Issue 6 - Fall 2007 - The Sound Issue
A Jew seeks silence

Do be as quiet and modest as possible. If you do not make yourself noticeable, other people will not bother about you.
Do not make yourself conspicuous by speaking loudly, nor by your manner of dress. The Englishman greatly dislikes ostentation, loudness of dress or manner, or unconventionality of dress or manner ….
Do not spread the poison of “it’s bound to come in your country.” The British Jew greatly objects to the planting of this craven thought.
Do be as cheerful as possible. Everyone sympathises with you in your difficult position. A smiling face makes them still more your friends.
Do’s and Don’ts for Refugees, British Jewish Aid Organizations pamphlet, circa 1939

Q: What did the waiter say to the table of Jews?
A: Is anything all right?
— Old Jewish joke

The deaf Jewish poet Ilya Kaminsky once said: “Let’s not underestimate the role of silence; we speak against silence, but it is what moves us to speak.”

Originally from Canada, I’ve performed stand-up comedy in London for two years. I don’t do Jewish jokes, but my work is “too Jewish,” it’s clear.

“If I was booking bar mitzvahs,” an agent told me, “you’d be first on my list.”

“You must really,” a producer once said snidely, “like Woody Allen.” I rolled my eyes. But then she added something that I found intriguing: “Like all American Jewish women, you leave long pauses between your words.” One might have thought it would be my talk — not my silence — that would offend.

Recently, an audience of mine attempted to silence me. When I mentioned, in passing, that I was Jewish, the crowd let out a groan. I didn’t shut up. I held the stage and even extended my set.

Silence: so much to say about it.

Speaking of silence

Guilt & Pleasure
states that its mission is “Making Jews talk more.” Talk more?! Jews are, after all, known for our talking: kvetching, complaining, discussing, or simply expressing our every single emotional and corporeal experience. Dialogue is our national sport. We rate conversations with commentaries. We heroize oral wordsmiths, politicians and comedians alike. The majority of the sins for which we repent on Yom Kippur — gossiping, lying, bearing false witness — are those of talk, and if you’re on a Jewish listserv, God help your inbox.

Forty years of silent film entertainment was broken by The Jazz Singer’s identity woes, making it the first popular “talkie” movie. And recently, a study of Montreal anglophones’ phonetics, carried out at the McGill Dialectology and Sociolinguistics Laboratory, suggested that Jews pronounce elongated vowels, lengthening their very words. We just can’t sto-o-o-p ta-a-a-alking! Our passion for chatter can be traced through our history and cultural practice. Perhaps it stems from the fact that Jews learn in groups; education is based not in solitary study, but in chevrutah — pairs of Jews with, as it is said, three opinions each. As well, our forefathers were not shy guys: tales of Noah, Job, and Abraham are filled with complaints and negotiations, and several of those stories are in the Haggadah, which itself means “to speak.”

Perhaps we talk because Jewish intellectual culture appreciates dialogue and dissent. The Talmud, originally the oral Torah, is a collage of opinions on every minute detail of life, from when to wash your hands to how to position yourself in bed — not unlike the themes of Seinfeld episodes. Maybe Jewish natter is suppressed in outside contexts and so, as a reaction, Jews are loud among themselves — hence the volume in Israel and New York City. Perhaps talking is a marker of the passive-aggressive, the “pushy” or “yenta” type more acceptable than the physically violent Jew and an alternate to the nebbish-vs.-soldier dichotomy.

Perhaps we fear the way that awkward pauses call attention to our general malaise and communicative difficulties. Or perhaps we just fear quietness altogether, dreading how a still context amplifies our internal tumult. Have your parents ever turned off the TV — or any appliance, for that matter? Or maybe (and probably) Jews talk a lot because we’re attempting to cover up untimely gastric noises. Whatever the reason, Jews as a people are renowned for constant babble.

By contrast, the word silence in a Jewish context immediately calls to mind the Holocaust: the silence of hiding, the silence of the world in the face of despair, the silence of God, and the final silencing of expression. Theodore Adorno proclaimed the impossibility of poetry after such events. Then again, silence can also mean allowing horror to go uncharted; it is passive, a tacit acceptance. Though he considers the horrors of the Shoah “unspeakable,” Elie Wiesel has written several books about it.

Silence can be a sign of shame, trauma, repression, and fear, as in Aaron meeting God’s slaying of his sons sans mot; as in Marranos practicing underground during the Spanish Inquisition; and — in a feminist context — as in the suppression of women’s voices in synagogue and silence over domestic and sexual abuse. Even in the movie St. Elmo’s Fire, a Jewish woman warns her gentile visitor: “There are certain words that my mother finds too horrible to utter so she whispers them. You’ll get used to it.” Cut to the mother, discussing one Betty Rothberg. “Cancer,” she murmurs.

