The Secrets of Friendship and Torah

by Mónica Gomery, Faculty

Benay, Laynie, and Monica huddle and lean over a table, studying Talmud together.

I sat down to learn in chevruta last week, on a day when everything was irking me. I was in a terrible, salty, grumbling mood. My chevruta and I opened with our usual check-in, during which I complained about anything I could think of. I was a fountain of negativity, and it was contagious. When my chevruta checked in after me, they too unleashed a river of complaints. In Taanit 7a, we learn that a chevruta pair sharpens each other like shards of iron: “just as in the case of iron, one sharpens its fellow, so too, two Torah scholars sharpen each other in matters of Halakha.” But my grumpiness wasn’t sharpening my chevruta’s halakhic thinking. Instead I was sharpening their despondency, sharing my ire like a wildfire on a mission to consume anything within reach. 

When we were done bemoaning the state of the world and our lives, we turned to the practice of dedications and bracha. I don’t remember who we dedicated our learning to that day, but I remember the knot in my chest unraveling as I listened to my chevruta’s dedication. Their vulnerability was a balm to my negativity. A person in their life needed healing. A person in my life needed healing. The way we shared with one another softened me, the words of the bracha smoothing over my sharp edges. By the time we completed the blessing, it was like I’d been through a cleansing mikveh––my anger sated, my irritability tamed. I felt a crackling sense of presence, overlaid with gratitude for being alive. 

We laughed together, because we’d both felt the shift. And even though we’d both done this particular ritual thousands of times, its impact still managed to surprise us. Looking back on it, I think even more significantly than the dedication or blessing, the driving agent of transformation in that moment was the spiritual technology of chevruta itself.

We learn in Pirkei Avot 1:6, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר, “Acquire for yourself a friend.” A friend is one of the key ingredients for an ethical and meaningful life, at least according to Yehoshua ben Perahiah, quoted as the teacher of this Mishnah. Of course, the root of חָבֵר is also the root of חַבְרוּתָא. At its core, the practice of studying in a pair is a practice of cultivating a friendship.

Some 500-700 years later, Avot D’Rabbi Natan raised the question, but how? How do we acquire a friend?

וקנה לך חבר כיצד? מלמד שיקנה האדם חבר לעצמו שיאכל עמו, וישתה עמו, ויקרא עמו, וישנה עמו, ויישן עמו, ויגלה לו כל סתריו סתר תורה וסתר דרך ארץ

And acquire for yourself a friend. How so? This teaches that a person should acquire a friend for himself who will eat with him, and drink with him, and study Scripture and Mishnah with him, and go to sleep with him, and reveal to him all his secrets, both secrets of the Torah and secrets of the ways of the world. 

(Let’s bookmark for now that this 2nd century text instructs us to study Torah and Mishnah with the same friend we “go to sleep with”–– homosociality of the Rabbis much?!)

I’m interested in the last line, the telling of secrets. I’m very accustomed to thinking of a chevruta as a partner in the messy, meaningful, rigorous, and rewarding project of translating and decoding Hebrew texts. I’m less familiar with the notion that a chevruta is one to whom I “reveal all my secrets.” And yet when I read this conception of chevruta, something about it clicks for me. 

I can’t really find my way into the Talmud without revealing myself to my chevruta. If I don’t share what’s going on with me, I become distracted, overpowered by the anxieties I’m privately nursing, or by the fears weighing on me. I have to be honest enough in chevruta to expose my confusion or doubt, to be able to say “I don’t get it,” or “You lost me.” I ask my chevruta for what I need, reaching for a mutually supportive learning environment (“I’m not sure about this Rashi, can we start from the top?”) and following the pleasure and delight of our study (“I want to know more about this halakhic category! Can we chase down this citation!?”). 

I often can’t lock into the meaning of a text until I find the place where it meets my lived experience in some way. If I can share my life with the text and with my chevruta, I feel the text come alive. My favorite chevrutot bring lived examples, dynamics, and situations to the text, helping us understand what’s at stake and what the Talmud is really exploring. When we reveal ourselves, the text reveals itself back. When we connect our learning to our lives, the learning sinks in deeper. It touches the raw, living edges of who we are, what we’ve known, and who we are becoming. A chevruta is a space of reciprocity where this kind of sharing becomes possible. 

