“Sorry I’m late,” Rachel announces as she joins her colleagues around the table. “It’s one of those days. I’ve had three difficult situations this morning,” she adds, glancing at her iPhone; “and it’s barely noon.”
“Can you afford the time today?” I ask, wanting to be assured this is not one more demand. “I can’t afford not to do this,” she replies. After several minutes of greetings, a lull in the conversation signals we are ready to begin our weekly, two-hour practice of Christian havruta.
The phrase “Christian havruta” must sound like an oxymoron to our Jewish colleagues, if not some form of glib appropriation. Havruta is an ancient Jewish practice where two partners interpret the meaning of a biblical text in a dialogue with one another. The root meaning of the Aramaic word havruta is “friend.”1 Simply stated, havruta is the Jewish practice of befriending—befriending the other, oneself, and the text in a process of attentive dialogue (or “trialogue”). So what are Protestant clergy and lay leaders from the Boston area doing with havruta? It’s a question I’ve been asking for some time, several years in fact.
I ended my formal academic career in the spring of 2009. That summer, I found myself deeply moved in reading Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology, Michael Fishbane’s wonderful book about living Torah in the contemporary human and natural world.2 Fishbane’s relationship with Torah left me wondering when—actually if—I had experienced such an intimate relationship with the Bible in my life as a minister and an academic. The answer was an unsettling no, but it got me looking back over the road I’d traveled to find signs of what was missing.
In my twenty-five year affiliation with Harvard, as a graduate student, executive director, researcher, and teacher, what stood out above all else was the exhilarating experience of doing havruta with a group of mostly Jewish colleagues, starting in 1998 and continuing until 2006. Our mentor was Dr. Bernard Steinberg, then director of Harvard Hillel. Steinberg had dropped out of rabbinical school in the 1970s and moved to Jerusalem, where he learned the havruta pedagogy under David Hartman, the preeminent Jewish philosopher and founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute. An epicenter in bridging classical Jewish learning and contemporary society, the Shalom Hartman Institute has helped to foster a renaissance in the practice of havruta. Rabbis and academics are using havruta pedagogies in continuing education programs, seminary classrooms, and day schools from New York to California, where Steinberg is currently the Vice President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. So if havruta is so central to Jewish learning, why had I not come across it in mainline Protestant communities?
Beginning with a Rockefeller Trial Year Fellowship I took to attend Union Theological Seminary in 1970-71 and throughout my career, I learned the necessity of historical and literary criticism for sound exegesis of the Bible. But the transformative power of the biblical witness was too often absent for me through my years of preaching and teaching. Even before, growing up in a nominally religious household where God was not mentioned nor prayers ventured, I had not experienced the first naiveté of hearing God’s Word in the plain words of the text. Nor later did I find my way into a vibrant second naiveté that others said was possible. Instead, my overarching commitment to the public witness of the church left me habitually extracting theological ideas from their literary home, not allowing the textured world of the Bible to speak on its own terms.
Doing havruta with my Jewish colleagues provided a mirror in which I saw the reflection of my own practice. Hermeneutics is a to-and-fro movement between the worlds of the text and our life context. And the interpretive bridge requires us to travel multiple lanes back and forth: exegesis, interpretation, homiletics, and theology. But years of doing havruta with my Jewish friends gradually made me see how much I had learned to travel these lanes by commuting solo, hoping to have something meaningful to offer others when I got back home. Here was a much more interesting way to go: a community of dialogue going back and forth across the bridge. Remarkably, the interpretive agent had been transformed from “me” to “us.”
I was also surprised by a singularity in my own reading of the Bible. My conscious openness to multiple interpretations of a text was more constrained than I realized by my desire to articulate the most compelling interpretation. But in a community of dialogue, we not only articulated our different readings of the text: the text came more alive and spoke to us with its rich multiplicity of voices. The most compelling interpretations came out of our listening both to the plurality of voices within the text and around the table. Not all readings, of course, were equally valid. Yet almost always, I found myself walking away from the havruta table savoring words that had the nourishment of shared meaning, words I felt compelled to digest and live by. Paul Ricoeur wrote, “Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.”3 Havruta showed me one place we can experience ourselves being called again: a living dialogue between self, other, and text.
