The Pedagogical Basis of Small-Group Learning: A Response to Evans and Schwartzman

Group learningat least as we have conceived of it at Kevah can function as a hybrid model, combining the virtues of both the chevruta and the shiur.

By Rabbi David Kasher

In an excellent eJP post last week, Robert Evans and Bryan Schwartzman drew our attention to the small-group model popularized by Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, and suggested that this form of communal gathering had tremendous potential to “bring about a new paradigm in synagogue life” as well. I read it with excitement and a strong sense of identification, as someone who has been teaching small groups for the past five years through Kevah, an organization dedicated to supporting small groups that empower individuals and institutions to build micro-communities around the study of classical Jewish texts.

Evans and Schwartzman rightly indicate that the small group setting is uniquely suited to the cultivation of two things that Jews are seeking from community: meaning and friends. They emphasize the relational dynamic that is alive in these intimate settings, and the sense of connectivity that this sort of communal encounter fosters so powerfully and that may be missing from larger institutional spaces. They readily acknowledge that Judaism has also, throughout its history, created certain structures designed around relationships, and mention in passing that, “we did, after all, invent the chevruta study model.”

I would like to both affirm their call for an increased sense of meaning and connectivity in the Jewish community through small group gatherings, and to build on it by suggesting yet a further essential need that small group learning can fulfill: Jewish knowledge. I believe the key to understanding the capacity of small groups to fill all of these needs at once is to go back to the chevruta model.

In a traditional yeshiva setting, there are two main forums for learning: the chevruta and the shiur. The chevruta, which takes up the bulk of the time in a given study session, is the partnered learning model. It classically involves sitting across from a peer and taking turns reading through a text and then working together – both through collaboration and heated debate – to understand the meaning of the text. The relationship developed with one’s study partner is both the most essential tool one has for learning and also a precious value in itself. It is in this setting, then, that one cultivates deep connection with another – relational Judaism at its best. It is also in this mode that meaning is constructed, both in the pure activity of translation and analysis of the text, and more profoundly because the conversational dynamic invites each partner to actively engage in the process of interpretation, and thereby personalize the meaning of the text.

Once the chevruta session ends, however, the various partners will typically gather together for the second phase of the learning – the shiur, or lesson. This looks more like a class, and is led by a maggid shiur, an expert teacher who will test the students on their understanding of the text and then go on to offer deeper levels of insight and analysis that build on the work done in the chevruta learning. The students come to the shiur both to present and verify their own conclusions and to be pushed to the next level of knowledge and understanding. The attention is primarily is on the teacher, and the dynamic is clearly hierarchical, but the egalitarian give-and-take of chevruta is temporarily sacrificed in exchange for the excitement of seeing a great mind at work at being taken to new vistas of Jewish understanding.

The chevruta and the shiur each offer distinctly different educational and relational experiences, and they are meant to complement one another, in order to offer the learner the deepest possible access to both meaning/connection and knowledge/literacy.

When we move out into the contemporary American Jewish community, however, we find that both the chevruta and the shiur models are ill-suited to the needs and background of the typical Jewish seeker. The chevruta, by leaving the partners on their own, presumes a certain level of fluency in the language and style of the text. The average American Jew, however, is highly educated in the secular realm but limited in his Jewish background, and will usually find ancient Jewish text to be inaccessible if not alienating.

So the default has become to move all of synagogue learning into the shiur, the class. The Jewish expert stands before a group and essentially lectures to them, trying valiantly to impart basic Jewish literacy. The problem with this situation is that the learners are entirely passive. They may indeed get important knowledge from the teacher, but they are not being engaged to add meaning.  And they are not being connected to others in the group simply by sitting with them and listening.  Without this sense of personal meaning and communal connection, the information itself feels less relevant anyway. So we arrive at the very state of affairs that Evans and Schwarzman are describing – an impersonal and increasingly lifeless Jewish community in need of a major paradigm shift towards a focus on meaning and relationships.

The good news is, in my experience, small-group learning not only facilitates this kind of relational connectivity; it also – when centered around text study – provides a rich opportunity to build Jewish knowledge. That is because group learning – at least as we have conceived of it at Kevah  – can function as a hybrid model, combining the virtues of both the chevruta and the shiur.

At Kevah, we see the role of the Jewish educator as two-fold. She acts as the both the resident expert – preparing the material, guiding the direction of study, and offering deeper insight – and the facilitator of a conversation that centers around the text but encourages participants to offer their own interpretations and come into dialogue with one another. A Kevah group, then, is like an expanded chevruta, now taking between ten instead of two partners. But the educator is also there, to both gently provide corrective guidance when misunderstanding arises, and then push the group forward into deeper levels of understanding than they would be able to reach on their own. In other words, a skilled educator is able to artfully interweave all the advantages of the shiur into the relational chevruta experience.

In the Jewish community, we often get caught up in the question: What’s more important, knowledge or personal meaning? At different times we feel we have emphasized one at the cost of the other, and so we try to swing forcefully back the other way. In truth, however, the question introduces a false binary. Neither of these basic needs can be privileged or sacrificed. The whole notion of Torah study presumes that both the intellectual and the personal are essential, and that they can and should be intertwined. This was the genius of the yeshiva model that coupled the chveruta learning with the shiur. In Kevah groups, we try to take this coupling and turn it into a combination – a synthesis that strives to offer, in equal measures: Jewish literacy, the opportunity to develop a deep sense of personal meaning, and community of friends to share the experience with.

The good news is, I think we can have it all.

Rabbi David Kasher is the Senior Rabbinic Educator at Kevah, a Berkeley-based organization that supports Jewish learning groups. Subscribe here to ParshaNut, his weekly commentary on the Torah portion.