Friendship in Jewish Thought

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Particularly valued is the custom of finding a partner with whom to study the classical Jewish texts. This partnership, known by the Aramaic term havruta, is fueled by passionate energy and mutual concern for each other's spiritual welfare. The tone of a havruta pair's interaction and spirited debates is by turns amiable and challenging.

The learning that comes in the company of one's peers is highly valued in Jewish life, as expressed by this quote from the Talmud: "I have learned much from my teachers, but from my friends more than my teachers" (BT Ta'anit 7a). The havruta method of learningstill exists today in many Jewish learning situations across the religious spectrum, although in many places study pairs can be mixed-gender or same-gender.

The ancient rabbis had a very clear understanding that one's peers create an environment in which the self develops. In the Mishnah, we find advice on the importance of selecting one's friends: "Come and learn--which is the straight [right] path to which a person should adhere? A good friend." (Avot 2:13).

Likewise, "Distance oneself from a bad neighbor, and do not befriend an evil person" (Avot 1:7). This notion of "peer pressure" reflects the notion that our friends influence our perceptions, choices, and actions, either consciously or otherwise--and that it is important to choose friends not simply by who we are, but by who we would like to be.

Hasidic Judaism places special emphasis on the value of friendship among the adherents of a given Hasidic rebbe, raising it to a level of theological significance. The hasidic sub-groups within the Jewish communities of late-18th and 19th century Eastern Europe, originally small and embattled, relied heavily on the mutual support networks formed within their communities.

Their situation in the Jewish world may mirror that of the larger Jewish community in the non-Jewish world, and may offer us an insight into why friendship has been an important theme of Jewish communal life and thought through the ages.

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