Lessons For Living: There's a Kind of Hush

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It’s an awful song but with a catching title and opening lyric, written in 1967 for the somewhat inanely named Herman’s Hermits. The evocative title is: There’s a kind of hush all over the world tonight.

It’s a timely reminder of how the human spirit needs and yearns for a quietness, a stillness, a pause.

A reminder of how little of this there is in the loud, raucous and competing noise in our universe. Every day we are greeted with the pings of our phones, the loud, violent voices on our screens, angry sounds in our meeting places. There’s so much unquietness, dissatisfaction, rage and angst…

Do you know what keeps me up at night – it’s all those enraged polarised opinions; to adapt the memorable words of Paul Simon, people talking without listening, people talking without speaking and people hearing without listening. Listening is one of the most practical constructive forms of silence.

Silence is at the heart of every Jewish prayer, you can’t go into a synagogue service - and if attentive - not experience a silent, meditative Amida. Of course, on Shabbat we stop and replace loud protest with a quiet pause. It is like the pauses in Mozart’s music which create its exquisite eloquence (Zornberg).

Judaism has always recognised that silence is potent and powerful, that it can heal wounded hearts, that it can mend fractured relationships, that it can calm conflicted communities and soothe troubled societies. In his masterful and perhaps most well-known passage about timing, King Solomon notes: to everything there is a season and a time – a time to keep silent and a time to speak. The problem today is that we have lost the art of silence and damaged the power of speech.

Last year in a Quarterly Essay, Uncivil Wars, Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens crystallised our contemporary crisis. They write that the problem today is not so much one of anger but rather contempt. Even though anger can be extremely damaging, there is a place for righteous indignation, for a show of anger to create a change of behaviour. An angry face, but with a composed heart, can help change the behaviour of recalcitrant children, teenagers and even adults. Maimonides echoing Aristotle writes: One should not be temperamental, easily moved to anger, nor be like the dead without feeling, but should aim at the happy medium; be angry only for a serious cause that rightly calls for impassioned annoyance.

Waleed and Scott rightly point out that contempt is more than anger, it’s about writing each other off. It’s about a cycle of deep mutual condemnation, an outright rejection of hearing each other’s explanations or defences. It’s calling people a basket of deplorables or irredeemable as Hilary Clinton so infamously did. It was somewhat humorous to some, but it was in itself deplorable. Of course no less shameful and egregious and not half as dangerous as Trump, his proud boys, quixotic quanon’s and their despicable erasure of anyone outside their camp. I shudder at the chilling gallows set up for Pence.

Once you cut off people you’re likely to never come back – just think of all the broiges and conflicts that divide families and friends. The problem isn’t just polarisation, it’s the ugly decisive dismissal. Once that happens family conflicts and political debates cease to be an exchange, heated or otherwise. It stops being about conversation or persuasion. You simply won’t engage at all.

Nothing better fits the definition of moral contempt than online cancel culture with its swarm of public shaming, it’s calls to be shunned, boycotted, fired from jobs or worse. In short to be cancelled, destroyed or erased. 

Waleed points out that idea of being cancelled comes from the movie line “cancel that bitch. I’ll buy another one.’’ This dreadful comment encapsulates the culture of contempt and the energy of enmity. The closest term in the Torah is probably contained in the curses in Leviticus. It’s called Keri which means impurity and indifference, obstinacy and hard - heartedness. A kind of nihilism and barbarism.

It’s what convinced Moses, the great negotiator, that he had lost the battle against Korach, the rebellious coup leader and his allies Dathan and Abiram: Moses sent them an invitation to talk and they said "We will not come."
The Hebrew is pointed - we won’t come up to you. 

Cancel culture reminds me of the assessment of David Sussman “Things are looking up for looking down on people.” This is as frightening as it is egregious. Immanuel Kant put it so succinctly: “At times one cannot, it is true, help inwardly looking down on some comparison with others; but the outward manifestation of this is nevertheless an offence.”

We all make moral judgements and there is a place for well targeted moral censure, but there is no place for the contemptuous and total rejection of another human being. For this rules out any possibility of improvement, of change, of repentance (Teshuvah).

It also erodes the possibility and necessity of dialogue and a vigorous exchange of views that are critical and essential for the continuity of democracy itself. This is deeply worrying not only in the USA but in Israel today. To use the words of Ubuntu, people need people in order to be people but people also need to talk to people different from themselves in order to be people.

Even as Judaism recognised that there is a place for banishment or cherem, it was seen as a road to improvement and was time-limited not a life sentence. Even the criminal sent to their death was recorded a dignity in their dying – the corpse was not left dangling overnight as a public spectacle, but buried as soon as possible.

And as in boardroom politics so in bedroom politics. Marriage relationship gurus, John and Julie Guttman developed a model of marital success based on how couples speak to one another. They can diagnose in one session the health of a relationship. They identified four key predictors of divorce – the four horsemen of the apocalypse. They are criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling or unwillingness to talk. Contempt is the strongest predictor, the single most important sign that a marriage is in trouble. It’s about completely blocking your partner and allowing no benefit of the doubt whatsoever. 

Relationships can however be healed, hearts can be mended, words can build bridges. Respect restores foundations.

Let’s make the effort even though it’s hard to talk to those who we think won’t listen, to reach out to those whose opinions are so different from us, to go to the places and the echo chambers of our opponents. If we are convinced they won’t hear us, then to maintain a dignified quietness. In Australia this means that we now should have a respectful and vigorous dialogue about the place for a voice for our first peoples. Let’s try and get through to the schools and universities that a knee jerk vilification of Israel, a casual Holocaust sneer, is a cancelling of us all and we Jews aren’t all white privileged dinosaurs!

As Jews we strive to bring the wisdom of our tradition to the table, to the civil and political. We are known to argue vigorously with one another! Israeli novelist Amos Oz would say: I suspect we will not agree about everything…But then on most things I do not agree with myself!

There is so much darkness around us so let’s strive to live up to the prophetic mission and be a light to ourselves and in the lives of others let’s allow the hush back into the world this year…

Our key texts are anthologies of arguments. We know about the power of words that we use, we have learned that to acknowledge the other is the gateway to understanding itself. We have felt the sting of hateful words. We know in our blood how when words end, violence begins. For us listening is a religious act and we know that without argument there is no justice, that to reach truth you must listen to the other side and not exclude dissident voices. We can bring countless examples of this, of the acute need for attentiveness to the other, the imperative to listen to the other, to hear the sounds of silence within us - and God’s silent song that is there for those who wish to listen.

The heroes of our faith argue with God, the prophets argue with the people and the leaders. They speak truth to power.

In one of his final essays and messages to us, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminded us that a healthy culture protects places that welcome argument and respect dissenting views. Enter them and you will grow, others will grow and you will do great things together. But resist with all your heart and soul any attempt to substitute power for truth. Stay far from people, movements and parties that demonise their opponents. As Barack Obama said “If all you’re doing is casting stones you’re probably not going to get that far.”

That’s one of my resolutions for this year -to try not to cancel but to renew, to listen better and speak less, to hush and let the stillness and quietness in, to remember what DH Lawrence said that it’s immoral to be sun -dead and busy putting out the sun in other people’s lives. 

There is so much darkness around us so let’s strive to live up to the prophetic mission and be a light to ourselves and in the lives of others! Let’s allow the hush back into the world this year … 

Shabbat Shalom 

With thanks to Plus 61 J where this article was first published