Getting started with the studies

The teacher holds up a roll of masking tape. “I want you each”, he says, “to map out what your journey as a person who prays, your journey as a pray-er, has looked like so far”. He raises the masking tape higher in the air and adds, “using masking tape”. The classroom is filled with bemused faces and the sound of tittering voices. I feel incredulous that this is what orientation looks like, anxious that I won’t possibly be able to articulate my experiences of praying at all, let alone through the medium of masking tape… but on a certain level I feel quietly grateful that I’ve been asked to answer this question, because when does anyone ever ask how our prayer is going? It’s something you just do, right? It’s very personal and therefore something that isn’t talked about. It’s between you and God so you can get on with it on your own. Right?

The masking tape exercise proved wonderful. We quietly worked away on our masking tape masterpieces, using tables and walls as our canvasses, then in small groups enjoyed a ‘private gallery tour’ of the creations, offering reflections on what we saw, giving reflections on what was in our minds as we had worked. I’m including a photo of one of the pieces that I found particularly compelling – it’s shared with the permission of my course mate who made it. I found it visually striking, and in conversation with him, we begun to unpack what was going on – why the siddur (prayer book) was included, what page it was open to, what direction the tape was going in, why some pieces headed upwards and others down, the orientation of the table… you get the idea. This was the introductory session to a course which addresses how we pray. Since then there has been a lot more text study and a lot more conversation (and a lamentable lack of masking tape). It has been fascinating, inspiring and challenging; I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this class in future.

The majority of the orientation time has been less blog-worthy, but equally good. Introductions to courses and introductions to people. Missions, visions, expectations, practicalities. Study sessions with the title “Torah Study – what’s it all about?” Reflecting on Jewish literary texts on the theme of “arrival”. For the first time in over a decade, I have a highlighted timetable stuck to the fridge. I’ve agonised over which courses to take and wished I had Hermione’s time turner to do them all. I surprised myself by electing to take a Biblical Hebrew Grammar course, and surprised myself even more by enjoying it. So far.

Almost three weeks in, I’m getting into the rhythm of my new life as a student of Torah. It’s wonderful but hard graft. The majority of time is spent in the beit midrash, the study hall, which looks like this:


Learning pairs, called chavrutot, sit together and work through Jewish texts. Initially they’re working out the meaning of the words, and then what they might teach us. We’re working with Medieval Hebrew at the easy end of the spectrum, Aramaic at the harder end. The pairs are equipped with dictionaries, concordances, lexicons and translations apps on our phones. Teachers circulate to help with tricky bits, and the pair-learning structure is amazingly effective, but we’re basically on our own inching through these age-old texts. Sometimes we amaze ourselves at what we’ve managed to understand. Sometimes we’re left in a fog of unfamiliar conjugations and cryptic vocabulary. After an hour or so the teacher will call us back to class and unpack what we’ve learnt, usually bringing it all together with impressive grace and clarity.

It’s not a model that yields daily lightbulb moments about life, God or even the texts we’re studying. But it’s a deeply empowering model where the students are absolutely invested in the learning process rather than being passive recipients. It’s big-picture learning, where you look back at the end of a fortnight and can see an improvement in study skills. It’s learning which is designed to equip us learn independently, even to teach. And when the occasional lightbulb comes, it feels very well earned.

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