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Listening as a Spiritual Practice

In traditional Jewish thought, we are talkers before we are anything else.

This sounds like a set-up for a dated ethnic joke, but in fact, the most ancient translation of the Hebrew Bible understands the moment when the Holy One breathes life into the first human as the moment when when we are given the capacity for speech.

Noted Hebrew University historian, Noah Yuval Harari, wrote an incredible book, Sapiens, exploring how we - homo sapiens - came to be the dominant species on the planet. He writes:

“Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution [among homo sapiens. Prior to that,] many animals and human species could… say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ [After] the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens.”

Of course, it doesn't take long for the Torah to recognize that this uniquely human capacity for speech is very much tied to our human capacity to deceive and create mischief. 

In the section of the Torah most explicitly articulating how we are to live holy lives, we are told, "You are not to traffic in slander among your kinspeople."

When we slander someone, or gossip about them, it seems like something we are doing on our own. However, gossiping about someone requires two actors, not just one. 

How we talk to, with, and about other people can bring us together or drive us apart. The amazing poet Adrienne Rich writes:

"The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting things in life… [When you tell me something,] I fling unconscious tendrils of belief, like tender green threads, across statements made so unequivocally, which have no tone or shadow of tentativeness. I build them into the mosaic of my world. I allow my universe to change in minute, significant ways on the basis of things you have said to me, of my trust in you."

In this, Rich gets to the heart of how gossip operates and why it is so dangerous. 

There are any number of traditional Jewish "sins" that I can commit all by myself. If I want to eat a bacon cheeseburger, I can do that all by myself, and I don’t need any help whatsoever in oversleeping and neglecting to put on tefillin. 

But if I’m going gossip, I need some help. I can’t gossip by myself in the forest - I might go up to a tree and complain about about my wife or kids without really committing any sin. The sin is committed in the interplay between the talking and the listening. Talking to a tree (in this context) is not really communicating. 

When we talk to other humans though, we are creating worlds by flinging those unconscious tender green threads back and forth, between speaker and listener. 

The Chofetz Hayyim, a rabbi who was very attuned to the dynamics of holiness and sin in speech, makes a big point of the role that listening plays in creating a holy community. He interprets a beautiful verse from Isaiah to understand that really listening to another person speak the truth of their heart can be life giving, - and the inverse is true as well! Ancient rabbis teach that listening to nonsense can burn our ears, and indeed, the reason that our fingers fit so perfectly in our ears is so we can stuff them and close them when we hear nonsense like gossip, slander and oversimplifications of complicated issues! 

A recent op-ed by Roxane Gay about the futility of open letters as a form of political activism, touches on this precise dynamic: “We know what the writers of these letters think and feel. We know what they want. But we don’t really know if anyone is listening. We don’t know how to translate those words into meaningful action. We don’t know what could happen if, instead of talking at one another by way of open letters, we found better ways to talk with and listen, truly listen, to one another — to participate in both the call and the response.”

If we hope to live lives of holiness, we need to think, absolutely, about the worlds we create and destroy with our speech, but we can’t stop there. In this age of hyper-polarization and social and digital echo chambers, our listening is as important as our speaking. Whose voices do we listen to, and whose do we refuse to hear? What steps can we take to regulate our own nervous system, so we can remain open and compassionate in the moments we feel shut down and defensive?

We have opportunities to create holiness- in our speaking and in our listening. 

I also explore these ideas on the Pardes Parsha Podcast with Rabbi Zvi Hirschfield.


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