The rabbis instruct us:
Make/find yourself a teacher, obtain for yourself a friend.
Strange suggestive verbs: in our commercial day and age we’d probably switch them. But that’s not my focus here. Schematically let’s call the first relationship educational: one person possesses a role that we call teacher, presuming some sort of training, some sort of knowledge base, some sort of experience and enthusiasm and commitment to teaching others, and perhaps most importantly, not confusing disgorging words and ideas with the much harder, less linear activity of getting the student to become an active learner, doing much of the work themselves. That last notion may diminish the quantity of material the teacher hoped to teach, but may make the actual learning stickier.
Then there’s the conversation between friends. It too can feature learning, sitting over a shared text, arguing a problem, opening oneself to listening as well as to talking, sharing, risking, pushing oneself and one’s fellow to think and to feel and to imagine, more deeply. A hevruta, in Jewish talmudic parlance.
Both modes provide opportunities for learning. But it feels to me, as Leon Wieseltier recently articulated, that the Jewish world these days skews a bit toward the latter—what I’d call the horizontal—over the former, rather old-fashioned and non PC “vertical” notion of the Rabbi or Herr Professor oracularly declaiming to us what we need to know about whatever subject.
To take one example: should American Jews actually know something about the history, ideas, and text of Zionism and Israel, or should they come together to “engage,” to “encounter” to talk and listen but ultimately not to come away with much more information, much less knowledge, than they had when they walked in the door. If we think there’s some organic link between working knowledge and attachment to larger realms like people or community or religion, we ought to be asking the question of how to make Jews more literate, not just more engaged. I would venture that the first begets the second; the second begets not very much.