Listen O Israel
R. Jacob Leiner (1814-1878), leader of the Hassidic community in Radzyn, was the son of the Ishbitzer Rebbe, R. Mordechai Joseph Leiner, whose Torah commentary Mei ha-Shiloach has become popular in recent years. R. Jacob wrote a commentary of his own, called Bet Yaakov, and in the course of a sermon on the month of Av, made a profound point about the differences between the senses:
From a human perspective it often seems as if seeing is a more precise form of knowledge than hearing. In fact, however, hearing has a greater power than seeing. Sight discloses the external aspect of things, but hearing reveals their inwardness. The aspect of G-d which prevails is haskes u-shema Yisrael hayom, ‘Be silent, O Israel, and listen’. The idea of haskes is that the person practices a self-imposed limitation on his senses, no longer looking at the events in this world and he is then able clearly to understand that ‘You have now become the people of the Lord your G-d’ – something one can hear during this month.
When G-d cannot be seen, argues the Bet Yaakov, He can still be heard, and hearing represents a depth-encounter more intimate and transformational than seeing. Perhaps without intending to, the Bet Yaakov has provided us with a point of entry into one of the most important and least understood differences between the two great civilizations of the West. Matthew Arnold, in his ‘Culture and Anarchy’, called them Hellenism and Hebraism. The political philosopher Leo Strauss spoke of Athens and Jerusalem. We know them best as ancient Greece and ancient Israel. Greece of the fifth to third centuries BCE was in many respects the greatest culture of antiquity. It excelled in art, architecture, sculpture and the theatre – the visual arts. In these it achieved a greatness never surpassed. The most glittering subsequent artistic flowering of Europe, in Renaissance Italy, was essentially a rediscovery of the world and skills of ancient Greece. Jews excelled at none of these things, yet their contribution to the West was no less great. The reason is that their interest lay altogether elsewhere, not in sight but in sound, not in seeing but hearing. Judaism is the supreme example of a culture not of the eye but of the ear. A great nineteenth century historian explained the difference. The pagan perceives the Divine in nature through the medium of the eye, and he becomes conscious of it as something to be looked at. On the other hand, to the Jew who conceives G-d as being outside of nature and prior to it, the Divine manifests itself through the will and through the medium of the ear. He becomes conscious of it as something to be heeded and listened to. The pagan beholds his G-d, the Jew hears Him, that is, apprehends His will.
Jewish and Greek ideas came together in the religion we know as Christianity. It began as a sect within Judaism, but early on, having failed to make headway among Jews, Paul took its message to Rome and the world of Hellenistic culture. That gave rise to a fact fateful to the course of Western civilization. The first Christian texts were written and published in Greek. The result was that, though Christianity brought many Jewish ideas to the non-Jewish world (as Maimonides states in a passage in the Mishneh Torah censored during the Middle Ages), it did so in translation, and the deepest Jewish concepts are untranslatable into Greek. For almost two thousand years, Judaism has been known to the West through the filter of languages and cultures, Hellenistic in inspiration, which simply could not express its message in its pristine form.
To this day, when we speak about knowledge, we use metaphors overwhelmingly drawn from the world of the eye. We talk of insight, foresight and hindsight; of making an observation; of people of vision. When we understand something we say, “I see.” The very word “idea” comes from the same Latin root as the word “video.” These are linguistic vestiges of a culture essentially Greek. In the Hebrew Bible, by contrast, instead of saying that someone thinks, the verse will say that he “said in his or her heart.” Thought is not a form of sight but of speech. In rabbinic Hebrew, when we say that a certain conclusion can be drawn, we say mashma or shema mina or ta shema. When we want to say that we understand, we use the phrase shomea ani, and when someone did not accept an idea, we say lo shemia leh. Tradition is called mipi hashemua. All of these are verbs of hearing. For the Greeks, truth is what we see. For Jews, it is what we hear.
The reason could not be more profound. Pagan cultures saw G-d – or rather, the gods – in the visible, the sun, the storm, the earth, the sea, the great forces that surround us and reduce us to a sense of insignificance. The gods have changed in the twenty-first century. Today, when we think of the fate that lies in store for us, we are more likely to talk about the environment, the march of technology, the global market and the international political arena. But today’s secular city is as polytheistic as its predecessors.
The polytheistic imagination, ancient or modern, sees reality as the clash of powerful forces, each of which is fundamentally indifferent to the fate of mankind. A tidal wave does not stop to think whom it will drown. The free market makes no moral distinctions. Global warming affects the innocent and guilty alike. A world confined to the visible is an impersonal world, deaf to our prayers, blind to our hopes, a world without overarching meaning, in which we are temporary interlopers who must protect ourselves as best we can against the random cruelties of fate. Today’s secular culture – dominated by television, video, the Internet and the computer screen – is a visual culture, a world of images and icons.
Judaism, by contrast, is the supreme example of a person-centered civilization – and persons communicate by words, language, speech, what we hear rather than see. It is so because the patriarchs and prophets of ancient Israel were the first to understand that G-d is not part of the visible world but beyond. Hence its prohibition against graven images, visual representations and icons. Nowhere is this more profoundly spelled out than in the great encounter between G-d and the prophet Elijah at Mount Horeb:
The Lord said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by’. Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
God reveals himself in speech, from the reverberating echoes of Sinai to the still small voice heard by Elijah. That is why the central doctrine of Judaism is Torah min hashamayim, ‘Torah from heaven’, meaning that what is ultimately holy are not sacred sites or the wonders of nature but words. God created the world with words (‘And G-d said… and there was’) and His greatest gift is Torah, His word to mankind.
