Exercising the Empathy Muscle

Politicians are often subject to derision, often for good reason. Recently, though, a Catholic cleric hurled an unusual and creative insult at local politicos: They are like Jews.

Edward Gilbert, the leader of the Catholic Church in Port of Spain, the capital of the southern Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, made the comparison between elected officials and “the original Jewish people,” explaining that Jews, at least in ancient times, cared only about their own.

“The Jews were compassionate and caring to the people of their nation, to the people of their race…,” Archbishop Gilbert reportedly said during an October 24 religious ceremony commemorating the 225th anniversary of the Roman Catholic presence on Trinidad. Christianity, he proudly asserted, “universalized the concept of love.”

Predictably, the Anti-Defamation League protested the sermon, calling Mr. Gilbert’s statements “a disturbing repackaging of ancient anti-Jewish canards and supersessionist beliefs.” The American Jewish Committee chimed in with chiding of its own, contending that “such prejudicial comments not only reflect personal ignorance, but also ignorance of the teaching of the Catholic Church since Nostra Aetate.” That was a reference to the Vatican II declaration repudiating the centuries-old “deicide” charge against all Jews, stressing the religious bond shared by Jews and Catholics, and reaffirming the eternal covenant between G-d and the People of Israel (though it does not, of course, renounce the essential beliefs of Christianity).

Personally, I wasn’t insulted by the Archbishop’s characterization, even if he meant to include contemporary Jews. Because caring for one’s own is eminently defensible. In fact, it’s the only way to truly care for anyone.

Not much effort is needed to profess true love for all the world; but to actually feel such love just isn’t possible. Gushing good will at everyone is offering it to no one.

That is because, by definition, care grows within boundaries; our empathy for those closest to us, to be real, must be of a different nature than our concern for others with whom we don’t share our personal lives. Boundaries are what make those beloved to us… beloved to us.

Every person lives at the center of a series of concentric circles, the smallest one (in a healthy dynamic) encompassing parents, spouses, and children; the next circle out, other family members and friends; the one beyond that, members of their ethnic or religious groups. At a distance removed from that is a larger circle of human beings with similar values. And further out still, the circle containing the rest of humanity.

It is perfectly proper that we feel, and demonstrate, our deepest concern for the circle closest to us. More: it is the only way to achieve genuine care, providing us the ability to bestow it, if in a less intense form, upon those in the next circle out, and, in turn, on those beyond it.

Nothing demonstrates the danger of “universalizing the concept of love” better than the religion Mr. Gilbert represents. For all Christianity’s claim to have expanded its affection to all of humanity, early Church history was characterized by the vicious intolerance demonstrated by early “fathers” and emperors; the Middle Ages’ Crusades left swollen rivers of blood; and, a few centuries later, Reformation battles between Catholics and Protestants added millions of corpses to the body count.

Perceptive Jews and non-Jews alike understand how essential it is that ethnic or religious groups show special concern for other members of their “tribes.” They sense what to some may seem counterintuitive: it is precisely the intense empathy we feel and express for our “inner circles” alone that enables us to feel genuine, if somewhat less acute, concern for those in more distant ones. People who focus their deepest feelings on those close to them are those most likely to truly care about their fellow citizens or wider circles still. Exercising the “empathy muscle,” so to speak, provides the ability to feel—less intensely but more genuinely—concern for people who are not close to us.

So while the Trinidadian cleric may have been attempting an insult, he inadvertently provided his listeners—and all who were reached by media reports of his words—something else: a valuable opportunity to ponder how caring works.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

Communications: rabbishafran@amimagazine.org

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