Reading sacred texts alone, for both clergy and laypeople, is a bit like masturbation – it’s safe and fun, but not likely to be as productive as sex with a partner. And before anyone misconstrues this analogy, in no way do I endorse the notion that all human sexuality should have the potential to create a life. Jewish tradition, as understood by almost all authorities, approves of many, if not all forms of birth control. But in both the bedroom and in the study hall, it prefers partnerships to solo acts.
Both sex and study are understood as acts of discovery. The Hebrew Bible call sex “knowing”, as in “Adam knew Eve, his wife”. That is not a euphemistic term employed by a text uncomfortable with sex. It is the first description of what it means for sex to be sacred – it brings us to new levels of knowledge and understanding about our partner, it overcomes the loneliness which Adam experiences and for which the Bible describes Eve as the antidote.
The same can be said for study, which is traditionally conducted in a beit midrash, or house of searching. Jewish tradition imagines that study of sacred texts is not simply about acquiring necessary knowledge or getting the right answers. In fact, Jewish intellectual tradition is a multi-vocal conversation comprised of largely unresolved controversies and multiple competing opinions.
The process of learning with a partner and doing so in a setting which invites discovery and surprise is as old as Jewish learning itself. And when Jewish, or any other sacred tradition, loses touch with that methodology, it falls prey to self-serving dogmatists who reduce study to nothing more than repetitious proof-texting designed to affirm what they already believe.
Of course, there is no such thing as truly reading alone. We are always accompanied by the readings, interpretations, cultural contexts and presumptions which shape that which we read. Which means that the real issue is less who is in the room with you when you read and more whether or not you find yourself surprised by that which you read and the conclusions to which your reading leads. When that happens, the reading in which one is engaged is a sacred process and the book one is reading is sacred too.