The format of our Boston Group is a self-regulated discipline, and we stick closely to it so that the process allows our dialogue to deepen over the two hours. We begin by checking in with one another at a personal level. We then have a few minutes of silence followed by prayer to be mindful that our conversation unfolds in the presence of God. Next, the leader frames the day’s biblical text—a chapter or less—in its broader narrative context, and concludes by posing several generative questions. The purpose of these questions is not to evoke answers, but to invite us to pay close attention to the “Third Party”—the text—in our conversation. After the framing, we take turns reading the text aloud in order to experience the power of its words as they are spoken and heard. Now we break into pairs and explore the text for twenty or so minutes. As the Third Party in the conversation is engaged from several angles of havruta vision, three-way conversations open up. Partners hear the text and one another’s articulating observations and insights—familiar and unfamiliar, assuring and disturbing, explicable and elusive. It’s like popcorn popping without a lid, unpackaged and messy, like life itself. Sifting through these havruta dialogues, each pair attempts to identify and report back to the group what it found most striking and would like to explore more deeply. Typically at this point, the table is overflowing with possibilities, and the leader needs to discern how best to focus the group’s discussion. Perhaps the focus is a living question, one that emerged from the current context of the check-in and took shape in light of the text-based dialogues. After a period of discussion, we return to silence and interior listening. What have we heard that we need to savor and take away? We close with prayer and we part company until the next time we meet.
Today we begin with a soulful check-in, and David leads us off.4 “Normally I come into mid-summer with my tank on empty, get away in August, and then come back in September raring to go. This year so much is going on, I’m not sure if I can really get away.” We all understand the underlying meaning of not really getting away. Each of us struggles with the specter of burnout. And each of us knows how important it is to recognize our limits and sustain our spiritual practices, including getting away. But the old cliché is always current: easier said than done. The theme of over-extension runs through the check-in like a string collecting beads.
After each one of us speaks, there is silence. This is not a support group, and the unspoken rule is no comments, no expression of empathy, no advice, no questions. It feels counterintuitive not to respond, like someone has jumped off a ledge and is left suspended in midair. But the silence is not empty space. It holds us and our separate stories together. The silence also serves to honor the boundaries set by each member, leaving her free to say what she wants but no more. Tell but don’t ask. Perhaps most importantly, the silence stills our familiar patterns of conversation, and draws us into a deeper kind of listening. We feel our separate lives reconnecting again, today, here and now. The silence will resurface over the two hours, the deep wellspring without which dialogue dries up.
Now I briefly frame the text for today. It’s Luke’s account of Jesus beginning his public ministry in hometown Nazareth.5 Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…” Then he continues, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus now confronts his listeners in the synagogue, who become enraged. He walks through the angry crowd and leaves town.
The text offers little consolation to congregational leaders who stay to navigate conflict in the community. It instead raises questions, pressing questions for those of us proclaiming good news in the midst of division. Questions may seem a luxury. Moreover, we tend to associate questioning with doubt and distrust. Yet a different spirit animates our questioning: one of openness, curiosity, and expectation. Such questions release us from the confines of the familiar, including our familiar conflicts, to consider things in new ways.
One question stands out for us. What does it mean for Jesus to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”? We break down into havruta pairs and possibilities begin to emerge. The fulfillment may be ironic: in hearing, the people do not hear. Or perhaps the fulfillment is not among those in the synagogue but among the poor in the streets. Or perhaps Jesus is effectively fulfilling these words in the synagogue by disrupting the status quo and opening people to change that which does not come easily. When we’re done reporting in from our several dialogues, we’re amazed at the riches spread on the table. There’s much more going on here than any of us had imagined. “You know, I’ve preached on this text three or four times,” Rachel says; “but I’ve never understood it very well before.” Finally, the discussion leaves us with a living question to take away. If God’s Word has been fulfilled today in our hearing, how do we hear it in our hometown?
When I decided to try havruta learning in a congregational setting, I turned to my dear friend and colleague Dan Smith, senior minister of First Church UCC in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Dan and I agreed to give it a try for a few weeks, two hours a week, and see what happened. After the second week we were both hooked, and we continued for sixteen weeks in all. Dan was active in a clergy community of practice, did spiritual direction, and tried to safeguard daily meditation on the psalms. “But in my ten plus years of ministry,” he said, “nothing I’ve done has begun to approach the spiritual richness of this conversation.” It was time to see if others would agree.
The next step was for Dan to exercise his convening power by inviting a dozen members of the congregation to do havruta with us. Our aim was to try it as a pilot experiment, then evaluate it as a spiritual practice for the larger community, already a practicing congregation.
Fast forward a year: the First Church Havruta Group has met for more than forty weeks. Our first havruta study took us through each of the twenty-four chapters in the Gospel of Luke. The second, lead beautifully by our senior minister and lay leader Gaylen Morgan, took us through most of the Book of Exodus. With a few more members coming on board along the way, our group is continuing its weekly practice, now combining havruta learning and leadership development. Members take turns framing the text and guiding the multi-layered discussion. With leadership teams equipped to guide their own groups, First Church can experiment with havruta in different settings, from committee meetings to congregation-wide conversations. Next spring, our senior minister plans to take a sabbatical based on our havruta format, while the congregation undergoes a sabbatical of listening conversations to discern where God is calling us next. The Jewish practice of havruta has become rooted in our Christian congregation.
