We had already missed several of our weekly calls to pore over texts together — each inspiring the learning process. “Why are words of Torah compared to fire? … Just as fire does not kindle by itself, so, too, words of Torah do not survive alone.” (Taanit 7a) I felt a deep sense of loss when my chavruta, or learning partner, told me he was overextended and could no longer study together. His interests and knowledge were so far-reaching that when we learned together it felt like Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the master known as the Piazcezner Rebbe, was convincingly referencing Shakespeare, Kantian ethics, and Evyatar Banai’s new album. It was as though the Piazcezner Rebbe’s small volume on spiritual practice, Bnei Machshava Tova__(Conscious Community: A Guide to Inner Work), was our third partner in study. I also treasured our pre-learning check-ins, when we would chat about our work, marriages, and fathering. Most of all, I would miss how intensely vulnerable I felt while learning with him — almost every major idea presented in the text was an opportunity to be very real with each other about the state of our spiritual lives. It was the first time I felt like I had encountered what Martin Buber called genuine dialogue, where “the turning to the partner takes place in all truth … by accepting him as my partner in genuine dialogue I have affirmed him as a person.” (Martin Buber, Genuine Dialogue, 1954) Turning toward another person over a piece of text has meant more than affirming my learning partner as a person. I’m presented with innovative ways of expression and opportunities to take on new personas.
Rabbis of the mishnaic and talmudic periods recognized a fundamental importance of companionship along with the fundamental preoccupation of learning Torah: “R. Hama b. Hanina said: What is the meaning of the verse ‘As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the wit of his friend?’ (Proverbs 27:17) Just as one [piece] of iron sharpens another, so scholars sharpen each other in legal [debate].” (Taanit 7a) When I sit down with someone else to learn, I only know the experience of being someone else’s partner; I don’t know what it feels like to be my partner. Vulnerable to critique, I’m exposing my level of interpretive and textual recall — and I’m unable to hide my imagined sophistication or ignorance. I allow my partner to push me toward precision or recognize my hard work. This model of learning still feels relevant and countercultural. In a world that often values both singular intellectual acumen and an over-friendly pluralism of ideas, principled chavruta learning produces new, cooperative knowledge and layers of experience, rather than merely affirming the self and its preset assumptions.
In a way, learning with a human partner — listening, asking for clarification when needed, and sharing my own perspective — wakes me up to the fact that Torah itself is a silent learning partner in need of a voice. It is said that when the children of Israel were standing to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai, they wanted to hear the Ten Commandments from God’s own mouth, as it says “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” (Sh’mot Rabba 21:3) The wholehearted intimacy generated by learning with another person creates or recreates a covenantal model in which the text is not just words on a page but the breathy presence of the Divine in our midst, seeking to be heard.
Rabbi Zac Kamenetz lives in Berkeley, Calif., with his wife and daughter. He is the director of Jewish Living and Learning at the JCC of San Francisco, the codirector of Beloved Berkeley, and the executive producer of the Shefa Podcast Network. Connect with him at belovedberkeley.org. He appreciates the generous guidance of Rabbi Ami Silver in writing this essay.