A man is standing outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. He is standing next to a sign that says “free listening”. Mostly what people have shared are stories about their travels to Cleveland for the convention, their family and work lives, mundane stuff, but soon a woman comes over, looks carefully at the man, and says that she doesn’t believe that abortion should be legal, that it is murder.
What would you do? Would you challenge her statement? Would you smile weakly and thank her for her response, and let her go on her way? Would you get into a shouting match? Would you post angrily to social media or share your disdain for this person with your friends?
This man did none of those things. Instead, he invited her to share her story. To tell him how she came to that conclusion. He offered to listen more.
The woman, at first defensive, then went on what we might call a rant about why she thought abortion was wrong and terrible. And then, at some point, her speech shifted, and she began to talk about how she was told as an 18 year old woman that she couldn’t have children, that she would never have children of her own. She talked about her sense of unfairness, of lack of justice, that other people who could have kids were choosing not to, while she was left barren.
I’ll be honest with you, when I first read about this from the blog post by Benjamin Mathes, I struggled mightily. I struggled because I think of myself as a pretty good listener, someone who does this professionally, after all, and I’m not sure I would have had the willpower or ability to stand there and listen to this woman’s story. And I suspect many of us are in the same boat, especially over something as controversial as abortion. I know I would want to rush in and tell my stories—the texts I’ve studied, the learning I’ve done, the stories of friends and loved ones who have each had to struggle with this issue from a personal, rather than a political or academic posture. And sometimes it seems that’s how we all are, fighting to get a word in edgewise, or waiting until we have the perfect response and sharing it later on Facebook. After all, we already know the right answers, don’t we? We, jaded and world-weary, exposed to so much media, so much data, so much raw information, have already come to all of our own conclusions. Sometimes it seems like we have nothing more to learn from one another, and even if we did, would we want to teach it anyway? Or do we merely want acknowledgment and affirmation of our own truth? Do we really want to sit in judgment of the people around us?
And yet, I think it’s clear that Mathes’ approach—letting this anonymous woman tell her story without judgment or interruption—was valuable. It was loving. It allowed both of them to get to the truth of the matter, to get to, what he calls, the biography, not just the ideology. It was forgiving. It was sacred.
This is a strange time of year for us as Jews, and a strange time as Americans. We are in the midst of our days of judgment and our days of awe, but when we call them that, when we talk about this being the time when even the hosts of heaven are judged, we are reminded that WE are not doing the judging. We are, in fact, the ones coming to be judged—by God, by our own consciences, reflective of the past year and the choices we’ve made. But it is also our time of forgiveness, of atonement, when we release others of their sins, and we look for release ourselves. We cry out “Shma Koleinu”: hear our voice! And I suspect many of us worry—or already presume to know—that no one is listening.
I believe that God, however we understand her, is listening. That someone hears our cry; hears us when we second guess our choices, when we look back on the year and focus so much—too much—on where we stumbled, hears us when we turn our victories to defeats, hears us when say we want to do better, to be better, but we don’t know how to get there. I truly believe this, even if it is only the part of us that we hide away, that we dare not reveal, that hopes beyond hope that we can live up to our best selves, that still small voice within us, I believe with perfect faith that we are heard.
But I would suggest that part of the reason we worry that there is no audience for our cry is because we have stopped listening to each other. And I mean really listening, listening in the way that Benjamin Mathes did. We don’t hear each other’s stories. We don’t create space for dissent, for difference, to be challenged. We can only be right.
It’s very American, isn’t it? And has been for years—this is not a new phenomenon. Even Alexis de Tocqueville wrote back in the 1800s that Americans don’t discuss, they don’t even argue, but make speeches at one another. And that’s what we’re used to, that’s what we’re trained to do, we make parallel speeches in the same way that toddlers parallel play alongside one another, not really engaging the person in front of us.
It’s very American, but it isn’t very Jewish. In fact, I would argue that there is nothing Jewish about the idea of not listening to the other person. Even when they disagree. Especially when they disagree. Especially when they say things that challenge us to the core of who we are. I’m not speaking of antisemetic attacks or slander, now, but rather the kind of discourse that happens in a free society between diverse people. Jewish tradition has always been about listening. Think of how often in the Torah we read the word shema—hear! Hear O Israel! Hear the voice of God! Hear the voice of the Mitzvot! Hear the voice of the generations that came before; the voice of conscience within ourselves. Again and again we are compelled to listen, and listen deeply. Words are precious to us as Jews, more than any other art form, and we take those words seriously. Think of the generations of Jews who study Torah not cloistered in some room as an island alone, but with a study partner, the text between them, sharpening their thoughts against each other, challenging each other, each bringing their own perspective and world view and experience to the other in order to arrive at a new understanding, a new idea. We joke that it is Jewish to disagree, and it is true; but in saying that we acknowledge that it isn’t Jewish to dismiss the voice of the other, or to make the person across from us the other at all.
And yet, and yet, that is what we are doing, at every level, macro and micro. And not just about the election. We do it around Israel. We do it around the way we express our Judaism, what movement we affiliate with. We do it around policy and programming. We do it, fundamentally, around each other’s stories. When we dismiss an idea or a position, when we try to change someone’s mind, when we argue passionately against the person in front of us, without intending it, we run the risk of dismissing their story, their journey to where they are. In our own anxiety at being right, we lose the opportunity for understanding.
I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. And it’s hard; this kind of listening takes time, it takes patience, it takes a willingness to put aside our need to be right all the time, and our own anxiety that, deep down inside, we may be wrong.
Friends, I don’t know what you have resolved to do in this new year of 5777, but if you choose nothing else, I would ask you to listen more, and listen better. To invite people to share their stories, to speak to their believes and ideas, to not rush to judgment or to win. Someone posted online, you don’t need to attend every argument you’re invited to; wouldn’t it be great to, yes, respond with regrets to those arguments, but also find ways to make them real discussions, a chance to share beliefs? When we talk about the value of African American lives, before we respond with our own dismissal and anxiousness, can we ask where they’re coming from? When someone says they don’t know how they feel about Israel, can we ask them to tell their story? The same for the way they worship, the way they vote, the way they live their lives and make choices. It doesn’t mean we need to be persuaded by their arguments, or change our mind; it doesn’t mean we need yield ground on an issue we care deeply about. It does mean we need to let our guard down and acknowledge and accept—really accept—that the other person’s experiences, the other person’s life, is sacred. And in doing so come to a greater understanding.