The Chavruta Illusion

Study with a chavruta, or partner, is a hallmark of traditional Jewish learning. Together you break your heads on the texts. Two minds applied to a problem are almost always better than one.

Each checks and corrects the misconceptions of the other, questioning and sharpening the other’s ideas, while the necessity of articulating one’s thoughts to another person brings greater clarity than learning alone. Indeed, the Talmud goes so far as to say that one who learns Torah alone becomes stupid! (Berachot 63a)

Chavruta comes from the Hebrew word meaning, simply, “friend.” Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) states the fundamental importance of companionship in Jewish learning (and in general): “Make for yourself a teacher, find yourself a friend, and judge every person favourably.”

-Rabbi Julian Sinclair
“Chavruta”
TheJC.com

Periodically, I find myself on the receiving end of a certain amount of criticism because of my opinions, my beliefs, and sometimes “just because.” I’m willing to debate others, both in the comments section of my own blog and on the blogs of others, as long as I can see that there is an honest exchange of ideas without the personalization of conflict. When it becomes apparent to me that the other person is arguing just for the sake of arguing or only for the purpose of driving, forcing, or compelling me to acknowledge that they’re “right” without considering the possibility that their own viewpoint isn’t entirely valid, I tend to withdraw from the discussion. If this happens on my own blog, it’s incredibly easy since, after all, I’m the blog owner. On someone else’s blog, I just stop “talking.”

Debate, discussion, and a frank exchange of ideas is one thing, but I’ve got better things to do with my time than to either let myself be backed into a corner by a someone emulating a verbal “pit bull” or to endlessly explain what I’ve already explained fifteen different times, trying to find new and unique ways of expressing the same thought in the vain hope that I’ll be able to get my point through to someone who is never going to listen to my side of things.

OK, at this point, some of you reading this may be taking my descriptions personally. Please don’t. I am not describing a specific individual or collection of individuals here. I’m expressing “the worst of” experiences I’ve had in the blogosphere in the years I’ve been participating and then exaggerating it just a tad more to produce an impression. I’m trying to say that there are some otherwise well-meaning people on the web who are not really productive communicators.

Now, back to the topic at hand: Chavruta or rather, the Chavruta “illusion.”

I never get the “Chavruta illusion” from a Jewish person. I just wanted to let you know that. It’s always from a non-Jewish person involved in Messianic Judaism, Hebrew Roots, or a similar religious expression.

When I complain or draw attention to what I perceive as the “adversarial” or “hostile” tone of a person’s interactions with me (or with others), they accuse me of not understanding how learning takes place in a Yeshiva setting and invoke the concept of Chavruta. I also sometimes get “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17) and something like “Take away the dross from the silver” (Proverbs 25:4). This supposedly is to show me that an unbridled lack of graciousness and common courtesy, along with an essential rudeness is required and even encouraged when discussing differences of opinion in the realm of religious beliefs and ideas…at least as far as the “Jewish ideal” goes.

But wait a minute.

I never went to a Yeshiva. As a non-Jew, I probably would never be accepted for formal Yeshiva study. End of story. My experience in the Chavruta process is non-existent but (and this is important), since my detractors are also non-Jews, their experience in Yeshiva is just as anemic.

So where does this argument come from and is it valid? Can a Gentile Christian adopt the Chavruta process for learning and is it properly applied to a blogosphere comments discussion?

Let’s look at the context:

Yeshiva (Hebrew: ישיבה‎, lit. “sitting”; pl. ישיבות, yeshivot) is a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts, primarily the Talmud and Torah study. Study is usually done through daily shiurim (lectures or classes) and in study pairs called chavrutas (Aramaic for “friendship” or “companionship”). Chavruta-style learning is one of the unique features of the yeshiva.

Yeshiva page at wikipedia.org

“Friendship?” “Companionship?” Rabbi Sinclair talked about a Chavruta “judging every person favourably.” Hmmm. That hardly reflects many of the “challenging discussions” I’ve been describing.

Chavruta learning takes place in the formalized structure of the yeshiva or kollel, as well as in Talmudic study that an individual does on his own at any time of day. Although a man skilled in learning can study on his own, the challenge of developing, articulating, and defending his ideas to a study partner makes having chavruta a desirable relationship.

Chavruta page at wikipedia.org

Certainly wikipedia isn’t the foremost authority on Jewish educational studies, but I think a few brief quotes will provide sufficient context for the points I’m trying to get across. The discussions that occur within a Chavruta relationship are not a verbal, emotional, and intellectual free for all that allows each participant to behave anyway their feelings, biases, and personal priorities dictate. The partners are not randomly thrown together in an online venue where they can’t even see each other let alone develop any sort of meaningful relationship. There is a carefully organized and formalized structure to the entire process, supervised by experienced teachers in a time-honored tradition that goes back centuries.

Using the Chavruta model to explain why someone thinks they can verbally assault you on a blog is like using the model of a martial arts class at a respected Dojo established and led by an esteemed master as an excuse for starting a back-alley knife fight.

Even if the person’s intent in the blog comments is non-hostile at its core and the individual using the Chavruta example has a benign character, the comparison is still completely inappropriate. The comments section is practically uncontrolled compared to the environment constructed for Chavruta pairs to interact. The required relationships do not exist let alone approach the closeness of Chavruta, and only the blog owner really “supervises” any of the discussions on his/her blog, to varying degrees of effectiveness.

Bottom line is that comparing blogosphere discussions to the Chavruta relationship between two Yeshiva students is just an illusion and one situation has no connection to the other.

So is there any sort of model that we can consider more appropriate to guide us when disciples of the Master interact and particularly when we disagree?

