In high school we read “Black Like Me,” an account of how John Howard Griffin, a reporter, had his skin artificially darkened so he might better understand the predicament of blacks in the South in the late 1950s. Can we understand another if we have not been in his position? Does a member of a ruling caste understand the humiliations of the oppressed, or does someone who has lived in difficulties understand the seductions and possibilities of wealth or power?
Empathy is vital but also limited. Judaism prescribes laws for things like tzedakah because even if you do not understand the poor you must help them. Empathy is imperfect and responsibility cannot be based on identification alone. Still trying to put oneself in another’s shoes is a critical human capacity. The discovery of “mirror neurons” — that our brains mimic the emotional reactions of others — reminds us of the place of empathy in human life.
When Franklin Roosevelt visited a military hospital in Hawaii, he asked the Secret Service to wheel him very slowly through the amputee wards. He insisted on going past each individual bed. The president wanted to display himself and his polio stricken legs to young men who would have to face the same bitterness. To know another feels our pain is part way to healing.
Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow his teachings at www.facebook.com/RabbiWolpe.