we are always standing before another whose real presence, and real needs, filter the potential meaning of the text. The act of study in this hevruta (face-to-face) model requires prior attention to middot (character traits). Moreover, the text we are studying contains a history of such study encounters. The faces of the others who have labored in study over the very same texts transforms the text itself into an “other“ of whom we must be solicitous. It is this solicitousness of the other that distinguishes Torah l’sh’ma from other modes of learning, and it is learning as solicitousness of the other that places it at the heart of the Jewish spiritual journey.
- According to Rabbi Stone, what is special about Havruta learning?
The power of Havruta learning
While Rabbi Stone points out the empathetic nature of learning with a partner, the Talmud in Taanit shows a totally different aspect of Havruta learning. As opposed to the solicitousness of the other, this text uses the metaphors of iron, fire, and a sword to describe Havruta study. What do we learn from each metaphor?
As we saw in this text, learning with a Havruta sharpens each person. The discussions, conversations, and arguments raise the level of understanding but can also present a danger.
- What do you like about learning with a study partner?
- What are the challenges of learning with someone else?
- What are the dangers of this type of learning? What are the benefits?
- The first two texts seem to be describing Havruta learning very differently. How can both aspects - being sensitive to your partner and challenging your partner - live side-by-side?
A Havruta in crisis
Until now, the texts have described the positive aspects of Havruta study - a caring relationship between study partners who are working together to decipher the Truth as transmitted through the Divine word.
The story of Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish, a famous Havruta in the Talmud presents, is a cautionary tale of Havruta study that goes wrong. Under what circumstances can the words said in a Havruta go too far? Is there a line that shouldn't be crossed?
To get to the heart of the matter, we begin with the origin story of their relationship.
The text continues telling the story of the powerful Havruta of Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish. Here we will see what happens when a Havruta goes wrong - when they go too far.
- What were they arguing about?
- At what point did they cross the line of a constructive Havruta?
- What are the results of their interaction?
- What happens after the death of Reish Lakish?
- Why isn't Rabbi Yohanan satisfied with his new Havruta, who agrees with everything he says?
- How would you characterize the relationship between Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish?
- What does Rabbi Yohanan learn, a little too late, about the relationship that he had with his Havruta?
- How do you feel about the ending of the story?
- What might have prevented such a sad ending?
A successful Havruta
If we decide to view a Havruta as any pair of people who are using texts in their discussions, we could say that Rabbi Meir and his wife, Berurya, are also a Havruta. The text below relates an interaction between Rabbi Meir and Berurya and allows us to see the characteristics of an exemplary Havruta.
In this story, Rabbi Meir is concerned about his neighbors who he believes are endangering the community by wanting to physically resist the Romans who are ruling Israel. Rabbi Meir would like God to kill them while Berurya has a different idea.
- What happened when Berurya disagreed with Rabbi Meir? What approach did she take to trying to change his mind?
- Why do you think that she was successful?
- Why do you think that Rabbi Meir didn't refute her interpretation of the verse?
- What aspects of Havruta study helped Rabbi Meir to change his mind?
Thinking back on all of the examples of Havruta learning that we have studied, what do you think is the power of the Havruta?
- What about the structure facilitates the highest levels of learning?
- What about the structure can lead to a total disintegration of the relationship and successful learning?
- What can you learn about your own study relationships from the vignettes?
As the stories of Havruta learning have illustrated, learning Torah is never just about the text. There is also an interpersonal relationship that must be factored in. The difficult relationship between Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish and the respectful relationship between Rabbi Meir and Berurya impacted the results of their learning. The first led to death and the latter saved lives.
A Havruta partnership built on trust and empathy, where the partners respect each other enough to argue and debate, all with the goal of reaching a greater understanding of Torah, is a true gift of Jewish learning.