David Lapin
Rabbi, Consultant, Author

Empathy and Modern Liberalism

Noach, 5778

Left-wing “liberalism” fights for the acceptance of cultural and gender diversity with an intolerant hatred for ideological diversity. It battles Faith and Israel with the same ferocity that the people of Babel battled the principles of moral monotheism.

I have thought about the recent hurricanes, earthquakes and Californian fire catastrophes while they were happening and after. But it was thoughts I had, even sympathy, but not truly deep feelings of caring and empathy. I have felt disappointed in myself for that. Distance should not reduce my capacity for empathy.  Empathy is not bounded by geography, nor social or cultural radius. Empathy is about energy and has no boundaries other than the ones we create in our minds.

I think back to a workshop on intuition in a gorgeous wellness resort in the desert of Tucson, Arizona, some years ago. The instructor asked us to select a partner with whom we had not had previous contact. We were to exchange an object, hold it, and tell the other person what we felt while holding their object. An elderly woman who had struck me as being vital and joyful, gave me her watch. I held it and accessed what I was feeling rather than what I was observing or thinking. I then said to her that I felt pain, loss and sadness. Taken aback, she told me that she had recently lost her husband, was grieving and was suffering terrible pain.

The exercise taught me how much we communicate and understand without words. It showed me how distracted we can become when we focus too hard on understanding the content of people’s communications rather than their meaning. We can communicate in silence. We can communicate with nothing more than the powerful energy of our emotions. We can communicate across distance and cultural barriers. It is possible to access the emotional energy of another without them saying a word. With the power of empathy, one can know exactly what another is feeling without needing be told. One can empathize with a sad person even if you cannot speak his or her language.

Even before the period of Babel, the world’s population spoke at least seventy different languages. What was unique about that period is that they could all understand one another although their languages were different (Shem Mi’Shmuel.) This is the meaning of “Safah echat udevarim achadim” (one language and common ideas). Their ability to understand people who spoke foreign languages was not because everyone was a linguistic genius. Rather, people had the capacity to understand one another without having to know their language. Safah echat means they had, and used, empathy.

Interestingly, although safah and lashon both mean language in Hebrew, the Torah chooses to use the word safah here. Safah and lashon both have other meanings than ‘language’. Safah means ‘lips’ and lashon means ‘tongue’. Lips provide expression to the face and emotional context to speech; the tongue is used to articulate words to give content of speech. Lashon is the language of intellect, it is the language of words. Safah is the language of emotions, it is the language of the heart. The people of Babel spoke seventy leshonot, but had one safah. And God valued this.

God valued the empathetic society that the people of Babel built and did not destroy them even when they pursued idolatry. The people of the Flood era, on the other hand, even though not idolatrous, had no feelings for one another. They robbed and undermined each other and God annihilated them all (other than the Noach family). The Torah reaches the synthesis of faith and interpersonal morality into a single worldview. When we don’t practice both faith and morality, God is more tolerant of secular humanism than He is of religious, self-righteous divisiveness.

These, (the people of Babel,) because they loved one another, as it says, ‘Safah echat’, (one language,) they were not wiped out…you see how great the value of peace is and how much Hashem hates divisiveness (Midrash Rabbah, 38:6. See also Sefas Emmes  – Geirer Rebbe 1870-1905)

So, if God valued the secular unity of Babel society, why did He punish them? And how did He do so?

He didn’t really punish them. The demise of their society was the inevitable outcome of their behavior. Instead of using their unity for common purpose, they used it to create a common enemy. The enemy they created and battled was not an individual or a state, but an ideology. They joined hands to battle the very idea of moral monotheism that was the source of their interpersonal caring. When unity is focused on negativity, when fighting faith supersedes caring for others, the power of empathy withers and is ultimately lost. Without empathy they could no longer understand each other’s languages, they couldn’t feel one another’s intentions, and so the beautiful society they built, decayed. Pilug, alienation, was not so much a punishment, it was an inevitable consequence, and they became derogatively known as the generation of alienation, Dor Haphlaga.

The story of Haphlaga, is shockingly modern and parallel to our times. Liberalism used to be a proud movement focused on caring for the rights of others. Modern left-wing  “liberalism” is an ugly battle against the ideas of others. These “liberals” fight for the acceptance of cultural and gender diversity with an intolerant hatred for ideological diversity. Modern, left-wing liberalism opposes the foundational American principle of creating a free market of ideas by constitutionally enshrining people’s rights to believe and say almost anything they please. It battles against Faith and Israel with the same ferocity that the people of Babel battled against God and the principles of moral monotheism.

Secular ‘liberalism’ has, perhaps temporarily, won its war against the unifying principles of Abrahamic monotheism. Left-wing ‘liberalism’ has polarized American and other societies; it has become alienated from those whose opinions are different from theirs. These liberals can no longer understand the ideas or feelings of others (the right wing is not much better). A society polarized, is a society without empathy, and a society without empathy loses its common meaning, safah echat, and its higher purpose.

So my disappointment goes beyond my own failure to empathize with people who are geographically distant. I am also disappointed in the emergence of so destructive a force as modern secular “liberalism” marching under the banner of moral righteousness and turning a richly diverse nation of safah echat into a babble of diverse values foreign to its own Abrahamic tradition.

The story in the Torah of Babel, follows with Lech Lecha – God’s instruction to Avraham to emigrate. When society leaves the Abrahamic principles of moral monotheism, Abraham must leave society. But, more about that next week!

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About the Author
David Lapin, Rav of KBA, Raanana, author, speaker, and founder of Lapin International, a leadership and strategy consultancy, is dedicated to transforming leaders and restoring dignity and sanctity into the workplace. His life changing ideas and solutions to complex life issues move people into new paradigms of thought and action. He lives in Raanana, Israel, with his wife, has five children and fifteen grand-children. He is the author of Lead By Greatness, CEO of Lapin International, Inc. and teaches Torah on
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