By Rabbi Andy Kastner“Silence is not visible, and yet its existence is immediately apparent.”
-Max Picard, The World of Silence
At a recent committee meeting, the topic of pregnancy came up. It was shared that a community member was expecting another child. A few men in the room were the first (and only) to comment on this news.
“Wow,” one exclaimed, breaking the ice.
“My, she is certainly fertile,” quipped another.
And then a third, with more of a strategic assessment, noted with sincerity, “She’s doing the best thing right now for the Jewish people. Seriously, it’s what the Jewish people need most,” implying that ‘success’ in ensuring Jewish vitality is all about market share.
I felt myself mentally gulp. There was silence, and then we moved on with the agenda.
While the comments struck me as inappropriate, it was the silence, including my own, that kept me up that night. I felt uncomfortable, and frankly a bit ashamed of my own complicity. Why did no one speak up in dissent? How did these comments impact the women in the room? I tried to assure myself that it wouldn’t have been the right time to “throw a penalty flag” and call into question the appropriateness of the comments. Yet, the silence spoke something that I needed to better understand.
Reflecting on the evening, I realized that only two of the nine people at the meeting were women – Definitely not a gender-balanced group or a safe space. Trying to find my way as an ally, I decided to call these women to discuss the meeting, despite my own discomfort in broaching the subject. Both appreciated the call, and although they found the comments unpleasant, they seemed to dismiss them as a “boys will be boys” excuse and what they have come to expect with men of a certain age.
There is a silence that lurks between us. Observing the unfolding of the #MeToo/#GamAni movement, I have ‘seen’ silence present itself in a variety of forms – when a comment sours our moral constitution, when we fail to step up as an ally, or opt for disengagement.
Understanding Silence – What Silence Speaks
In his book The World of Silence, published in 1948, the Swiss thinker, Max Picard, captured the character of silence and its relationship to speech:
“Speech and silence belong together … Speech must remain in relationship with the silence from which it raised itself up. It is important that speech remain in relationship with silence through goodness…”
In defining the contours of silence, Picard highlights something profound. Silence, as the origin point of speech, communicates a reflection of the essence – or the purest point of view of the person from whence it came.
Understood this way, silence, in its subtlety, communicates a message from the core of the communicator.
Silence is easy to misinterpret. It can be the language of fear, of timid unknowing – an expression of disengagement, or employed as a strategy to fly under the radar – a conditioned response of self-protection. Worst of all, as the Talmud asserts, “Silence is akin to consent,” (Yevamot 87b). In this way, silence suggests the approval (or can be interpreted as approval) of what has been said, elevating it to acceptance with the vote of silence. And yet, as Dr. Roberta Magnani, professor of English literature warns in her article, Powerful Men have Tried to Silence Abused Women since Medieval Times, “silence should not be confused with voicelessness.”
Why Silence Matters
It’s easy to miss the silence that exists in the wake of the #MeToo/#GamAni movement. The past couple of years have been full of headlines, collaborations, and commitments to raise awareness and to build a culture of respect and equity in the workplace and society at large.
Through articles such as “Let’s Make 5779 the Year of the Jewish Woman,”“The Week that all Jewish Women Turned Invisible,”and “Ally is a Verb,” leaders have used words to offer numerous calls to action. In the Jewish community, we have successfully launched the Safety, Respect and Equity Coalition, a national initiative to advance commitments and standards to address sexual harassment and discrimination in the Jewish community. In the Bay Area Jewish community, our Federation has helped launch a local initiative, We Commit, to establish a coalition and culture of safety and respect. We have seen complimentary work in the secular community as well, such as Lean In Circles and Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women.
The advancement of these initiatives is definitely good, and could suggest that we are on the right track. I hope so. However, unless these initiatives lead to outcomes such as broader policy, behavioral and/or cultural change, they will result in nothing more than a “win-win.” As Anand Giridharadas explains in his book Winners Take All, a “win-win is merely a smokescreen or cover – perhaps a well-meaning gesture to make change without actually changing anything fundamentally.” Giridharadas points to universal childcare or pay equity as true indicators of success in this realm – not the initiatives themselves.
