“Does the Torah hold us or do we hold together the Torah?” asked Josh, my 7th grade student. This philosophical question arose out of intentional study of core skills and habits of mind for learning text in partnership. He was in a course created and taught by my colleague, Allison Cook, and me. Partnership learning, or havruta text study, highlights the notion that “learning depends not only on the content that is encountered but also on the nature of the encounter itself between text and learner.” (A Philosophy of Havruta, 41) It is in the encounter that the potential for dialogue and transformation exists.
A Philosophy of Havruta examines these encounters—between reader and text, and between readers themselves. In Jewish education, we have long focused on the content, and for good reason. It offers a portal into a rich culture, history and religious practice and seemingly infinite possibilities for learning. However, we have often overlooked the nature of the encounter with that content and thereby missed an important opportunity to help students fully harness and cultivate the potential of the text, of each other and of themselves. If we want Jewish learning to teach people new ideas and help them “be”, we must pay more attention to the encounters we create and the skills that are necessary for engaging in them.
What could be different in the world of Jewish education if efforts were about both deep textual content and deep process (cultivating the skills and reflective capacities for engaging with others)? Our work suggests that we could help learners develop skills and dispositions to engage meaningfully with other people and classical Jewish texts, both of which are different from us. And, that we could provide people with an opportunity to be transformed by these dialogues with “others” as part of their ongoing Jewish learning activities.
Developing capacities for true dialogue—conversation where we attend deeply to one another and let ourselves be affected by others—is a slow process but it can be cultivated and taught as part of our Jewish text learning experiences. And the process and the results can be life affirming and transformative.
To return to Josh’s question. To hold or be held presumes some sort of encounter and relationship. Day in and day out we assume these relationships when we do not attend to the process of Jewish learning. Relationships to other people or to Torah are not something we can simply assume—they must be intentionally cultivated.
We must have the courage to slow down and go deep and live in the space within Josh’s question: Who or what do we allow to hold us and who and what do we in turn hope to become and (up)hold through our Jewish learning encounters?