Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

Empathy: Getting past the labels that separate us from others

Two years ago, I delivered my first lesson for Tikkun Leil Shavuot. It was about kindness and giving of oneself. For that lesson, I first drew on the Book of Ruth, in which there are several instances of kindness. Boaz lets Ruth take gleanings from his field, Ruth ties her future to Naomi’s. In these we see chesed, lovingkindness in action. I shared the lesson in a blog and showed where I had jumped to examples of kindness in the Torah, like tithing crops or giving loans or not holding grudges. I pointed to these as ways for us to behave towards others in order to make ours a more just society or just to be better people. I also tied both treating strangers as if they were not strangers and celebrating holidays with strangers to the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, bringing guests in. Making others feel welcome in your home, I said, forces you to think of their comfort first and not yours. You put others first.

But I also noted that we can be kind without giving of ourselves. Opening a door for someone else costs us nothing. It is also important to note that the very act of being charitable can include an element of “us vs them.” When we take our kids to go volunteer at a shelter or we do other charitable acts, we allow a wall to exist that separates giver and taker, meaning we know we are helping others who are not as fortunate as us; there is an imbalance of power and a distance can exist between volunteers and beneficiaries. So, kindness and charity are still missing something.

Two years ago, I tied it back to community, to being a part of something bigger than ourselves. In another blog, I drove that home, “’When you have a sense of community, you look out for one another, you are concerned with each other’s well-being. And when you have that sense of belonging to something bigger than any single one of us,’ you want to help the greater good.” I also connected kindness and charity to the Golden Rule, doing unto others, and to middot (values) like derech eretz, the way of the land, that is, doing what’s right. I firmly believe that derech eretz, doing the right thing, and treating others as we would like to be treated, are both hugely important. I shared a worksheet on derech eretz that I had used with my then-second grade religious school class. Kindness, charity, doing the right thing – these are on the path to empathy you could say. But we are not there yet.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the word empathy, what it means in Hebrew and in ancient and modern Greek. I’ve also learned since that the word in English actually came into being in the early 1900s and was based on a German word (einfühlung) coined by a philosopher who, in the 1850s, drew on the Greek. Its meaning is different. According to one website on word origins, the German word was “A term from a theory of art appreciation that maintains [that] appreciation depends on the viewer’s ability to project his personality into the viewed object.” Project. Onto an inanimate object. Now, I took a class on philosophy of art in college and I remember the discussions we had about how an artist’s intention does not always match up to how someone experiencing art actually feels and that the viewer/listener will bring his or her own lens through which to view and hear art. A 2015 article in The Atlantic notes that within the psychological community and subsequently in other disciplines, the meaning of empathy has changed. The 1940s saw its meaning shift to encompass interpersonal connection. In the 1950s, the article says, Reader’s Digest defined it for the public as the ability to feel for another but not let emotions cloud judgment. In the 1990s scientific discovery observed empathic behavior in animals and since then, theories about it have entered economics and literature. One social psychologist says the term now has eight different meanings, most of which, though, have to do with our relationship to another person’s thoughts and feelings.

What this roundabout language lesson means is that empathy as a word is nowhere to be found in the Torah. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote in his book, “Not in God’s Name,” that empathy was baked into a number of stories in the Torah. The closest the Torah comes to articulating this concept is in Parshat Mishpatim. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” On his website, Rabbi Sacks delves into what this means and why the Torah focuses on strangers – those who are not like us. It is easy, he says, to love your neighbor as yourself. You know them. They are like you. But when it is a stranger, someone not like us, it is another story. Rabbi Sacks posits that getting that level of empathy may be the reason behind the exile in Egypt to begin with. He also argues that the reason to include narrative stories in what is essentially a book of law is to temper justice with compassion. Narratives are essential for understanding, for conflict resolution, for stopping cycles of retaliation. He counsels that instead of reacting to someone, try to see what they see and understand where they are coming from; it is in this way that we can harness empathy’s power. Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Weinreb, a former leader of the OU and a clinical psychologist, looked at more of the same passage in Mishpatim. Where it says, “…If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor,” he notes that Rashi wrote that the Hebrew for “the poor among you” (et he’ani imach) can also mean the poor within you, and that we should “look well at ourselves and imagine that we too are poor.” Rabbi Weinreb takes this and other commentary and puts it against the backdrop of a book which argues against empathy as a moral compass. From this he understands that empathy has limits. We can understand the story of an individual far better than the statistics which speak to masses. But this is exactly why we need to internalize that everyone is an individual. Rabbi Dr. Weinreb, though, takes this in another direction, looking to the Ramban’s commentary on a passage in the Talmud (Tractate Taanit 11a) about Moses positioning himself on a hilltop not just to observe his people’s suffering, but to “direct his heart toward them.” Empathy isn’t in knowing but in feeling.

