catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 15 :: 2013.07.19 — 2013.09.05


Not the words, but the voice

While relaxing one afternoon, I chanced upon Chaim Potok’s novel, The Promise. In this story, Reuven Malter develops an interest in the work of Abraham Gordon, a professor who receives heavy criticism from Orthodox Jewish scholars for his progressive ideas about Judaism. When Reuven borrows Gordon’s books from the library, he finds that someone has written inside the covers, “This is the book of an apostate. Those who fear God are forbidden to read it.” Reuven’s father sees the inscription and makes the remark that “it should read ‘those who fear ideas,’ not ‘those who fear God.’”

Throughout the novel, Reuven wrestles with the growing disapproval of his Orthodox Jewish professor, Reb Kalman, who warns him against the use of modern text criticism in Talmudic studies. In the end, however, Reb Kalman pulls him aside to talk about his rabbinic examinations:

“Once I had students who spoke with such love about Torah that I would hear the Song of Songs in their voices." He spoke with his eyes half closed. "I have not heard the Song of Songs now for – for — " He blinked. "I did not hear the Song of Songs in America until I heard your voice at the examinations. Not your words, but your voice. I did not like the words. But the voice…”

In many ways, it’s easy to dismiss an idea that we don’t like or particularly agree with when it comes to us as a cold bit of data. A cluster of words on a sheet of paper is prone to being scribbled over, or crumpled up and thrown in the trash. And unless we truly engage with what the message is, perhaps by engaging the medium of the message itself, we will never come to understand what it is that we’re rejecting.

This summer, I am interning with the organization *culture is not optional, which has introduced me to new ways of life that I had never been able to envision before. One fellow intern has shared with me her passion for the earth and for all things that grow, especially weeds. A common worldview dictates to us that weeds are harmful and need to be uprooted, but she is able to see what those weeds bring to the soil. Some have taproots, she says, which aerate the soil and spread water to surrounding plants. Sound crazy? Perhaps, and you won’t be the first to think so. But hearing the idea and seeing it come to life in someone else are two entirely different experiences. Seeing her simple joy with the abundance of nature helped me respect and appreciate what she had to say about alternative gardening methods.

There are people in my life with whom I disagree with about certain things. But if I silence their ideas rather than engage with them, I miss the opportunity to hear those people speak. If I allow them to speak and take the time to listen, perhaps I’ll find the passion in their voices and learn to respect that.

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