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Tetzaveh and Interrupting

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

Is it kosher to interrupt someone? According to an article by Kira Bindrim, “There are times when it’s okay to interrupt someone. If they have food on their face? If their dress is tucked into their tights. If a tsunami is coming up behind them. And there are times when it really isn’t okay, like during a business meeting, or when conversing with a colleague. I know,” she concludes, “because I’ve learned about those ‘not okay’ cases the hard way.”<1>

I can relate. Growing up in Brooklyn, NY, interrupting was the only way to get a word in edgewise. I thought that this was natural and normal. Boy was I in for a rude surprise when I moved to Arizona. People thought that I was rude! Imagine that! Somehow they didn’t understand my ebullient and enthusiastic conversational style as my way of demonstrating engagement in the conversation. They just thought I wasn’t listening and wasn’t respectful, and they certainly didn’t appreciate the interruption. People thought I was rude!

So which is it? Is interrupting a sign of a conversational boor, or and excited participant? Turns out that the answer is not so simple. Recent headlines suggest that what linguist Deborah Tannen calls, “high involvement cooperative overlapping” is actually a characteristic of Jewish conversational style. It actually is, she says, “a way of showing interest and appreciation.”<2> This pattern of conversation is found, “among many Jews from New York and its environs, especially those of Eastern European origin, (and it) differs in significant ways from that of most non-Jewish Americans from the South, Midwest and West.”<3>

Other patterns Tannen detects are, “a fast rate of speech, the avoidance of inter-turn pauses and faster turn taking among speakers, <4> “pitch shifts, changes in loudness, exaggerated voice quality, and accent,”<5> as well as a preference for personal topics, unhesitating introduction of new topics and persistence in reintroducing a topic if others don’t immediately pick up on it.<6>

To those who are not accustomed to, dare I say “our” way of speaking, we come across as rude and disinterested and dominating the conversation. Among ourselves, we find simultaneous talking unremarkable and a sign of rapport and interest. The question, Tannen concludes, is, are we “simply speaking at the same time or actually failing to listen. . . (and) stealing the conversation back.”<7>

In this week’s Torah portion, we read vivid descriptions of the beautiful garments worn by the high priest. There is a breastpiece adorned with 12 gems, one of each tribe, reminding the priest to keep the people close to his heart. The priest is anointed on the thumb, the ear, and the big toe- he is to do for the Israelites, he is to be with them, and, most relevant to our discussion, he is to listen to them.

The Talmud raises the question- what if the priest’s body was inside the Tabernacle but his head was outside? May he perform his priestly duties? The rabbis answer that he may not. His head needs to be in the game.<8> If your head is elsewhere, you are not considered to be a full participant. I believe that what is true for the presiding priest is true for us in conversation. It is important to be fully present, and we express that attention by listening without interruption.

A hostage negotiator for the Israel Defense Forces commented that in his line of work “listening can mean life or death.”<9> The Wall Street journal quotes Glenn Cohen, “In a volatile situation where someone’s life is on the line, there can be no shortcuts. You must listen. . . “<10> Fortunately for most of us our conversations are not matters of life and death!

An article in “Unorthodox” last year concludes that “. . . it’s not quite right to value interrupting as inherently bad. Context is everything.”<11> So-called “high intensity” speakers will understand our interrupting as evidence of conversational engagement.

Yet, I personally felt chastened by Elizabeth Gilbert’s comment<12>-

“Yes, I like talking, but perhaps I don’t have to curse so much, and perhaps I don’t always have to go for the cheap laugh, and maybe I don’t need to talk about myself quite so constantly. Or here’s a radical concept- maybe I can stop interrupting others when they are speaking. Because no matter how creatively I try to look at my habit of interrupting, I can’t find another way to see it than this: “I believe that what I am saying is more important than what you are saying.” And I can’t find another way to see that than: “I believe that I am more important than you.” And that must end.”

So, I’m coming down on the anti-interrupting side. You can take the girl out of NY, but you can’t take the NY out of the girl. Yet, perhaps, you can convince her to try to interrupt less and listen more.

<3> Ibid.

<4> Ibid.

<5> cit

<6> J.weekly, op.cit.

<7>, op. cit.

<8> BT Zev. 26a

<9> Cohen, Glenn, quoted in Siegel, Masada, “A Hostage Negotiator’s Lesson in Listening,” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 2, 2019

<10> ibid.

<12> In her book, Eat, Pray, Love, p. 193

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