When things are largescale, it is difficult to find empathy. Tsunamis hitting a foreign country do not affect us as much as a tragedy that happens to someone like or near us or our family. That is why the New York Times chose to run the cover it did last Sunday, listing Americans killed by COVID-19. Every person left behind friends, family, colleagues, who feel loss, who are in mourning. The newspaper listed only 1,000, only one percent of those lives lost. In noting not only each person’s name and age, but also something very descriptive, the Times tried to bring each person to life for readers. In humanizing each victim, we too can feel what the world has lost. People are more than just numbers. In his piece for the Religious Action Center, Rabbi Briskin of California wrote about activating the “empathy gene” when strangers undergo great suffering but I think we need to activate it for those we do know as well as for strangers, for events that cause suffering and for day-to-day life. As with the point I made about performing acts of charity as one-off events, if we try to see from another’s perspective only when there are victims, we create a separation of us and them. Emotional identification, the Hebrew definition, strikes me as what we should aspire to. Beyond kindness, the golden rule, charitable behavior, we can apply empathy in our everyday lives. How?

One of the best ways to see from another’s eyes is to see past labels and recognize everyone as individuals. We are more alike than we are different. One of my favorite Facebook pages drives that home incredibly. Humans of New York (HONY) which is also on Instagram and has a wonderful website housing so much of what he has done in an organized way, was created by a native UGA grad from Marietta. He collects people’s stories and has become very skilled at it over the years. The stories he elicits from the people he meets draw you in. He has also traveled to over 20 countries, including Israel, Jordan, Uganda, Iran, Mexico, Pakistan… and whether he is talking to a refugee or an artist, an orphan or a parent, a Holocaust survivor or an immigrant, whomever he meets, you find – I find myself – being drawn in to the story, identifying with the person’s emotions, trying to understand what he or she has gone through.  We are not only labels, we are each individuals. And we have far more in common that we might have thought. This point is also wonderfully brought home in, All That We Share, a commercial for a television station in Denmark. It begins with different fairly easily identifiable groups walking into a room – medical staff, soccer fans, bikers, etc.. They are asked to step into a box when their answer is yes to each a series of questions. Were you the class clown? Are you a stepparent? Have you ever been bullied? Have you ever bullied someone else? Instead of seeing people as defined by groups they are visibly associated with, participants begin to see everyone as Us. Labels not only divide, but they make us blind. It is that which binds us that we must pay attention to.

People apply labels all the time. In some ways it makes sense that there is an innate need to categorize people, to sort like and not like, to try and find patterns even. Politics, race, religion, gender identification, sexual orientation, national origin, ethnicity, fluency in language, size, socio-economic status, physical or mental ability or disability, emotional stability or instability are some of the things we judge people by. Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, a renowned rabbi and psychiatrist specializing in substance abuse, has written many books and has a video series that is very worth watching. In this one on empathy, Rabbi Twerski looks to Hillel in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, to make the point that we cannot judge others whose lives we have not lived. He also shares a story about his great uncle who was also a great Hasidic Rabbi. People would come to them with his problems and he knew the only way to understand what they were going through and to be able to help them was to see what they are seeing, to wear their clothes so to speak, in order to identify, to feel.

