Monday, 23 February 2009

In Search of a Hebrew Word for ‘Empathy’

As many of you will know I have spent a chunk of time in Israel these past few weeks and I want, today, to reflect on two of my experiences there and offer some observations on, perhaps the single most important element of the emotional tug to do good that there exists in Judaism, for it is an element in rich display in this week's parasha.


Last week, as part of Rabbinic Assembly Convention I travelled with a number of other Rabbis to Tel Aviv to see a side of Israel most Israelis don't know about, let alone most tourists.

The area around the old bus station in Tel Aviv was long ago abandoned by Israelis who could afford to move elsewhere; too dirty and noisy. Now it has become the centre for illegal workers, eking out an existence on the edge of Israeli society. Some of these workers are refugees; fleeing atrocities in Darfur, Eretria and the like and others came over legally, for example to work as home carers, only to lose work permits. It's a strange world, one where very odd rules apply. The butchers sell pork and along the streets are signs in all kinds of languages, just not in Hebrew. The owners of brothels love the area because none of the local residents dare complain to the police since they risk deportation. Even the police are happy, the area is centred on one main thoroughfare and every now and again they come down, seal off one end, seal off the other and deport everyone caught in the middle.


We met with an Eritrean who spoke of the oppression he faced in his home country and his decision to flee to Israel, a country he knew of from the Bible stories. He walked across Egypt and the Sinai was shot at by the Egyptian border guards, who killed his brother and now he is in Israel he is seeking asylum, but the Israeli government refuse to make a deliberation on his case. The problem, for the Israelis, is that they have good diplomatic relations with Eritrea which they don't want to jeopardise by acknowledging that this one-party, military dictatorship known for mass arrests, torture and illegal killing. And so this Eritrean boy, who's read his Bible, turns up in a land first claimed as Jewish by a bunch of refugees from Egyptian oppression, and in a State forged out of the horrors of the Holocaust and is told that there is place for him.

I know it's not easy for Israel. There are plenty of corrupt abusive regimes arrayed around her borders and Israel is rightly concerned not to be seen as a sink-hole for refugees from across Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but the irony of refugees from slaughter and oppression being told that they can't find even a work permit in the State of Israel is sharp enough to cut me.


About four weeks ago, at the tail end of Operation Cast Lead I met with a well known Israeli educator who had just come back from a training for Israeli born youth leaders - madrichim who were preparing to spend the summer staffing American Jewish camps.

He had tried to run a session on empathy – on feeling the pain of others – a useful enough skill for Youth Camp madrichim – but had felt he had come up against a brick wall in the context of Operation Cast Lead.

'There wasn't,' he told me, 'any space left for these guys to feel the pain of those in Gaza. Their ability to hold pain was all used up by their own suffering, their own sense of being victims, attacked, terrorised.'


That distressed me.

'There's no word in Hebrew for empathy,' I noted, 'empatia' he suggested, not really in disagreement.


That lack of space to feel the pain of the other.

That lack of ability to find in our own hearts space to see those who scare us, those who many of us  would consider enemies, is occasioned by more, of course, than the last few year's worth of rocket attacks. There are the wars of 73 and 67 and 48, not to mention the Holocaust and pogroms and the expulsions and everything else. Many of us have run out of space.

We've become so trained in seeing ourselves as the put-upon, the oppressed, the victim, that we need a prod to remind ourselves that it is possible that we might have become oppressors, perpetrators. It's not a matter, to me, of counting up the number of missiles that have landed in one place and balancing them against the number of missiles that have landed in another.

It's not even a case of balancing the number of dead, God help us.

The question is this – can we find the room to see in the stories of the other our own stories? Or are we so invested in seeing every tale of redemption and escape from tyranny as being about our redemption and our escape to exclusion of any other people getting a look in?


All this brings me to this week's parasha.


וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה, וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ:  כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

 וְגֵר, לֹא תִלְחָץ; וְאַתֶּם, יְדַעְתֶּם אֶת-נֶפֶשׁ הַגֵּר--כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם


As for the stranger in your midst, you shall not wrong or oppress them, for your were strangers in the Land of Egypt.

And again,

As for the stranger you shall not oppress for you know the soul of a stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.


The command not to oppress the ger is repeated 34 times in the Bible.

And it's clear that ger in this context doesn't mean the convert. It means the outsider to the Jewish community who wants to live in the Israelite camp, it is precisely the model of the migrant worker, the economic refugee that so many of us, or our parents have been over time.

It certainly would cover the case of our Eritrean friend.

This is the way in which empathy functions in Hebrew.

There may be no word for it, but the idea could not be clearer.

We are commanded to feel the pain of the dispossessed, the alone, the widows, the orphans, all of them, because we know the soul of the ger.

It is hard wired into what Jung would probably call our collective unconsciousness.

And while the Bible tells us to do many things zecher yitziat mitzrayim – as a response to our own redemption from pain, the thing we are told most often is to take care of those contemporary victims of oppression, those who in a contemporary milieu, a milieu in which we English Jews function so well and feel so comfortable, have no voice, no power, no legal personality.

For this has been our story. Ki gerim hayinu.

And we give meaning to it by the way we live out its moral in how we treat other gerim.


In fact it may even be that the Jewish version of empathy, forged as it is in the instruction to neither wrong or oppress.

Why empathy might be seen as merely an emotional response the Rabbis, with their eye for concrete action take the general terms 'wrong' and 'oppress' and render them even more explicitly as commands not to wrong with words and not to oppress with financial opportunism[1]


One ancient Aggadah even looks at the placement of this verse, next to a command to avoid idol worship to suggest that one who oppresses a ger by making something of their different religious outlook is deemed to have committed the great sin of avodah zarah themselves.[2]


It turns out that to be a true survivor of the experiences of our faith we have to look beyond our own people.