Not long ago, I developed insomnia. Having completed some projects in England, I was unsure whether I should return west. My friends and family overflowed with advice; I could barely have a two-second encounter without someone offering their take or interrogating me about where I would go. At first I attributed my sleeplessness to the anxiety of the unknown and the psychic workout of decision-making. But, with time, I came to realize that I actually enjoyed the calm of the night. I wanted some escape from the bombardment of everyone’s “two cents.” I cherished the zone of non-talk, the space between words where I could nonverbally feel out my desires and relocate my drive, some silence in which to just be.

Daily life, I realized, is noisy; quietude can be a reprieve. Hindus practice yoga. Buddhism is centered on meditation without speech. Sufism, tied to Islam, emphasizes wordless worship. The muteness of monks and hermits is the highest form of Christian observance. A Quaker service can rest silent for an hour.

But where, I wondered, was Jewish silence in all this? Does it exist apart from trauma and pain? There are stories of rabbis running off to caves and kabbalist trance pursuits. There does exist a practice known as taanit hadibur, a fast of words; however, none of the rabbis I interviewed in the course of writing this article knew anything more about it, nor did they know anyone who had ever done it. (Picture how many frantic messages a Jewish daughter would receive if she didn’t call her mother back!) But when, and how, aside from these rare examples, does silence — as a positive pursuit — appear in the sacred and secular rituals of Jewish life?

Silence, communion, and connection

The Talmud ranks the best prayers as those performed at shul, next in open fields, next at home, next on one’s bed, and — only if none of these other options is possible — in the heart. Whether ancient prayer was practiced aloud because the Deity was thought to have human-like ears, or because silence was regarded as illicit or magic, Jewish prayer has always been a social activity.

It does, however, include a handful of quiet utterances, and some rare and intriguing moments during which we are instructed to shush. Indeed, some of these — parts of the Shema and Amidah — occur every single day.

Shema means “to hear,” and the main part of the prayer, taken from the Tanach, is to be recited aloud. But several of the blessings preceding and following the Shema are said softly, including the blessing of response, which is mumbled. Some trace this custom to Isaac, who whispered the statement to his sons on his deathbed. Others claim that it reflects the belief that only 248 words can be said aloud, as this number corresponds to the number of organs in the human body. Similarly, we are asked to remain silent between blessings and their attendant activities, such as the ritual washing of the hands. Silence preserves the continuity between God’s realm and the physical world, keeping the connection kosher and ensuring the flow of the holy.

The Amidah, the paradigmatic prayer of praise and thanksgiving, is often said twice: it is repeated by the chazan, or cantor, but is first said silently. Whether or not the Amidah is meant to be said wordlessly or in a hushed voice is a matter for debate. Most agree that our voices should not be heard by our neighbors, as it is of utmost importance that we do not perturb anyone else’s recitation and prevent hesech ha’daat (the wandering of attention) so that a closer connection to God can be established. After the Amidah, it is customary to add a personal prayer against gossip: “May god guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile.” Spoken words, which we normally use to connect to others, are here considered sullying to our relations with God and the community.

On the other hand, silence can also be associated with impurity. On Yom Kippur, a state of heightened purity, most silent prayers are said aloud. Rabbis debate whether a man who has had seminal emissions should say the Shema aloud; what he should do if, during the service, he remembers the emissions; and how he might shorten his prayers to compensate.

The Bible recounts very few instances of silent prayer, but two of them come from women. Hannah was the only wife of Elkana to remain childless. In her desire for a baby, she entered the temple at Silo and prayed with her lips moving, but soundlessly. Though the prophet Eli saw her and suspected that she was drunk, Hannah became pregnant, and from this it is commonly believed that God deemed her prayer worthy. Some claim that Hannah’s silent prayer was particularly pure, others that she kept quiet because she didn’t want her rival to overhear her.

In another tale, Judith also prayed silently before attempting the enemy Holofornes’ decapitation. She had gotten him drunk (cheap date) and didn’t want him to wake up before the chop.

Professor Dvora Yanow raises the question of why Sarah (a known yenta) was silent when Abraham took her only child — for whom she had waited nearly ninety years — to be sacrificed. Yanow suggests that the whole sacrifice story is just a dream of Sarah’s, reflecting her maternal feelings about her son’s circumcision. In this case, then, silence is not negative, but positive: a marker of dream life, imagination, rich internal engagement.

