Empathy

I would like to second what Eytan Kobre wrote so movingly in his post “As Thyself” :

There is a Jewish angle to this topic as well; specifically, regarding the tendency of some in feminist quarters to question the ability of “the rabbis” to evince sufficient empathy for female concerns….

The empathy of our greats didn’t, and doesn’t, issue forth from within gated compounds and phalanxes of handlers and acolytes….Theirs, instead, is a caring rooted in a deep love of both humanity in general and of Jews in particular….

The notion that only blacks can understand blacks, only women can understand women, and so on, undercuts the bedrock of our common humanity.

Gedolim rise to an exceptionally high level of refinement, but all humans who are sufficiently mature and intelligent can understand the feelings of other humans.

Another example of the kind Eytan refers to: Rav Aryeh Levine used to make a point of visiting the widows of great Torah leaders and Talmudic scholars, every chol hamoed Pesach and Sukkos.

He understood the feelings of an elderly woman whose identity had been tied up with the respect and status of her husband, and whose home had once been full of Torah luminaries. He understood the loss of self-respect and the loneliness such a woman would feel.

With her famous husband gone, such a widow becomes a non-entity, bereft of identity and of respect and acknowledgement. It seems to her that she is nobody, and that her beloved husband, too, has been forgotten. But when his former colleagues and students come to visit, she comes alive again. She serves them cake and tea as she did in the old days, and they fill her ears and heart with reminiscences of the great man around whom her life once revolved.

Maybe it takes a man as great as R’ Aryeh Levine to come to this insight on his own, and to act on it, year in and year out. But having read about his life, all of us can empathize with the feelings of the women he visited, and even a young man can understand the feelings of an elderly woman, a busy wife and mother can put herself in the place of a lonely widow with long empty days. That capacity to put ourselves in another’s place is part of our common humanity.

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3 Responses

  1. Edvallace says:

    I don’t believe Toby meant to say that intuitively everyone can understand everyone else. There is no question that just as one cannot judge someone until they’ve walked a few miles in their shoes, one cannot understand the needs of the others so easily. But everyone is capable of engaging themselves in the plight of others and developing the empathy for others. IOW – it’s not intuitive but it’s attainable through much hard work on developing sensitivities to the others. Our Torah sages exemplify this idea. Rather than listen to a problem and comment superficially, they delve into the situation and allow themselves to feel the pain of the person standing before them. Rather than throw a few bucks at them and request a receipt, they work tirelessly to solve the problem. It becomes their problem.
    There are countless stories of the great lengths Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l went to in order to permit Agunos to remarry.
    I experienced a similar story myself. As a young adult I experienced a medical condition that required that I be seen by a top doctor in his field. All attempts to gain admission to the doctor failed until we called Rabbi Twersky from Brooklyn who arranged an appt. for me within 24 hrs. Upon entering the doctors office he looked at me with an exasperated look and exclaimed, “Did you HAVE to sic Twersky on me???”. He then proceeded to explain that Rabbi Twersky called him at 2 AM and insisted he see me. He concluded by saying, “For a person who loves his fellow Jews like Rabbi Twersky does there’s nothing I wouldn’t do! I just love the man!”

  2. Toby Katz says:

    “So apparently whites can understand blacks, and men can understand women, but…secular Jews cannot understand Orthodox Jews”

    I never said that secular Jews “cannot” understand Orthodoxy only that many “do not.” We are communicating with each other right now, and obviously, I write because I think that my fellow Jews CAN understand my point of view. Whether they will then be persuaded is another question. Some will, some won’t.

    Your long post deserves a longer answer. Watch for it.

  3. Chana says:

    “The notion that only blacks can understand blacks, only women can understand women, and so on, undercuts the bedrock of our common humanity.”

    and yet you have just written in your former post, “Indeed, there is something pornographic about the obsessive study of the gruesome details of the Holocaust, without context, without history, without a sense of the whole flow of Jewish life through the centuries.”

    So apparently whites can understand blacks, and men can understand women, but secular Jews would have no grasp on an Orthodox Jewish view of life/ understanding/ the Holocaust. Even though claiming only blacks or women can understand themselves would undercut our common humanity.

    But apparently we don’t “undercut our common humanity” if we say that secular Jews cannot understand Orthodox Jews or that Jews who understand the Holocaust without a sense of history are indulging in something “pornographic” and “obsessive.”

    I would claim that you are not being consistent in your definition of common humanity. At all. After all, you also mentioned that, “It is not true that Orthodox Jews do not mourn our dead. Just the opposite. We mourn more deeply and more painfully than anyone else, because we knew the victim. We know the life and blood and heart of our Jewish grandparents when they were still alive.” And do you not think the same is true, if this is your opinion, of blacks and of women? Blacks have been oppressed. Women have been- in some ways, still are, with the new modern culture- oppressed. And you think that suddenly you will be able to understand the angle in which black people have been treated, the culture, the mentality they have been given? You think you comprehend the history of black people, the history of women, and that to say that you may not comprehend that history would “undermine your common humanity”?

    I believe that there are some understanding that are intutive or psychological. The example you give of the widow is specifically mentioned in the Torah, where we are told to be kind to the widows and orphans. But I doubt that you, as an Orthodox Jewish Bais Yaakov teacher, could truly understand and empathize with a secular non-religious agnostic or atheist person. In fact, you have already mentioned that you cannot understand their viewpoint with regard to the Holocaust, and view them as having seperated themselves/ being ignorant because they follow something you do not- keeping Yom HaShoah. I’m sure you’d be surprised to hear that certain Orthodox Rabbis are able to correlate and even follow this- Rabbi Yom-Tov Schwartz, for instance, in his work, ‘Eyes to See.’

    I do not think that white people can truly understand black people. We have not been victims and slaves. Neither do I think it is necessary to put all white people on guilt trips and claim that it is their fault/ stupidity which stops them from understanding,and that they need to make up for what their ancestors did. But to be part of a minority, or part of a stereotype, or to have a past- a past and a history that is taught about at school, in History class- is something very different than what white people have. How can one make this claim? I think it is irrational. The logic between comparing one man’s understanding of a widow and stretching that to say we can all understand different cultures/ races is ridiculous.

    Neither do I think all women may understand men, or men understand women. I think that in certain instances we may, that certain people may understand black/white/ man/woman/ married/single/ Jewish/gentile. But I doubt that “common humanity” is enough of a bond to make this claim. Look what we have done in our “common humanity.” Look at the wars we have fought. Look at the hatred in this world, the hatred of white supremacists or racists or even those who choose to be ignorant and blind to the ideas of others. And all that can be fixed and should be fixed due to a bond of “common humanity”?

    Empathy is not an innate quality. It is a quality some people have and others do not. It is a quality that can be learned, that the sensitive intellect may absorb and understand. But if we were all empathic, simply by nature of being human, there would be no way to understand or explain war, hatred, fighting, any kind of dissonance or disregard for one another. And hence I do not believe in this “common humanity.” We are not only commonly human or inhuman. We are all different, and will approach races/ cultures/understanding individually.