Judaism exhorts us to learn from one another

Consider this by By Rabbi EMMA GOTTLIEB

Lately, I’ve had all too much occasion to see what happens when we don’t talk to one another. We make assumptions. We limit our understanding of other ways of thinking. We risk rooting ourselves too deeply in our own, sometimes erroneous, perspectives. When we take the time to speak directly to one another, we can’t help but to learn. We find ourselves saying things like, “Oh! I had assumed you believed X but now I’m realising you actually believe Y!” Or, “Wow, hearing you speak about this has opened my mind to a different way of thinking about it.” Or, “That’s interesting. I had never heard that before!” 

Not only is learning from one another a good general practice, but it’s actually a Jewish imperative. The tradition of learning in chevrutah – in partnership – is encouraged by Jewish tradition exactly because it ensures that we are able to take our understanding of a text or idea beyond the limitations of our own knowledge, perspective and experience, by including and incorporating at least one other person’s knowledge, perspective and experience into our consideration, reflection and learning. 

Some of the earliest Jewish references to learning in groups or in pairs come from the Talmud, which itself asserts that Torah can only be acquired in a group (chavurah) (BT Berakhot 63b). Elsewhere (BT Ta’anit 7a) it teaches, “Two scholars, through discussion and debate, help to sharpen each other’s insight into the text”. Later on, the same tractate (Ta’anit 23a), gives us the powerful statement, “Give me chavrutah or give me death.” 

The rabbis seem to be insinuating that learning with and from one another is vital to a healthy and successful life. They may even be pointing to the dangers of not learning from and with one another. 

As I am writing this, we are preparing to receive Torah together and anew on the festival of Shavuot, and to celebrate with gratitude the revelations from the time of Matan Torah, the giving of Torah, until today. As we are living in particularly tumultuous and fractious times, the idea that Torah (learning) can only come to us in groups, is particularly powerful. Our tradition implores us not to separate from one another and build walls of misunderstanding between us, but rather to do the sacred and sometimes difficult work of sitting down together, listening, and opening ourselves up to what we don’t already know.

Temple Israel www.templeisrael.co.za

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