Deeply Listening For Peace

JCRC Group at House of Grace in Haifa. (Photo by Eli Cohn-Postell, JCRC)
JCRC Group at House of Grace in Haifa. (Photo by Eli Cohn-Postell, JCRC)

I had the distinct pleasure of leading thirteen Christian clergy to Israel with the JCRC – the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston over the summer.

JCRC Study Tour to Israel departs from Logan. (Photo by Eli Cohn-Postell, JCRC)

After our second exhausting day filled with a visit to the Israeli hospital that treated 2,600 Syrians during their civil war, an exploration of the challenging geopolitics of the region overlooking the border of Lebanon, and a tour of a church in Haifa that rehabilitates former prisoners, we were – or at least, I was – more than ready for dinner.

Our guest speaker that evening at the meal was Mohammad Darawshe, a leader of the Israeli-Arab community, and the head of Givat Haviva Institute, which works to build a shared society, one that creates cooperation among divided groups in Israel.

When Mr. Darawshe sat down next to me at dinner I was a bit tongue-tied.  Here is an opportunity for me to speak with a prominent Palestinian citizen of Israel, but what do I say?  How do I start a meaningful conversation? Here he is, one of a few Arabs on our itinerary, brought to this group of Christians to provide a Muslim perspective on Israel, and here I am, the only Jewish American clergy on the trip, here to provide a Jewish perspective.

How do I move past this contrived situation?  

I could hear the joke: a Muslim, a rabbi, and thirteen Christian clergy walk into a restaurant…how do I make it an opportunity to really connect?

What made initiating conversation with Mr. Darawshe even more challenging were the political controversies swirling around Israel at the time.  

After all, this was the week after Israel’s new nation-state law was passed, which was deeply hurtful to Israel’s Arab minorities of Christians, Muslims, Bedouins, and Druze, because, among other things, it demoted the status of Arabic, no longer including it as an official language of Israel.

I braced myself for Mr. Darawshe’s response to the group about this legislation, expecting a strong attack and deep pessimism.  

I am also aware that right now, at this moment, some of you may have stopped listening to my words, feeling that – oh, here comes the sermon about a good, liberal Muslim willing to engage with Jews, and how we should all love and respect each other, even though you may believe that many Muslims are a threat to the Jewish people.  

But please, don’t shut down, stay with me…  

At the dinner, I too, was aware of my role as a supporter, and possibly a defender, of the State of Israel, and yet, I also worked hard to really listen to Mr. Darawshe and absorb his words, his disappointment and hurt.

He told us facts about his community – about how 49% of Israeli Arabs live below the poverty line and how 19% are unemployed.  He explained how the nation state law could be used to change other laws, allowing for more discrimination of non-Jewish Israelis.  

He also told us about the Israeli Jews who reached out to him.  How the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, called him at 7:40 the morning after the nation-state bill passed.  

President Rivlin discussed his dilemma about whether he should sign the bill, or resign in protest.  Rivlin ended up signing the bill, but as a small token of protest, he signed the bill in Arabic.

On a more personal note, Mr. Darawshe shared that his daughter who works for an Israeli hi-tech company, the first Arab to be hired among the 1,100 employees, and how none of the fairly liberal group of workers in her department had ever befriended an Arab.  Since her arrival other Arabs have been hired and people have had her over for dinner, breaking down the walls.

Mohammad Darwashe speaks to JCRC group over dinner at the Colony Hotel in Haifa. (Photo by Rabbi David Lerner)

I listened deeply.  

It’s not easy to listen to an opposing viewpoint.  How often do we truly allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to question our own perspectives?

* * *

The idea of deep listening is found in the liturgy we are about to recite during the Musaf service when we chant the piyyut, the prayer-poem untene tokef.  The author quotes the famous phrase about Elijah’s encounter with God.  

After Elijah has challenged the idolatry of Ba’al worship, Elijah journeys to the mountain of God and there is a mighty wind, followed by an earthquake, followed by fire and then…a “kol dmamah dakah – a still, small voice;” or “the sound of a thin silence.” (I Kings 19:12)

McWay Falls: Big Sur, California. “Galactic Cove” – taken by Rogelio Bernal Andreo,  DeepSkyColors.com

Rabbi Jonathan Sachs interprets it this way: “God’s voice is a sound you can hear only if you are listening.  […God] is always there, but only if we seek [the Divine] (him. His) [God’s] word is ever-present, but only if we listen.  Otherwise we will not hear it at all. God exists in the silence of the soul when we make space for [God’s] (his) voice. The religious encounter, like a true human encounter requires active listening.” (Future Tense, p. 193)

And I would add that any true human encounter is a religious or spiritual or certainly psychologically intensive encounter.  

