Compassionate Listening

Rabbi David Zaslow

Compassionate Listening

By David Zaslow*

The Compassionate Listening Project ( is on the cutting edge of Jewish-Palestinian dialogue . Compassionate listening is a process rather than a product. It is healing precisely because it does not pretend to "have the answers." Rather, it engages the participants in processes that have each side seeing the humanity of the other, even when they disagree.

Listening compassionately is a way of being, more than a way of knowing. There is a Jewish folk saying: " God gave us two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak." Sadly, many of us with passionate opinions about Israel and Palestine (or any conflict) tend to speak twice as much as we listen. The compassionate listening process is a tikkun ha-nefesh (self-healing) for our belief that we alone have the answers.

In January, 1998 twenty-two American Jews went to Israel and the territories to listen. Yes, we all had our beliefs and personal opinions. Yes, we all had our passions and prejudices. But, we knew that the old paradigm methods of debate, argument, polarized forums, and right vs. wrong analytical models were simply not working efficiently. As Jews we were seeking a dialogical method of engagement rather than falling back on the old dialectical model of debate and arguement.

To be a compassionate listener does not mean that you surrender your opinions. It simply means that you try to subjugate the noise inside your mind when someone is sharing their passionate experiences and opinions with you. Too often when someone we have a disagreement with is speaking we are busy formulating our response while she or he is speaking. We do not permit his or her words to enter our heart.

For example, our group met with Sheikh Ahmad Yassein, founder and spiritual leader of the terrorist group Hamas. After a presentation in which the Sheikh attempted to justify terrorism, my conviction was even stronger that violence is a counter-productive path for the Palestinians. I did not change my opinions, but something changed in the way that I would relate to the Sheikh and especially to his younger followers.

In the discussions that followed his lecture, I spoke vigorously and passionately on behalf of nonviolence, but I felt more personally and spiritually engaged with those I was debating than if I had not been practicing this new way of listening.

Compassionate Listening was developed by Gene Knudsen Hoffman, founder of the US/USSR Reconciliation program. Gene writes, "Some time ago I recognized that terrorists were people who had grievances, who thought their grievances would never be heard, and certainly never addressed. Later I saw that all parties to every conflict were wounded, and at the heart of every act of violence is an unhealed wound."

This is a profound concept. There is a place within me still that does not want to recognize the grievances of terrorists. Yet, how am I to engage with the individuals who perpetrate terrible deeds but believe that they are acting from a higher calling? Certainly not with anger because we know that the hearts of most terrorists are already hardened by rage. And, metaphorically speaking, it is dangerous to fight fire with fire. And certainly attempting to engage a terrorist with logic and intellectual debate is futile.

Maen Ariekat was a spokesperson for the Orient House, representing the intellectual wing of the Palestinian Authority. He delivered a party-line speech to our group about the errors of the Israeli leadership. In the question and answer period one of our delegates asked him if he or his family had any personal encounters with Jews. He teared up and told us how his grandfather had been the co-owner of a bakery in Hebron in the 1930's. His grandfather's a partner, he informed us, was Jewish!

I remarked how wonderful it would be if a chain of bakeries were to open up in Israel and Palestine, each one co-owned by a Jew and a Muslim. We all laughed but we also welled up with tears at the thought. That's the essence of compassionate listening.

It doesn't sound like much , and in some ways it's not. We're all so anxious for answers and solutions, and compassionate listening only promises to be a process, a way of being. For me personally, it is enough for now. It is a start, a beginning place. Compassionate listening is not earthshaking, not a stormy wind, nor a flood of water, but a still, small voice. Dayenu!

*Rabbi David Zaslow leads a congregation in Oregon, and created the prayerbook Ivdu Et-Hashem B'simcha.