I have been out of the office for the past two weeks, engaged in intensive study for my Rabbinical Program. The experience was deeply immersive and growthful. During that time, I was reminded of the power of studying together, in community. While going off on a private retreat, to read, study, and contemplate on my own would clearly bring learning and insight, there is something transformative about learning with others.
Jews seldom study Torah alone and having a hevruta (Hebrew for study partner) is key. Often, a hevruta pair will study with other havrutot (plural for hevruta), in the Beit Midrash (house of study). This is a lively center of learning with open discussion, debate, and wrestling with the text.
In the Babylonian Talmud (Ta’anit 23a), we find the famous phrase, “o havruta o metuta.” This is often translated as “Give me havruta or give me death.” There are many ways to interpret this phrase. Perhaps it means that enlivened and authentic learning is in partnership with a trusted friend. This relationship enhances the quality of our lives. If the goal is to plumb depths, reach essential truths, and find sacred meaning, we do this best in relationship with another. We need the other to reach a place we could not find on our own.
The Talmud (Berchot 53a) even takes it one step further stating that “One who learns alone becomes stupid!” We need the other to bounce our ideas, to articulate our thoughts out loud, to hone and refine our thinking. This allows us to deepen our own understanding. With a partner, we are challenged, and forced to rethink preconceived ideas. We understand that the “Truth” is more complex and expansive than my own framework. Similarly, our perspective shapes our partner. Together we become more authentically ourselves. More alive.
We can extrapolate this model more generally. Without the other, without relationship and community in all areas of our lives, we get stuck in our own echo chamber. We need each other to inhabit our own lives more fully. “O havruta o mituta!”