The column | Real listening is hard work

When you talk to Rabbi Amy Eilberg, you can tell she is really paying attention — deeply, thoughtfully. She calls the practice “compassionate listening,” and it’s at the heart of the peace-building work she’s been doing for decades, itself the subject of her inspiring new book, “From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace.”

She will speak about the book in the Bay Area this weekend (see Calendar for locations).

I’ve met Eilberg several times since she became the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi in 1985, and I’ve always been impressed. Nevertheless, I approached her book with trepidation. I’ve avoided evenings of “compassionate listening” at local synagogues, haunted by memories of bad encounter groups I attended in the 1970s, where people whined on and on about their personal problems while everyone else pretended to pay attention.

But the deeper I got into this book, the more fascinating I found the very difficult practice Eilberg outlined in its pages. I’d hardly finished it when I called her last week.

Yes, she told me, compassionate listening is work. It’s not about being polite, or feeling sorry for the other person. It is, she explained, “rigorous, respectful discourse,” where you articulate your own position and then open your heart to what the other person is saying, to conduct an authentic search for the greater truth.

Noting that the Hebrew word for argument, “machloket,” comes from the same root as “part,” Eilberg says Jewish tradition teaches that no one person can have the entire truth. “These and these are the words of the living God,” the Torah tells us.

“Is it easy to swallow my pride, my self-righteousness, when I feel I am representing the absolute truth of my position?” she asked me. “No. It feels really good to be so right. But I can’t possibly know everything. [Others] have pieces of the truth I can’t possibly have.”

Eilberg first learned the power of active listening when, as a hospital chaplain, she was asked to supervise an intern from Germany. Coming from a family that avoided anything German, from cars to household purchases, she writes that her “heart clenched,” and she didn’t think she could teach him fairly. She asked her co-supervisor, a Christian minister, to handle the intern, but the minister declined, saying that Eilberg needed to do this — for herself.

As Eilberg listened to the young man talk about what it meant for him, a post-Holocaust German, to be mentored by a rabbi, she recalls, “I could almost feel God prying the walls of my heart open. In a single conversation, authentic human connection had allowed me to move past traumatic historical memory to engage in a relationship with one real, complex and lovable human being.”

After a long career in pastoral counseling and hospice work, including co-founding the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, Eilberg turned her attention to peace-building efforts, particularly in the Middle East. Today she is a spiritual director, directs interfaith dialogue projects, teaches and is co-chair of the Civility Initiative of the D.C.-based Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Remember the Bay Area Jewish community’s “year of civil discourse,” launched by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council in December 2010, in the wake of the Rachel Corrie fracas at the S.F. Jewish Film Festival in 2009? A time when right/left tensions blew up within our community to such an extent that some synagogues avoided Israel programs, and friends stopped speaking? We were the first Jewish community to take such action to help heal the rifts, Eilberg told me. And that’s holy work.

“In the Jewish community, it’s a religious and a communal imperative,” she said. “We can’t afford to fight each other and splinter.”

In her book, Eilberg discusses compassionate listening between faiths, within the American Jewish community, and between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. And while she insists on its power, she is the first to admit that sometimes, in the face of evil, for example, or within a highly dysfunctional family, it is simply not possible.

But it should always be the goal, she told me. “This is how we strengthen our community and get closer to God.”

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J., and can be reached at [email protected]

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].