Havruta Study in the Contemporary Yeshivah

Aliza Segal

This paper considers the possibilities for optimal use of havruta time in post high school yeshivot, particularly women’s institutions. Many of these schools, particularly those which are considered to be the most academically rigorous, offer some classes, or even the vast majority of a student’s schedule, which are preceded by preparation time in the beit midrash with a havruta. The author examines this trend in light of the stated and implicit goals of those promoting it, as well as contemporary research in the field of general education.

The history of havruta learning is investigated in the paper from two angles. First, there is the appeal to tradition that is inherent to the beit midrash environment. Havruta learning is perceived as a venerated and indeed mandated tradition, as shown by some contemporary responsa. The claim is that people have been learning torah with study partners for many generations, and that this is the authentic format for talmud Torah. The author presents conclusions of several historians casting doubt on these assumptions. Widespread havruta study may date only to the late nineteenth century, or even the beginning of the twentieth century. Thus the desire to implement a havruta-based program is not quite as rooted in tradition as it is commonly perceived to be

The second area for historical inquiry regards the question of why havruta learning became widespread in the modern period. The answer to this question lies in the realm of speculation. The author engages in this speculation along with a modern Jewish historian, suggesting that some of the initial motivating factors may be at work today. Whatever precipitated the implementation of havruta study in its initial inception may be applicable to the contemporary yeshivah setting.

In order to evaluate the possible benefits of the system, it is necessary to establish parameters in terms of goals, which can then be used as criteria for evaluating success. Goals clarification and assessment lead to the initial conclusion that there are educational goals which are primarily cognitive. “shenei talmidei hakhamim mehadedin zeh et zeh bahalakhah/ Two scholars sharpen each other in [matters of] halakhah [BT Taan. 7a].” Two heads are better than one. A student learns better by having to serve as a resource to peers. There is also research demonstrating that the act of reading aloud aids in retention. There are textual skill-building aims which require practice and application. The havruta method is thus considered the optimal way to learn.

There are also perceived religious/spiritual benefits to the beit midrash experience, based on statements of value. The process of talmud torah has intrinsic worth. Being surrounded by and accessing books is a good thing. Hearing the sounds of the beit midrash impacts upon a person’s being. Thus in an institution which aspires to mold and inspire a religious personality, a beit midrash-centered program is frequently determined to be beneficial.

Once the question of “why” has been approached, the author turns to the “how,” the methods that can best attain the goals at hand. In other words, given this block of time, how can the teacher best utilize it? Two groups of methods from the realm of general education are outlined in a general way, with attention given to what they aim to accomplish. The author maintains that teaching methods and strategies should be borrowed only to the extent that they genuinely answer to the needs of the new environment. Thus the perceived benefits of the two systems are examined and compared with the goals of havruta study in the context of the post high school yeshivah.

The first system under consideration is cooperative learning, due to its inherent structural similarities to the havruta system; students in both environments study together in small groups. The results of comparison in the realm of goals were somewhat equivocal. It seems that many of the goals of cooperative learning are not cognitive, but social. Students learn to listen to each other and respect the ideas of others; heterogeneous grouping enables weaker students to participate to the best of their ability; cultural differences are overcome. These goals, according to the author, are not the primary focus of the teacher in a post high-school yeshiva. One caveat is age. The student populations in the yeshivot also do not lend themselves to teaching about respect across cultural lines or for peers of varying levels of ability; each school, and within schools, each class, is fairly homogeneous in makeup. This is especially true in the more “elitist” schools, which are generally the most ardent fans of havruta learning.

The author does concede importance to personal development in the social realm for the post high school student. She maintains, however, that these higher order social skills are addressed through the program as a whole, as the students live together, take trips, plan events, and are away from home for an extended period of time learning to function as individuals and as part of a group. Cooperative learning methods are thus not necessary to achieve these goals, and may not even serve to further them.

The second group of methods, which may be classified under the category of the cognitive approach to teaching, are aimed at bringing students towards higher order thinking skills. There are small group, whole group, and individual encounters with the material, and most of the learning is not teacher centered. Students are encouraged to develop and sharpen their own thinking by posing and answering higher order questions, and by heightening their awareness of their own thinking processes, a method known as metacognition. The author maintains that some of these learning techniques may be transferable to the havruta setting, addressing some of the purely cognitive goals that cooperative learning seems to overlook.

Advocating the implementation of relevant aspects of cooperative learning and cognitive approaches to teaching is one aspect of the paper. The methods are briefly outlined. The teacher wishing to put them to use will be able to find resources to aid in planning lessons and designing assignments and worksheets.

The author goes on to discuss another aspect of the havruta system, in the realm of non-cognitive goals. These are questions of “why” that are not addressed by the field of general education, and which she maintains deserve consideration when planning a havruta-based program of study. These include a sense of belonging and identity, being part of the creative process of talmud torah; the magic of the spoken word for involving one’s mind and one’s self; and the discipline of order that is necessary in the total immersion environment that is the yeshivah. These goals may be enhanced by particular teaching methods and styles. They may also stand behind the institution of havruta learning.

This paper is not intended to be prescriptive. There is no model curriculum, and there are no sample worksheets. Rather, it is a description of and a reflection upon an institution that exists, with an eye towards utilizing it to the greatest possible advantage. Contemplating historical developments and contemporary approaches, implicit goals and intrinsic benefits, can impact upon the teacher’s vision, and as a result, on his or her implementation.

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