Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler is a Wexner Graduate Alumna living in Venice, California.  Julie is the Director of Jewish Student Life at Santa Monica College Hillel and the Executive Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism.  Julie can be reached at rabbipelc@gmail.com. 

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about a text I encountered from the Tikkunei Zohar.

“Some speak with their eyes, some with their hands, some with the shaking of their head, some with the movement of their body, and some with their feet” (Tikkunei Zohar, 70, 177b)

I like to teach this text to those who desire to become better listeners.  I often use it with HUC students who are embarking on chaplaincy internships in hospitals and other healthcare settings.

These students come face-to-face with the importance of a nuanced kind of listening almost immediately upon beginning their internships. They understand how much can be communicated by one who cannot physically speak and what it’s possible to learn about someone by watching the way in which they move their bodies.

But I think it’s a kind of listening we should all strive to practice.

In our everyday lives, we rely so heavily on the spoken word for communication with our families and friends that we can easily miss the most important questions, exclamations, and cries. 

Sometimes, though, it’s hard to listen for nonverbal cues this in the moment.  We (understandably) are drawn to spoken language; we believe we are listening to others, but sometimes the words themselves can both compel and distract us from other kinds of meanings. 

In an article published in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes about what he calls “The Naked Face”:

All of us, a thousand times a day, read faces. When someone says “I love you,” we look into that person’s eyes to judge his or her sincerity. When we meet someone new, we often pick up on subtle signals, so that, even though he or she may have talked in a normal and friendly manner, afterward we say, “I don’t think he liked me,” or “I don’t think she’s very happy.”

This is, I think, what the Tikkunei Zohar is talking about.  All of us communicate in countless different ways using so much more than just our words.  Sometimes, if we don’t truly listen, the effects can be disappointing or frustrating.  But sometimes the resulting effect can be much more disturbing.

In our professional lives, we can miss the point entirely if we ignore non-verbal communication.  I once received an email from a former student asking me for a book recommendation about why bad things happen to good people. She told me she’d been raped on her college campus by a man she thought was her friend.  She wrote to me of her struggle – months later – in trying to understand how God would allow something like this to happen to her.   I wished that I lived in the same city and could have met with her in person.  Even over email, though, I realized that a bibliography on theodicy was not her only request.  What she really needed was for someone to listen to her lament, and, perhaps even more importantly, she needed to express her doubts, fears, anger, and confusion.  Before hearing or absorbing the voices of others, the voice she needed most was her own. 

I felt completely at a loss of how to respond to her request for a book suggestion.  To deny her this request may have been understood as an additional dismissal.  I wanted her to feel that I heard her.  She had asked me, as her rabbi, for a book.  I felt a sense of obligation to listen.  But listening, in this situation, required a special kind of hearing – I had to listen underneath her words and try to intuit a question and a need just beyond the surface. 

My book suggestion – at first – was a journal.  I told her that I was there to talk with her as she worked through her feelings and that I could, in time, recommend books and articles about theodicy, too.

I still (years later) wonder what more I could have done for her had I been present to truly listen – in person – to her eyes, her hands, the shaking of her head, the movement of her body, and her feet.