I’ve quoted John 13:34 enough recently that my regular readers should know it by heart, but does “loving one another” mean we can’t disagree? Of course not. I’m sure even those closest to Jesus disagreed with each other. Disagreement isn’t a sign of lack of love, but maintaining love in disagreement can be challenging. 1 Corinthians 13, sometimes referred to as “the love chapter,” outlines the qualities of a disciple who truly experiences love of others. Even those with great spiritual and intellectual gifts who lack love seem to “gain nothing” and perhaps even fail to see the Master as clearly as those who possess love.

What happens when we do disagree?

I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; –Philippians 4:2-5 (ESV)

I know this is an isolated set of verses, but Paul appears to be saying that he wants Euodia and Syntyche, who seem to be disagreeing, to be entreated to agree in the Lord. Rejoicing in the Lord and reasonableness seem to be connected to Paul’s request. Sadly, “reasonableness” isn’t always found on the Internet.

I suppose the following two quotes capture my feelings on the matter.

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. –Romans 12:18 (ESV)

Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. –Hebrews 12:14 (ESV)

So is my little “rant” encouraging peace? Probably not. Hardly in keeping with the spirit of Elul or this morning’s meditation, I must admit. I guess I could have kept all this to myself and just continued to post uplifting and supportive material, which isn’t a bad way to go. But as I’ve mentioned in the past, this blog is as much about what I’m thinking and feeling at any given point in time as it is a place where people can read a “morning meditation” (or afternoon or evening meditation for that matter). I suspect there are more than a few people who have similar feelings but are simply more gracious than I and thus, don’t express such feelings in a public arena.

And though you may consider me lacking in peace and grace by writing and posting this missive, it’s been on my mind for a while now and I think it’s important to dispel a sort of “Messianic blogosphere myth” about the justification some people have used to behave harshly toward others. Disagree if you will (I know I will from time to time). Argue, debate, discuss, and even harass and harangue if you must. Know that I will limit your outbursts on my blog if I deem necessary, not because I’m denying you “freedom of speech” or “censoring” you, but because I have the right to protect myself and the people who visit my blog. This is not tyranny, it’s responsibility.

With all that in mind, if you have the self-awareness to understand what you’re doing and even why you are doing it, please “come clean” and just say that you’re upset or offended or hurt or you just like to fuss and argue. Leave the Chavruta illusion out of it. It doesn’t apply.

Thanks.

 

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4 thoughts on “The Chavruta Illusion”

  1. Well said, James. As a veteran of chevruta study, I can affirm that it needs to take place in the context of basic assumptions about the text and a growing bond between the two chevrutas. The two must have a deep respect for each other. Even given these things, chevrutas must have good chemistry or they will be frustrated. If not face to face,study must at least be in real time (Skype). (Bogs and email lack nuances of communication, not to mention facial and vocal cues.) Disagreements may be sharp and passionate, but they do not involve demeaning or insulting language. And learning actually takes place! A chevruta does not consist of repeated and unresolved arguments about thee same points.

  2. Thanks, Carl. I was taking something of a risk in presenting this information because I have no practical Yeshiva experience. However, the information I found seemed to be pretty straightforward. As always, I appreciate your experience and your input.

  3. After reading your blog, I decided to find out a little more about the ‘chevruta.’ I found a few interesting tidbits that I wanted to share with you. Here’s the link: http://lesswrong.com/lw/6j1/find_yourself_a_worthy_opponent_a_chavruta/

    First … it says, ‘One of the skills of chavruta learning is the ability to block out all other discussions in the study hall and focus on one’s study partner alone.’ Apparently there is some shouting that goes on amongst all the students and it’s your job to focus on your partner.

    I know that this may seem very simplistic, but perhaps the negative jeers you are sensing is God’s way of being your ‘chevruta’ partner. In a world of other voices, He teaches us to hear His voice and ignore the rest.

    Second .. It seems that the point of this ‘chevruta’ process is to teach students to prove his point with logic rather than by right of seniority, which improves his ability to think logically, analyze other people’s opinions objectively, and accept criticism and to help the student understand the material thoroughly, refine and organize his thoughts in a logical structure, present his viewpoint clearly, and be ready to justify each and every point. … Regardless of whether you are entitled to a traditional Jewish ‘chevruta,’ I see how God is using the blogosphere to improve your skills to do exactly what the Jewish process offers.

    Maybe I’m just an optimist, but I see how you are totally getting the benefit of the ‘chevruta.’
    Happy blogging James! 🙂

  4. Hi Dionne,

    My understanding is that conversations between two chavrutas can be very “passionate,” but the idea is that the “sparring” partners aren’t actually angry or upset with each other. The “yelling” (and it’s not like they’re constantly arguing, in spite of what we might see in movies) is part of the process by which an issue is debated.

    As far as the “negative jeers” in the blogosphere, I don’t think they qualify as a chavruta relationship since, as I say above, the pair aren’t chosen at random but in fact are two people who develop a close relationship and friendship as part of their experience. Also, it’s not like the Yeshiva experience isn’t supervised with no teachers around to make sure people don’t get hurt.

    I agree the Chavruta process is there to help Yeshiva students learn critical thinking and logic but again, this is a controlled educational process, not the “raw” environment of the nameless, faceless Interent.

    I will grant you that each encounter is a “learning experience,” but one of my instructors in graduate school was fond of saying, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.”

    For a relationship to be mutually beneficial, there usually have to be some mutually understoond conditions or rules to their transactions. If this environment doesn’t exist or if each party is operating by different rules or assumptions, then the “educational process” will at best be flawed and at worst, be harmful to one or both people.

    Oh, you might want to consult a more Jewish information source regarding chavruta. It might as a bit of dimension non-Jewish sources could overlook.

    Thanks. Happy blogging to you as well. 🙂

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