Monday, October 23, 2006

Empathy in Jewish Life

I want to talk about the role of empathy in Jewish life. First of all, what is empathy? It’s not the same as sympathy, though sometimes the two words are used as synonyms. Sympathy involves compassion for another human being. You might have rachumnis for somebody, without having much idea who the person is or what it is like to be such a person. For example, we might show sympathy and compassion for the sorrows and troubles of homeless refugees. Empathy most often refers to a vicarious participation in the emotions, ideas, or opinions of others, the ability to imagine oneself in the condition or predicament of another. Empathy is essentially a tool of observation, a way of collecting data about another human being. After the data is collected, there is still a need for interpretation, analysis, etc. It’s no different in principle from perception or hearing or smell. It’s a way of finding out about the world outside, but only with respect to fellow human beings. You have reason to be concerned if you begin to feel empathy for a rock.

Empathy is a skill that is acquired. How does empathy actually work? Unlike sight or hearing there is no particular apparatus involved. Some people are better at it than others. It takes practice. You have to be able to put yourself in another’s position and try to imagine or feel what it is to be that person in that position. It helps if you can find the other in yourself. It works, I believe, by being present to another, and not allowing your principles and ideals to interfere prematurely. The relevant question is always what does the other believe, how does he perceive the world. I admit our ability to be empathic is a bit of a mystery or maybe it should be called a miracle. If not for empathy we would never really connect with anyone outside ourselves.

If you’re not too secure about who you are, if you imagine the other as being very, very different, it’s going to be a lot harder to imagine yourself as the other person. All your energies are being spent holding yourself together and projecting onto others traits that are unacceptable to your conscious ideals. In terms of my discussion about narcissism in Jewish life, groups that are more narcissistic and insecure are less likely to be empathic to other groups. I’ve already worked the theme in my previous post and I don’t want to repeat myself.

I want to give a different example of empathy in Jewish life. I think the relationship between a Rebbe and a chasid is to be understood partially in terms of the empathy that the Rebbe can have for his disciple. After all, how does a Rebbe know what to tell a chasid when he comes in with a request (kvitel)? It’s not a trivial question because there’s a huge anecdotal body of evidence that Chassidic Rebbes are very helpful in talking with their Chasidim and helping them make important life decisions. I say that the great Rebbes have, first of all, an intuitive understanding of people, which comes from a vast experience of talking to and helping people. Intuition is not empathy. Intuition is the ability of some gifted practitioner, doctor, lawyer, or rebbe, to speedily and preconsciously collect a large number of details and evaluate the possible outcomes. Empathy, on the other hand, involves the ability of the Rebbe to put himself in the chasid’s place, to feel what the chasid is feeling and to look at the world from the chasid’s perspective. Once the data is gathered, the Rebbe goes back into himself, analyzes and interprets the information, and has enough distance from the material to sort out plausible ways to proceed.

Sometimes empathy alone, without any advice, is of great value. When you go on a shiva visit, all a person has to do is listen and, somehow, not necessarily verbally, communicate to the mourner that he knows what the other is going through. Similarly, when you’re talking to a depressed person, it is frequently a bad idea to say, “Why are you depressed? Snap out of it!” which only makes the person feel worse. Many times the best thing a person can do is to communicate “I know where you’re coming from; I understand why you feel this way.” The Bible describes God’s empathy as being-with- us in our woes (imoh anochi btzurah). Being- with another human being is the most basic way we can relate to others. I believe that the ability to be empathically with another is the essence of the virtue called ahavath yisroeol, love of one’s fellow Jew.

One last glaring example of the lack of empathy on both sides is the Israeli –Palestinian conflict. Here two insecure people, one might even say two traumatized people, find themselves more or less incapable of mutual empathy. Life is too short to spell this out in detail. Most Jews would think my analyzing the conflict in clinical psychological terms is one more example how muddled a liberal can become. In any event I have already said much of what I have to say on this topic in my earlier posts about the conflict.


At 9:55 AM, Blogger Z said...

