Reflections on Havruta Learning

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When[i] one walks into a beit midrash, s/he is greeted by the thunderous and discordant sound of countless pairs of people fiercely arguing with one another, each offering up their own idea for how to best decode the perplexing, and often-times daunting, ancient text that sits opened before them. I am speaking, of course, of the Jewish phenomenon known as havruta learning. Havruta learning has been the dominant mode of study in Torah Judaism since at least 18th century Eastern Europe, and arguably since the time of the composition of the Talmud itself. But why have we married ourselves to this form of study? Is it specifically applicable to the study of Talmud, or is havruta learning simply a better way to engage with texts than other attempted pedagogical models? In this essay, I am going to attempt to illustrate some advantages, and some potential pitfalls, of havruta learning, both with respect to Talmud study in particular, and text study in general, as well as compare the havruta model with other modes of learning. It should be noted, obviously, that this particular medium does not lend itself to a complete and detailed analysis of an institution with such a storied history, and that manifests itself in such variegated forms, like the havruta mode of study. The following remarks should be regarded as a generalized, broad-strokes, approach to this topic, and in no way represent the final word on this complicated phenomenon.

In order to understand, conceptually, why havruta learning is the dominant approach for studying the Talmud, it is first necessary to gain an understanding of the nature of the writing of the Talmud itself. The Talmud was born out of an oral culture. As many a Rabbi will delight in telling, the Talmud is not merely a compendium of laws—it is a rich, variegated text that incorporates a multiplicity of opinions and arguments, generally in saying form. It is very much, if such a thing is possible, an oral text. But this text that we study meticulously day and night was never meant to exist. The Gemara in Gittin 60b says “You are not permitted to transmit the Oral Torah in writing.”[ii] The Oral Law constitutes a set of knowledge that was intended to be transmitted orally ad infinitum. Due to political upheaval[iii], as well as concerns over memory retention, a decision was made to transcribe this oral culture into text form—to “act for Hashem since [His] Torah is being uprooted”[iv]. So what we have is an oral tradition that has been unnaturally reproduced in text form. A natural, and I would argue, effective, approach to successfully reconstruct the oral nature of the text, to completely immerse one’s self in the heart and soul of this great Tradition, is to engage the text itself orally. And this is done most effectively through havruta learning.

No matter how strange of a text the Talmud is, it still is in fact a text. As a result, attempting to learn Talmud still contains certain fundamental issues endemic to all textual encounters—the reality that the text is dead, static. This is formulated by Socrates in one of the Platonic Dialogues, Phaedrus. Socrates notes, “[text] knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.” A text cannot speak for itself, it is trapped in its eternal textness. As a result, an ostensibly unbreachable barrier is erected between text and student.

This is where one of the advantages of havruta learning comes into play. Havruta learning is a model through which one is able to combat the dead encounter. In havruta learning, no longer is one person trying to engage something that cannot reciprocate new ideas in response to the students’ queries, but rather the entire encounter is transformed so that two people’s interpretations of a text are interacting with one another. Through dialogue, the barrier between person and text is rendered obsolete, because, at its very core, the encounter is now between person and person, not text and person. Furthermore, as mentioned previously, this dialogic activity is uniquely suited for this type of study—both members of the havruta resuscitate the oral nature of the text by engaging it through dialogue; an encounter that mirrors the content. A second advantage of havruta learning is that it takes difference and makes it productive—creating a whole that is greater than the mere sum of its parts. This view of partnership learning is attested to in influential German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s work, Gay Science. Nietzsche writes “One is always wrong, but with two, truth begins.” In havruta learning, ideas collide through the intellectual intimacy of the spoken word, producing thoughts, concepts, and constructs, that neither individual would have been able to produce on their own. As the verse in Proverbs 27:17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.” A final, and related, advantage of havruta learning, is that it provides a testing ground for new ideas. This is, in a way, a synthesis of the two previously mentioned advantages. The havruta partnership sidesteps the problematic dead encounter between person and text, an encounter in which ideas cannot be tested, and through the other member of the havruta allows for initial thoughts on a text to be analyzed, and dissected—allowing for a determination of what is and what is not a good idea. With all of this being said, there are, to be sure, certain pitfalls that accompany engaging a text through the havruta framework.

One potential drawback of havruta learning is that, by its very nature, it does not allow for solitary contemplation of the text. As a result, in havruta learning there is no such thing as individual thinking—all thinking is collaborative thinking, stripping all ideas of any semblance of pure originality. This is the double-edged sword of the havruta idea: while it can take difference and use it in a productive way, it simultaneously, and necessarily if it wishes to be effective, blurs the line of that difference, robbing each participant of original ideation, and personal knowledge production. With this confusion as to the source of an idea, evidence of certain biases, prejudices, and disparate fundamental understandings of particular concepts at play, is effaced, preventing the havruta participants from truly, and intimately, gaining an authentic understanding of the nature of the ideas that they are propounding.

The second potential drawback of havruta learning I suggest tentatively—it is a product of my personal experiences in the beit midrash, but enough friends of mine have attested to the reality of this issue, that I feel confident enough to include it in this article. We are all familiar with the concept of milchemet Hashem—that the act of learning, discussing, and vehemently arguing over Torah is an act of war in defense of God and His Torah. This produces the image I attempted to conjure up at the beginning of this article—fierce argumentation, thumb gesticulation, the whole nine yards. This environment of heightened passion is highly effective—it produces students who care deeply about the subject matter, and who view themselves as a part of a centuries long battle in deciphering God’s word. But there is an inherent flaw to this almost militaristic environment. The concept of milchemet Hashem, turns Torah learning into an intellectual competition of sorts, where the quickest answer is valued over the best answer, in order to defend one’s vulnerable idea. There is no room for retreat—there is only constant engagement. This is problematic if the purported goal of the havruta partnership is to effectively seek out truth. An environment that naturally produces loud argument, that makes ideas extremely vulnerable to the attack of the other participant, can very well hinder an attempt to seek out truth. That being said, it is important to be aware of the alternate modes of Talmud study available to us, before making any sort of carte blanche rejection of havruta learning as a result of these perceived shortcomings.

