Reaching Beyond Empathy

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 14 January 2024

I have been thinking a lot this week about empathy – about putting ourselves in other people’s shoes, trying to imagine what it is to be them, and making decisions about how to act, how to behave, what is right, on that basis. This has partly been prompted by what Charlie has spoken about in her dvar torah – the lack of empathy that Pharaoh displays in our portion, not only towards the Israelites who are asking for an end to their suffering as slaves, but also to his own people, who are the subjects of increasingly violent and oppressive plagues.

As Charlie taught us, the Egyptian magician-priests, when they realise that their magic is not able to compete with the divine power that Moses and Aaron have at their disposal, warn to Pharaoh, ‘this is finger of God!’ – in other words, don’t mess with these guys! The implication being that Pharaoh is being warned against pursuing his absolutist policy, not just for the sake of the good of the Israelites, but for the sake of his own people who are suffering.

In next week’s portion, Pharaoh’s counsellors implore him to let the Israelites go, lest his obstinacy leads to the complete downfall of Egypt. And yet he does not care, and does not listen. He refuses to accept this gift of empathy – of being able to identify with the suffering of others. I say that empathy is a gift. Pharaoh refuses over and over to release the Israelites because his heart is hardened – because God takes away his ability to empathise, and therefore deprives him of the ability to do the right thing.

The Torah seems to push us all the time towards a morality based on this gift of empathy: over and over again we are commanded not to oppress the stranger because we ourselves were slaves in the land of Egypt; because we ourselves were oppressed. There is disagreement in the Talmud as to whether it is 36 or 46 times, but the point is it’s a lot. On at least one occasion the Torah goes further: it is not just that we were slaves in Egypt that makes it imperative that we stand up against injustice, but more precisely because we know the feeling of what it is to be slaves that we therefore have an obligation not to oppress others.

How is this possible when we ourselves are not, and have not been, slaves? (Or at least I very much hope that no-one in this room has been a slave – we know that modern slavery does exist, and affects millions of people still.)  This question has too parts: how is it possible to have empathy with the oppressed when it was only our ancestors who experienced slavery? But also: we have no historical evidence outside of the Torah that the Exodus ever happened – in which case how do we achieve the empathy the Torah is demanding of us if our ancestors never were actually slaves any way?

The reality is that we need to become a part of an imagined community of those who underwent this experience. And we do so in part through our Jewish ritual lives. At the festival of Pesach, the point of our Seder, the symbolic meal we make our way through on the first night, is to try to transport ourselves back to that time when our ancestors were liberated from slavery in Egypt. We are taught that our goal is for Jews today to believe that they too went through the experience of slavery and redemption – that it is as though it happened to all of us, as well as those in the past.

The commandment to eat matzah for a whole week, the dry bread that is baked incredibly quickly and not given the chance to rise, is another way our tradition gives us to make us empathetic to the plight of the slave, and to the experience of the oppressed.

So, we can force ourselves to imagine that we have a connection to slavery and oppression, even if it did not happen to us directly.

But what if this was not the case? What if an experience of oppression was not in our history or our imagined experience?

In his 2017 book, Against Empathy, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, makes the argument that empathy is not the best way for us to make moral decisions. This is a controversial argument, as he acknowledges that for many today, empathy is seen as a nearly universal good – you cannot get too much empathy, like you cannot be too healthy.

Bloom says: ‘Empathy has its merits. It can be a great source of pleasure, involved in art and fiction and sports, and it can be a valuable aspect of intimate relationships. And it can sometimes spark us to do good. But on the whole it is a poor moral guide.’

Bloom is not dismissing empathy as a tool in our social toolkit. Empathy is something that enables us to read a novel and to put ourselves in the place of a character, to feel why the events described are so important to them, and so significant and meaningful.

Empathy is something that can help us to appreciate great works of art – to try to get ourselves into the mind of the artist.

Empathy can be something that allows to connect more intimately with our fellows – at rabbinical school we were taught about empathetic listening – listening to others in a way that does not just hear what they say, but makes sure that the other person feels heard and that we take on and assimilate the meaning of their words for them.

But, Bloom argues, empathy as the be-all and end-all of moral reasoning is insufficient, and he argues that it can lead us away from righteousness. Because it is easy for us to have empathy for those to whom we are attracted. It is easy to have empathy for those who are like us. It is not so easy to have empathy for those who disagree with us, those who have a completely different world view. The danger is that a morality based entirely on empathy will lead us only to identify moral causes that affect those who we know, those who are attractive to us, and those who look and act like us.

Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, who at one time was the principle of Leo Baeck College, recently wrote about the extent to which empathy was part of Moses’ decision to lead the Israelites out of slavery. He looks at a particular episode in Moses’ journey – the famous scene in which Moses, a Prince of Egypt, who has grown up with all the trappings of power and status, witnesses the cruelty of an Egyptian slavedriver towards an Israelite slave. In response to the cruelty of the Egyptian, Moses strikes him down. Some may see this as Moses standing up for his countryman – of him defending his fellow Israelite. But, in fact, there is little evidence at this stage that he understands his filial connection of the slaves. In fact, the reason that he ends up fleeing from Egypt, is that Moses is worried that the Israelite slaves, also not recognising one of their own, will inform on him to the authorities.

So, it could be empathy, but Magonet suggests a different reason for Moses’ actions. He says that, seeing the way in which the slavedriver was treating the Egyptian, Moses turned this way and that vayar ki ain ish, and he saw there was no man – in other words, he saw that there was no one else who was going to do something about these terrible actions.

Moses continues to have this somewhat ambiguous relationship with the Israelites throughout the Torah. On various occasions it seems that the disparity in their origins get in the way of his feeling very much empathy with them, and vice versa. There are many instances down the line in which the people rebel against Moses, accuse him of not having their best interests at heart, and when he calls out to God in anger at having to carry their burden. And yet he does, because he sees that it is the right thing to do.

So I leave you with a question for your Shabbat lunch tables: why do you think it is important to stand up for justice and to fight injustice? Because there are at least two answers to this question. As Rabbi Golan spoke about in his dvar torah last night, there are two different languages being spoken. One is the language of empathy. The other is the language of moral imperative. Both, I would argue, are present in our Jewish tradition.

So, I want to end with a teaching of Rabbi Simcha of Bunim, a Polish rabbi from the 18th/19th century. His most famous teaching is that a person should walk around at all times with a piece of paper in each pocket. The first should say ‘I am but dust and ashes’ – it should be a reminder that we are pretty insignificant in the long course of history and in the vastness of the universe. The second should say ‘On my account was the world created’ – a reminder that I am actually the centre of the world, and the world is here for my purpose. Rabbi Simchah argues that, when a person is feeling arrogant or selfish or perhaps when we put our emotional response to a situation before everything else, they should look at the first piece of paper – to give themselves some perspective and some humility. When a person feels the opposite – as though they have absolutely no worth, as though the world would be better without them, they should read the second piece of paper – to remind themselves that they do have a place in the world, that the world values them and that they do make a difference. And ultimately the aim is to find a balance, somewhere in the middle, in which we recognise our own importance, but also our own limitations.

And so, as we try to navigate the question of justice – as we try to work out what is best to do at any given moment – let us reach for our empathy – let us try to understand what it means to be in someone else’s shoes. But let us also reach for that sense of justice and morality that exists beyond our experience, and beyond our intuitions. Because together, these two ways of thinking will perhaps show us the way.

Shabbat Shalom