Reframing the Sh’ma to Repair the World


Reframing the Sh’ma to Repair the World

April 9, 2013

"We can only live, work and make a difference if we have the humility to listen." - Ruth W. Messinger

In the following video, Ruth speaks about the importance of listening:

(Originally posted on JDOV.)

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No matter how you identify as a Jew, you’ve probably heard the words of the Sh’ma. Or perhaps you’ve seen signposts of the prayer’s existence—a mezuzah on a doorpost, tefillin wrapped on an observant person’s arm.

Sh’ma—a prayer so important, that many Jews recite it twice a day. Children are taught to whisper it before they go to sleep at night.

Our sages are explicit that when we recite the Sh’ma, we must do so with focus, with clarity, and with unity of heart and mind.

I pray, but not every day, nor do I recite the Sh’ma each night before I go to sleep. But the essence of the Sh’ma—the imperative to listen, to pay attention to injustice, and to mend the brokenness in our world—grounds my life with purpose.

The difference between hearing and listening is paying attention, finding and living that elusive element of real connection to the other. And Sh’ma is a command to pay attention.

Sh’ma. Listen. How can the act of listening anchor our lives with compassion, interconnection, and a shared commitment to justice? How can we use the framework of the Sh’ma to listen more intently to people who are silenced, disempowered, or rendered invisible, to really pay attention to them and what they say?

I want to share three “Sh’ma moments” in my life when the act of listening allowed me to better understand “the stranger”— or “the other.” These moments have enabled me to live the Jewish value of b’tzelem elohim—to believe that each and every person is made in the image of God, is of equal value, and has inherent dignity.

Sh’ma moment #1: It’s 1985, the height of the AIDS crisis in New York City. Following 15 years as a social worker and a community organizer, I joined the New York City Council. Thoughtful and steady [I hope] in my views about what was best for the city’s people, I came to my own conclusions and then stuck to my guns. I actually changed my vote on an issue only once. It was during the debate over whether the city should fund needle exchange programs for drug users. My first instinct was that we should not enable drug users to abuse heroin. How could I support that? Why would I support that? After all, weren’t illegal drugs undermining communities of color and poor neighborhoods?

Then, someone from an HIV organization invited me to visit an illegal needle exchange that he was running on a street corner in a very poor part of the Bronx. I visited the program at night. Person after person told me how gaining access to clean needles was helping them avoid infecting their friends and other drug users. My resistance softened as I listened. All of the opposing arguments that had been so clear to me dissolved as I heard the truth of these people’s lives. My perspective shifted. I now understood why these programs were so important, and I decided to vote in their favor. The decision was a good one because these programs are working and are saving lives every day.

Listening can be an antidote to judgment. Listening matters.

Sh’ma moment #2: it’s 1998, and I am the president of American Jewish World Service, an organization that works to end poverty and realize human rights in the developing world. International development was a new world for me, far different from city politics. I had a lot to learn.

Early on, I traveled to Zimbabwe to visit an impoverished rural settlement with no government services. I met a teacher working with 80 children outside under a tree and asked him what he wanted most: was it desks and chairs, books, pencils or perhaps a chalk board? He replied, “I don’t need any of those things. I just need the children to have breakfast.”

I had come to Zimbabwe thinking that my solutions were the key to helping Zimbabwean children get a better education. I thought I had all of the answers. But it turns out that the people whom I had perceived as powerless—the people I was trying to help—were the ones who knew best what they needed. They were the ones with the answers, and it was up to me to listen.

Listening can be an antidote to judgment. Listening matters.

Sh’ma moment #3: perhaps five years ago, I traveled to Thailand where I met a sex worker. A 37-year-old mother of three, she very succinctly told me about her life: “these were my options,” she said: “I could be apart from my children for 10 hours each day working in a sweatshop sewing buttons on shirts for $2 a day. Or I could spend the day with my kids and, at night, talk to an interesting western man, lie down with him for 20 minutes in a familiar, safe place, and make a lot of money. Which would you choose?”

