I want to talk a little bit about the concept of studying in Chevruta – the traditional Talmudic way of studying. Literally, the Aramaic word derives from the word chaver – friends – and means to study in pairs. For whatever reason, when I went to yeshiva in high school, where we only studied in chevruta for a single class – Gemarah – and the rest we studied as a class or alone, I did not pay much attention to the different modes of study. After having spent the last four years at university studying philosophy, a discipline that would be extremely well-suited to chevruta study but is predominantly studied alone in Western (non-Jewish) settings, followed by Pardes for four months, where almost all classes involve learning in chevruta, I have been thinking about the nature of this mode of study, and how it compares to the dominant forms of study in secular society.
The first question I would love to have an answer for is: why is chevruta study absent from Western learning as I have been exposed to it? Not being much of an anthropologist or historian, I have pretty much no clue. The only hint to an answer that occurs to me is that I remember being told that chevruta study in Talmudic times was the efficient way to study, as before the printing press (and often after as well) there simply were not enough books to go around. This was so much the case that I remember hearing that pupils would become adept at reading a Gemarah upside-down because they spent all their time sharing with their chevruta and did not bother to turn the text to face both of them – though this last bit strikes me as unlikely, having learnt a single text with a chevruta, though it does draw your attention to the simple practicality that studying in chevruta offered.
Beyond being linked exclusively with my Jewish education, the main difference that I notice between learning a subject in a typical Western environment – a mix of lectures and individual study, interspersed with group discussions at times – and learning in chevruta is that a chevruta is almost inherently meant to transcend the subject being studied. By that I mean that you and your chevruta are meant to forge a lasting relationship that, while focusing on study, truly develops into a shared appreciation of both the texts and the subjects they discuss.
One of the teachers at Pardes has said that “the point of chevruta is to push us somewhere we can’t get to on our own.” This really strikes to the heart of the difference, as when one studies alone, it is all too easy to deceive yourself into thinking that you know something when you don’t, or to think that you don’t know something when really you do. These problems are easily resolved by making a discussion of the subject at hand central to learning about it, rather than just reading words off a page and then thinking and writing about them. This is, once again, why a subject like philosophy could gain so much from learning in chevruta. Where else is it more necessary to expand your horizons and attempt to think in different ways – and how is that ever going to happen when you sit alone in the proverbial armchair?
Finally, I want to mention the problem of finding a chevruta. As should make sense at this point, it is no easy task to find someone with whom you are suited to build such a relationship with. Disregarding the practical, though, how crucial is it that you find someone that shares certain core beliefs with you about the subject matter being studied? Naturally, finding someone with whom you agree about everything would defeat the purpose of having a chevruta in the first place. However, if you disagree about everything, there will be no ground on which to begin the relationship, and it is unlikely that you will be able to be “pushed somewhere you couldn’t go on your own” as you won’t be willing to hear what your chevruta is saying. I would like to hesitantly propose that, unless your goal in a chevruta is to undermine some or all of your core beliefs, that you need to share most, if not all, of the core beliefs of your chevruta in the subject matter being studied (naturally this will come up less if you are analyzing Harry Potter than if you’re studying Gemarah). The less this is the case, the more likely (in my experience) that you will feel unmotivated to delve deeply into discussions, because the rationalization that ‘they are not coming at the issue in the same way I am’ will be too near at hand. To make the most out of what a chevruta has to offer, one needs to truly believe that they are sharing a goal or project with their partner.