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The Significance of Chevruta/Partnership Learning
What is Chevruta? by Tamar Cytryn, Director of Judaic Studies
One of the recent hot topics in journals and blogs about progressive education is partnership learning - students working with a peer to co-construct meaning in dialogue with an idea, artifact, text, or experiment. The notion of partnership learning, currently at the cutting edge of general education, dates back at least two millennia, where it is part of our tradition’s description of the learning environment of the first generations of Rabbis in the second and third centuries. Some ideas are truly timeless, and this is one example of an ancient concept being way ahead of its time.
Chevruta, or partnership learning, is first described in the Mishnah and Talmud and further develops and crystallizes as an approach to Jewish learning through the medieval and modern periods. In its most developed form it is a paragon of form imitating content: two students studying a text about Rabbis debating each other engage in the same rhetorical thrusts and parries about which they are reading. The Talmud values the basic premise of chevruta so much as to note that “The Torah isn’t sustained by one who studies on their own” (Ta’anit 7a) and “the Shechinah [God’s immanent form] resides when we study with others” (Shabbat 63a).
Our Torah readings at this time of year, which recount the story of our slavery in Egypt and Moses’ negotiations with Pharaoh, further emphasize this idea. Moses, whom the Rabbis saw as the original and idealized Rabbi, cannot process the very basis of Torah - God’s words - by himself. Only in partnership with his brother Aaron do God’s words find their true voice. When it comes to the dance of Torah, it truly takes two to tango.
The root of the word chevruta is the same as that of chaver, friend, as if to say that this approach to learning models an ideal relationship between friends - at once supporting and challenging each other to refine and hone understanding - or, even more radically, that learning in chevruta somehow facilitates the two learners becoming each other’s friend. This, of course, is in line with our commitment to social and emotional learning at CJDS, and our investment in cultivating chevruta learning across all grades over the last number of years has provided us with an amazing opportunity to tie our social and emotional learning with academic skill building in Jewish Studies: learning how to read texts closely, ask critical questions, and articulate complex ideas through oral communication.
To share a few examples, our spiral curriculum has students embodying traits of chevruta learning in the following ways:
Grade 1 reads Hebrew books out loud to each other
Grade 3 decodes original texts together
Grade 6 offers alternative meanings and implications of a verse
Grade 8 debates differing positions on questions of Jewish law, Biblical interpretation, theology, Jewish meaning, and more
The development of our approach is informed by research conducted by Dr. Orit Kent and Allison Cook. Orit and Allison have analyzed chevruta learning to unpack the orientations - to the text and to one’s partner - that make it work, ultimately defining three dynamic pairs: listening and articulating, wondering and focusing, and supporting and challenging. On the path from Grade 1 to the CJDS Middle School and on to a lifetime of Jewish learning, we work to build comfort and proficiency in each of these areas.
The living legacy of chevruta should resonate with all who are part of our CJDS culture: To bring only oneself to a text is necessary but not sufficient. We cannot truly unpack a text or reach the highest levels of understanding unless that process involves active engagement with someone else. True learning does not occur in a vacuum of ideas. Chevruta adds an additional level: a social vacuum cannot sustain learning either. Just as we integrate disciplines and ideas, coupling our lived experience with ideas and facts, so too do we stitch together a dynamic community that makes meaning together, celebrates our diversity, and pushes each other to think better and to be better.