One of the problems with applying labels is the resulting tendency to want to define someone solely by that label. But people are not only male, female, Liberal, Conservative, Black, White, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, diabetic, autistic, rich, southern, Asian, immigrant, construction worker, homosexual, academic. We are multi-faceted. This both means that no one story defines us, as Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently conveys in her TEDTalk, “The danger of a single story.” She says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Another aspect is that these real identities also get lost in these labels – someone who is Asian or Latino or Africa or Ashkenazi or Mizrahi may come from one of a number of countries, and within that, a region of that country, each with its own culture, history, customs, foods. By painting people with a broad brush, you risk reducing them to nothing in multiple ways. We also must acknowledge that being any one thing doesn’t exempt you from holding preconceptions about any other facet. Liberals can be racist. Blacks can be homophobic. Jews can be xenophobic. Progressives can be antisemitic. It would be nice if being a stranger in one area made us sensitive to all the kinds of “others” there are, but there is no magic exemption.

There are two more points I want to make, especially in light of how labels contribute to “othering” and of the news recently. If you’ve not heard, this took place in New York. When Amy Cooper was out with her dog in the Ramble, a part of Central Park, she was asked by a man who was bird-watching to put her dog on the leash as required in that area. She refused, and instead threatened him and called 911 to say (falsely) that a Black man was threatening her. Lucky for him, his sister caught it on video. Amy Cooper actually weaponized racism here, and given what the police did in Minneapolis to George Floyd this week in a recurring headline all over the country, she could’ve risked Christian Cooper’s life. The reason I bring this up is that Amy Cooper voted Democrat. And the reason I bring that up is not to vilify anyone but to make the point that we all house bias in us and we would be in denial if we did not admit it. But, and here’s where I am trying to go with it: when we use labels like racist or anti-Semitic or Islamophobic, we also create a story, a picture, of what kind of people “those” people are. And think to ourselves we cannot possibly be one of those. But it is not only white supremacists who house racist or anti-Semitic or Islamophobic preconceptions. We cannot choose to avoid looking inside to see how we treat strangers just because we do not group ourselves with extremists. This is why we must learn to look past labels. Labels can interfere not only with how we see others, but how willing we are to see ourselves.

The other point I would like to make is that we need to apply what we learn within our own tent. In some ways, it might be easier to think about how we can treat others as we would like to be treated or stop using labels regarding those who are in other categories, but we must also do this closer to home. Congregation Beth Shalom, I think, is very welcoming. We have members from all different walks of life. At the same time, in the larger world of American Jewry, not all Jews are made to feel at home. How many boards or senior staff of major Jewish institutions and organizations include Black Jews or Asian or LGBT Jews? How many day schools and religious schools employ JOC teachers? How can we embed in our children a sense of Us, and not Us vs Them if where they learn or go to camp looks just like them?  How many synagogues have restrooms for transsexual Jews? How many offer jachnun at their Shabbat kiddush? The Jewish people is made up of a very rich tapestry, a rich history and culture of Jews who are black and brown and white, who are from Russia and Poland, yes, but also from Italy and Iraq, Yemen, Morocco, Venezuela, China, Ethiopia, India, Tunisia, and so many more places. We need to try to see our world through other people’s eyes. So tonight, if we walk away with nothing else, I’d be grateful if we could look at the ways we can incorporate empathy in our lives – to strangers, to neighbors, to our institutions. When my children were younger and they would do something, like take a toy away from a brother, I would ask them how they would feel if someone did that to them. Perhaps that is the question we could begin asking ourselves. Better than the golden rule, I think this is a way to try and put ourselves in another person’s shoes, to feel what they feel. To empathize.

This blog post was adapted from the presentation I delivered at this year’s online Tikkun Leil Shavuot. For those interested, I’ve made the handout with the slides, notes (i.e., above blog) and hyperlinks available.

About the Author
Born in Brooklyn and raised on Lawn Guyland, Wendy lived in Jerusalem for over a decade submerged in Israeli culture; she has been soaked in Southern life in metro Atlanta since returning to the U.S. in 2003. Recently remarried, this Ashkenazi mom and MIL to three Mizrahi sons and a DIL in their 20s splits her time between managing knowledge in corporate America, pursuing a dual masters in public administration and integrated global communications, relentlessly Facebooking, enjoying the arts and trying to bring a wider perspective to the topics she covers while blogging.
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