I remember the story that was told when I was in rabbinical school about the two student rabbis who went out to interview for a job at the same synagogue. The first was to speak on Friday evening, and the second on Saturday morning.
They traveled together, and stayed in adjoining rooms at a motel. Late Friday afternoon, the Friday night speaker heard the other practicing his Saturday morning sermon, and realized it was far superior to what he had prepared. So as he listened through the wall, wrote down what he heard, and that night delivered, to high acclaim, the sermon that the other had prepared.
Well, the next morning, the second speaker didn’t know what to do. Finally, he gave his talk as he had written it. Following lunch, the selection committee met. Both of the students were sure that the one speaking Friday night would be chosen, but that was not the case. The committee announced its unanimous choice of the student who spoke on Saturday.
“Rabbi,” they said to him, “the other student gave a very powerful sermon. But your ability to deliver the same words let us know that you are able to listen. And we want a rabbi who can listen.”
The story is probably apocryphal, but the point may still be well-taken. We rabbis, and perhaps other religious leaders as well, are far more likely to be giving sermons than to be listening. As my rabbinical work has evolved, I find myself increasingly involved with interfaith projects and programs, and I have been even more deeply appreciating the importance of listening.
During the past year and a half, I have been working on a book with a Muslim minister, Jamal Rahman, and a Christian pastor, Don Mackenzie. The three of us have been doing a radio show called Interfaith Talk Radio on Monday afternoons at 5 p.m. on Alternative Talk 1150-AM. We have been exploring the spiritual riches of our traditions and how they can enrich each others’ journey. Often, the insights percolated through another tradition can open doors into deeper understanding of one’s own path. The questions raised also help us delve more deeply into own texts.
When we look at the essential teachings, the seeds, of each tradition, we have noted that the Jewish tradition focuses on One God. The First Principle proclaims that there is only one One, and we proclaim in worship, in teaching, and in meditation, “Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ekhad,” “Listen, Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
Christian tradition focuses on love: “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:8). That is why Paul says that “he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law…. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8, 10)
And the Muslim tradition has a focus on compassion. “Bismillah ir rahman ir rahim,” ”In the name of the Compassionate and Merciful One”—is found in nearly every sura in the Koran. Of course, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all point to the importance of oneness, love, and compassion, but the emphasis is different.
We might conclude that these symbolize the central gifts we bring to each other and to our world. But then we look at our histories and at our present, and we wonder.
We Jews often feel separate from others — not just distinct and unique, but separate. Do we experience ourselves as part of One Reality, cells of one Being, expressions of One Life? Do we look at all others as precious expressions of the very same life that flows through us? And have not Christians over the ages sponsored and supported vast campaigns expressing far more hatred than love? Does not much of the Muslim community today hide the face of compassion in dealings with each other and with others around them?
Perhaps the teaching of oneness is, in fact, meant first for Jews. Perhaps the teaching of love is meant for Christians, and the teaching of compassion is what is most needed by Muslims. Perhaps that which we thought we were to teach others is actually what each of us most needs to learn.
Perhaps we have gotten so caught up in trying to convince others that we have failed to hear the central teaching of our own faiths. When we do so, our teaching will express through the way we live with each other and with our precious planet. And, when that happens, the gifts of each tradition will be celebrated by us all. I am one who believes that our survival on this planet depends upon it.
Rabbi Ted Falcon, Ph.D., heads Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue, with offices in Seattle and a shared sanctuary at Unity of Bellevue. He is co-author of Judaism For Dummies and author of Journey of Awakening. In his work as teacher and therapist, he supports spiritual and psychological healing for individuals, couples, and groups. He can be reached at RabbiTedOnline.com.