In talking with our book club "telespondents" in Israel (we do a televised book club between our two every so often at the UJF), they tell us it is more the American Jew who is without empathy and doesn't understand the "greyness" of the situation. I found a good deal of empathy in their village as they described to us how they all live and work together and that a solution is not a clear cut to them as it is to the Americans.

At 2:42 PM, Blogger LitaLives said...

“Here two insecure people, one might even say two traumatized people, find themselves more or less incapable of mutual empathy.”

Now you know I couldn’t let this go without responding.

The Israelis raised the standard of living of the Palestinians above that of all Arab states (omitting the Oil states). The Palestinians managed to destroy their own economy, because they invest every available dollar in arms and explosives instead of health, education& infrastructure.

Go into any Israeli hospital & see the Palestinians getting the same treatment that the Jews get. Send a Jew into Palestinian territory & watch him get lynched & torn to pieces.

I could go on but I don’t think there is any way to convince those of your ilk that there are deep, fundamental differences between the Arabs & Jews in mentality, behavior on the ground and ultimate goals.

Your lumping the Jews and Arabs into one pile of “problem people” is untrue, unsupported by any objective evidence & simply a myth produced by the “beautiful people” who have now made the myth a truism.

At 11:48 PM, Blogger Baruch Horowitz said...

Evanston Jew,

Great post! Empathy is "nosei b'ol im chaveiro".

Regarding Palestenians its complicated. Certainly one can feel bad for them, and we can relate to them on the human level. Halevai, they would do that do us.

There is also a concept of not being being merciful to the cruel.

Depending where you are on the political spectrum, we have a right to self-survival and to keep our land. And chayecha kodmim, especially when someone wants to kill you.

But I still see room for empathy, in a way which doesn't contradict self-assertion. If both sides did it, it would certainly be better than the current situation.

At 11:57 PM, Blogger Baruch Horowitz said...

I also related empathy to the Slikin issue, in a letter of mine which the Jewish Press published:

"The part of Rabbi Student’s article I related to most was where he wrote of “… personal pain” and “a very loud cry of anguish being voiced…” This moves beyond Rabbi Slifkin’s books, or even the general topic of the interface between Torah and science.

Addressing issues and hashkafos (Torah philosophy) without addressing people’s individual feelings will not bring peace and resolution. True, tolerance and pluralism should not be a cause for accepting any possible distortions in hashkafah. The oft-quoted Netziv on tolerance in the preface to Bereishis can indeed be abused, like any other Torah source. But I feel there should be at least an acknowledgment, on both sides, of the plight of individuals caught in the middle of all of this. *Realizing and acknowledging this, on both sides, is part of empathy – nosei b’ol im chaveiro*..."

In other words, one does not have to agree hashkafically with another person, but one can at least try to understand what someone else is going through.

At 12:25 AM, Blogger Baruch Horowitz said...

"But I still see room for empathy, in a way which doesn't contradict self-assertion"

To elaborate on what I mean regarding appropriate empathy on both sides:

Theoretically, a Palestinian before he thinks of harming others, r'l, should put himself in the shoes of the surrounding civilians and empathize.

And an Israeli who, say, is not fighting, but interacting with a Palestinian, can empathize with the Palestinians. They are definitely suffering, the issue is, who is to blame.

As Golda Meir said "Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us".

At 12:36 AM, Blogger Baruch Horowitz said...

"The Bible describes God’s empathy as being-with- us in our woes (imoh anochi btzurah). Being- with another human being is the most basic way we can relate to others."

I think that this is also an explanation given as to why Moshe Rabbeinu took bricks on his shoulder in Mitzrayim. Ie, it was to visualize there suffering.

At 5:55 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

z and lita lives and baruch horowitz...Thanks for your comments. I just came back from a chasuna in NY and am very tired so you will excuse me if Ido not respond directly. I do want to say one thing to Mr. Horowitz...I have read your perceptive comments on many different blogs and I always find so much I agree with. I tried emailing you, but your email address is no longer operative. So many times I found myself saying 'azoi redt men'.

At 2:23 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

litalives...I understand your dislike of 'lumping the 2 together'.I was wondering if you agreed with my claim that both sides are insecure and traumatized?


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