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I Hear You

I Hear You

It wasn’t we, the “frummies,” against those weird non-observant Jews. It was just all of us, together.


Way back in the Jewish day school I attended, where some of us ate only food with the most stringent of heksherim (certified kosher stamp) and others of us didn’t keep kosher at all, we were all part of one (sometimes) happy class.

Baltimore was small then, with just one Jewish girls’ day school. It not only accommodated all the Jews in the city, it was their link and comfortable place in Judaism. In the classroom, where we all studied together for Bible tests and made plans together to wriggle out of a biology quiz, there was no concept of the “other.”

It wasn’t we, the “frummies,” against those weird non-observant Jews. It was just all of us, together, roaming the grounds of the huge old mansion on Greenspring Avenue, and all of us, together, being given speeches before we went on a class trip to the effect that we were the future of the Jewish people, and to make sure we acted like it.

This respect for difference wasn’t reserved just for the students. Anyone who was there during my years in school will remember the day our new science teacher came down the hall. Mrs. B. was from India; she wore a sari and had a gold dot in the middle of her forehead.

We 15-year-old girls found that wildly hysterical, until the late Rabbi Steinberg called us in for an assembly. “After all that we Jews have suffered because of our different dress over the generations, how can we judge another person by externals or ridicule people for their convictions?” His pain and disappointment managed to puncture the teenage certainties of even the most callous among us.

But our Jewish world has changed since those days, so idyllic in my memory. Often we pass each other like strangers – if not in the night then in the blazing Mediterranean sun – unable to really understand each other due to the layers of convoluted, distorted media images that line our minds three feet deep.

For all that Israel is a small country, and the Jewish people a small nation, opportunities to connect with and hear each other rarely present themselves. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, in his classic Alei Shur, points out that Hebrew is the only language in which the world “life” is in the plural.

Life is about reaching beyond the narrow borders of ourselves and relating to the other.

This is because, from a Jewish perspective, the definition of life is connection. The famous Talmudic line, “Give me friendship or give me death” is not just a warm, fuzzy Hallmark sentiment. It is a description of our reality – life is not about being a rock or an island. It is about reaching beyond the narrow borders of ourselves and relating to the other, in particular the one who sees the world so differently than I do that he is clearly “not me.” It is the other who will catapult me out of the narrow world of my comfort zone into a life of connection.

And if life is about connection, it is our open ears that put us in a constant state of receptivity towards the other. The Maharal, in Netiv Hatzniut, says that this is why the ear does not have a covering as does the eye. We have the lower earlobe, and our fingers to stop up our ears, but in our natural state, we hear everything that comes our way. We are the unconsulted recipients of all sounds unless we actively decide otherwise.

Related Article: 5 Ways to Build Unity

This natural receptivity, he says, hints at the ultimate purpose of life – connection and relationship. When I see you, you can still remain an object in my periphery. But when I hear you, I absorb you and cannot remain oblivious to our dialogue.

Perhaps this is why the halachic consequence of making another person deaf is heavier than, for example, blinding him. When a person’s hearing is taken away, he loses the ability to “receive” the other. In a certain sense he is locked out of chaim, the interactive life.

(It is interesting to note, that if language expresses the worldview of a nation, while in English, people say, “I see” to indicate understanding, in Hebrew and Yiddish, people say ani shomeia or ich her – I hear.)

The very essence of the other calls out to us to relate to him. His panim, his face, is a constant pniya, a turning towards. His being is a solicitation, a turning towards me, asking me to grant him existence as a separate entity in my world.

And yet this is so hard to do. Sometimes it is because we are so sure of ourselves, so full of the rightness of our perspective that we just can’t hear the other person’s viewpoint. And sometimes, it is because we are so unsure of ourselves, and hanging on with such desperation to what we so much want to be true, that we are literally afraid to hear any thing else.

Yet we can’t even begin to move towards each other before acknowledging that an “other” exists – and an “other,” by definition, has a different perspective.  Hearing the other doesn’t mean we will ever agree with each other. It just means we can begin to fathom the internal integrity of how the other person grasps the world, how his life and worldview are based on his own set of values and insights. It means we do not immediately dismiss and deride but try to discern the grains of truth and consistency that invariably exist, buried though they might be under a wrapping that is unfamiliar to us.

It means that by giving concrete expression to the unity which runs beneath the surface, we become a nation to whom the cosmic words "Hear O Israel" truly apply. 

This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

March 18, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 6

(5) Joey, March 27, 2012 7:18 PM

Very insightful! Thanks and G-d bless!

(4) Michael Vermont, March 20, 2012 12:10 AM

An excellent article

I learned much from this article , & had many convictions that I already had reinforced also. Learnt that Hebrew is the only language in the world where the word for life is in the plural. When this wonderful article talked about " connection" & the importance of connection in Jewish culture ( no man is an island , etc. ) , I placed a caveat , saying our neviim were sort of islands , although they were rare exceptions. But by the end of the timely article , by my own deduction. That was why they were called 'Seers', and only those exceptions. Everyone else were hearers. Illluminating.

(3) smb, March 19, 2012 6:23 AM

I feel that if we can just listen and try to understand each other, we can accomplish a lot and come closer to each other and Hashem

(2) Marlene, March 18, 2012 4:15 PM

come to Limmud

For a week living, studying and having fun with Jews of every sort, from the most secular to the most observant, come to the Limmud International Conference at the University of Warwick. It's a mid-winter christmas-free zone where you can make friends with Jews from all over the world and all over the observance map.

(1) Wassim, March 18, 2012 12:44 PM

Agreed - but there's more...

Lately I've become more fine tuned to other people's words and mannerisms. I've realised that some people subconsciously ask for more than their communication effort deserves. I just had a chat on Facebook with a relative in Syria, and her first words were "don't you know you have relatives in Syria?". I didn't appreciate the underlying tone and implication (as though she was judging me insensitive or somehow guilty of something - if only she knew the truth!), so I responded coldly "silly question, of-course I do". Soon afterwards, I "unfriended" her. My point is, when people don't say "Hello", when people don't ask "how are you feeling?" or "how is it going?" they fail to establish the prerequisite for continued communication. I have a similar problem with my father, he rarely answers any question no matter how politely or how concisely I phrase it, unlike my mother who is extremely understanding and accommodating. I've found that manners, politeness, conciseness (or at least some evidence of consideration for "the other"), and repeatedly qualifying my views as "my opinion" or at least preceding a statement with "I think" or "I feel" or "it may be" or "perhaps" ... you get the picture I'm sure. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind (in the right measure), and hope that people learn the lesson. Only in rare circumstances should anyone feel obliged to ignore a complete lack of decorum on the other part. As much as we have an obligation to "recieve" the other, we are obliged to continue to make our world better by emparting the odd "lesson" here and there. "Manners" is interpersonal ethics, and you'd be bearing an unreasonable burden on yourself if you ignore the lack of it, should you encounter it, in "the other".

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