Today is the last meeting of our Boston Havruta Group. We’ve been following the thematic path of “calling” through the Galilean period of Luke’s gospel, chapters 3-9. In chapter 3, the story of Jesus’ baptism, the transcendent voice speaks as the dove descends upon Jesus. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Our journey is now concluding with the story of Jesus’ transfiguration in Chapter 9. Here, in the presence of Peter, James, and John, the transcendent voice speaks for the second and final time in Luke’s gospel: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” To whom is each voice addressed and how do the two voices go together, we ask in havruta pairs. Aren’t the first to Jesus, and the second to his disciples: “the Beloved…Listen to him!” Between these two moments, changes have taken place for Jesus, his disciples, and their interdependence.
Changes also have occurred among us. “What’s happened for you personally over these past weeks?” I ask my colleagues. Jonathan: “What linger for me are the multiple interpretations that emerge as we discuss these texts from our different perspectives. It’s helped increase my awareness that there are often multiple possibilities, not just one.” Erin: “My sense of the authority of Scripture has changed. More than I’ve realized, I’ve assumed that the text speaks with a single voice—there’s supposed to be a definitive interpretation. This is more relational, and the relationships open up a world of possibilities within the biblical story as well as our own stories.” Katherine: “I’ve experienced God in very tangible ways, in the text and among us, but also the complete transcendence of God. There is no way to pin it down and I like the fact that I leave the group with more questions than answers.” Rachel: “I’m experiencing a different kind of accountability. It’s not the exegetical style that allows me put the text into my own formulation. This is more about losing or relinquishing my control to the text.” Barry: “I’ve become more aware of being trapped inside my box of familiarity. This gets me out, but what it brings up is often disturbing and challenging. And it’s very humbling to have people notice things I don’t see in texts that I’ve read many times before, but there they are.”
Our relationship to the Jesus we meet in the Gospel of Luke also has changed. David: “Jesus has become more human and accessible to me.” Erin: “I’m seeing Jesus in such a more nuanced way than ever before.” Rachel: “I’m also seeing his divinity more clearly. There’s an elusiveness or mystery that comes through. I can engage it intellectually and from the heart, but I can’t pin it down.” We’ve been interpreting the text, and the text has been interpreting us.
We, clergy and lay leaders, are engulfed by a sea of continuing education opportunities, mostly away from our congregations. Havruta is not intended to be another opportunity for skill development or organizational strategizing. It’s an intrinsic practice, something we do for its own sake, like friendship. We befriend the text and one another in a living dialogue of faith. And, as with a good friendship, in the process we find ourselves refreshed and enlivened in ways that defy explanation.
At the same time, this practice addresses two pressing issues. One is the expectation that ministers are professionals who maintain the fragile bridge between tradition and transience upon which the church teeters. But no clergyperson, however competent and committed, can bear that awesome weight alone. The second issue is the anemic quality of what Robert Wuthnow calls “loose connections.”6 Loose connections may be flexible and adaptive, as Wuthnow argues, but they lack the power to generate a formative community of faith.
The promise of havruta is that it provides a practice that is spiritually sustaining for clergy and laity who together are transformed into a community of interpretation. In this process, clergy do not abdicate authority, but offer a mentoring kind of leadership. We model theological integrity by articulating our own questions and insights in the context of a sustained dialogue. And as we acknowledge our limits as interpreters of the Word, we are empowering laity to recover their voices and to journey through the horizon of faith along side of us. If the church is God’s way of saying we’re not alone, havruta is a way of being the church.
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” the voice says to Jesus at his baptism. “Listen to him!” it says to the disciples at the transfiguration. Between these two moments, we’ve listened more deeply. We’ve articulated multiple perspectives born of our varied experience. Fresh meanings have emerged to surprise us. Yet even more gracious than these things is the fact that we’re connected to one another and the text in a living dialogue of faith. If this can happen in just a matter of weeks, journeying with Jesus through his Galilean ministry, it’s exhilarating and daunting to imagine what lies ahead.
This article is written with profound gratitude for members of the havruta learning community at First Church (UCC) in Cambridge, MA. While not responsible for its content, they inspire and shape our unfolding practice. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
While havruta can take many different forms, our weekly two-hour sessions follow this format:
Personal check-in (20 min.)
Silence and prayer (5 min.)
Framing text (10 min.)
Reading text aloud (10 min.)
Havruta dialogues (20 min.)
Reporting back (15 min.)
Group discussion (20 min.)
Silent reflection (5 min.)
Take-aways (10 min.)Closing prayer (5 min.)
1. The transliteration of this Aramaic word is also spelled “chavruta” or “chavrusa.”
2. Michael Fishbane, Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
3. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), 349.
4. Participants’ names have been changed to protect anonymity.
5. Luke 4:16-30 (NRSV).
6. Robert Wuthnow, Loose Connections: Joining Together in America’s Fragmented Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).