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Reframing the Sh’ma to Repair the World

Ruth MessingerFilmed at Limmud New York

At the centre of Jewish tradition is the Sh’ma—the imperative to listen, to pay attention, to bear witness to the oneness of God in our own lives and in our global community. Our sages insist that we recite the Sh’ma with focus, clarity, and the unity of heart and mind. How can the act of listening anchor our lives with compassion, interconnection, and a shared commitment to justice? How can we use the framework of the Sh’ma to listen intently to people who are silenced, disempowered, or rendered invisible in our own communities and around the world? My story is about the centrality of listening—a prerequisite for pursuing human dignity and a principle for living Jewishly in a globalized world.

Ruth Messinger was president of American Jewish World Service from 1998 to 2016, an international development organization that works to end poverty and promote human rights in the developing world. She assumed this role following a 20-year career in public service in New York City, where she served for 12 years on the New York City Council and eight years as Manhattan Borough President. Messinger was the first woman to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination for Mayor of New York City in 1997. A visionary leader committed to global justice, and a fierce advocate for the rights of women, LGBT people, ethnic minorities, and victims of genocide, Messinger has served on the Obama administration’s Task Force on Global Poverty and Development and is a member of Obama’s Working Group on Foreign Policy and Religion. She has been named 10 times to the prestigious “Forward 50” and was named by The Jerusalem Post as one of the world’s most influential Jews.

Shema Yisrael….’Hear O’ Israel Hashem is our God Hashem is One’. No matter how you identify as a Jew you have probably heard the words of the Shema or perhaps you have seen signs of th prayers existence, a mezuzah on a door post or Tefillin wrapped on a person’s arm. Shema, a prayer so important that many Jews recite it twice a day, children are taught to whisper it before they go to sleep at night. Our Sages are explicit that when we recite the Shema we should do so with focus, with clarity and with unity of heart and mind. I pray but not every day, nor do I recite the Shema each night before I go to sleep. But the essence of the Shema, the imperative to listen to pay attention to injustice and mend the brokenness in our world grounds my life with purpose, the difference between hearing and listening is paying attention. Finding and living that elusive element of real connection to the other. And Shema is a command to pay attention. Shema, “listen”. How can the act of listening anchor our lives with compassion, inner connection and shared commitment to justice, how can we use the framework of the Shema to listen more intently to people who are silenced, disempowered or rendered invisible. To really pay attention to them an listen to what they have to say. I want to share three Shema moments in my life, when the act of listening allowed me to better understand the stranger or the other. These moments have helped me to live the Jewish value of Bezelem Elokim. To believe each and every person is made in the image of God, is of equal value and has inherent dignity.

Shema moment number 1, yes that’s me, it’s 1985 the height of Aids crisis in New York City, following 15 years as social worker and a community organizer I joined the city council. Thoughtful and steady I had hope in my views about what was best for the city people, I came to my own conclusions and then stuck to my guns. I actually changed my vote entirely on an issue only once. It was during the debate on whether the city should fund needle exchange programs for drug users. My first instinct was, “we should not enable drug users to abuse heroin”, how could I support that? Why would I support that? After all weren’t illegal drugs undermining communities of color in poor neighborhoods? Then someone from an HIV organization invited me to visit an illegal needle exchange that he was running on a street corner on a very poor part of the Bronx. I visited the program at night, person after person told me how gaining access to clean needles was helping them avoid infecting their friends and other drug users. My resistance softened as I listened. All the opposing arguments that had been so clear to me dissolved when I heard the truth of people’s lives. My perspective shifted, I now understood why these programs were so important and I decided to vote in their favor. The decision was a good one because these programs are working and they’re saving lives every day. Listening can be an antidote to judgment, listening matters.

Shema moment number 2. It’s 1998 and I am the President of American Jewish world Service, an organization that works to end poverty and realize human rights in developing world. International development was a new world for me, far different from City politics, I had a lot to learn. Early on I travelled to Zimbabwe to visit an impoverished rural settlement with no government services. I met a teacher working with 80 children outside under a tree and asked him what he wanted most, was it desk and chairs? pencils or perhaps a chalk board? He replied, “I don’t need any of those things I just need the children to have breakfast”. I had come to Zimbabwe thinking my solutions were the key to helping Zimbabwean children get a better education. I thought I had all the answers but it turns out that the people whom I had perceived as powerless, the people I was trying to help were the ones who knew best what was needed, they were the ones with the answers and it was up to me to listen. Listening can be an antidote to judgment, listening matters.

