Friday, November 23, 2012

Elephants Talk & Silence

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Yesterday a Muslim educator taught me something very powerful about silence. Students from Australian Arabic Muslim families will be meeting with Jewish students in the coming weeks in the aftermath of the death, despair and destruction in Gaza and Israel. From an adults perspective, it is “the elephant in the room”, that needs to be discussed. Yet, the educator pointed out that by discussing it in the context of an interfaith school program we are giving an implicit message that Israel and Palestine should be seen as integral to interaction between Jews and Muslims in Australia. He thought the right message for his students in that particular context is that we are Australians of different faiths who are learning to respect and like each other.

On the other hand this week, I spoke with a number of educators responsible for supporting migrant children, some of whom are likely to lose their jobs due to government cuts. I began the discussion with the inspiring clip from Martin Luther King Jnr. He invokes Moses standing on the mountain top seeing the promised land of Canaan that he will never reach but to which his people will soon arrive. King says that he too is facing hard times, but despite having loved to live a long life, “it doesn’t matter about me now…because I have been to the mountain top and I have seen the Promised Land…” and he was confident that his dream would be realised. The message to the teachers was although it is a difficult time, the work they do and the broader shift to at least a general acceptance of diversity is unstoppable. Having acknowledged the difficult issue on people’s minds and seen it in this context was really uplifting, we were then able to discuss other matters.

The following is a more general reflection on speaking out and silence mostly written in 2010 but still relevant.

The obligation to speak out or be silent
If we are silent in the face of apparent injustice, at least certain circumstance we can be considered complicit in it. Speaking Talking about our grievances, might result in resolution, or at least give us the feeling that we did what we can. The negatives of silence need to be considered against the problems arising out of speaking out. In some situations, our critique can be ill-informed, driven by unconscious and unsavory motives, cause unnecessary embarrassment, or fail to achieve anything apart from defensiveness, hostility or even escalated offending behaviour and “push-back”. The Talmud comments about the people in its own time[i], there was no longer anyone with either the ability to offer or accept criticism[ii].

Style. Wording, tone, privacy/audience etc.
“It's not what you say, but how you say it”- is a view that I don't think is true all the time, but it does have some merit. The commandment in Leviticus (19:17) to rebuke, rebuke your fellow[iii]4”, is followed with a caution “and do not bear sin because of him” which is interpreted as demanding concern, in some circumstances, about humiliating the person being criticised.

Being wrong – asking a question
If we approach what appears to be a problematic situation with a recognition that we might not have all the facts, we can carry our responsibility to stand up for justice without judging others unfairly. Our patriarch Jacob sets a friendly tone and uses the approach of asking a question of a group of shepherds that seems to be workers, idle on the job. “My brothers, where are you from?” Jacob begins, after some small talk he observes “The day is still long, it is not time to gather the flocks, give your sheep some drink and go take your sheep to pasture[iv].” The shepherds explain that they are unable to carry out their next task without more help because there is a big stone on top of the well that can only be moved when their colleagues arrive so they can all give water to their sheep. No harm done.

Unresolved issues- One cost of silence
A sad, but rarely discussed episode in the lives of the biblical Rachel and Leah occurs when their brothers and father (Laban) become resentful of Jacob's prosperity. Their brothers are heard saying to anyone, but the accused party “Jacob took (stole) everything that belonged to our father , and from what belonged to our father he created all this honour[v]”. Jacob notices, Laban's face, “and it is clearly not the same as it was yesterday, and the day before that”. He had accepted the slander (Lashon Harah- evil tongue) against Jacob[vi] without bothering to check with Jacob about his side of the story. The opposite of “when a man sins against another man, he should not hate him and be is a Mitzvah to notify him and say, why did you do this to me?[vii]

Jacob and his wives, Rachel and Leah discuss the need to leave the employ and town of Laban over his on-going financial mistreatment on the part of their father. The two daughters/wives reply, “Do we still have any part or inheritance in our fathers house? Did he not consider us as strangers to him, selling us and eating our money”. I find it very significant, that neither sister ever said anything to Laban about their hurt feelings or anger about being sold to Jacob. Jacob also does not talk to Laban about his complains about the financial dealings, instead explaining only to his wives that Laban changed “my wages, 10 times”.

Unlikely to be heard
To rebuke someone involves some hope that it might help. The Talmud states that just as we should say words of rebuke that will be heard, it is a Mitzvah (Commandment) not to say that which will not be heard[viii]. As a Christian Australian Member of Parliament, Shayne Neummann, pointed out to me a while back, it is hard to imagine Jacob having any confidence in talking to Laban after he substituted his beloved Rachel with Leah. Especially, considering that when Jacob first protests to Laban “Why did you deceive me”, instead of an apology, Laban attacks Jacob cleverly saying “it is not done thus in our place, the younger before the older”, implying like you who usurped the right of your older brother Esau. Clearly, Laban's rebuke of Jacob is driven by an ulterior motive, seeking to justify his own wrong doing. A caveat on the principle of rebuke that will not be accepted is that in some cases where our silence can be seen as acquiescence, we need to consider the wider audience, not just the perpetrator.

There is a western idea that talking is always good.  I think it is ethical and wise to consider the situation and benefit or harm that will be caused by either speaking or being silent.  

[i] The content of the Talmud was developed between approximately 100 bc to the year 300 CE
[ii] Arachin 16b. Also discussed on
[iii] Leviticus (19:17)
[iv] Genesis 29:7
[v] Genesis 31:1
[vi] Seforno
[vii] Mimonedes, Yad, hilchot Deot, 6:6
[viii] Talmud, Yevamot 65b


  1. It is a tough one Zalman particularly given the current events. I think the adults involved should send a message by their relationship to each other. If they talk about their feelings and no doubt their disagreements but point out that they can still talk to each other and work with each other it will go a long way to saying that Israel vs Palestine should not poison relations or stop civil interaction and co-operation with each other. Somewhere people on both sides of the conflict need to keep talking to each other. If it can't be done in a setting away from the death and destruction where can it be done?

    1. Thanks Gary, the point you make certainly makes sense. Ultimately it is a judgement call about what kind of views communities in Australia or elsewhere are prepared to tolerate. For some, it comes to down to "don't mention the war". Perhaps a lost "teachable moment" or perhaps the wise choice. Hard to tell.

  2. as it is written : a time to speak out and a time to keep silent.....God give me the wisdom to know the difference.