Follow-up to “Empathy”

In my recent “empathy” post, I wrote:

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

In a previous post, I had written:

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.

Juxtaposing these two quotes of mine, “Chana” commented:

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.

On the one hand I say that men can understand women, white people can understand blacks, because we share a common humanity. On the other hand, I say that secular Jews do not understand religious Jews. To my correspondent, this seems to be a contradiction. Perhaps the answer is that whites and blacks, men and women are all human — but secular Jews are not human? No, that can’t be right.

But maybe there’s another answer? Is there some other way to resolve this apparent contradiction?

Let’s take a stab at it.

First of all, let’s clear away some things that I did NOT say, nor imply:

1. I did not say that whites automatically understand blacks, or that men automatically understand women, merely by virtue of being human. I did say that Rav Aryeh Levine’s quality of empathy was remarkable precisely because it IS so unusual to acquire this on one’s own. I added that we, having read about his life, can now also acquire a level of empathy and understanding. So the answer seems to be education. Humans can be educated to understand other humans. Such understanding does not come automatically. But humans do have the potential for empathy.

2. I also did not say that secular Jews are genetically incapable of understanding religious Jews. If I believed that, I would not bother to try explaining my position, because such an attempt would by definition be futile. As you see, I do try to explain myself. That is because I think every human being can learn from others. Once again, education is the answer.

Thus, where some see two cases which seem to be contradictory and inconsistent, in fact both cases are the same. Blacks, men, secular Jews do not automatically understand whites, women, religious Jews. With education, blacks, men, secular Jews are capable of understanding whites, women, religious Jews. Humans can be taught to understand other humans. Humans can be taught empathy.

Chana herself wrote:

Empathy is not an innate quality….It is a quality that can be learned

I fully agree with that statement.

She further wrote:

But if we were all empathic, simply by nature of being human, there would be no way to explain war, hatred, fighting….And hence I do not believe in this “common humanity.”

Well, if I defined “common humanity” that way, I would not believe in it either. The misunderstanding is easily cleared up: our “common humanity” does not imply that we are automatically empathetic. It implies only that humans are CAPABLE of empathy. Because we are human, we have a capacity to learn. That innate capacity to learn is what makes us human. We still have to make an effort to understand each other.

I think I have cleared away the apparent inconsistency some thought they saw in my writing. I would now like to clear up two additional points:

My correspondent wrote (with a touch of sarcasm):

But apparently we don’t “undercut our common humanity” if we say that secular Jews cannot understand Orthodox Jews…

Once again, I did not say that secular Jews “cannot” understand Orthodox Jews. I said (or rather, implied) that for the most part they “do not” understand Orthodox Jews.

In fact, I have been involved in kiruv for most of my life, a career choice that would make no sense if I considered secular Jews genetically incapable of learning.

In addition to teaching at Bais Yakov, I also teach adult ed classes to women of all backgrounds, including many who are not religious. I welcome and applaud the efforts of ALL Jews to acquire knowledge of Torah, of Jewish history and of Jewish life.

I don’t expect all Jews to become Orthodox. I do encourage all Jews to make the effort to deepen their understanding of the religion that is their heritage and birthright.

Then I was also taken to task for the following (as my correspondent paraphrased what I’d orginally written):

Jews who understand the Holocaust without a sense of history are indulging in something “pornographic” and “obsessive.”

Somehow that was taken to mean that I deny the common humanity of those who study the Holocaust without studying any other Jewish history. Of course the students who are enrolled in Holocaust Studies classes are human! I can hardly believe I have to say that, it seems almost comical.

In fact, students who enroll in such classes are often seeking some kind of deeper identification with their people and with their history. The pity is that focusing on the Holocaust to the exclusion of the rest of Jewish history is unlikely to satisfy their spiritual thirst. Often such study will actually lead them away from Yiddishkeit and from identifying with the Jewish people. When Jewish identity boils down to being hated and persecuted, some Jews would prefer a different identity.

Indeed, looking at pictures of people who were tortured and murdered–without trying to understand who those people were–IS a kind of pornography.

But I don’t blame the Jews who study the Holocaust without knowing anything else about their people’s history. They are looking for spiritual sustenance and don’t know where else to look. I do blame the academics and the clergy who make the Holocaust the focus of Jewish identity. I do blame the movements that make a fetish out of Yom Hashoah but do not teach their searching acolytes about Tisha B’Av.

It has been pointed out to me that nowadays even many of the clergy in the heterodox movements are in the category of “tinok shenishba” — a child raised among non-Jews who, according to halacha, cannot be blamed for his ignorance of Jewish law.

The people who deserve our anger and scorn are not the current clergy, but the rabbis (most long gone) who founded the heterodox movements and who misled their followers deliberately and with malice aforethought.

Likewise, Israelis who commemorate Yom Hashoah today genuinely wish to identify with their people and to express their grief for those who were lost. They are doing the best they can. We don’t reject them, for they are blameless. We do reject the secular Zionists who originally established a “Yom Hashoah VeHaGevurah” — the ones who expressed disdain for Holocaust victims for supposedly “going like sheep to the slaughter.”

But those ideological Zionists are mostly gone, that generation of deliberate rebels against Judaism is not here anymore. Today’s generation is an innocent generation that had little Jewish education, and cannot be blamed for lacking what they were never given in the first place.

Finally, my correspondent wrote:

In fact, you have already mentioned that you cannot understand their viewpoint with regard to the Holocaust, and view them as having separated themselves/ being ignorant because they follow something you do not — keeping Yom HaShoah.

As I wrote in my original Yom Hashoah posting, secular Jews separated themselves from Klal Yisrael not by keeping Yom Hashoah, but by forgetting to keep Sukkos, Shavuos and Tisha B’Av. Of course, rank-and-file Jews who never even heard of these Jewish days cannot be blamed for not keeping them. It was not they who separated themselves from Klal Yisrael, it was their leaders who did that. But there is light within the darkness: nowadays, more and more Jews are finding their way back to the heritage that was stolen from them.

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