“Can we talk?” Can we listen?


Joan Rivers“Can we talk?”

The late great comedian Joan Rivers had many famous lines, but she was probably better known for these three words than for any others. For many of us, we just have to hear this phrase and Joan comes to mind.

Yet perhaps ironically, when Joan Rivers uttered the phrase “Can we talk?” it wasn’t that she really wanted to engage with her audience in discussion. She didn’t want to talk WITH us. She wanted to talk TO us. What she wanted wasn’t for us to RESPOND, but for us to LISTEN. She had something to say…and she wanted our undivided attention.

Many of us like to talk. We have something to say – perhaps a point to make or a feeling or opinion to express. We think of talking as active…it involves doing something.

We tend to think of listening, in contrast, as passive…as if we don’t have to do anything to listen. But in fact, truly listening isn’t always easy and it’s certainly not passive. As any therapist, chaplain, social worker or member of the clergy will tell you, active listening is a crucial skill—every bit as important to a conversation as speaking, and often more so. It’s incredibly powerful for a person to know that they’re being listened to—that they’re being “heard” (and this often involves much more than just words)—by someone else who’s taking in what they say without any agenda other than to be present for them.

In Judaism, our central prayer is the Shema. And what does the Hebrew word Shema mean? It means “Hear.” Hearing/listening is at the very heart of Judaism.

When I was growing up, there was a wonderful poem in the Friday night prayer book my synagogue used—it was read before reciting the Shema. The prayer, written by Rabbis Jack Riemer and Harold Kushner, was called “Listen.” It began as follows:

Judaism begins with the commandment: Hear, O Israel!

But what does it really mean to hear?

The person who attends a concert with a mind on business,

Hears—but does not really hear.

The person who walks amid the songs of the birds

And thinks only of what will be served for dinner, hears—but does not really hear.

The one who listens to the words of a friend, or spouse, or child, and does not catch the note of urgency: “Notice me, help me, care about me,” hears—but does not really hear….

I loved this poem (and still do) because it emphasizes the importance of being truly present in the moment … of hearing/listening to what is happening around you, or what another person is saying to you.

I’m not a poet, but I often wish that I could add some verses to Rabbi Reimer and Rabbi Kushner’s poem “Listen” and share them with the people I work with (interfaith couples as well as Jewish professionals) in my role as Director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia. The verses I’d add would be:

The person in an interfaith relationship who talks with her partner about religion but cares only about her own religious heritage, and not her partner’s, hears—but does not really hear.

The parent of a child in an interfaith relationship who worries about what other people in his community will say about his child “intermarrying” as his daughter tells him how much she loves her fiancé, hears—but does not really hear.

The parent whose child tells her about his partner of another faith and she thinks only that she would prefer that the partner be of the same faith, hears—but does not really hear.

The rabbi who sits with a couple in an interfaith relationship and thinks about how it would be better if Jews only dated other Jews, hears—but does not really hear.

The rabbi who talks to a Christian parent of a bat mitzvah student and is convinced that all parents raising Jewish children should themselves convert to Judaism, hears—but does not really hear.

The synagogue staff person or lay leader who insists that their synagogue is “welcoming” of interfaith families but isn’t comfortable with those who aren’t Jewish participating in the life of the synagogue, hears—but does not really hear.

When it comes to interfaith relationships, many people—those in the relationship, their parents and other family members, clergy and others—may have concerns that are legitimate, and that should perhaps be expressed. But just as each person involved might feel like they need time to TALK, each person should also be sure to take time to LISTEN. Listening can be a tremendous gift to others and to yourself as well. If you are able to actively listen to and hear someone else, it just may make it easier for them to hear you.