For Giridharadas, the “win-win” creates an allure, a silence, that we are in fact, on the right track. Within this glow, we rest in the (sometimes misguided) confidence that we are moving the needle, while in fact the efforts we seek to advance merely provide the mirage of impact.
To be sure that these efforts have the impact we envision, we must not rest on the assurance that we have spoken out. Rather, we must listen to the silences that persist, telling us our goals of safety and equity are still unrealized.
Rooting out Silence
Each of us has the capacity (and furthermore the responsibility) to be conscious of silence. In order to root out silence, we must first develop the awareness of silence’s existence. Once we can perceive the silence, we can begin the process of calling it out, and repairing the ruptures that emerge in its wake. Doing so requires not only deeper listening, but also the courage to invest more in our relationships – a willingness to take some potential relational risks in the process of naming the silences we observe. In this spirit, I propose three strategies that I believe offer practices to shrink the silences between us.
#1: Talk about the hard stuff. All the time.
While organizational behavior audits or annual sensitivity trainings are a fine start, they lack the discipline of routine. We must aim to establish “check-in” rituals within our department meetings, board meetings, lay leader and donor conversations, and one-on-ones. Establishing a practice that is culturally appropriate to the setting, that offers a safe space to voice experiences and concerns of respect and equity, allow people to be seen, and create a pathway to deepen trusting relationships. This disciplined practice serves to cultivate relational trust and builds our capacity to become more comfortable with the uncomfortable. Through this, we establish communication practices equipped to address the behaviors that stand in the way of building a respectful and safe culture.
#2: Engage across genders.
Gender specific groups, such as Lean In Circles or Evryman Groups, can be powerful and helpful starting points of safety and affinity from which to draw support. Yet, in the pursuit of broader change, we must extend beyond our gendered coalitions to foster enhanced understanding and cultural change. In some spaces, men are being invited to Women’s conference and employee resource groups. According to research done by the Boston Consulting Group, “when men are deliberately engaged in gender inclusion programs, 96% of organizations see progress – compared to only 30% of organizations where men are not engaged.”
#3: Establish two–way, intergenerational mentoring relationships.
Traditional mentorship has been viewed as the elder shepherding the young. In a time of “OK Boomer,” it’s plain to see that our muscles to connect, respect and inspire across generations have atrophied. We’re disappointing and hurting each other across generations. Here we must open the road for two-way exchange, that allows for a younger generation to help elders adapt to a changing culture and the changing standards of communal and workplace gender behavior.
We need our elders to share the wisdom of their experience, the perspectives of how culture changes in the long term. And we need the younger generation to act as guides, accompanying elders to adapt to a world where culture changes ever so quickly. Times are changing, and we must walk together.
Back to the Story-In Conclusion
Wrapping up my call with one of the women (I’ll call her Sarah) from the meeting, I felt myself compelled to chart a course of action.
“What do you suggest we do from here? Should I call the men who were present at the meeting, I inquired.
“There’s nothing to do, it’s just the way things are. You have to be careful about when you speak out and how you speak out. There has to be a level of consequence to make it count,” Sarah guided.
“There is consequence,” I thought to myself. “That is, in order to be an effective ally, I must speak up when I hear inappropriate comments.”
I cannot be silent – we must not be silent.
The silence that lurks among us is a potent force that whether intended or unconscious, serves to perpetuate the “win-win” mindset. In this important chapter of cultural level-setting, we must continue to gather in mass, advancing broad-reaching initiatives promoting equity and inclusion. And yet, we need to move with an engagement strategy that pushes us to reach beyond – across gender and across generations. This is a moment to reach around, stretching above and below, fostering relationships of understanding, with no silence between us.
Rabbi Andy Kastner is Development and Impact Officer at the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, serving the Bay Area, and lives in Berkeley, California with his family. He can be reached at [email protected].