No Place for Pity

“Pity,” explains Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar in New York, “is a vertical posture.”

Pity, he argues, means looking down from a safe distance, objectifying another’s pain, and offering our commentary.

Compassion, on the other hand, is a horizontal posture. It requires a sense of empathy. Compassion demands that we make ourselves vulnerable and open up to our own fragility. We acknowledge that, yes, the terrible situation your fellow is struggling with — a devastating disease, an unexpected financial loss, the death of a loved one, a broken relationship…war, poverty, the list goes on and on — is one that could just as easily have befallen us.

But despite the difficulty, perhaps even because of it, Judaism demands that we confront the things that scare us the most.

Judaism demands compassion.

Judaism asks us to learn to sit with our fears, rather than being ruled by them. Because hard as it is, that’s what kindness requires.

— Rabbi Shai Held

As we enter Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Consolation, here is Rabbi Held’s full take on the meaning of compassion:

It’s a powerful idea to consider as we begin this new chapter in the Jewish calendar.

But I wonder: is there a place for pity in Judaism?

Compassion, while noble and necessary, is emotionally exhausting. “Compassion fatigue,” otherwise known as secondary traumatic stress, is a documented phenomenon, especially among first responders and psychiatric caregivers. And with the hyper-connectedness afforded through digital media, each of us is exposed to a constant flow of small doses of secondary trauma on a daily, even hourly, basis. I need only reference many of the articles in this very publication for proof.

Are we obligated to protect ourselves from this onslaught, both emotionally and spiritually? Might a position of pity be the only option in a globalized world?

When, if at all, might pity trump compassion?

About the Author
Miriam Brosseau is Principal of Tiny Windows Consulting, half of the "biblegum pop" duo Stereo Sinai, and a co-host of the podcast Throwing Sheyd.