The two most common methods used in the Academy to grapple with texts, and knowledge in general, are that of independent study, and the lecture. I will first take up the model of independent study. Perhaps the greatest advantage of independent study, is that it allows for totally original, insofar as that is possible, idea production. The student is aware that s/he is generating her/his own personal response to the text in front of her/him, and therefore need not worry that the stances s/he adopts vis a vis the text, are being influenced or adulterated in any way by another actor. Yet, this is also independent study’s great hamartia—it resurrects the barrier between person and text. The student will have great trouble getting at the text, when there is no one, and no thing, that can respond to her/his queries.

The second mode of study is that of the lecture, wherein a certain authority figure (whether that be a professor or Rabbi), imparts knowledge to a large group of students assembled before her/him. While it may, in certain instances, be advantageous to be in direct contact with a presumed expert when delving into any topic of study, the potential negative results are far more drastic than the benefits. The lecture epitomizes one of the biggest issues in learning today: the great danger of power relations in intellectual pursuits. When a group of students is sat before a figure who is said to be an expert on the topic at hand, a general sense of passivity and acceptance kicks in. “Why should I seriously question my teacher’s opinion? S/he has a p.h.d or semikha, and presumably knows what s/he’s talking about.” What’s more, if a student were to reject that attitude and question the teacher, the student is put in an extremely vulnerable position, with the teacher able to utilize her/his recognized power in the classroom at the slightest whim. This is catastrophic for genuine learning. Critical analysis recedes to the background, and little, if anything, is contributed to the body of knowledge at all. In havruta learning, the exact opposite occurs. Both members of the havruta become teachers themselves, each trying to communicate their own ideas to the other, and neither idea is viewed as a priori being more valid simply because of who said it. The havruta partnership strips ideas of any inherent authority, forces them to prove themselves on the battleground of the beit midrash, and knowledge production, textual analysis, and general understanding, are the better because of it.

After viewing the two main competitors of the havruta model, I believe that, at the very least in re Talmud study, havruta learning is the best option. The intimacy with a purported expert that the lecture model provides is outweighed by the many dangers that the mode of study produces. As a result, it is not a more effective mode of study than havruta learning. As for independent study, the issue is more murky. I believe, however, that while it is difficult to determine which types of texts require original idea production, and which texts’ barrier erected between student and text are too insurmountable, Talmud study falls into the latter category. Silently contemplating the spoken opinions of Abbaye and Rava does not grant you as clear and intimate an understanding of the text as that of havruta learning—a mode of study that draws out the spirit of this oral text by virtue of the very way the text is being encountered: through dialogue.

To beg the question, however, how does havruta learning compare with independent study when we are not dealing with a special case of an oral text such as the Talmud (and perhaps Plato)? What if the text under consideration is Chaucer, or Freud, or even Soloveitchik? When is the barrier more formidable? When is original ideation most crucial? I would like to, hesitantly, propose a possible distinction that can be made; a distinction between literature, and philosophic/scientific works. Perhaps, when one engages with literature (novels, poetry, plays, etc.) the model of independent study is most effective, because this is an instance where original ideation is so essential. Works of fiction, while they certainly do contain complex ideas and claims, are often in the business of feelings–that is, they are trying to illicit some type of emotional response from the reader. This is not to belittle fiction in any way; to the contrary, our emotions are often times far more complex than our most elaborate cognitive suppositions. But in this emotional encounter, it is of the utmost importance for the reader to have a deeply personal, isolated, and unadulterated union with the text. Furthermore, the text allows for a multiplicity of interpretations, with no individual reaction being the correct one, causing the barrier between person and text, while still very much present, to not be as detrimental to the encounter. However, when it comes to works of philosophy, politics, science, etc. the barrier looms larger. This is because there is a specific, concrete idea that the author is trying to convey to her/his audience, making the need for a correct interpretation, arrived at through collaborative thinking, idea sharing, etc., far more pressing than concerns over original ideation. In short, the distinction can be summed up as follows. When one is making her/his own interpretation of a text (as in fiction), independent study is the most optimal form of study. However when one is trying to get at a specific, intended interpretation, the havruta model is the far more efficacious vehicle for achieving one’s goals.

This distinction, of course, is merely my own subjective opinion, and although I have found it to be an effective one both theoretically, and, in my personal experience, practically, it is not one that people must feel compelled to adopt. What I hope this article has done, is to spur students and educators alike, to revisit, and analyze, the modes of study they have inherited, and to be undaunted to make changes, where change is appropriate.

Ari Schwartz is a Sophomore in YC majoring in something that is not a physical science. He does not study in YP, so honestly, what could he possibly know about Gemara anyway?

[i]Much thanks is given to University of Michigan Comparative Literature p.h.D candidate, and all-around swanky gal, Shira Schwartz for her vitally important discussions on Chavrutah study over FaceTime.

[ii] Gittin 60b. Interestingly, the Ritva (Ritva on Gittin 60b) says that this is because Torah transmitted verbally is understood more accurately, whereas a text can be misunderstood.

[iii] Because he [Rebbi] saw that the numbers of Torah students were decreasing, the difficulties facing the Jewish people were increasing, the Roman Empire was becoming stronger, and the Jews were becoming increasingly scattered. He therefore authored one work that would be in the hands of all the students to make it easier to study and remember the Oral Torah” (Maimionides, Introduction to the Mishna Torah).

[iv] Tehillim 119:126