It’s been a long time since I’ve explored a practice of Scripture reading here. For the most part, the Scripture reading practices I’ve been able to find recently have seemed too similar to ones I’ve already explored, essentially just variations on Lectio Divina and Ignatian Gospel Contemplation. So, I was excited to find a willing friend to assist me this week in a joint Scripture reading practice known as Havruta so I could once again explore sacred texts in a new way for this project.
Havruta is an Aramaic word meaning ‘friendship’, and describes a traditional rabbinic method of education based on dialog and dialectic. It is grounded in the belief that the truth of our sacred texts emerges less from the words themselves than it does in our shared wrestling with them. As one contemporary rabbi has pointed out, “The truth emerges for Jews only out of the dialectic of the argument, only from the debates between students, and between students and teachers.” This is, as it happens, an ancient understanding: The Babylonian Talmud says that “Torah is acquired only in a group” and “Scholars who sit alone to study the Torah … become stupid.”
Connected with this is an understanding that sacred texts can contain multiple truths within them. I think it’s fair to say that while Christian thought has historically been more concerned with finding the “right” interpretation of a passage of Scripture, Judaism has understood sacred texts as mysteries, containing unfathomable depth and multiple possible interpretations. As one famous description of Torah goes, the text on the page is “black fire on white fire” — unpredictable, consuming, and simultaneously life-giving and destructive.
It’s no surprise then that a practice like Havruta would arise in a tradition such as this. The goal is to learn not just from the text but also from one another and from the dynamic between us. Havruta allows both participants the opportunity clarify and explain the questions that arise for them in the reading of the text as well as their provisional answers; then they discuss and debate their questions and answers, collaborating to fine-tune and amend their conclusions. Thereby, it offers learners the opportunity to engage with texts and each other in new and deeper ways.
What is it?
The way this practice was introduced to me is a kind of formalized conversation:
- The text is read aloud.
- The first participant asks their question and provides their answer.
- The second participant then responds, beginning the discussion in earnest.
- Once both participants are satisfied with the discussion, steps 2 and 3 are repeated for the second participant’s question.
Another way of approaching Havruta, less prescriptive and more intuitive than the method I was taught, is provided by Orit Kent, a scholar in Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. She notes six nonsequential practices in Havruta, that are found in three dialectical pairs, or movements, each of which contributes to the learning process:
The first movement is made of listening and articulating and is about the give-and-take of conversation:
- Listening: The text is read aloud together and each participant pays attention to what their partner is saying.
- Articulating: Each participant’s thoughts are clarified and sharpened by the need to put those thoughts into words.
The second movement is made up of wondering and focusing. It is about the give-and-take of ideas, being prepared both to explore new and creative possibilities and then narrow down our focus and attention:
- Wondering: The discussion generates creative ideas.
- Focusing: The discussion focuses to deepen interpretation.
The third movement is made up of supporting and challenging. We might say this is about the give-and-take of relationship, assisting one another to become stronger through the interaction:
- Supporting: Each participant encourages the other in their ideas and helps to shape and clarify them.
- Challenging: Each participant strengthens the other’s ideas by raising potential concerns and holes in their arguments.
This honestly may be my favorite practice of all that I’ve explored this year. While I have certainly had conversations with friends about sacred texts before, the formality and intentionality of this practice was new to me. I was fortunate in that my Havruta partner for the week is also an early riser and so we were able to begin our days with this this practice of deep sacred conversation. It was a tremendous blessing to me and has left me wanting more! My companion in Havruta was equally impressed by it, making comments like “I didn’t realize we would get into so much for such a short passage,” “This practice this week has been very good for me,” and “It has been good for my soul and mind.”
Several years ago, when I was slowly beginning to re-engage with religious faith after several years away from it, exposure to Judaism and its more generous and expansive interpretive tradition helped me quite a bit on my journey. While my undergraduate degree in linguistics had given me an appreciation for the reality of ambiguity and so I wasn’t tempted by ‘literalism’ (for every sentence has many literal meanings), before my crisis of faith, I had still been driven by a kind of interpretive anxiety that made me feel like Ι needed to find the right interpretation of a text. When I came back to my sacred texts I knew I would need to do so with a different approach. Seeing the generous way Jewish interpreters handled their sacred texts helped me to focus less on “splitting the seed” of the text, to seeing instead what life can grow from it. Part of what was so helpful for me was that their hermeneutical generosity wasn’t born from a “liberalizing” sense of my intellect and experience vs. the text, but out of a deep respect for the potential of the text: The text is sacred, and it is precisely because the text is sacred that it has the capacity to carry multiple true meanings. The kind of sacred conversation that Havruta represents takes this interpretive spaciousness one step further, as it pushes participants to actively and constructively engage with alternative readings. A great example of this occurred on the last day of the practice this week. My friend posed a question about something Jesus said in the text that neither of us thought was a remotely sufficient response to the trap laid against him. Both the requirement of Havruta to engage constructively with the question and the interpretive generosity at the heart of the practice caused me to push past my dissatisfaction with the text and ask what else it might mean. And that curiosity — inspired entirely by the practice — transformed the conversation from its rather snarky beginnings to one that will probably forever change how I read and understand the text.
Another benefit of Havruta is the need to articulate one’s questions and answers. Often when I’m just reading Scripture on my own, I’m left with a jumble of half-formed thoughts and feelings. Beyond the beautiful acts of sharing and discussing my thoughts with someone else, the very need to articulate them to another person was helpful, and surprisingly challenging in the moment.
The practice also reminded me of two common sayings that I’d like to reflect on here. The first is the saying (generally said to be an African proverb, but I’m not sure of its actual origin) “If you want to go fast, travel alone; if you want to go far, travel together.” As someone who lives a lot in my head and heart and whose interests and hobbies tend to be solitary endeavours, understanding that the life of faith is fundamentally communal was not an easy journey for me. For a long time I accepted it as an obedience more than as something I understood. But of course the more I experience, the more I come to see how true it really is. Companionship on the spiritual journey is incredibly important. (This is why as Christians we believe we are saved together as a body rather than as individuals.) The practice of Havruta felt like an object lesson in that for me this week. My interpretations of the text were good and interesting; our interpretations of the text were far better and far more interesting. This connects to the second proverb that came to mind, “as iron sharpens iron.” I’ve long loved this metaphor and it’s become my ideal for all my relationships. It’s the idea that human interactions and relationships should be mutually beneficial, should sharpen and strengthen both parties. Of course, the opposite can be true; iron can sharpen iron, but it can also blunt it. Human relationships can build us up or they can tear us down. We need discernment to pick the right partners, whether in business, friendship, romance, or Havruta. Regardless, I loved that Havruta shares my belief that our relationships exist for our mutual edification and not simply for our entertainment.
Needless to say, I had a wonderful experience with Havruta this week and I hope that I can find a way to make it a more permanent fixture in my life. I loved it for both the way it increased my understanding of and engagement with the Scriptures and the way it turned Scripture reading into an opportunity for growth in friendship as well.