Shema: Free Speech & The Citizen’s Freedom to Hear

LDB-100Our portion of the week, parashat New Hampshire, has gotten me thinking about democracy and free speech. When the campaign results were in on Tues. evening, I watched all of the primary speeches, victory and defeat. Maybe I’m just shmaltzy, but I’m a patriot, and I was moved by most of the candidates’ devotion to serving our country.  Whether I agreed with their policies, I paid particular attention to the candidates who spoke about the way they listened to their constituents, heard the stories and experiences of every day Americans.

I’m not naïve; the New Hampshire primary also brings out the cynic in me. I am disillusioned by a society that claims to be a democracy, but continues to give a disproportionate voice to campaign funders, and to early season primary states.  That the first two are also overwhelmingly white states, only compounds the problem.  How is this nation to bring democracy to its citizens if it cannot hear their voices?

A midrash from Jewish tradition offers us an image, teaching: we were born with 2 ears and 1 mouth, in order to strive to do twice as much listening as we do talking.  It’s a strange lesson for such an extroverted tradition.  Yet the message is clear: listen.  Shma.  Listen.

And there are some in our American tradition who urge the same.

This semester, my alma mater Brandeis University, is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the appointment of Louis D. Brandeis to the United States Supreme Court.  I have heard about Louis Brandeis my whole life, as my great, great Uncle Bernard Flexner, an attorney, was a friend of his from their Louisville Kentucky days.  Beyond being the first Jew to serve as a Supreme Court Justice, Brandeis was the “people’s attorney,” in his pro bono work and his pursuit of social welfare.  Brandeis’ extraordinary contributions to American society, and interpretation of American law, include passionate advocacy for free speech.

Describing the vital importance of free speech in a democracy, Brandeis says, “In the frank expression of conflicting opinions, lies the greatest promise of wisdom in governmental action,” and he says, “America has believed that in differentiation, not in uniformity, lies the path of progress.”  For Brandeis, the discovery of new ideas and the pursuit of political truth are critical to a democracy.  He insists, quote: “that without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile… that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely, supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels, is good ones.”

Brandeis’ emphasis is interesting: he might not have known the midrash about two ears and one mouth, but he understands that the exchange of ideas is only truly powerful, if we hear them.

Political scholar Philippa Strum teaches that in Brandeis’s interpretation, the framers understand that finding “political truth”— that is, answers to the question of what would best serve society and the individuals in it—is dependent upon full discussion. The guarantee of free speech protects the citizen’s freedom to hear, without which the citizen could not make intelligent choices.

During his career as an attorney, before the Supreme Court appointment, Louis Brandeis puts into practice his principle of listening.  In his famous, Brandeis Brief, he pioneers a legal methodology that relies more on scientific information and social science, than on legal precedent.  In a case involving labor law and specifically, work hours for women, Brandeis listens to the women and families to understand their experience of the work week.  It is not primarily the law books that inform Brandeis’ interpretation of the law.  Brandeis is guided by hearing the stories of every day Americans.

Brandeis says, “The most important political office is that of private citizen.”  So how can we– most of us private citizens– how can we be instruments in our democracy–instruments for hearing?

Beyond showing enough restraint with our one mouth, so that we can hear out of our two ears, I suggest that as private citizens, we have opportunities to seek out new ideas, to hear.

Last week, I was blessed with such an opportunity.  I participated in one of my regular meetings with the Religious Leaders Council of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia.  As a co-president of the Board of Rabbis, I sit with the leaders of many different denominations throughout our city, in an effort to foster understanding.  In this meeting, I spoke with a pastor about security.  The pastor says we should not be securing our houses of worship and schools.  He says security does not keep us safer, it is born out of fear, and it leads to more fear.  Interesting – my approach has been very different when considering security here at Rodeph Shalom.  Yet there is truth in this pastor’s message.  My challenge is to really listen.  To better understand him.  And perhaps, to even consider the ways his ideas are better than mine in how we think about community.  I was grateful to have such an opportunity to be challenged to hear an idea different from my own.

Next week, on Sunday mornings, we will offer a course called Introduction to Islam for Jews.  There we will have the chance to listen and to learn about the experiences of one of our guest instructors—a Muslim-American woman.  We are sure to hear perspectives different from our own. I hope that we will truly listen, and allow new ideas to challenge us.

The election season can also be a time to strive to hear something new.  A time to stretch ourselves regarding the ideas we will consider in the public discourse.  Perhaps you make contributions to candidates, volunteer for them, and I hope you vote.  As you prepare to be involved, consider the voices that have a different perspective from your own.  Turn on the other news station – the one you never watch because of its biased views. Read the other newspaper.  You know that one person on your social media or email, who always expresses an opinion that offends you?  Keep him on your Twitter feed.  Keep reading her emails.  Stretch yourself to understand a new idea.  See if it holds any truth that might compete with your own assumptions.

Only when we listen to each other, can there be true free speech.  And as Brandeis teaches: America has believed that in differentiation, not in uniformity, lies the path of progress.

This week’s Torah portion Terumah, instructs the Israelites to bring their gifts.  Each of us has something to bring.  Every person who sits next to us– in this sanctuary, in the doctor’s waiting room, on the Septa bus—every person next to us brings a gift.  Has an idea. Can share with us, something worth hearing.

May we know that we all have gifts.  And let us find them in one another.

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