The Gemara in Ta’anit (7a) explains that just like two pieces of iron are used to sharpen each other and two pieces of wood are used to ignite one another, so too two students who learn together will sharpen each other’s learning and ignite each other’s passion for Torah. When learning alone, we all too readily accept our understanding of a topic without acknowledging our possible cognitive biases, and certainly without becoming passionate about our position. After all, nobody is challenging us. But when a person learns with a friend, then suddenly one is forced to check and recheck his positions and defend them passionately against attack. The end product is an increased devotion to Torah and truth. While much can be gained by learning with a rebbe or student, the nature of those dynamics limit the openness and passion of the intellectual attacks. But when learning with a peer, such inhibitions disappear.
The Me’am Lo’ez suggests another benefit to learning with a peer. Even a person who has a close relationship with his rebbe will refrain from asking certain questions fearing embarrassment (e.g., what if it’s a really bad question) or awkwardness. But with a peer, a person will not feel so self-conscious. The embarrassment and awkward quotients are significantly less. In light of the underlying thesis of The Presidents Club I would like to suggest an additional dimension to the benefits of learning with peers. When learning we bring our personal life experiences with us. Whether in the metaphors we use to understand a halacha, or in our emotional reactions to tangents which come up when learning, it is most helpful when the person we are learning with understands us and our frame of reference. Only a peer – a person who is at the same stage of life as we are and experiences the same sorts of things we experience
– is in a position to effectively argue with us or guide and advise us when the need arises. It is for this reason that the formulation of this strategy is called in Hebrew “dikduk chaveirim”— encouraging us to be particular and nuanced in the choosing of peers to study with.
It is obvious that leaders need mentors to teach and advise them. It is also very helpful to have students of leadership at the same time. Students certainly force a person to think things through when they are in the advisor’s seat. But it is perhaps most important to have good peers—people who can be objective at the moment but understand exactly what you are going through. In this sense all leaders need their own respective clubs.
The day Kennedy found out about the missiles in Cuba was indeed a lonely day. The fate of the world was on his shoulders and he needed to reach out to the people who truly understood this pressure to give him advice. He is reported to have recited the following poem that day—a poem which captures the loneliness of the job.
Bullfight critics row on row
Crowd the enormous plaza de toros
But only one is there who knows
And he is the one who fights the bull
Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. Comments can be emailed to him at email@example.com.