I had the pleasure of spending a week with a remarkable group of Christian leaders. They came to Jerusalem under the joint auspices of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the American Jewish Committee to learn about Judaism and the Jewish people. The program was not about dialogue, nor about sensitivity and awareness. These Christian leaders, presidents and leaders of universities, divinity schools, important organizations, major churches, and individuals of significant influence in their communities, accepted an invitation to work on overcoming a deficiency in their intellectual lives.
As Christians, while seeing themselves as part of a Judeo-Christian tradition and living in close proximity to and partnership with the Jewish community, they know a lot about Judaism in the time of Jesus, but know very little about the central ideas, values, and beliefs that the living Jewish people have created and which shape the reality of Jewish life today.
Socrates teaches us that the wisest of persons is the one who knows that they do not know. I had the privilege of meeting a group of individuals whose faith, belief, and extensive achievements did not create the hubris of all-knowingness, but rather the piety to admit what they do not know, and a hunger to learn and a willingness to hear the testimony of another. Hearing does not imply agreeing; hearing does not imply a commitment to change. Hearing implies a recognition that I have what to learn, that I have what to learn from others, that if I am going to live with others I must know them as they understand themselves, and that if I know the other I can also deepen my understanding of myself.
As these Christian leaders return to North America, they set both an example and a challenge to us as a community and to Israel as a country. Very often we believe that if I am willing to hear you that I have given you some type of victory, and if I make space for your voice I am diminishing the significance of mine. That’s why we shout so often in our personal and public discourse. We don’t shout so that our voice will be heard, we shout in order to “protect” ourselves from hearing.
We have many challenges in our society, many divisions and religious and social ailments. Many of the problems often seem intractable. I don’t have a solution to resolve all of our challenges. I do know, however, that we must become a society which hears.
We must begin to hear the voices of world Jewry who are telling us that we are hurting them. We need to hear the voices of friends who are telling us that they disagree with some of our policies but do not want to lose our friendship. We must hear the voices of foreign workers and their children, as well as those seeking asylum, who tell us about the hardships they are trying to escape. We must hear the voices of the new immigrants who cannot quite seem to adjust to the modern State of Israel. We must hear the voices of Israeli Palestinians and their anger and their alienation at being a minority in the Jewish nation-state. We must hear the voices of Palestinians who regardless of our security needs suffer daily under occupation.
We must hear the fear of West Bank settlers who are feeling more disconnected from Israeli society, and who don’t know what their future will bring. We must hear the voices of soldiers and the prayers of parents who want them to come home safely for Shabbat. We must hear the voices of the gay and lesbian community who are crying to be heard and to have a place of dignity in the Jewish state. We must hear the voices of all those who suffer from or who are alienated by the state-sponsored religious authorities. We must hear the voices of those who yearn for a Jewish state but who are frightened of the consequences of modernity.
This list is long but is in reality much longer. Building a Jewish, democratic, safe, vibrant, and moral state is a never-ending process and challenge. As our rabbis teach us in the “Ethics of our Fathers,” however: “It is not for you to complete the task; neither are you free to desist from it.”
To hear another’s pain is not necessarily to legitimize it, nor does it entail a commitment to a specific response. It simply means that one recognizes the other as a part of a world we share together and it is to recognize that I have what to learn from hearing and that we all must use the exercise of hearing in order to review and challenge many of our presuppositions.
The enormity of the challenges requires a deep recognition that one has a responsibility not to fool oneself into believing that one has “the” solutions. To do so is to view oneself as a messiah, and as such one is no more than a false messiah. We do not need messianic figures or simplistic solutions. We need people who are committed to moving our society forward, knowing all the while that they will not complete the task.
In order to begin we don’t need solutions. We are not ready for them. We need to begin to hear each other, and then it is possible that new ideas will not fall on deaf ears. We need to recognize that we do not know and that that recognition enhances our stature and sets the stage for the acquisition of new wisdom.