World of the Sages: Study groups

Our tradition is not a private enterprise.

yeshiva studying 88 (photo credit: )
yeshiva studying 88
(photo credit: )
Is it preferably to sit alone, poring over the texts of our tradition, or should we gather in groups to engage collectively in Torah study? The Talmud offers a definitive ruling on this question (B. Berachot 63b). Offering a midrashic pun on Moses' entreaty to the Jewish People to "pay attention (hasket) and heed" (Deuteronomy 27:9), our sages tell us to assemble in groups (kitot) to study Torah. The teaching continues, explaining the import of group study; Torah knowledge can only be acquired through learning with peers. Our sages go further, damning scholars who sit alone studying the texts of our tradition. Besides the curse, such lonesome scholars end up as fools and are considered sinners in their secluded study. In one of his many compositions, Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen of Radin (1839-1933), more commonly known as the Hafetz Hayim, outlines the many advantages of group learning. First, studying in a group has the added bonus of publicly sanctifying the Almighty's name, increasing the religious value of the act. Moreover, while learning with others it is likely that each member of the group will have the opportunity to explain one of the finer points of the material and thus fulfill the commandment of teaching Torah. The Hafetz Hayim continues, moving from theology to sociology, that it is far more difficult to skip a class than to miss a private study session. It is always awkward when our peers or teachers confront us with "We missed you!" Furthermore, after failing to attend a group study session there is a clear yardstick for what was missed and a strong sense of the need to catch up to study partners who have progressed. Thus peer-pressure - a by-product of study groups - can be a catalyst in increasing diligent Torah scholarship. Perhaps one of the strongest arguments for study groups is that they can improve the quality of learning. When one member presents a thought, this proposal is open to analysis and critique. Opinions can be assessed, challenged and clarified, and lucid ideas formulated. This method is reflected in the legal portions of the Talmud which are recorded as a cross-generational discussion. The Hafetz Hayim tells us that he chose to write about this topic since he perceived Torah devotees who preferred to study alone. These people saw no folly in their ways, though they were forgoing the many advantages of study groups. His hope in collating the various advantages of group study was that individuals would make an effort to join study groups and encourage their peers to do likewise. Though the Hafetz Hayim does not acknowledge any exceptions, other scholars note that there are situations where solitary study is permitted and perhaps even recommended. In fact, we know of a number of notable Torah personalities who would study alone such as the famed Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, known as the Hazon Ish (1878-1953, Kossow-Vilna-Bnei Brak). In fact, it is reported that the Hazon Ish was once asked by a scholarly person who routinely studied alone, whether this was permitted in light of the talmudic passage censuring such a practice. The Hazon Ish answered the questioner - and in the process explained his own habit - that the rabbinic directive was stated in a period when students studied without books. In such times, group learning was essential to ensure that the text was not corrupted or the wording inadvertently distorted. Nowadays, when the text is all written down, this concern no longer applies. The Hazon Ish continued with some practical advice. While learning, record your thoughts on paper and during the writing process you will see where your logic is faulty. In a similar vein but with a different solution, it is reported that the Hazon Ish's brother-in-law, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (1899-1985, Hornistopol-Bnei Brak) acknowledged the natural need of some students to study alone. He explained that the primary concern of study in solitude is that there is no one to correct mistakes. This can be circumvented by ensuring that students who study alone make an effort to check their progress and vet their ideas by discussing their private learning with others. An interesting aspect of the original talmudic passage, overlooked by most commentators, is the utilitarian condemnation coupled with the religious censure of isolated learning. Sitting in study groups offers both the ultimate challenge and supreme opportunity of Torah study. On the one hand, learning with others is the most efficient means for producing fruitful discussion and creative ideas. On the other hand, while sitting with others it is easy to be ensnared in worthless chatter, sinfully wasting valuable time from the objective of Torah study. Learning alone means focus is retained and talking about non-Torah subjects avoided - yet there is no fertile discussion. The worst circumstance, therefore, is sitting with others while each person studies their own text. In this case there is no cross-fertilization of ideas, while at the same time there is a propensity to slide into hollow discussion, unrelated to the task at hand. This scenario is hinted at in the talmudic passage: Learning alone is foolish and sinful - foolish in that solitary study forgoes the opportunity of peer growth, sinful in that if it is done in the presence of others it often precipitates idle chatter. Perhaps we could learn something else from the lesson of group Torah study. In a public company, significant decisions are made only after the shareholders have been invited to participate. Such a public meeting is the most appropriate forum for resolutions that may have a broad impact. Our tradition is not a private enterprise. It is a venture that we are all welcome to be part of. Torah discussions, debates over the will of the Almighty, determinations of complex points of law - impact every one of us, since we all have a stake in our heritage. As such, the most appropriate forum for Torah study is together with our fellow shareholders. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.