Secrets come in many forms. The world constantly asks us to withhold or conceal parts of ourselves in order to move through it––our experiences of marginalization, the places we feel powerless, our insecurities, our analysis, our hopes, fears, and needs. Our magic and confidence. Our regrets and our victories. But Avot D’Rabbi Natan uses the verb גלה, to reveal or uncover: “he will uncover all his secrets,” ויגלה לו כל סתריו. In the radically honest practice of chevruta there’s a peeling away of pretense, an uncovering. Chevruta relationships can bring the walls down, and create a haven where we are safe to expose those buttoned up, boxed away parts of ourselves. And these secrets we tell, according to Avot D’Rabbi Natan, are both “secrets of the Torah and secrets of the ways of the world.” We contain all of this wisdom within us, as long as we share ourselves with one another.

My friend Kate Johnson recently published a wonderful book called Radical Friendship: Seven Ways to Love Yourself and Find Your People In An Unjust World, exploring the liberatory potential of friendship from a Buddhist perspective. It turns out, the Buddha, like the Rabbinic authors of Avot D’Rabbi Natan, is also interested in the practice of friendship, and in a 1st century text called the Mitta Sutta, he identifies the telling of secrets as one of the seven worthwhile qualities of a friend. Kate writes:

Secrets are the truths of our inner lives, and speech is the bridge that brings these truths out into the open. In the practice of radical friendship, “telling our secrets” is how we allow ourselves to be seen and known. In this line of the Mitta Sutta, I hear the Buddha encouraging each of us to give voice to our unique way of experiencing and understanding the world so that people who love us can witness us and, when need be, support us, join us, or have our backs. 

Telling secrets is not just about getting something off our chests. It’s also about exposing societal truths that need to change. When secrets we keep conceal our honest, lived experiences, then remaining silent holds us back from the liberated friendships we seek. If we never let on when we’ve been harmed, then those harms have no chance of being amended. If we never admit when we’ve made a mistake, then our friends can’t rely on us to be accountable and learn from our experiences. And, if we never reveal what we believe, what we care about, and who we truly are, then we deprive the world of our unique loveliness and we deprive ourselves of seeing that loveliness reflected back to us in the eyes of our friends.

It doesn’t feel coincidental to me that deep friendship is at the core of multiple spiritual traditions, or that this idea of telling our secrets is part of the heart-labor of being a liberatory friend according to the Buddha and to the Rabbis. When we tell our truths, we create more space for others to do the same. We receive the truths of our friends, our chevrutot, just as they receive ours, just as we both receive the text in its fullness when we’re in the practice of openness, listening, and acceptance. 

Pirkei Avot connects friendship to Torah study numerous times, including Mishnah 6:1, where we learn:

רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ, זוֹכֶה לִדְבָרִים הַרְבֵּה. וְלֹא עוֹד אֶלָּא שֶׁכָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ כְדַי הוּא לוֹ. נִקְרָא רֵעַ אָהוּב, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַמָּקוֹם, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, מְשַׂמֵּחַ אֶת הַמָּקוֹם, מְשַׂמֵּחַ אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת.

Rabbi Meir said: Whoever occupies themself with the study of Torah for its own sake, merits many things; not only that but they merit the worth of the whole world. They are called beloved friend; one that loves God; one that loves humankind; one that gladdens God; one that gladdens humankind.

If we’re doing it right, the study of Torah transforms us over time into a רֵעַ אָהוּב, a beloved friend. A person versed in the practice of friendship, of revealing and receiving radically honest and vulnerable truths––secrets––to and from our chevrutot, to and from the text itself. And the practice of friendship is so powerful, says Rabbi Meir, that it gladdens and delights both the Infinite Mystery at the source of all life, and also the revealed and present person sitting before us in study. 

So the next time your chevruta shows up in a foul mood, lean into it together! Make space for it. Share the truths of your inner lives. Take a risk together and tell the truth. It can be a source of healing, joy, and transformation in a world that desperately needs it. 

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