When we truly listen to another, especially when they express something difficult – someone’s pain, someone whose approach is different from our own, it can be viewed as a spiritual experience.

Especially, if we do not try to find a solution or a pat response, but sit with the pain, the difficulty, the loss….

God’s presence is found in those places of listening.

Listen to the kol demamah dakah – the still, small voice.

* * *

Joseph and Lillian Lapidus

When looking at Jewish history, it’s miraculous that Jews and Christians could travel together in fellowship throughout the State of Israel and into the West Bank.  My grandparents, growing up in Eastern Europe, and even those in America in the early 20th century, could never have imagined the peaceful, friendly relations between Christians and Jews today.

Each day we visited Christian and Jewish holy sites and I would usually daven – pray – in the back of the bus, explaining our traditional Jewish practices of tallit and tefillin to some of our group of ministers and priests.  They were engaged and interested in Jewish practices like our Shabbat dinner, and I was blessed to learn from them.

One of my favorite mornings was visiting the site where Jesus grew up right on the Sea of Galilee, the town of K’far Nahum – the village of Nahum or Capernaum in English.  There is a church built over some of the ancient archeological ruins that go back to Second Temple times.  And there is the synagogue that dates from the 5th century of the Common Era built on top of the ancient synagogue which may have been the one Jesus davened in with his tallit and tefillin.  

Putting on my tallit and tefillin there created a bridge for me between our two sister faiths.  

Faiths that broke apart violently and with terrible consequences for our people for most of the last two millennia, but faiths that have also strongly reconciled creating the feeling that the next millennium will be quite different.  

That reconciliation forms the paradigm for what needs to take place between Palestinians and Israelis, between Muslims and Jews.  And even with all the challenges, and there are many, I still hold onto that hope.

I approached this trip differently from the last time I was afforded the honor of being on this JCRC trip almost a decade ago.  

I went to listen, to be more open to different perspectives and to truly open myself up to the Christian narrative.  

I went to hear the kol demamah dakah – the still, small voice.

In 2011, a magnum opus was published by Professors Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Brettler who was our Glatzer scholar in residence in that same year.  Their work, which was the sustained effort of a team of scholars over a decade, produced the first ever edition of the New Testament from a Jewish perspective.  This includes all the references that the New Testament uses from the Tanakh, from our Hebrew Bible, and parallels in rabbinic literature.  It also explains many key Christian concepts through a Jewish lens.  

Reading and listening to these texts and the commentary while we were on the trip made a difference to me, since I was better able to hold onto the power of the Christian narrative, even if I do not believe in it.  

My appreciation for what Jesus represents to Christians, certainly for this wonderful group who serve different communities, representing a variety of different Christian communities, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds changed me.  And I thank several of them for being here today:

Reverend Joy Fallon of King’s Chapel in Boston; Reverend Gretchen Grimshaw of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Newton; Father Oscar Pratt; Sacred Heart Parish in Lynn and Reverend Julie Rodgers of First Church in Cambridge (below, left to right.)

(Photos from JCRC Christian Clergy Israel Study Tour Orientation Guide)

Thank you all for being here and teaching me so much.

* * *

If I have to think about the most important aspect of an experience like this, it can be summarized in one key skill: listening.  

We all can hear, but often we do not listen.  

There is something very different about listening.   Listening is about opening yourself up, in order to take something in.   It’s quite different from the clicking to share a link that represents your perspective, something we all do.  It’s the opposite of defending a position. It’s about a conversation.

And we heard it time and time again in Israel.  

Listen to the kol demamah dakah – the still, small voice.

Perhaps the most powerful example was sitting down with two parents, part of an organization called the Parents Circle, which describes itself as “the only association in the world that does not wish to welcome any new members into its fold.”

Founded and sustained by a group of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians, their mission is to stop further acts of violence.

We heard from Bassam Aramin, whose ten-year-old daughter Abir, was a bystander to a clash between Palestinian youth and Israeli soldiers.  She was killed by an Israeli soldier who shot her in the head with a rubber bullet.

Sitting next to him, was a mother: Robi Damelin, whose 28-year-old son David was killed by a Hamas sniper while he was guarding a checkpoint in the West Bank during his army reserve service.

It was unbearably painful to open ourselves up to the experience, to take in their stories of their children’s deaths.  We were struck by the deep and trusting relationship between these two bereaved parents as they supported each other in sharing their excruciating stories with us.

