Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Sacred Study

Jan 26, 2016

A dear friend of mine recently moved with his family from Albany to another state.  Having tasted the bitter pill of friendships that die slowly, I worried about ours.  Would our fifteen-year relationship weather the wear and tear of distance, long pauses in communication, and the normal blunting of adult relationships caused by our respective distractions?  I am lucky to have friends with whom I could pick up the thread of a conversation after decades of not talking, as if we had just seen each other yesterday.  Yet with more years of my life behind me than ahead of me, I did not want to risk waiting too long to stay in touch with him, until it was too late to do so.

Over the course of his time in Albany, my friend and I have met weekly for havruta, literally fellowship, the Aramaic word for a study group devoted to sacred Jewish literature.  Regardless of our preoccupations, we have met every Monday night to study Talmud, the masterwork of Jewish law and legend which is the centerpiece of traditional Jewish learning.  My friend and I would soon be separated by a thousand miles.  When he moved into the neighborhood, we began this literary journey through a complex Talmudic tractate which we have not yet completed. Fifteen years later, our shared memories have not included camping trips, movies, his love for biking, or playdates with our kids, who are in vastly different age categories. Our families have certainly grown together, mostly around religious and community celebrations, but the container holding our memories and shaping his and my connection is time spent engaged in Jewish learning.  Nearly a year since his departure, with the help of Skype, our sacred study and our friendship continue to grow.  Every week, we stop what we are doing for an hour, and we pick up our thread in the tapestry of this ancient conversation as if he were still living down the block from me.    

This is not the only havruta that graces my week.  I learn Jewish texts with two other out-of- town friends, as well as with a few friends at a weekly neighborhood study group.  Havruta upends conventional cultural assumptions about what friends do to have fun and to bond, because it turns socializing into a holy act.  As a very old form of Torah or scriptural study, it is founded upon the simple concept that learning the tradition with another person deepens that experience by expanding it from a daily Jewish religious obligation into a lively dialogue.  My study partners and I argue with each other out loud, and often heatedly, about the legal dialectics and homiletic interpretations on each dense page of Talmud.  We sharpen one another intellectually and spiritually, while simultaneously peeling back layers of ourselves through our discussions.  No havruta is strictly intellectual business, nor can it be, for the Talmud is not merely a dry exercise in legal casuistry. It is a timeless argument among rabbis, righteous men and rogues about life itself, a river flowing endlessly, sweeping us into its current from the moment we open its pages.  We spend half the time learning together, half the time arguing about what a particular passage means in modern terms, and half the time sharing community gossip and catching up on how we and our kids are doing.  Such is the magic of this kind of sacred study:  we become so engaged in talking with God, each other and the text, that time mysteriously transforms into time and a half.   

I feel blessed to be part of this spiritual conversation, with whose interlocutors I talk vertically, through the generations, and horizontally, across the country.  Over time and space, my beloved friends and I will continue to dialogue, hopefully bringing peace to the world through our fellowship, long after we have forgotten the words we have read.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY.

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