As I reflect upon 2022, I feel that I have experienced a year when there has been ever-increasing polarization, animosity and vitriol in our society between well-meaning people. And when I say our society, I refer to different societal groups of which I am a member. As an American, I refer to the division between Republicans and Democrats. As a passionate Zionist, I refer to the division between the incoming Israeli government and the political opposition, along with the religious culture wars in Israeli society. As a YU alumnus, I refer to the division in the culture war surrounding a club for the LGBTQ community in YU. So many of us lament this division and have proposed methods to unite and come together as one. We say that we need to talk with each and not simply talk to each other. We say that we need to leave our echo chambers and engage those with whom we disagree. We say that we need to learn to disagree without being disagreeable. I think that we need to do much more. We may be focusing too much on Hillel and not enough on Rabbi Akiva. Let me explain what I mean.
The Gemara in Shabbat 31a famously tells the story of the gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism and he wanted to learn the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel told the man, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this – go and study it!” Hillel told the man that sensitivity to others is the basis of the whole Torah. It is the first step. But is it enough? Is not acting in an insensitive manner to others sufficient for a healthy society, or do we need more?
I have found that sensitivity has not been the answer to the problem of polarization in our communities. The reason is that when we are overconcerned with sensitivity, we tend to be concerned with not only how we behave towards others, but also how others treat us. If sensitivity is our bumper sticker, then it easily turns into a feeling of I’m being sensitive towards them, but they are displaying no sensitivity towards me, towards my political party, towards non-religious Jews, towards the LGBTQ community, towards the Torah community, etc. Everyone defines sensitivity differently and everyone claims that they are being sensitive and the other is not being sensitive towards them and we still remain far apart. A motto of don’t act insensitively towards others may limit some negative behaviors, but it also highlights additional divisions between various groups based on different definitions of sensitivity.
That is why we must turn to Rabbi Akiva. The Torah states, “Love your neighbor like yourself” (Vayikra 19:18). Rabbi Akiva asserted this is an important principle in the Torah (Breishit Rabba, 24:7). Maybe basic morality dictates that we don’t act insensitively towards each other and maybe that is the first thing that the gentile must learn on his road to conversion, but Rabbi Akiva reminds us that there is a more elevated dimension of human conduct that is demanded of the Jew. Rabbi Akiva speaks of love, of an intimate relationship. The Rambam (Hilchot Avel 14:1) explains that whenever we engage in acts of kindness, whether we are visiting the sick, comforting mourners or inviting needy guests to our house, we fulfill the mitzvah of loving our neighbor. It’s more than simply do no harm. It’s an expression of love.
In fact, we underestimate the impact of our acts of kindness. A recent study conducted by Amit Kumar of the University of Texas and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago suggest that that is the reason why we don’t perform these acts more often.
In several experiments within the study, Kumar and Epley gave people opportunities to act in a variety of kind ways, both with strangers and with people they knew. In every experiment, those who were kind to another person underestimated how much happier recipients would feel. It didn’t make a difference whether it was a small gift like a cup of hot chocolate on a cold day or whether it was a nice note to other people they knew. The study also showed that people received added pleasure when they knew the gift they received was a gesture of kindness as opposed to when it was not a gesture of kindness. Furthermore, the study demonstrated that people underestimated how much their kindness encouraged a recipient to pay it forward. Our acts of kindness, which are demonstrations of love, can significantly shape the society around us.
My hope for 2023 is that when we speak about the various divides in our communities, we continue to speak about sensitivity but we speak much more about love and acts of kindness that express that love. After all, that is what truly creates connection and builds bridges. Simple acts of kindness – a friendly hello, a friendly text or Whatsapp, small gifts especially to those who are on the other side of the aisle or debate in whatever context we find ourselves. We should not underestimate how impactful these simple acts of kindness can be toward eliminating the division that currently exists in our various communities. We need Hillel, but in 2023 we need Rabbi Akiva much more.