As Nahma Nadich, Deputy Director of the JCRC put together our trip so wonderfully, wrote:

“Robi described visiting a classroom – one of many she frequents in Israeli and Palestinian schools – in which she spreads her message of peace and non-violence.  When she told this class of Palestinian students about losing David, one teen-aged girl stood up and shouted, ‘Your son deserved to die!’

“Robi paused, while contemplating her response. She said that giving in to her temptation to simply walk out would accomplish nothing.  As a survivor, she recognized the deep pain behind the girl’s unthinkably cruel statement, as the mark of someone who was undoubtedly bereaved herself.  So, she gently asked the girl about her family. As Robi suspected, the young student had in fact lost family members to violence. As the conversation unfolded, they shared their experience of loss.  And the girl apologized for her brutal remark.

“Robi posed this simple yet profound question to all of us: ‘How do you find a way of talking to someone and still leaving them with their dignity?’  That question has reverberated for me ever since. How, in the face of deep divisions and emotionally fraught conflicts, do we relate to others not as enemies, but as human beings created in the image of God, whose dignity we cherish?  How can we even begin to know how to do that, when we’re relating to people we don’t always understand, whose lives and experiences may be radically different from our own?”

So we sat there, bearing witness, overwhelmed by their ability to listen to each other and take in each other’s pain.  Bassam and Robi both share a reality of suffering and deep loss, but have chosen to move from anger and hate to hearing and sharing.

Listen to the kol demamah dakah – the still, small voice.

*          *          *

Listening is at the heart of this day, for today is the day of coming before God to be remembered, to be judged.  Whether we see this as a divine judgement or a more personal process of self-reflection, today is the day to listen to your deepest self, the parts of yourself you do not always get to access, truly feeling what it means to perform teshuvah, to say that we are sorry.

The Torah describes Rosh Hashanah: “Yom zikhron truah – a day of remembrance with loud blasts of the shofar.”  Utilizing the shofar’s power, we are called to attention, to listen to our deepest parts of ourselves.  The parts that need extra love and attention, the broken parts that have led us to act not in the best ways.  Whether it’s the shofar or the Divine call or the words of prayer, or each other or our own hearts, today is a day of listening.

And while today’s focus in the synagogue is on confessing to God, to ourselves, the most challenging part may be apologizing to others, to those we have wronged, to those we have hurt.  And it is hard to do that, but it begins with listening, by taking in someone else’s story of pain – most intensely, their pain which we may have caused.

It starts by listening and sometimes, simply by seeing them.  

Far too often, we are unaware that we are hurting others.  We are far too concerned about ourselves, our own problems, our own needs.  But it starts with taking the time to see the other and to listen to them, to really listen to them.

That point was driven home to me on my way back to the airport.  After the clergy trip, the rest of my family joined me in Israel for a cousin’s bar-mitzvah and a family reunion.  We arranged for a taxi to take us all to the airport – I sat up front and spoke with the lovely driver whose Hebrew was fast and fun.

As is often the case, the conversation ventured into the political realm and we passed the Israeli Arab town of Abu Ghosh, well known for its hummus (you can take the movie “Hummus” out of our library – like the quality there, the film is excellent!) and he mentioned that Abu Ghosh is a safe place for Jews to visit.  

I could tell we had slightly different vantage points, but I listened to him.  His experience has been one of the death of his friends by Palestinian terrorists and consequently, he does not see a way to end the conflict.  I understood and took in his pain.

And then I shared some of the projects of co-existence that I had experienced over the previous weeks and he listened, even to the story of the friends I have lost in this conflict.  There was no major change, but a small reshaping had taken place; each of us was slightly transformed by the exchange.

The more one really listens and appreciates where someone is coming from, the more one can truly hear the voice and the pain of the other.

Both people should come away with some new understanding and appreciation for the other. 

Both people are transformed.

Listen to the kol demamah dakah – the still, small voice.

*          *          *

Before Shabbat on the JCRC trip, we spent the day on the West Bank.  We visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, heard the story of Efrat, an Israeli settlement, which works hard to help the local Palestinian population.  We saw the security wall/separation barrier from the Palestinian side. While many Israelis claim it has saved lives, many Palestinians claim it has just created more tension and division between the two peoples.  

Amidst all of this, we also stopped at a most unusual place called – Shorashim-Roots.  Here, on a small piece of land donated by a Palestinian, we found a few small buildings and a group of teens – some Israeli and some Palestinian – a joint youth group running a blood drive and selling some jam they made (I bought the apple spread and gave it to my uncle who lives in Jerusalem.)

