Rabbinic Reflections: Radical listening

Biblical morality is driving us apart. The voice of the prophets calling out to us to protect “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger” is calling us to division. Even the repeated command to love the stranger as yourself because we were once strangers creates a chasm even as it seems to ask us to bridge a gap.  Even if you think I am wrong, I bet you feel I am right.

Precisely in that space between intellect and emotion, I think we can acknowledge this painful truth and address it in ways that will heal us, our community, and maybe even our nation. Hear me out, and together we can transform the religious impulse into the good we thought it directed us to achieve.

In short, the problem is that empathy at one and the same time grounds us in our own story even as we try to feel someone else’s. Please understand me, it crucially important that we care about the less fortunate in our society, empathy for the downtrodden helps rally us to action on their behalf. As I noted above, the Hebrew Bible repeats its call to love the stranger. In fact, it does so 36 times, the Hebrew equivalent of two times life (using number values for Hebrew letters). My life and the stranger’s life are intertwined in Biblical text; I should and must care. Personally, I do. I am guessing so do you.

If I heed the call, though, I fall into a trap. I love the stranger, the less fortunate, the downtrodden as Other than myself. I begin to see the world through a prism where I can too easily see this systemic inequality as the way it is supposed to be, or worse as ordained by God. We must help the poor because there will also be poverty. What it means to be “we” or “poor” in that situation becomes a self-reinforcing perspective, or worse a Biblical “law.” Even if I embed my care in my Jewish story of once having been a slave in Egypt, I am likely only to see myself as a slave in my mind, not my heart. Some do, they are deep feelers; most of us, still feel reality though it may be painful; and a few don’t feel it enough.

We need a different bridge that allows us to live in our deeply rooted reality and to see others’ reality, to understand it and maybe even to feel it. The Israeli philosopher Micah Goodman teaches that the Talmud makes heroic the one who can live by Jewish law and argue intellectually 150 ways the rule should be the opposite to make the point that our intellectual life must be larger than our practical life. We must be able to think like the Other in order to get past judgment and instead lead with curiosity. Carol Gilligan calls this kind of thinking the result of radical listening, getting to the roots and potentially transformative.

When we are stuck in our own perspective, we see what is wrong with the other side; when we are open to another’s way of thinking (even if we have not ever or would not ever live it), we learn to appreciate an other’s way of thinking. That appreciation is a different kind of feeling: yes, it is intellectual; and it is also emotional. Better yet, it forces us to feel and to think as someone Other than us as equal, perhaps in opposition, perhaps in parallel, and maybe even in partnership. If recent months have taught us anything, it is that no matter our divides, we are stuck together. Let us try to honor each Other to overcome so many of our current divides. If you disagree with me, I will be curious to understand all the ways why so that we can walk this world together. God willing, we will do so in health, in peace, and toward a brighter future.

About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hillel Network, responsible for West Chester University, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and other area colleges. He is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington and was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)



Leave a Reply