A Melton Teacher Reflects on “Learning Loud”
By Ruth Bergman
May 1, 2013
Many years ago at a Melton staff meeting, we were divided into two groups and asked to study a piece of text together (a method called chevruta, group study). The idea was for us to interpret the piece and then explain it to the other group. I do not remember what text my group was given. What I do remember was that during our chevruta time, the other group shushed us!
And, yes, it is true, we were very loud.
During the ensuing discussion, however, I brought up the fact that Torah study takes place in a Beit Midrash—a house of study, not in a library. Libraries are quiet places. They are for contemplation and individual focus. One goes to the library to read in undisturbed peace. If a Beit Midrash is quiet, it is because it is empty! In a Beit Midrash the goal is to read a text together aloud, discuss, argue, read it again, perhaps see a new perspective, argue some more. . . . and at the end of the process come away with a deeper and better understanding—a way of seeing and thinking about the issue at hand that you would not have acquired without your study buddy’s help.
No man is an island, and no man or woman can really study Torah alone.
This lesson is taught in the Talmud (Tractate Kiddushin 30), where the rabbis explain Psalm 127:5, “Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them; They shall not be ashamed when they speak with their enemies in the gate.” According to one interpretation, this verse means that, “Even father and son, master and disciple, who study Torah at the same gate [i.e., the same subject] become enemies of each other; yet they do not stir from there until they come to love each other.”
Father and son? Yes! When we engage in Torah we are obligated to argue, disagree and contradict our study partner, even if he or she is our parent, because we are searching for truth and meaning.
Although my classes do not get quite as loud as that long-ago chevruta (well, okay, maybe sometimes they do!), for me, the best part of teaching adults is always the discussion. No matter what the subject—ethics, history, Talmud—we always study together and teach one another.
Bringing life experience to class
It would be easy for me, as the “expert” standing in the front of the room, to pontificate and “teach it as it is meant to be taught!” But that is not the Jewish way. Adult students bring life experience, formal education and professional expertise into the room and provide a perspective that no one else has. We enrich one another, and I truly believe that I learn from my students as much as I teach them. My favorite moment in each year in the Year One Melton class is when the students– who have come in shy, unsure, maybe nervous about being back in the classroom, definitely afraid of saying something stupid– begin to question and respond to one another’s comments , debating and discussing as if I were not there! At that moment, the 20-some strangers in the class have formed a large chevruta, teaching and learning from one another. Quite often the students enjoy studying together so much that we try to schedule other classes that they can continue to attend together.
This past year, I decided to take the chevruta concept one step further. For a few years now I have had my own study buddy with whom I study Jewish texts every week. Rabbi Michele Faudem and I would get together with our Talmuds, Bibles, dictionaries and other sources and study for about 90 minutes. We would read together, discuss, disagree, argue, laugh, read again, and maybe I would convince Michele of the correctness of my position. Just as often she would convince me—and many times we’d have to “agree to disagree”—called teiku [stalemate] in the Talmud.
Well, one day Michele and I looked at each other and thought that we should take our act “on the road.” After all, studying in chevruta style is an acquired skill. You need to learn how to read for detail, ask questions, follow the logic of the rabbinic discussion, and really get inside the rabbis’ heads. It is much like a law student learning how to read a case and “think like a lawyer.” We thought that perhaps we could offer a lunchtime class where the goal would be to teach not only content, but skills.
With the support of Judy Loebl, we began meeting with a small, but brave, group of women on Mondays from 11:45-1:00. These students, guided by us, would pair or triple up, read a piece of Talmud, and dissect it—at first with lots of help from us through question sheets. As time went on, though, the students did not need our question sheets; they could tease out meaning and questions on their own. They were mastering the ancient skill of studying in chevruta. And of course, it got loud! Michele and I have created a Beit Midrash, and it has been amazing!
We learn in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers (1:6), that a person should acquire a friend with whom to study. We also are taught to “turn it and turn it: you will find everything in it. Scrutinize it, grow old and gray in it, do not depart from it: there is no better portion in life than this” (5:24). I have acquired many friends and students with whom to study– in Melton classes, FedEd courses and in the chevruta class. We turn and turn Torah, always learning something new. We do so together. And loudly!