Rabbis David Lerner & David Jaffe at Shorashim-Roots. (Photo by Rabbi David Lerner)

Of course, as small coincidences seem to happen all the time in Israel, Rabbi David Jaffe, a friend and colleague from the Boston area, happened to be there donating blood – blood is something that everyone shares and needs.

We then sat in a small room on cushions on the floor and listened to the story of two men: Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Noor A’wad.

Trip participants listen to Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger & Noor A’wad. (Photo by Rabbi David Lerner)

Hanan is an Orthodox rabbi who lives on the West Bank, often referred to in the press as a “settler,” and he shared with us how for years, not only did he not hear or listen to the Palestinian narrative, he did not even see them.  It was as if they did not exist.

But then he told us of meeting Palestinians and being transformed by that interaction.  

Noor spoke of his family’s experience of displacement and suffering – what can he do?  He could leave. He could blame previous generations for their decisions. He could engage in violence.  Or he can try to change the situation.

They both spoke about listening, really listening to the other side and appreciating that both peoples have a real claim to this land, that their narratives have legitimacy.  

Real listening over a conflict line means that there are not only two competing narratives, but also that the two narratives embody truth.  Israeli Jews have a real claim to the land – both ancient and modern and Palestinians do as well.

It’s not one or the other.

JCRC group with Rabbi Hannah Schlesinger & Noor A’wad at Shorashim-Roots. (Photo by Eli Cohn-Postell)

Together, Hanan and Noor spoke of creating a new vision of the future where Israeli Jews and Palestinians will learn and share together.  Instead of a top-down peace process, which, though initiated twenty-five years ago, did not take root, perhaps a grassroots movement could actually change the entire dynamic.  

As I sat there, I realized that Israel needs a truth and reconciliation process, not too dissimilar from the one that took place in South Africa.  

For now, it is grassroots efforts like the Shorashim-Roots organization that will have to lead the way.

And we are working to have Hanan and Noor visit our community in January so you can hear their stories first hand.

Listen to the kol demamah dakah – the still, small voice.  

*          *          *

I want to close by circling back to my dinner partner Mohammed Darwashe.  

Photo by Tim Wright, unrestricted from Unsplash

Before he began his formal talk, he went to get a cup of coffee.  While the hotel’s food was kosher, the coffee bar also had milk available and those who were not keeping kosher (among them all the Christian clergy and Mohammed, a Muslim) could avail themselves of the milk for the coffee in paper cups.

As he was sitting down with his cup of coffee, he stopped and turned to me, speaking in Hebrew, “zeh ba’ayah bishvilkha im ani sam et zeh al ha-shulkhan? Is it a problem for you if I put this on the table?”

While we had not discussed my religious observance, he had noticed my kippah and realized that I was eating meat and may not want his dairy coffee on the same table, which some interpretations of Jewish law prohibit, lest I be tempted to drink his dairy coffee.  

I was truly moved by this deep awareness of the Jewish tradition and his sensitivity.  I told him it was fine, I am lactose intolerant and would not be tempted to drink his coffee, but I was so struck by his thoughtfulness.

Listen sensitively to the kol demamah dakah – the still, small voice.

That’s the hearing we need do with each other and that’s the real listening that needs to take place.  

On this sacred day of Rosh Hashanah, when we are invited to do the hard work of repentance, of teshuvah, let us be open to listening to each other – our different perspectives and pray that we can do our part to help communities – Jewish and Arab – truly start listening to each other.

I will share local Boston events and ones we hope to host and you can visit CJP’s new website: bostonpartnersforpeace.org

When we listen deeply to each other, we can become partners in making peace – let us be pursuers of peace – as the book of Matthew in the New Testament records – “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) and as the Quran states “seek peace with your brethren” (49:10) and as our book of Psalms states: “bakeish shalom v’rodfeihu – seek peace and pursue it.” (34:14)

May it be a year of blessing for all of us, for our families, friends and communities, and may it be a year of deep listening, that may even open up possibilities of peace, both in Israel and here at home.

JCRC group as Netivot Ha’Asarah, a community that is right next to the Gaza Strip; while the wall protects its residents from terrorist sniper fire, it also contains a message of hope. (Photo by Eli Cohn-Postell)
About the Author
Spiritual leader of Temple Emunah, Lexington, Mass. since 2004, David Lerner also serves as the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston and ClergyAgainstBullets.org. After his ordination at Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner served at NSS Beth El in Highland Park, IL.
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