Doing, Hearing, and Seeing

April 1, 2008
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Abram Sterne

Growing up as the only hearing child in a deaf family meant that I had a unique sense of sound. While my mother, father, and two sisters were profoundly deaf, my home was not necessarily filled with silence.

Real silence is never really achievable — and even if we would encoffin ourselves into a desensitization tank, our brain would just create the noises in our heads. We are not permitted to be silent — and I believe that this is true even for most deaf people, who are certainly physically aware of sound even if they cannot clearly hear it. In my family, my mother and two sisters have much residual hearing — although not enough to comprehend spoken language. The true disability of deafness, the real silence that deaf people experience, is the inability to produce and understand speech and be part of the hearing world. Deafness makes deaf people silent in a hearing world. They are not the only group of individuals who have no voice in society — but they represent to me a powerful metaphor for the dangers of being silenced and marginalized. When I was growing up I was keenly aware that I was the person attended to — even though I was the child. My parents tended to be ignored, devoiced, silenced.

I do not think it is an accidental metaphor for the Jewish people to have proclaimed “Na’aseh V’Nish’ma” Shemot , 24:8), which literally translates, “We will do and will hear.” The words suggest the Jewish people will only begin the process of understanding the Torah after accepting it. The metaphor of hearing rather than seeing is used here indicating the understanding of a nuanced theory of how the Torah is best learned. It is a process of speaking and hearing, rather than one of seeing, that creates stronger links throughout time — that is, generally the verbal rather than the visual memory engraves more permanently in the mind. The Torah is dependent on this communication system for its survival.

Although the Torah does use visual metaphors (for example, Devarim , 11:26 “See what I have set before you today, a blessing and a curse”), it suggests the language of exhortation and fear rather than that of learning and love. In general, the Torah associates the visual domain with idol worship and being distracted from the true voice of God. The preference of the auditory over the visual probably reflects the preferred status of human beings for using verbal language to communicate and create relationships. Perhaps this partially explains how so many Jewish deaf people often find themselves outside of the Jewish community while also reflecting the experience of most deaf individuals who find themselves out of the hearing world’s narrative. They are often marginalized into their own visual communication world, which represents a different dimension of storytelling.

Creating a bridge between these two paradigms is difficult but not impossible. Although art and Torah are not normally associated in the halls of Jewish learning, there is now a movement for the visual expression or acceptance of Torah — a kind of Na’aseh V’Nireh. Alternative ways of experiencing and engaging ideas and issues can deepen and expand our relationships. For me, my experience of growing up in a deaf family is a reminder of the power and limitations of verbal language; it also represents an opportunity for an alternative sensual conceptualization of the Torah.

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Abram Sterne has a PhD in developmental and cognitive psychology, as well as a doctorate in clinical psychology. Originally from London, he now lives in Jerusalem and is writing a book on existential psychology.

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