One evening some time ago, I taped a card over the doorbell near our front door. The card said, “Please Knock Loudly, Do Not Ring Bell” because the doorbell wakes the children.
At 4 AM the next morning, there was a loud knock on the door. I got up to answer it. It was the woman who delivers our newspaper. “What do you want,” I managed to ask in a shluffy stupor. The paper carrier replied in all innocence, “The sign says ‘Please Knock Loudly,’ so I knocked loudly.”
Something was amiss in our communication. I mistakenly assumed that anyone would immediately understand the context of the message on the card and act appropriately. Perhaps the newspaper carrier did not have small children, and could not imagine why anyone would put such a sign over their doorbell. So she interpreted the message to be a personal invitation; perhaps she thought we were nice people who wanted to give her a cup of coffee at 4 in the morning.
The miscommunication created by this note is not unusual or hard to understand. In his Dialogue with Phaedrus, Socrates points out the inadequacy inherent in the written word:
[Written words] seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever.
The written word can not respond or elaborate; it can not convey a tone of sincerity or sarcasm; it can not see the look on the reader’s face; it can not convey a smile.
This problem is compounded by innovations in communications. Email often cannot even transmit the emphasis of italics. Faxes are received instantly and may be read before a background conversation that would put its message into context. Even voice mail and answering machines share these deficiencies and whatismore convey the speaker’s discomfort and stress in trying not to say something idiotic that will forever be recorded on tape.
Yet, despite the limitations of the written word, we must not forget that the Torah, one of our most important links to God, is itself a written document. How can it be that this communication from God could have been given to us in a form that has so many inherent limitations?
The limitations of the written Torah were recognized at the time of the Revelation at Sinai. For along with the written Torah came the Oral Torah, the Torah she-be’al pe, the lengthy explanation of the written Torah. Indeed, in a few places, the Torah mentions its companion oral document in using phrases like “as I have told you.”
As important as is the Written Torah, it is the Oral Torah that is the unique treasure of our people. Anyone can read the Torah and guess what it means, but someone who has heard the oral explanation from the source has a much fuller ability to understand its meaning. As Socrates put it, “One must be really ignorant if he imagines that written words can do anything more than remind one who knows that which the writing is concerned with.” For this reason, the accurate transmission of this Oral Torah has been a primary objective of our rabbis from generation to generation.
Teachers of communications skills suggest simple listening techniques to improve communication between husband and wife, parent and child, student and teacher, worker and colleague: Repeat what you have heard to the speaker; when something is ambiguous, surprising or disturbing, ask for clarification; don’t interrupt; understand in context; be patient.
During the Torah Discussions at our Shabbat Morning Services we engage in a dialog with the speaker. In addition to enriching the teaching, this discussion serves to clarify what the speaker said. This is part of the dynamic of effective communication. For this reason in-person oral learning is inherently superior to book-learning.
To enhance the communication value of the BEKI Bulletin, readers are invited to submit their opinions, responses and questions on any matters of concern. Please address your letter to the Bulletin Editor at the shul address or via the internet to me at email@example.com. Unless otherwise requested by the writers, letters may be printed in the Bulletin at the discretion of the editors. Let your voice be heard.
And if all else fails, Knock Loudly.
© Jon-Jay Tilsen