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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z"l

It is one of the most important words in Judaism, and also one of the least understood. Its two most famous occurrences are in last week’s parsha and this week’s: “Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is one” (Deut. 6:4), and “It shall come to pass if you surely listen to My commandments which I am commanding you today, to love the L-rd your G-d and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul” (Deut. 11:13) – the openings of the first and second paragraphs of the Shema. It also appears in the first line of the parsha: “It shall come to pass, if you listen to these laws” (Deut. 7:12).

The word, of course, is shema. I have argued elsewhere that it is fundamentally untranslatable into English since it means so many things: to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to internalize, to respond, to obey. It is one of the motif-words of the book of Devarim, where it appears no less than 92 times – more than in any other book of the Torah. Time and again in the last month of his life Moses told the people, Shema: listen, heed, pay attention. Hear what I am saying. Hear what G-d is saying. Listen to what he wants from us. If you would only listen … Judaism is a religion of listening. This is one of its most original contributions to civilization.


The twin foundations on which Western culture was built were ancient Greece and ancient Israel. They could not have been more different. Greece was a profoundly visual culture. Its greatest achievements had to do with the eye, with seeing. It produced some of the greatest art, sculpture, and architecture the world has ever seen. Its most characteristic group events – theatrical performances and the Olympic games – were spectacles: performances that were watched. Plato thought of knowledge as a kind of depth vision, seeing beneath the surface to the true form of things.

This idea – that knowing is seeing – remains the dominant metaphor in the West even today. We speak of insight, foresight, and hindsight. We offer an observation. We adopt a perspective. We illustrate. We illuminate. We shed light on an issue. When we understand something, we say, “I see.”

Judaism offered a radical alternative. It is faith in a G-d we cannot see, a G-d who cannot be represented visually. The very act of making a graven image – a visual symbol – is a form of idolatry. As Moses reminded the people in last week’s parsha, when the Israelites had a direct encounter with G-d at Mount Sinai, “You heard the sound of words, but saw no image; there was only a voice.” (Deut. 4:12). G-d communicates in sounds, not sights. He speaks. He commands. He calls. That is why the supreme religious act is shema. When G-d speaks, we listen. When He commands, we try to obey.

Rabbi David Cohen (1887-1972), known as the Nazirite, a disciple of Rav Kook and the father of R. Shear-Yashuv Cohen, Chief Rabbi of Haifa, pointed out that in the Babylonian Talmud all the metaphors of understanding are based not on seeing but on hearing. Ta shema, “come and hear.” Ka mashma lan, “It teaches us this.” Shema mina, “Infer from this.” Lo shemiyah lei, “He did not agree.” A traditional teaching is called shamaytta, “that which was heard.” And so on. All of these are variations on the word shema.

This may seem like a small difference, but it is in fact a huge one. For the Greeks, the ideal form of knowledge involved detachment. There is the one who sees, the subject, and there is that which is seen, the object, and they belong to two different realms. A person who looks at a painting or a sculpture or a play in a theatre or the Olympic games is not an active part of the art or the drama or the athletic competition. They are acting as a spectator, not a participant.

Speaking and listening are not forms of detachment. They are forms of engagement. They create a relationship. The Hebrew word for knowledge, da’at, implies involvement, closeness, intimacy. “And Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived and gave birth” (Gen. 4:1). That is knowing in the Hebrew sense, not the Greek. We can enter into a relationship with G-d, even though He is infinite and we are finite, because we are linked by words. In revelation, G-d speaks to us. In prayer, we speak to G-d. If you want to understand any relationship, between husband and wife, or parent and child, or employer and employee, pay close attention to how they speak and listen to one another. Ignore everything else.

The Greeks taught us the forms of knowledge that come from observing and inferring, namely science and philosophy. The first scientists and the first philosophers came from Greece from the sixth to the fourth centuries BCE.

But not everything can be understood by seeing and appearances alone. There is a powerful story about this told in the first book of Samuel. Saul, Israel’s first king, looked the part. He was tall. “From his shoulders and upward he was higher than any of the people,” (1 Sam. 9:2, 1 Sam. 10:23). He was the image of a king. But morally, temperamentally, he was not a leader at all; he was a follower.

G-d then told Samuel to anoint another king in his place, and told him it would be one of the children of Jesse. Samuel went to Jesse and was struck by the appearance of one of his sons, Eliab. He thought he must be the one G-d meant. But G-d said to him, “Do not be impressed by his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. G-d does not see as people do. People look at the outward appearance, but the L-rd looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).

Jews and Judaism taught that we cannot see G-d, but we can hear Him and He hears us. It is through the word – speaking and listening – that we can have an intimate relationship with G-d as our parent, our partner, our sovereign, the One who loves us and whom we love. We cannot demonstrate G-d scientifically. We cannot prove G-d logically. These are Greek, not Jewish, modes of thought. I believe that from a Jewish perspective, trying to prove the existence of G-d logically or scientifically is a mistaken enterprise. G-d is not an object but a subject. The Jewish mode is to relate to G-d in intimacy and love, as well as awe and reverence.

One fascinating modern example came from a Jew who, for much of his life, was estranged from Judaism, namely Sigmund Freud. He called psychoanalysis the “speaking cure,” but it is better described as the “listening cure.” It is based on the fact that active listening is in itself therapeutic. It was only after the spread of psychoanalysis, especially in America, that the phrase “I hear you” came into the English language as a way of communicating empathy.

There is something profoundly spiritual about listening. It is the most effective form of conflict resolution I know. Many things can create conflict, but what sustains it is the feeling on the part of at least one of the parties that they have not been heard. They have not been listened to. We have not “heard their pain”. There has been a failure of empathy. That is why the use of force – or for that matter, boycotts – to resolve conflict is so profoundly self-defeating. It may suppress it for a while, but it will return, often more intense than before. Job, who has suffered unjustly, is unmoved by the arguments of his comforters. It is not that he insists on being right: what he wants is to be heard. Not by accident does justice presuppose the rule of audi alteram partem, “Hear the other side.”

Listening lies at the very heart of relationship. It means that we are open to the other, that we respect them, that their perceptions and feelings matter to us. We give them permission to be honest, even if this means making ourselves vulnerable in so doing. A good parent listens to their child. A good employer listens to their workers. A good company listens to its customers or clients. A good leader listens to those they are leading. Listening does not mean agreeing but it does mean caring. Listening is the climate in which love and respect grow.

In Judaism we believe that our relationship with G-d is an ongoing tutorial in our relationships with other people. How can we expect G-d to listen to us if we fail to listen to our spouse, our children, or those affected by our work? And how can we expect to encounter G-d if we have not learned to listen. On Mount Horeb, G-d taught Elijah that He was not in the whirlwind, the earthquake or the fire, but in the kol demamah dakah, the “still, small voice” (I Kings 19:12) that I define as a voice you can only hear if you are listening.

Crowds are moved by great speakers, but lives are changed by great listeners. Whether between us and G-d or us and other people, listening is the prelude to love.

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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth and the author and editor of 40 books on Jewish thought. He died earlier this month.