A knowing silence

It is said that the first Jewish joke appears way back in the book of Shmot. The Israelites, wandering in the desert, continually kvetched about the walking, the hardships, the food. A spokesman asked Moses: “What — you brought us out here because there were no graves left in Egypt?” Moses had no response. Despite his stutter, he was also constantly bitching.

But God didn’t mind. It was only when Moses, seeking water, disobeyed God’s commandment to speak to a rock and hit it instead that God punished him by withholding his greatest dream, denying him entry to the promised land. Moses’ silence had disrespected God.

Silence can be a marker of status, authority, omnipotence, omniscience. Indeed, God appears to many of the prophets in kol d’mamah, a voice of silence.

Freud, the Jewish inventor of psychoanalysis, that all-too-Jewish institution, discovered not just “the talking cure” but (when a Jewish female patient told him to shut up) the use of silence by the therapist.

In classic analysis, patients are meant to free-associate, to speak words as they emerge into their consciousness, and psychoanalysts’ silent listening helps the flow of patients’ talk, an integral part of the curative process. Therapists are supposed to remain still and not offer solutions, enabling patients to come to answers on their own as they uncover repressed memories. Indeed, all of psychoanalytic work is based on retrieving repressed memories and thus uncovering silences; the silenced takes on much more weight than the spoken. “The doctor,” Freud wrote, “should be opaque to his patients and, like a mirror, should show them nothing but what is shown to him” — the analyst is listener and mirror.

But analysts’ reserve also enhances their position of power. Not only silent but, in Freud’s case, invisible (seated behind the reclining patient), they are deemed trustworthy and all-knowing. Though they are aware of only what patients tell them, the illusion of analysts’ omniscient authority – even when it comes to patients’ own lives — is what allows patients to project dysfunctional relations with the world at large onto their therapists and give their unconscious free rein. When analysts show their own non-knowing with a lack of response, a silence that patients finally read as a blank, then patients come to see that true knowledge is within, and cure is achieved.

Jewish theologian Martin Buber discusses “attentive silence,” stillness, and waiting as integral parts of communication. Jewish psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray writes of the space between people as not an empty absence, but a potent space. Silence honors its presence and potential. Silence conveys mysterious power, but also aids in bonding and healing.

The sounds of silence

Before the groom stamps on the wine glass in the Jewish wedding ceremony — to create a noise to frighten evil spirits away, among other things — the rabbi may recite a psalm about the destruction of the Temple: “If I forget Jerusalem … let my tongue be cleft in silence.” The act of destruction, memorialized by the crash of the glass, is preceded by mention of muteness: the calm before the storm. The voice of God, or kol d’mamah, appears in silence after noise. God passes by with wind, earthquakes, and fire, but exists as a subsequent silence, the calm after the storm. In both cases, silence and noise are juxtaposed and close together.

There are also moments in Jewish custom where silence and noise are one, where the very act of silencing is produced through sonic activity. For example, moments commemorating the Shoah or fallen soldiers are taken seriously in Israel. Israelis, often the chattiest of the chatty and kvetchiest of the kvetchy, stop their cars on highways and put down shopping bags, by the millions, to observe a minute of still remembrance. Such minutes, however, are not silent at all: sirens blare, echoing war, crisis, trauma. The cessation of words is experienced by all, together, but the moment itself is tumultuous and extremely loud.

On Purim, we also create loud silence in order to forget. The name of Haman, the villain of the story, is silenced by shouting and turning of the noisemaker, or gragger. We don’t literally murder this enemy (a descendent of the opponent nation Amalek, whom we are instructed, theoretically, to kill); instead, we blot out his name with brash noise, silencing it nonviolently, through communal tumult.

A final loud silence is that of the shofar, or ritual ram’s horn, blown to herald the Jewish New Year. The wailing tones of the shofar have been described as a “fine silence” — a preverbal cry to God. But if it’s a silence, it is a deeply resounding one, calling all Jews to God and community.

Sha shtil! (Shut up already!)
— My grandmother, watching The Young & the Restless, 1980s

Silence, I have learned, is the glue between our lines and lives. Judaism has positive silences that bring us communion, connection, power, healing, and even more noise. They are not solipsistic pauses but social silences, embedded alongside talk.

For, as demonstrated by all of the conflicts over silence, the essence of Judaism is still debate. We have the gift — and the burden — of gab. After all this study, have I taken a vow of silence? No. I’ve written several thousand words about it instead. What a Jew!

As the old Yiddish proverb goes, “The one who is silent means something all the same.” Even when we are silent, we talk.

We just can’t sha shtil. &