January 12, 2017


Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale University has just published a book on empathy. Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion raises some excellent questions. To put it simply, he argues that empathy is not a very good basis for making ethical decisions. The book has been widely reviewed and attacked.

But as any thinking person recognizes, it all depends on what you mean by empathy. There is a distinction between empathy and sympathy. Dictionary definitions say something like “Empathy: The power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings.” Whereas sympathy might be defined as “Sharing another’s emotions. An affinity or harmony.” Diffen.com helpfully differentiates by saying, “Empathy is the ability to experience the feelings of another person. It goes beyond sympathy, which is caring and understanding for the suffering of others. Both words are used similarly and often interchangeably (incorrectly so) but differ subtly in their emotional meaning.”

Bloom is clearly following this distinction in which empathy goes much further than sympathy, and on the surface, he is right. Empathy only occurs in those moments when we share the emotional experience of another person. Empathy would cause a therapist treating a depressed person to also become depressed (even if a depressed person would probably empathize with another depressed person). Compassion is more appropriate than empathy. Compassion refers more to how one reacts to someone in pain or suffering, than how one actually feels. Bloom defines compassion as “concern for others, wanting their pain to go away, wanting their lives to improve—but without the shared emotional experience that's so central to empathy.” I may feel compassion for my torturer, sorry for him even. But I certainly will not empathize.

How often do we say, “I know exactly how you feel,” when we cannot possibly know unless we have experienced the same pain This is something we can rarely do because all we can do is extrapolate from our own feelings if we have suffered similarly. But that does not mean we are experiencing it in exactly the same way. We just can’t know because we cannot get inside another person to know what they feel.

But we say these things when we visit the sick or a house of mourning, because we want to be helpful, supportive, and emotionally present rather than scientifically or philosophically accurate and precise. Even if we have had similar experiences, we still can only extrapolate. We cannot know another’s feelings. Bloom argues that empathy is “biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism.” It is logic, rather, that helps us derive a moral code. Sympathy helps add an important layer of reinforcement that can also modify the extent to which we enforce the law. Sympathy for a poor man stealing to support his hungry family for example will lead his not approve of stealing but to try to find help for them.

Bloom wants us to be more analytical and accurate, and that is why he argues for sympathy or compassion rather than empathy. As a philosophy graduate, I am inclined to agree with him. The trouble is the Torah does not seem to. Commands to love, neighbors or strangers surely imply more than sympathy. The Torah adds a layer onto justice and the law. Mishpat is the law. Chesed is kindness. Chessed is often linked to Mishpat in order to reinforce the idea of sympathy. But again one might think this is beyond sympathy.

But then how do we explain Exodus 23:9 saying, “You shall know the feeling (nefesh) of the stranger because you were strangers.” We are specifically commanded to remember what the experience was like. Nefesh literally means the being, the very soul of a person. Doesn’t this sound like empathy? Except of course it was a command given to people who may never have experienced slavery and alienation in Egypt beyond the generation of the Exodus. So, it cannot mean having had the same experience. So perhaps Bloom was wrong from a Jewish point of view to suggest that such deep feeling ought to have no place in legal decisions.

It was a review by the Anglo-Jewish Simon Baron-Cohen in the New York Times Book Review on December 30, 2016 that helped me clarify the issue. He opens his review thus:
“When I read about what happened in the West Bank Village of Duma on July 31, 2015, I immediately felt empathy. …a firebomb was thrown inside the home of a Palestinian family…18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh…burned to death. Within weeks, both parents…succumbed to their wounds and died. … I empathized with that Palestinian family despite my being Jewish.”
It’s true that most Jews felt revulsion and sympathy. Indeed, from the President of Israel downward expressions of horror, sympathy, and support were overwhelming. I am very pleased the criminal was caught, prosecuted and convicted. But I cannot think of anyone using the word empathy or its equivalent. Was this because the situation is so fraught and so much pain is experienced on both sides? And was it because when there crime goes the other way, the response is to had out sweets in celebration?

How unlike this year when:
“A Palestinian man stabbed and killed an Israeli teenage girl as she slept inside her home on Thursday in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba. A civil security guard responding to the attack shot and killed the assailant at the scene. The terrorist, identified as Mohammad Tra'ayra, 19, from the nearby Palestinian village of Bani Na'im, jumped the settlement's perimeter fence and then broke into the isolated home, stabbing 13-year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel in her sleep."
In this case the terrorist was applauded. He was given a hero’s burial, had a square named after him as a martyr, and his family received a generous pension from the Palestinian authority. Or last week when unarmed young Israelis were killed, the Palestinian authority encouraged celebration and promised a pension as a reward? So why, I ask, did not Simon Baron-Cohen close this one example out of the hundreds of thousands he might have chosen that consisted of say, Muslims killing Muslims? Or give that example from Syria where Assad’s gangsters have raped little children and castrated young boys?

Of course, I thought, here is another example of a Jews eager to burnish their Left-Wing credentials. Empathy here means more than sympathy. It is an assertion of political loyalties and priorities. That, to me, proves that Bloom is right. You see, I sympathize with suffering; I can want to see suffering assuaged and conflict resolved. But I cannot empathize with a cause that seeks to destroy mine. Although I do not support settlements, when a political argument is supported with violence, I cannot empathize, because I am a potential target too. Some might argue one should but my religious values do not.

When the Torah talks about understanding the soul of the stranger and insists that we treat the stranger as one of us, that is when he or she identifies and comes to live within the community. When we become partners in society. But when the stranger is positively trying to destroy your community, there is no such exhortation. That helps draw a line between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is not just recognizing that something awful has happened. It is when you can identify in almost every way with the object of your empathy and there is a reciprocal relationship.

I do not know what any particular Palestinian or ISIS sympathizer feels towards Jews. But as a group I know they are not favorably inclined. They have been indoctrinated to dislike Jews. I understand this. I understand their antipathy, and I sympathize with their predicament. But I cannot empathize, because they cannot empathize with me. Neither can I empathize with those on any side who behave inhumanly or dehumanize others.

I wonder if it isn’t precisely because Judaism emphasizes care, concern, and sympathy that so often some Jews have this tendency to go too far in expressing empathy and sympathy, even when it is to our detriment.


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