The Flip Side: All ears

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

March 12, 2012 22:17
Haredi and secular in Mea Shearim

Haredi and secular in Mea Shearim 390. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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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.”

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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.

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.

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 toward 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 him. It just means we can begin to fathom 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.

This (hopefully) monthly column proposes to open a window into a world that is not often understood, or even heard, buried as it is under layers of miscommunication. For starters, I would like to address issues that have come up during my teaching Jewish thought to secular Israeli university students through the organization Nefesh Yehudi, but am looking forward to “hearing” you also, at the email listed below.

The writer lectures weekly to hundreds of Israeli university students on Jewish thought, through the organization Nefesh Yehudi. She welcomes comments and questions and can be reached at

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