This fact had huge consequences for Judaism, the greatest of which is that, at the heart of reality is a personal presence, not a concept, power or theoretical construct, the prime mover, necessary being, the first cause — the God of the philosophers — but a person, one to whom we can say Thou, who speaks to us in revelation, and to whom we speak in prayer. Hence the unique intimacy Jews feel with G-d. In terms of power, there is no comparison, no possible relationship, between an infinite Creator and his finite creations. But in terms of speech, there is. G-d asks us, as He asked Adam and Eve in the Garden, ayeka, ‘Where are you?’ and at times we ask Him, ‘Where are you’. Because there is speech, there is relationship. Between two beings who can communicate with one another, there is connection, communion, even if the One is infinitely great and the other infinitely small. Words bridge the metaphysical abyss between soul and soul.
There is much to be said about the non-visual character of the biblical imagination, more than can be mentioned here. To take just three examples; the Torah tells us many things about Abraham, Moses, Aaron and Samuel, but we have not the slightest idea of what they looked like. Unlike the prose of Homer (as Erich Auerbach pointed out in a famous essay, ‘Odysseus’ Scar’), the Torah gives us almost no visual descriptions. When it does so, it is always for a moral purpose. So, for example, we hear that Sarah is a beautiful woman only when she and Abraham go down to Egypt, and for the first time Abraham looks at his wife through Egyptian eyes. We read that Saul, Israel’s first king, was a tall man, head and shoulders above his contemporaries. But this physical description is meant ironically, for Saul turns out to be an essentially small man, more led by the people than leading them.
Similarly when it comes to the description of the mishkan, the sanctuary. This is given in immense detail in the second half of the book of Shemot. However it is almost impossible to visualize it. The description is written as a series of instructions as to how to make the various components. It is more a construction manual than a pictorial description. Even here the emphasis is not on seeing but on hearing and doing.
Perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon is that the Bible, though it contains 613 commands, does not have a word that means obey. Instead, it uses the word shema, which means, ‘to hear, to listen, to contemplate, to understand, to internalize and to respond’. The King James Bible, published in 1611, was able to use an English word that conveyed some of this rich range of senses, namely to hearken. Now that the word ‘hearken’ has passed out of everyday usage, there is no way of adequately translating the complex word shema into English.
Once we understand this, the significance of many biblical passages becomes clear. G-d’s greatness is that He hears the unheard. As Ishmael lay dying of thirst, “G-d heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying, there where he lies’.” The very name, Ishmael, means “G-d hears.” One of the tasks of a leader, according to Moses, is to “hear between your brothers” (to this day, a court case is called “a hearing”). The great social legislation in Shemot states that, “If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.” Hearing is the basis of both justice and compassion.
When Joseph’s brothers are accused of being spies, they say — not knowing that Joseph is there and can understand them – “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we did not listen; that is why this distress has come upon us.” They saw but did not hear – and not to be able to hear someone’s distress is a deep moral failure. When the Torah wants to convey the degradation suffered by the Israelites in Egypt, it says, “They did not listen to him because of their broken spirit and cruel bondage.” They could no longer hear the good news of their impending liberation. When Solomon asked God for the greatest gift He can bestow on him, he says, “Grant your servant a listening heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.”
We can now also understand one of the strangest sayings of the rabbis, “If a person is taking a walk while reciting Mishnaic teachings, and interrupts his studies to say, how beautiful is that tree, or how fine is that field, it is as if he had committed a mortal sin.” It is not that Judaism does not wish us to enjoy the beauties of nature. In fact, in the prayer-book there is a special blessing to be said on seeing trees in blossom. The sin is that such a person abandons the world of sound (Mishnah, i.e. “oral Torah”) in favor of the world of sight.
Listening is an art, a skill, a religious discipline, the deepest reflex of the human spirit. One who truly listens can sometimes hear, beneath the noise of the world, the deep speech of the universe, the song creation sings to its Creator:
The heavens declare the glory of G-d,
The skies proclaim the work of His hands.
Day pours forth speech to day,
Night communicates knowledge to night.
There is no speech or language
Where their voice is not heard.
In the silence of the desert (midbar) the Israelites were able to hear the word (davar). And one trained in the art of listening can hear not only the voice of G-d but also the silent cry of the lonely, the distressed, the afflicted, the poor, the needy, the neglected, the unheard. For speech is the most personal of all gestures, and listening the most human – and at the same time, the most divine – of all gifts. G-d listens, and asks us to listen.
That is why the greatest of all commands – the one we read in this week’s sedra, the first Jewish words we learned as children, the last words spoken by Jewish martyrs as they went to their deaths, words engraved on the Jewish soul, are Shema Yisrael, “Listen, O Israel.” And now too we understand why, as we say those words, we cover our eyes – to shut out, if only for a moment, the world of sight, so that we can more fully enter the world of sound, the world not of Creation but of Revelation, not of G-d’s work but of His word — the world we cannot see but which, if we create an open, attentive silence in the soul, we can hear.