A few months ago, my friend and teacher Donniel Hartman mentioned that a mutual friend, a prominent politician, had attended the Hartman Institute’s Shavuot tikkun learning-fest.
As we both noted that this man and his wife – unlike many celebs – loved learning in different contexts, Donniel said: “He’s a very generous listener.” That phase stuck in my head and bored its way into my heart. It now constitutes my Rosh Hashana wish for all.
In 2017 the art of generous listening is under assault.
All we seem to hear is shouting. Our voices seems to be set perpetually at “shrill.” The babble of speaking – and tweeting and Facebooking and Instagramming – emphasizes the seat-of-the-pants reaction, the back-of-the-hand dismissal, the instant thumbs up or down of judgment.
What the Austrian-Israeli philosopher Martin Buber called the problem of “existential mistrust” has gone global and become perpetual.
Existential mistrust goes beyond feeling suspicious or hurt. It involves assuming the breach is irreparable, and trusting the estrangement so much it diminishes faith in the power or possibility of any bond. This can occur individually or collectively.
Many will assume I’m criticizing US President Donald Trump. He may be the ungenerous-listener-in-chief. He trusts no one, judges frequently, takes umbrage quickly, seeks advice rarely, and exacts revenge harshly. But just bashing him is too easy. He’s more a symptom of the problem than the cause.
Aren’t most of us constantly committing similar crimes? Buber described the true encounter of open dialogue and generous listening as an “I-Thou” connection rather than “I-it” interaction. The I-Thou, he explained in 1923, “can be spoken only with one’s whole being. The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You.”
Two decades later in an essay published in Pointing the Way, he advised, ever so unfashionably, that amid all our planning we should remain ready to be “surprised by secret openings and insertions.”
Imagine how much better our worlds would be if husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, remembered the art of generous listening. If we started listening to that person we first fell in love with, to that person who first nurtured or thrilled or protected us – not to the person who recently hurt or spurned or ignored us. The same words would sound differently, resound more positively.
Think of the person closest to you in the world. When is the last time you both carved out time together for a real “I-thou” encounter, one of those magical interactions – unlimited by clocks or caution? Wouldn’t you and your “besty” forge surprising new bonds – and reaffirm familiar old ones? And think of the person closest to you by blood or history who has most hurt you. Ask yourself – is it possible to heal or have we degenerated into existential mistrust? Can I take the risk to try lessening the gap? Would the person reciprocate or reject me so that our mutual mistrust would become existential? Admit it – any of these steps demands that we be tougher on ourselves – and softer toward others.
And imagine how much better our worlds would be if, having practiced that art of generous listening privately, we went public too? In the Jewish world, couldn’t some of the intensifying tensions among us be minimized or at least managed better? Many of my rabbi and Jewish educator friends find themselves frustrated by the “rabbi or teacher who turned me off” story. So many people love telling their pet story about the one rabbi or educator who said something stupid that now justifies their alienation from Judaism.
Ironically, nowadays, I hear more and more rabbis and educators hypercritical of Israel trotting out their “the last straw, Israeli turn-off story.”
The art of generous listening means being a responsible owner, not a picky consumer. It entails not being lazy, not seeking excuses. It means going beyond the moment that ticked you off. Take charge of your Judaism and Zionism! Change what you dislike! But don’t let those who bother you blind you to all the amazing connections and people that turn you on – or could turn you on.
I don’t want to sound too naïve or too Kumbaya. I spend the year zeroing in weekly on genuine conflicts, real disconnects that can’t just be talked or listened away.
Still, I wonder, could we make some progress if citizens listened more generously to one another, if Knesset members remembered what unites us not just what divides us more, if American Jews and Israeli Jews emphasized our mutual needs – and enemies – more, and yes, if Israelis and Palestinians could hear each other’s pain and dreams more.
Buber, who as a passionate peace activists had his own political blind spots, nevertheless left us with what should be our New Year’s challenge. “This attitude involves risk,” he acknowledged, “the risk of giving oneself, of inner transformation. Inner transformation... means that the person one is intended to be penetrates what has appeared up till now, that the customary soul enlarges and transfigures itself into the surprise soul.”
May 5778 be a year of generous listening – and listeners – willing to risk absorbing more fully, opening up more candidly, and seeking opportunities for I-thou dialogues, inner transformations, more aggressively. In short, may 5778 unlike 2017 become a year of surprise souls, personally – and publicly.The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University.
Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.