Desirable and Undesirable Disagreements: Jewish Women Studying the Talmudic Texts

December 2018

Source: Journal of Pragmatics Volume 138, December 2018, Pages 30-44


The paired study of the Jewish Talmud in havruta is a traditional, well-established and prestigious form of study. Havruta conversation is a confrontational speech event in which disagreements are not only expected but also appreciated. The aim of this study is to explore for the first time disagreement patterns carried out by women studying in havruta pairs. Twenty one havruta conversations were observed and recorded, and semi-structured in-depth interviews were held individually with the participants.

The findings show that women studying in havruta pairs adopt the basic confrontational characteristics of the genre. However, disagreements were found mainly in conversations in which both learners were equally knowledgeable and equally dominant.

In a context where disagreements are welcomed, not all of them are equally desirable by the women participants. Desirable disagreements included downgraders, softening expressions and agreement markers and were ended in agreement. When these elements were missing, disagreement led to a threat to the face of the participants, and they expressed dissatisfaction in the interview with how the conversation had gone. An examination of the parts of the conversation that elicited dissatisfaction revealed a high frequency of disagreement markers, ungrounded disagreements, and face-threatening acts such as ironic echoing of the interlocutor.

In the present study, we concentrate on expressions of disagreement found in the conversations held by women studying in havruta. Institutional study of the Talmud by women is a relatively new phenomenon that takes place mainly in single-sex institutions for women's study of traditional Jewish texts (midrashot). Until just three decades ago, no formal institutions existed in which women could undertake traditional Jewish study. This development has gained momentum in the past decade, as indicated by the many institutions that have been created across Israel and by the rising number of students inthese institutions. Study in havruta occupies a large proportion of study time at most of these institutions and there is a great deal of encouragement for havruta study.

This relatively new institutional base calls for profound study that will define, describe and explain the conversational style employed by women studying in havruta. For most of these women it is the first encounter with the complexity of Talmudic text and with the practice of havruta studying. It is also interesting against the background of decades of theory and empirical findings suggesting gender differences with regard to conversational practices and agreement/disagreement preferences.

This study is based on observations of pairs of women engaged in havruta study, followed by individual interviews with each of the participants. The havruta study was of the kind in which the students encounter the text for the first time. Over the course of the study, nine havruta pairs were observed, one to six times each. The havruta pairs studied together daily over the course of an academic year, for an hour and a half or more a day. The participants belonged to the Orthodox community. Their ages ranged from 18 to 28, and most were in the middle and higher socioeconomic strata. They were enrolled in two midrashot in Jerusalem.

The havruta pairs that were observed belonged to the program that included courses in Talmud, Jewish law, and Jewish thought. Aside from imparting knowledge, the midrashoth make it their aim to enable their students to acquire the tools and skills to become independent learners, including havruta study. Study in havruta receives particular emphasis, along with small classrooms, which facilitate dialogue both among students and with instructors.

The corpus includes interviews with 17 women and 21 observations of 90 min each, for a total of 34 hours of recorded data. The analysis of the interviews and observations was a spiral process: analysis of the interviews, analysis of the observations, and then back to analysis of the interviews, and so on back and forth. Examining the interviews enabled the researchers to learn about the participants' subjective perception of their own knowledge in relation to that of their partner. That perception, as gleaned from the interviews, was helpful in understanding the role of each participant in the conversation. Additionally, when a specific reference was made in an interview to a particular conversation that was observed, the analysis of that conversation relies in part on the participant's own interpretation. The analysis of the interviews was undertaken using a constant comparison method, based on the principles of the grounded theory approach.

This study expands the range of contexts in which disagreement (dis)preference has been explored and thus also expands our understanding of this phenomenon. It contributes to the cultural perspective by joining the few existing studies that have explored the Jewish tradition of havruta, focusing on the way young Jewish women conduct it in midrashoth in Israel. It makes a valuable distinction between desirable and undesirable disagreements based on the views of the speakers themselves, and demonstrates that even in a context in which disagreement is preferred, there are limitations and types of disagreement that may be considered face-threatening. In doing so, it contributes to the theoretical perspectives from which disagreement is investigated as well.

A significant contribution of the present study stems from the combination of methodologies. The use of retrospective interviews with the students enabled us to investigate disagreement from two perspectives: from looking at textual evidence for preference following the traditions of Discourse Analysis and Conversation Analysis, and at the way it is interpreted by the participants. The interviews were a source of information regarding the views of the participants on various topics that were found to be relevant to the understanding of the disagreements between them: their beliefs and aspirations about the method of havruta; their perception of gender differences in conducting this method; the context of the institutions in which they study and the way the havruta method is presented by their teachers; their self-perception as learners, compared to their fellow participant in the havruta pair; and their own feelings of satisfaction or disappointment at the way each interaction was conducted; their judgement of each interaction as successful or not, charged or pleasant, one that promoted the mutual goal or not. This information helped us to better understand various aspects of the context, as well as to distinguish between different kinds of havruta, basing ourselves not only on external parameters but also on self-perception of the learners. Moreover, and most importantly, it enabled us to explore the concept of preference from a new perspective. Here, the speakers themselves provided insights on what they considered a “good” havruta conversation for them to be, thus providing a solid basis for analyzing desirable vs. undesirable types of disagreements.

Our findings imply the significance of the subjective perception of the participant as being more or less knowledgeable than her partner. This variable seems to be highly influential in shaping the form and distribution of disagreements, perhaps more than other variables such as awareness of traditional patterns or the gender of the participants. This insight became possible due to the combination of methodologies mentioned above. Future research might focus on the mutual perception of knowledgeability, and new insights as to how it shapes the interaction in havruta might be applied to other contexts too.

Updated: Dec. 13, 2018


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