Shema moment number 3 perhaps 5 years ago I travelled to Thailand where I met a sex worker, 37 year old mother of three, she very succinctly told me about her life. These were my options she said, “I could be apart from my children for 10 hours each day working in sweat shop, sewing buttons on shirts for 2 dollars a day or I could spend the day with my kids and at night talk to an interesting Western man lay down with him for 20 minutes and make a lot of money. Which would you choose?” Like many Americans in my generation I was taught that prostitution is immoral and coercive, selling sex for money has always been loaded with stigma and it still is today and as a feminist of a certain age I could initially only see sex workers oppression. But in recent years heard countless stories form sex workers themselves. When you listen, really listen to a story of a sex worker, you begin to understand the differences between a girl or a woman forced into trafficking, which is horrific and oppressive to its core, and a woman who chooses to sell sex to support her family because she has deemed it her best choice. I learned in Thailand these women are much like me. They work hard and they care about their kids. Who am I to tell them that their labor as sex worker is any less valid than their own? Who am I to believe that this woman is any less deserving of physical safety and the right to earn a living? Rights that I fully enjoy and have long taken for granted. Nearly everywhere in the world sex workers are detained, arrested, fined and driven out of their homes or places of work. In both developed and developing countries discriminatory policies enable police to rape and beat sex workers and confiscate their money and belongings including condoms which increases their risks of HIV and other STIS. I would never have known any of this had I not listened, really listened to these women’s stories. Listening can be an antidote to judgment listening matters.

These three moments that I just shared among many others opened up my heart and mind to human struggles experienced by the other. They exposed hidden injustices that were far from my consciousness and they show the humanity that’s at stake when global problems like hunger, violence and discrimination go unchecked, but these stories are just three of a universe of stories that too often fall on deaf ears. So why aren’t we listening? My colleague Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles once wrote about the “bias of the near”, things close to us seem of more importance than things far away he explains. What is far away feels less real, people next door seem more real than those across the sea. The Bible acknowledges this bias when it says ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ but the Bible also seeks to make the stranger as close as one’s neighbor and to make the far off future vividly present to us. As Wolpe instructs, ‘a Moral life cannot only be lived with a focus on those next door, someone starving across the world is as real as someone living beneath the bridge near our own homes’. ‘Bias towards the near and people in time, family and lives imminent priority to be fully human, however, we must have hope for the future and care for all who suffer wherever they may be’. Much of our work then at American Jewish world service is about bridging the near and the far, we seek to close this gap for the sake of humanity and ourselves and our role in the world but we can only do this well when we listen, really listen to the stories and struggles of people in the developing world, when we pay attention to their description of their needs. The stories, for example, of women, children and Lesbian, Gay, Transgender people in Uganda who lack access to basic health care. The stories of Haiti’s earthquake survivors who were excluded from the most fundamental decisions how money should be spent for their recovery. The stories of Cambodian garment workers who aren’t paid wages to make the clothes that we wear. The stories of indigenous farmers in Mexico and India, whose land has been seized by international corporations to mine for oil or grow corn for ethanol. We at AJWS listen to people like Ikal Angale a young activist in Kenya who mobilized opposition to the construction of a hydroelectric dam that if built would to destroy land and water that more than half million people in her community need to survive. We listen to people like Lama Bowie, a Liberian peace activist and winner of 2011 Nobel Peace Prize who played a pivotal role in leading a womens peace movement to end the civil war and then helped educate and train young women in human rights and peace negotiation and has been immensely successful. We listened to people like Stevie Lagare an activist in Haiti who has successfully provided health services HIV positive patients who face relentless stigma and alienation, particularly in the aftermath of the earthquake. These are people whose voices I have listened to who have touched me and in many cases shifted my thinking. Listening is a prerequisite for action. Listening is a principle for living Jewishly in a globalized world. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshcel, one of the greatest thinkers in Jewish history and someone I feel privileged to have known and said, ‘Judaism takes the mind out of the narrowness of self -interest’. In other words Jewish tradition and Jewish history give us the vocabulary, the value stories and moral grounding to live our lives with compassion and in deep connection with others. To use the particularity of Jewish experience to understand and work for universal justice, we can only live, work and make a difference this way if we had humility to listen, really and pay attention to the other. Shema and Thank you

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