A childhood friend once attended a play starring the great Zero Mostel. He had the misfortune to be late and Mostel, spotting him trying to sneak in the theater, stopped the performance and asked for the house lights to be turned up. “You — yes you, the one who is late,” he said, pointing to my humiliated friend. “I want you to know what you missed.” Mostel then acted out the entire play to that point by himself, inhabiting all the roles. My friend was embarrassed but also delighted to be the spur to such a tour de force.
Most of us find it difficult to inhabit the lives of others. If we are straight, we find it hard to imagine what it is to be gay; if white, to be black; if always rich, to be poor, and vice versa. But in order to live truly moral lives we need imagination. To project yourself into the experience of the other is essential to leading a good and compassionate life.
All religious traditions have a version of walking in another’s shoes. Empathy alone is not enough to make sound judgments. But if we cannot feel our way into lives different than our own, we will forever be trapped in a one-act, one-person play.
Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiWolpe. His latest book, “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press), is just out.