Tonight a group of us observed a very old Jewish custom. A dear friend and student of mine is moving away, and I invited him to put together a list of people he’d like to study with one more time. We gathered around the table with some good food and our books. Some had never studied Gemara before, and some of us were a bit rusty, but it didn’t matter.
We read a famous passage, Shabbat 31a from the Babylonian Talmud. (Click the link if you’d like to read it in English.) It’s a group of stories about Hillel and Shammai and three men who wanted to become Jewish.
What I loved most about this evening was that even though I have read that passage more times than I can count, our group found something new in it, several new ideas. (They were new to us, anyway.) That’s the beauty of studying together with others: while I might wonder about something, in the process of wondering together, we become more than the sum of our parts. We were at best an average bunch of Jews, but our study was extraordinary, because we studied together.
Some of us went back twenty years. Some of us met for the first time over this table. We are all old friends now, regardless. We’ve studied Torah together, and in the process uncovered bits of ourselves.
Here’s the recipe for an evening like this:
- Invite 2-10 people who enjoy learning.
- Have a few nice snacks, preferably finger food. Also coffee and tea.
- Agree ahead of time on the text you will study. Keep it smallish: remember you are going to read and ponder together. (Our guest of honor chose the text.)
- Have copies of the text so that every person has one. Unless all of you are fluent in Hebrew and/or Aramaic, use a translation, at least as an aid.
- Many Jewish texts are available online; if you meet somewhere that wifi is available, it can be done from laptops, tablets, or even smartphones.
- Once you are gathered, say the blessing for study.
- Read a bit at a time, out loud. Take turns reading. Pause wherever feels logical, or when someone wants to talk.
- Talk about what you see in the text. Be open to the possibility that not everyone will see the same thing (how boring would that be?)
- Then go back to reading, bit by bit, broken up by discussion, until either you reach the end or it’s time to stop.
Let me know how it goes.