Where Empathy Ends, Justice Begins

Sermon for Parashat Kedoshim, Judea Reform Congregation.

I’ve been saying for several weeks now how much I appreciate the fact that the book of Leviticus extends the realm of religion to include the earthier parts of life. When we say “Judaism isn’t a religion, it’s a way of life,” the parshiot we’ve just concluded are, in part, what we have in mind. Torah lays claim to the way we eat, the way we heal, the way we encounter birth and death, and the way we interact with people whom we’ve harmed. It is a torat chayim, a path for life. All of it.

This week, we arrive at parashat kedoshim, which includes the book’s majestic nineteenth chapter. It calls us to love, integrity, and holiness. In this single chapter we are commanded (among other things) to leave the corners of our fields for the poor, to take Shabbat seriously, to revere our parents, to refrain from gossip, and to treat others’ property with respect. It’s a chapter worth dwelling upon. It’s also the chapter that includes what Rabbi Akiva called the klal gadol batorah, the lens through which every commandment and teaching may be understood (Lev 19:18): “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

That commandment is often interpreted as a call to empathy. If we can recognize the commonalities between ourselves and our neighbors, the argument goes, we are more likely to act in their interests. Our neighbors share something with us. Physical proximity, perhaps, or kinship. Maybe it’s shared experiences that bind us to each other. Whatever the bond, the called-for response to feelings of empathy is acts of love.

If empathy evokes love, then it follows that we ought to be cultivating empathy, right? I’ve always taken that as axiomatic. A few months ago, an article written by my friend Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman introduced me to a book called Against Empathy, by Yale Psychologist Paul Bloom.

It’s a provocative title for a book, and I must say that Bloom’s argument is more nuanced than the title would suggest. Bloom’s point is that empathy – the capacity to feel what others feel – is an insufficient trait upon which to build an ethical life. If we root our ethical decision-making in empathy alone, then an absence of empathy, for whatever reason, may be felt as a license to act unjustly, or at the very least to remain silent and inactive in the presence of injustice.

Bloom uses many memorable illustrations to make the point. I’m going to introduce you to one he doesn’t use, because it hadn’t happened when he went to press. It actually happened just last week, and is in fact still happening. It’s the story of Natalie.

Natalie did not set out to become a sermon illustration. Homeless, she was minding her own business on a Los Angeles sidewalk late last week when a man named David gave her a dollar and, feeling pulled to form a more human connection, struck up a conversation. It happens that David is David Suissa, President of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, and Natalie is Natalie Levine, a former day school student and Jewish summer camper from the Northeast. Their conversation was recorded on video, David wrote some updates, and people responded with compassion, contributing funds to get her into a hotel and provide her with food and clothing.

Natalie’s story brought out the compassionate side of Suissa’s audience because they could identify with her. She was their “neighbor,” if not geographically, then through the lens of experience. “She attended day school? I attended day school. She attended Jewish summer camp? I attended Jewish summer camp. She belonged to a synagogue? belong to a synagogue.” In her, we see ourselves…and then, just as commanded, we act from a place of love.

So what’s the problem? How cold and heartless must this Paul Bloom be to write a book against empathy? I actually wrote to him this week, and he was kind enough to respond while on sabbatical, so I’m thinking he’s not that cold and heartless. With his assurance that I’m not woefully misunderstanding his work, and that Natalie is indeed an on-point illustration, I would present his argument in the briefest of ways like this: if the goal is to minimize suffering and maximize well-being, then goodness ought to be shared in the most effective and efficient way possible. Empathy can have the effect of distorting that distribution, an effect we do well to keep in mind whenever we experience it.

I think Bloom is onto something, and I think parashat kedoshim gets it, too. It seems to me that “love your neighbor as yourself” is a trap, a set-up. Its presence in verse eighteen primes us for what’s to come later in the chapter (Lev 19:33-34):

Now when there sojourns with you a sojourner in your land, you are not to maltreat him. Like the native-born among you shall he be to you, the sojourner that sojourns with you. Be-loving to him (as one) like yourself, for sojourners were you in the land of Egypt. I am YHWH your God.

In other words, the same practice applies whether or not we feel kinship with the other. It is as if the Torah is saying, “remember a few verses back when I told you to bring love and compassion to bear upon those who are close to you? Good. That’s the easy part. Now, do it for those with whom you share fewer points of contact, or none. Take that person who is separated from you by a gulf as wide as the one that separated your ancestors from their Egyptian taskmasters, and treat them exactly as you’d treat your own sibling.”

Harder, isn’t it?

In case there is any doubt about what’s intended, the very next verses drive the point home (vv. 35-36:

You are not to commit corruption in justice, in measure, weight, or capacity. Scales of equity, weighing-stones of equity, an efa of equity, and a hin of equity you shall have. I am YHWH your God who brought You out of the land of Egypt.

We are to use the same scale in all instances. Neighbor or sojourner. Documented or undocumented. Black or brown or white. Rich or poor. Straight or gay. Cis or trans. Left or Right. It doesn’t matter. Love your neighbor, love the stranger…no thumbs on the scale of justice, or of compassion!

Empathy may indeed be generated by the suffering of our neighbors, our Natalies. We read about a Jewish homeless woman and we’re moved to visit the gofundme.com page. Fine. But if we stop there, we’re guilty of no less a crime than corrupting justice. Our empathy for our neighbor must be the goad that leads us to act on behalf of those who are not our neighbors, but who are no less human.

Natalie’s biography of Jewish summer camping and Jewish day school, along with some luck, got her off the street. What about the other homeless people, vastly more numeorous, whose biographies begin in failing public schools and include stops in a criminal justice system demonstrably biased against the poor, and against people of color? We want to help Natalie with a few dollars? Fine. What are we doing about the root causes of homelessness, including the broken system of justice? Where is our empathy, our love, our action?

Another timely example: I recently felt stirred to compassion by the health challenges of a dear friend who is facing, along with everything else, astronomical medical bills. How blessed she is to have friends who can create gofundme.com campaigns, and a social media network filled with people of means! Though the $27,000 raised so far will be a drop in the bucket, it’s orders of magnitude beyond what someone in different circumstances might have received in the way of gifts from friends. And that other person was probably starting several steps behind my friend to begin with.

Empathy for my friend stirs me to an act of kindness. Fine. But in the wake of yesterday’s vote, what will I do to make sure that gofundme.com does not become our nation’s health insurance system? Empathy and the crowdfunding that flows from it can only take us so far. Justice is what will get us across the goal line.

Paul Bloom is not the first philosopher to argue against empathy. Ben Azzai did it nearly 2000 years ago, when he took issue with Rabbi Akiva. Akiva, remember, is the one who said that “love your neighbor as yourself” is the klal gadol, the greatest principle, of the Torah. Ben Azzai says no, there is one even greater (Gen 5:1): “This is the book of the history of humanity. On the day that God created humanity, God created them in the image of God.” As Rabbi Irving Greenberg teaches, the claim that humanity is made in God’s image is a three-part claim. It affirms that every human being is unique, infinitely worthy, and equal to all others. Rabbi Akiva’s ethic of empathy and proximity makes for a good starting point, but it is no match for Ben Azzai’s ethic. Our infinite worth, our equality, and our uniqueness are what make each of us worthy of justice and love, and that, more than empathy, must ground our ethics.

May we love our neighbors as ourselves, and the sojourners among us, too. May mercy and justice go hand in hand, and may our actions be for the benefit of all beings.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>