I first discovered the Jewish call for silence at age seventeen. It had been chosen as the ‘wisdom quote of the day’ at camp: “Rabbi Gamliel said: I spent all my life among sages and found nothing better for a person than silence.”[i] I didn’t quite understand the words – nothing better for a person than silence? Really? I wondered whether Rabbi Gamliel had actually spent much time with members of the tribe. We are not, by and large, a quiet bunch. Yet his words stuck with me.
We live in a world full of noise. Life in an urban setting means spending much of our days and nights in close proximity to other people, be they the members of our own families or the strangers that live down the hall or across the street – and people are noisy! In fact, even when we find ourselves far away from other people, sitting quietly rarely results in true silence. More often, we discover a whole new layer of noises – wind moving through trees and across fields, insects chirping. Perhaps when Rabbi Gamliel argued for the benefit of silence, he was arguing for the discoveries we make and the worlds we uncover when we take the time to truly listen.
Of course, as with all things Jewish, where there is one opinion, there are four. Another text tells the story of two people who go to the king, one arguing on behalf of silence and the other on behalf of speech.
The one said, “King, nothing in the world is better than speech. Without speech, how would we offer compliments to each other? How could give-and-take exist in the world? How would anything ever change?” Then the king asked the other to present her argument, but as she opened her mouth to speak, the first slapped his hand over her mouth. The king asked, “Why do you do this?” and he replied, “King, I argued on behalf of what is mine by means that are mine – by speech on behalf of speech. But this one would argue on behalf of what is hers by my means. Let her plead on behalf of what is hers by means that are hers.”[ii]
In other words, despite all of the merits of keeping silent, words spoken aloud do much to assist us in better understanding each other and the world around us.
Over the past three months, as promised in my Erev Rosh Hashana sermon on race, Temple Beth El congregants have been uncovering worlds and beginning to better understand each other and the way they experience race in Charlotte, through both speech and silence. Lay leaders in our community have held nine listening circles to date, connecting with more than seventy congregants aged 18-81, both partnered and unattached, those with young children, grown children, no children.
Have you participated in one of these listening circles*? If not, you are invited! Throughout January and February, we will be holding many more. Be on the lookout for opportunities to sign up, and if you have not yet participated, please register – we want to make sure your voice and your stories are included!
In early April, we will take what we have heard and report it back to you. And then we will ask for your input in deciding how, based on all the information we have gathered both within Temple Beth El and in our conversations with individuals throughout Charlotte, we might best act as a community to address issues of race and inequity in Charlotte. It will take a lot of listening, and also a lot of talking; a balance of silence and speech. I think we’re up to the task.
If you are interested in participating in a Listening Circle, use this link to choose a date, then mark it on your calendar!
*Listening Circle: a 90-minute guided conversation with a small group of congregants, centered around our experiences of race, the way we have seen race play out in our city, and how we might work to help build a more racially just Charlotte.
[i] Pirkei Avot 1:17
[ii] Adapted from The Book of Legends, p.705, #174