Recently we hosted a meeting with a small group of Korean Christian ministers and students. They drove a long distance to meet with us to explore the promise of havruta, specifically for their Korean cultural and religious context. While this group gained helpful insight about havruta, our own gleanings from this encounter were unexpected and even a gift. Explaining the meaning of havruta to people outside the Jewish community required us to share more than just the history or mechanics of studying in pairs. We felt compelled to convey the deep Jewish sensibility that learning in our tradition is often inherently rooted in the personal relationships we build and nurture.
The Mishnah famously instructs us, “Aseh lecha rav, knei l’cha chaver,” “Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend” (Pirkei Avot 1:6). One interpretation of this teaching is that in order to learn Torah, one of the things a person needs to do in addition to studying with a teacher is to earn a friend, to engage with another person who is one’s peer and companion. Avot d’Rabbi Natan (8:3) asks,
“How does one acquire a friend? A person acquires a friend for themself by eating and drinking with their friend, by studying Torah with their friend, by lodging with their friend, by sharing their private thoughts about Torah and other parts of life…”
In other words, we make friends by sharing in the most fundamental human experiences of life, which include the study of Torah and the revealing of our inner thoughts to another person in mutual entrustment. Torah-learning and life-living are interconnected, and one way to access that connection is to make a friend by learning with them.
Taken together these sources suggest a generative circle of relationship: to learn Torah we must make a friend to share in life together; and to make a friend with whom to share in life, we must learn Torah together. Within this expanded relational frame, we can apply the treasured Jewish idea of Torah lishmah, learning Torah for its own sake, to what we might call “friendship lishmah”—the idea that we should aim to engage with another human being not for our own material or personal gain but for the sake of the mutual nourishment, sharing, and companionship that is its own reward. Developing this kind of friendship is friendship for its own sake.
This relational circle of Torah lishmah and “friendship lishmah” holds the potential to generate ethical fortification and spiritual possibility. Avot d’Rabbi Natan continues, “When one is engaged in Torah learning with their friend, and one of them makes a mistake in the halachah [Jewish law] their friend corrects them.” One of the most important roles of a true friend, therefore, is to help us stay on the right path and seek to understand the correct way. Avot d’Rabbi Natan draws upon Kohelet/Ecclesiastes, bringing in the biblical wisdom that “two are better than one… For should they fall, one can raise up the other” (Kohelet 4:9-10). Friends who invest in their relationship for its own sake serve to hold one another steady and true in matters of Torah and life.
When we treat our relationship with Torah and one another as ends in and of themselves we open up space for kedushah/holiness and the presence of the Divine. Our sources teach that when two people sit together and words of Torah are uttered between them, the Shechinah/Divine presence abides between them (Avot 3:2). Similarly, when two Torah scholars listen to each other when discussing halachah, God listens to them (Shabbat 63a). Furthermore, the Talmud relates that in certain circumstances, even if they err in study, God loves them, highlighting the idea that the goal is not solely the gain of knowledge—but the inherent value of engaging in Torah with each other.
Our Korean colleagues came to us seeking ways to reinvigorate their own cultural heritage. In answering their questions, we too were reminded to “live into” the ideals and spiritual possibilities of our own tradition. We all can strive to become more attuned to the potential we each possess to receive Torah and experience God’s presence through our intentional engagement with Jewish texts and life’s lessons in the company of others and through the relationships we make and sustain. Let us ask ourselves not only what Torah have I learned, but with whom and from whom. When we are with a friend or a potential friend, let us ask ourselves not only what am I learning about this other person but also what Torah have I learned or could I learn from this other person? And let us reflect on when we feel a sense of kedushah both in our Torah learning and in our relationships with others—and to appreciate that kedushah for its own sake.