Like many Americans in my generation, I was taught that prostitution is immoral and coercive. Selling sex for money has always been loaded with stigma—and it still is today. And as a feminist of a certain age, I could initially only see sex work as oppression.

But in recent years, I’ve heard countless stories from sex workers themselves. When you listen to the story of a sex worker, you begin to understand the difference between a girl or a woman who is forced into trafficking—which is horrific and oppressive to its core—and a woman who sells sex to support her family because she has deemed it her best choice.

I learned in Thailand that these women are much like me: they work hard and they care about their kids. Who am I to tell them that their labor as a sex worker is any less valid than my own? Who am I to believe that this woman is any less deserving of physical safety and the right to earn a living—rights that I fully enjoy and have long taken for granted. Nearly everywhere in the world, sex workers are detained, arrested, fined and driven out of their homes or places of work. In both developed and developing countries, discriminatory policies enable police to rape and beat sex workers and confiscate their money and belongings, including condoms, which increases their risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. I would have never known any of this had I not listened—really listened—to these sex workers’ stories.

Listening can be an antidote to judgment. Listening matters.

These three moments I’ve just shared, among many others, opened up my heart and mind to human struggles experienced by “the other.” They exposed hidden injustices that were far from my consciousness. And they show the humanity that’s at stake when global problems like hunger, violence, and discrimination go unchecked. But these stories are just three of a universe of stories that too often fall on deaf ears.

So, why aren’t we listening?

My colleague, Rabbi David Wolpe, of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles once wrote about “the bias of the near.” “Things close to us seem of more importance than things far away,” he explains. What is far away feels less real. People next door seem more real than those across the sea.

The Bible acknowledges this bias when it says, “love your neighbor as yourself.” But the Bible also seeks to make the stranger as close as one’s neighbor, and to make the far off future vividly present to us.

As Wolpe instructs, “a moral life cannot only be lived with a focus on those next door. Someone starving across the world is as real as someone living beneath the bridge near our own homes. Bias toward the near in people and in time is important and helpful: our family and our lives today are naturally our imminent priorities. To be fully human, however, we must…[have] hope for the future and care for all who suffer, wherever they may be.”

Much of my work, then, at American Jewish World Service is about bridging “the near” and “the far.” We seek to close this gap for the sake of humanity and for the sake of ourselves and our role in the world. But we can only do this well when we listen, really listen, to the stories and struggles of people in the developing world, when we pay attention to their description of their needs.

The stories of women, children, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Uganda who lack access to basic healthcare. The stories of Haiti’s earthquake survivors who are excluded from the most fundamental decisions about how money should be spent for their recovery. The stories of Cambodian garment workers who aren’t paid fair wages to make the clothes that we wear. The stories of indigenous farmers in Mexico and in India whose land has been seized by international corporations to mine for oil or grow corn for ethanol.

We listen to people like Ikal Angelei, a young activist whom I just visited in Kenya, who mobilized opposition to the construction of a hydroelectric dam that, if built, would destroy the land and water that more than half a million people in her community need to survive.

We listen to people like Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist and winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize who played a pivotal role in leading a women’s peace movement to end a civil war. She then helped educate and train young women in human rights and peace negotiation and has been immensely successful.

And we listen to people like Steeve Laguerre, an activist in Haiti who has successfully provided health services to HIV-positive Haitians who face relentless stigma and discrimination, particularly in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.

These are people whose voices I have listened to, who have touched me and, in many cases, shifted my thinking.

Listening is a prerequisite for action. Listening is a principle for living Jewishly in a globalized world.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest thinkers in Jewish history and someone I feel privileged to have known, said: “Judaism takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest.” In other words, Jewish tradition and Jewish history give us the vocabulary, the values, stories and moral grounding to live our lives with compassion and in deep connection with others; to use the particularity of Jewish experience to understand and work for universal justice.

But we can only live, work, and make a difference this way if we have the humility to listen, to really listen, to pay attention to the other.


Thank you.