Sh’ma Yisrael! Hear, O Israel! This is a call my father, z”l, would gladly have heeded but he couldn’t do so because he was deaf. He’d begun to lose his hearing as a teenager in the 1920s and, by the time he was at university, he couldn’t hear well enough to follow the lectures. When he graduated, he applied to the Jewish Theological Seminary, pursuing his dream of becoming a rabbi. But JTS rejected him because of his handicap (and is still rejecting deaf candidates even now).
This rejection stung but didn’t dampen my father’s love of Judaism. He went into the family business and continued his education at Gratz College, a Jewish studies institute in Philadelphia. Determined to pass on his beloved tradition to his children, he sent us to Hebrew school and took us regularly to synagogue.
Among my most cherished memories of my father are those times in shul. He would beam proudly at me as I sang out the prayers, which he murmured in his tone deaf voice. I still feel closest to him when I’m in synagogue but even all these years later there’s a undertone of sorrow, too, as I remember the poignancy of his dashed rabbinic dream and of his inability to hear and respond to the beauty of the liturgy.
In the very first session of Nadav Slovin’s Sh’ma class, my father’s deafness was right there with me, in the comparison (Exodus 20:18-20) between seeing signs of God and hearing God’s voice. B’nai Yisrael preferred to see rather than hear, fearing the sound of ha-Shem. My father, on the other hand, often said he wished he were blind instead of deaf. Nadav raised the question: why was hearing so much more frightening than seeing?
A cogent answer came from Chana-Toni Whitmont, a crystal sound therapist whose practice, 'Sacred Vessels Sound Healing', is based on her connection to Torah and Jewish mysticism. In a note to the class, Toni wrote that the ear is not the only organ to receive sound:
..there is a whole other dimension of sound, that which we don't hear but we sense. Sound also enters our bodies as inaudible vibration that moves through our skin (our largest organ) and then potentially impacts upon every cell in the body. Hearing is a one-way deeply internal journey. I think that this is why there was so much fear around the voice of God in our foundational stories. That divine vibration must have been completely physically overwhelming.
Toni’s commentary brought me a tikkun, a deeply personal and totally unexpected healing. What a balm to be able to re-imagine/re-remember my father in synagogue taking in through his skin the vibrations from the cantor’s voice, from the chant of the torah readers, even from my own prayerful song. This has become an ongoing consolation that releases me from the sadness I’ve carried all these many years. Now when I chant the Sh’ma, I send the vibrations toward olam ha-ba, the next world, where I am certain my father’s soul resides and where I know he can hear my prayer.
Susan Kaplow is a NYC based visual artist. She has gained immeasurable spiritual and artistic inspiration from studying with AJS. Many thanks to Nadav and Chana Toni.