Professor Nathaniel Deutsch on the practice of Havruta

On October 23, 2014, Nathaniel Deutsch, professor of literature and history and co-director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UC Santa Cruz introduces the practice of havruta.

I would like to start by pointing out how ironic it is to be presenting the topic of Hevruta or Hevrusa (the traditional Ashkenazi way of pronouncing the word) in the form of a lecture. Me standing in front of you; talking at you, as it were. Why it’s ironic should hopefully become clear in the next few minutes and is the subject of my remarks tonight.

Indeed, the spirit and practice of hevrusa contradicts many of the dominant modes of both creativity and learning in the modern period, first in Europe and then in the United States and beyond. Beginning with the Renaissance and continuing through the Enlightenment and Romanticism—despite their profound differences and even, at times, antagonism—the image of the individual creator emerged as the ideal. We need only think of iconic figures like Leonardo and Michelangelo, Immanuel Kant and Byron, Einstein and Gertrude Stein to appreciate the degree to which creativity and individuality—what we might also call genius in its most extreme expression—have taken pride of place in the modern Western tradition, indeed have helped to define what it actually means to be Western through much of the modern period. At the same time, many of the ways that we interact with and learn from the products of this creativity have also stressed individuation. Think, for example, of that most classic expression of modern literary creativity, the novel, a genre which is produced by individual authors—the novelist—and consumed by individual readers, preferably sitting alone somewhere without the distraction of other people. 

Against this backdrop, however briefly sketched, the phenomenon of hevrusa and its difference may be appreciated. The word itself is Aramaic, which, along with Hebrew, is one of the two languages of creativity and learning shared by Jewish communities around the world for the last two thousand years and more. Like other words in Semitic languages including Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, it is based on a root, in this case, one that means to join, fasten, or establish friendship or association. Etymologically, then, Hevrusa is related to the Hebrew word Haver or “friend,” made famous to English speakers by President Bill Clinton in his farewell to the assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, “Shalom Haver.”

Hevrusa means fellowship or friendship but, over the centuries, in traditional Jewish culture it has come to mean friendship of a particular kind: an ongoing partnership of creativity and learning typically focused on the study of classical Jewish texts, often by students in a Yeshiva. The spirit of hevrusa finds expression in collaboration, dialogue, and relationality. In hevrusa, the outcome of creatively learning together is not known in advance, predictable or linear; instead, outcomes, if we want to hold on to that word, appear as flashes of insight which over time may or may not come together to form patterns or larger conclusions. A hevrusa may begin with the text at hand or, just as often, with another subject that is seemingly far afield—and it can be anything—yet somehow ends up connecting to the text. In a creative process that sometimes seems like magic when it’s really working, the partners in a hevrusa come to understand the text that they are learning—the word studying is traditionally not employed—in profound ways and, just as importantly, they build a relationship that is both like and unlike other kinds of friendships or partnerships they might have.

It is hard to overestimate the degree to which the spirit of hevrusa, if not the actual practice that I have just described, has animated Judaism from the very beginning.  Indeed, we might say that the first articulation of this spirit occurs in Genesis 18, when God debates with himself whether he should share with Abraham what he is planning to do to the towns of Sodom and Gemorrah. Ultimately, he decides to do so and what follows is one of the most extraordinary scenes in the entire Tanakh or Bible.

The idea that creativity and learning is grounded in pairs rather than the individual, is a foundational principle of rabbinic Judaism from its very beginnings during the time of the Beys HaMikdash or Temple in Jerusalem. Thus, Jewish tradition holds that the first phase of rabbinic Judaism was characterized by five pairs of sages or Zugot, as they were known in Hebrew, culminating with the most famous pair of all:  Hillel and Shammai.

Significantly, unlike a novel written by one individual to be read by another, the three Jewish texts traditionally accepted as canonical—the Tanakh, the Talmud, and the Zohar—are all the product of collaboration and were traditionally learned by two or more individuals together. Even the Shulhan Arukh (the Set Table), the most important Jewish legal code, that was initially authored by a single sage, Joseph Karo, only became accepted by Jews in communities throughout the world when another sage, Moshe Isserles or the Rama, added his own glosses, known as the Mapah or “Table Cloth.”  Indeed, we might say that it is the spirit of hevrusa that animates the great modern Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s concept of the “I and Thou,” despite its seeming distance from the halls of the Yeshiva. 

And so, with these thoughts in mind, I invite you to participate in a conversation with the artist Lindsey White and comedian Ron Lynch about their collaboration for In That Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art.

About Nathaniel Deutsch

Nathaniel Deutsch, professor of literature and history and co-director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UC Santa Cruz introduces the practice of havruta


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