All of us have been trained by a culture of visual stimulus to be reactive and unhearing. Facebook is literally built for “engagement”, which means that they feel that they’ve succeeded (and, incidentally, people who run Facebook pages also feel they’ve succeeded) when people do something. When they like or comment or share. When you do these things, you may then receive more engagement from others, which leads to a notification, which leads to a chemical reaction not unlike the effect of cocaine. This chemical reaction leads you to constantly need more.
So imagine. Imagine a situation in which the world, where even something on Facebook, would be aided by a lack of engagement. No likes to stimulate approval. No comments to share the reaction you’ve had within a moment. No shares to demand the world see what you’ve just agreed or disagreed with.
This would be called listening. And we are increasingly losing it in this new world.
And, as we’ve seen in the world around us, the effect of this constant level of engagement, not taking a moment to breathe and take in the words of others, has led to a political and spiritual crisis.
People say echo chambers are the problem, but the essence of the problem is much more tied into a world where we are demanded to constantly, constantly respond to the stimulus we receive.
As a person who makes his living by using things like Facebook, I have always been aware of this to an extent, but the crisis of it all never truly became clear to me until a recent project I launched with my partner in crime, Matthue Roth, and Asher Lovy.
We launched a site called Neshamas. The idea behind it was that, as I detailed here, since Matthue and I launched this site, Hevria, we received such a volume of anonymous submissions that we decided there needed to have their own home.
For a year or so, we saw pain coming into our inboxes almost daily. The voices crying to be heard, the ones that we were vaguely aware of, as we all are, but which had become a scream since they felt they had a venue to be heard and accepted.
That’s what it was, if I am being honest, as the editor: screams.
The Jewish world has voices that are quite simply not being heard. Or if they are, they tend to be shoved to places that will accept them but that they don’t see as their community (mainstream publications, liberal Jewish publications, etc). And even then, the main requirement is that the writing is “good.”
Recently, a post on Neshamas inspired quite a backlash. A woman who stopped using the mikvah declared her choice without regret. To many people, the piece was “brazen.” They felt it attacked orthodox Judaism, and so in turn felt personally attacked. They wondered why such things even needed to be published at all. Or if they are published, why not relegate them to the sites they usually go to?
Such a reaction is understandable. Objectively, someone openly speaking about breaking with their belief, even looking down on it, seems like an offensive sort of thing to read.
But that is only a logical response in a world that demands an instant reaction. Where we can’t take the time to listen to things, but must instead form our response before we really have had time to absorb what we’ve witnessed.
But what if there was a different context: one of listening? One of no reaction, positive or negative. Simply absorbing the story of another person. Not making demands on them, whether they are “behaving” or not.
I ask this because to me, after receiving a year’s worth of submissions from people who were too afraid to put their names behind their work, this simple acceptance of words, of the experiences of others, of listening to the narratives around us, is so utterly lacking in our community (and the world at large, of course), that our reactivity is causing the lack of voices being raised.
How can reactivity, our need to immediately speak out against or for what we’ve been stimulated with, cause silence?
Ultimately, not speaking is always easier than speaking. To speak up about something requires a risk: it requires that we open ourselves to the evaluations of others. This is an inherent part of speaking publicly about something.
But the thing is, if people know that the things they say, especially if those things are incredibly sensitive to them, will be judged with incredible harshness, with a knee-jerk reactivity, most will choose to simply stay silent.
Imagine what it must be like to make such a choice: you have a pain or a reality buried deeply inside of you. The only balm for it to get better is if you share it. This is how people heal, through expressing their inner experience. This is why art heals, why therapists matter, why friends can change our lives. But there are many people who do not have friends they can speak to, money for therapists. To be heard would be the best possible experience for them.
But even knowing how much pain they are in in their silence, they still choose to be quiet. Why? Because of the rush to judgment they know will come. Because of the reactive culture they live in, it simply is not safe. That is how much it hurts to be attacked and derided for expressing our hearts.
Now, imagine, if you will, that there are people all around you who are doing this. Who are holding in something because of the fear of the reaction.
Now imagine that there are patterns in these fears. That there are more women than you can imagine who lie about the mikvah or young people abused by rabbis or who are gay and in a heterosexual marriage without telling their spouse.
Imagine these people are everywhere.
Because they are.
And they are hidden. They are hiding. Because they are afraid of how we will react when they speak up. Afraid we will focus on the faults they’ve made, the things they’ve done wrong, instead of simply reflecting on their story as a whole. Instead of hearing what they’re really trying to say, something they may not even be aware of: “I am in pain, and I don’t know what to do.”
Those of us who react rashly to these voices are part of a culture that has forced them into hiding. We have forced upon our lives a false narrative, one where we think everyone is happy and jolly and everything is just fine, and the few voices that do speak up are outliers or people who “have it in” for our community.
In other words, being reactionary may help us feel better in the moment, but it forces us into a fantasy land that has dire consequences both for the people around us and for the culture we are a part of.
And it is why, more than ever, we must learn to listen. Why we must learn to simply let people speak, to not react, to not press the like button or go to the comment section or share to hear others’ thoughts. We must discover a new kind of engagement within. That of simply being with someone and accepting what they say (not agreeing, accepting) so that they, and the world, know that it is okay, it is safe, to be who you are. That we can only discuss the “wrong” decisions others have made after we totally accept their narrative, their world.
This is the power of listening, of not rushing to reaction. We can totally transform our culture when we do this. It can become a world where we ourselves, not just those holding hidden pains, can feel that we may be who we are with a bit of space to make mistakes. When we have that space, we can then get the support we need to grow and learn from them. But when we are fearful of reactions, we instead choose to create a persona, an illusion, of someone that does not exist: the Jew who never sins.
Listening, then, is not just about others: it’s about ourselves. It’s about creating a world where we are okay knowing that we are complicated beings that do not have to conform to the standards of others constantly, but can grow and learn and change and evolve.
When we let go of reactionary engagement as a culture, we will have the opportunity to enter a golden age of acceptance and true love of our fellow Jews.
And, ironically, in the end the result will be less sin, less mistakes, less lashing out against our community. Because we will have allowed our community itself to grow and to change and to not expect now to be perfect, but to aim for perfection. We will stop taking a snapshot of some time and saying we must be as we were then for all time. Instead we will envision a future so perfect that that snapshot will look old, worn, and pale in comparison to our glorious new reality.