As tired as we may be, as hurt as we may be.

The command is clear – but it is not a command to feel empathy – we can be reminded of what we might have forgotten – ki gerim hiyitem – but the command is to action.

To hear the voice of those who suffer from the same lack of legal personality, economic possibility and emotional security as we have suffered from throughout time.


Shabbat shalom,

[1] Mechilta and Rashi ad loc

[2] Leket, cited in Torah Shleimah Exodus 22:266

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Happy New Year To Trees Everywhere


It snowed this week.

You might have noticed.

It snowed and all the big grown up things in the world froze up, clammed up and shut up.

And all the young things in the world, jumped up, ran out and played.


It’s Tu B’Shvat tomorrow night.

The Jewish New Year for Trees, so I thought, this week, I would look at a Jewish relationship with nature, with weather and with nature.


Psalm 148, one of the daily repeated Psalms contains this beautiful piece of poetry.


3. Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you stars of light.

4. Praise him, heavens of heavens, and you waters that are above the heavens.

5. Let them praise the name of the Lord; for he commanded, and they were created.

6. And he established them for ever and ever; he has made a decree which shall not pass.

7. Praise the Lord from the earth, you crocodiles, and all deeps;

8. Fire, and hail; snow, and vapors; stormy wind fulfilling his word;

9. Mountains, and all hills; fruitful trees, and all cedars;

10. Beasts, and all cattle; creeping things, and winged birds;

11. Kings of the earth, and all peoples; princes, and all judges of the earth;

12. Young men and also virgins; old men, and children;

13. Let them praise the name of the Lord; for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above the earth and heaven.


I feel two things reading this Psalm.

One is the sense that it is all God.

Indeed we have an idiomatic term for earthquakes, hurricanes and the like, we call them Acts of God, even the supposed atheists.

Weather is God’s will made manifest in the world.

To appreciate the weather is to appreciate God’s power, might


The other thing is how violent all the weather is.

God seems to like His weather bold, and we are encouraged to be bold in return -

Halelu btziltzelei shema, halelu btziltzelie truah – praise Him with crashing cymbals and clanging cymbals.[1]

The weather is noisy and scary, it is supposed to be scary.

I’m reminded of God’s answer to Job.

Job challenges God’s justice and ultimately God responds by directing Job’s attention to the weather – to nature, to the violent power of nature.

26. Behold, God is great, and we know him not, the number of his years is unsearchable.

27. For when he draws up small drops of water; they are distilled into a stream of rain;

28. Which the clouds drop and pour down on man abundantly.

29. Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds, or the noise of his tabernacle?

30. Behold, he spreads his light upon it, and covers the roots of the sea.

31. For by these he judges the people; he gives food in abundance.

32. He covers his hands with the lightning, and commands it where it shall strike.

33. The noise of the storm tells of it, the cattle also of the rising tempest.


The purpose of weather is to remind us that we are no in control.

To remind us that there is a power beyond us, beyond our human grasping.

We do not run the world entirely according to our own fiat.


We are learning this lesson in any number of quarters at this time.

We are not the Masters of the Universe.

To be a person of faith one needs to cultivate an ability to let go.

This sense is held even in the Hebrew term for belief – emunah it means something that can be leaned on, we rest our weight against the forces of the Universe and hope, through our lives of gratitude and contribution that there will be enough there to keep up propped up in the storms.


I remember as a child at School a karate teacher doing a demonstration designed to encourage school kids to sign up for karate classes.

He invited one of the locks from the school first XV rugby team to come up on stage and punch him in the stomach as hard as he good.

Meanwhile the teacher prepared himself in the manner of one Karate school or another. The punch was thrown and thump. It landed, it looked it hurt, but the teacher got on with his presentation.

He asked the rugby palyer to throw a second punch, this time while the teacher prepared himself in the matter of Tai Chi.

The punch never seemed to land. It was thrown and the teacher bent around the onrushing fist and the energy dissipated.

It was the different, he told us, between the oak and the willow.

The oak may well withstand blows, but the truer strength, the deeper strength, was the strength of the willow.

Able to sway with the wind, withstand the storms, existing in harmony with the weather rather than fighting against it.

It’s very Jewish way to face up to the ebbs and flows of the powers that are beyond our control.

Weeping like a willow when things go wrong,

Weeping like a willow even when things seem so wonderful

Swaying like the willow in the fierce winds, bending, buckling even, but retaining the ability to spring back.

That is the strength we should wish for, as humans, as Jews.

Not the strength of the oak – the strength that is impressive right up to the moment when crack, we snap and all our strength is exposed as no more than firewood.

But the strength of the willow, shedding leaves in winter and gaining again in summer.


This is what we learn from nature.

We learn that the ebb and flow of success and failure comes like summer and winter, that joy will be followed by sadness and sadness will be followed by joy.

There is a powerful spiritually to be accessed in nature.

It’s not ‘nice,’ it’s not twee, but it is holy.

And it’s true.


Dating back, only as far as the seventeenth century is the ritual of the Tu Bishvat Seder.

A classic piece of Kabbalistic invention, smuggling some of the garb of a ‘ritual rich’ festival and adjusting them to a ritual poor moment in the calendar.

In the classic Tu B’shvat seder of the Pri Etz Hadar[2] the four cups of wine are matched to different kinds of fruit which are in turn matched to different aspects of creation; Divine creation and our own.


The journey begins with the Kabbalistic modality of Asiyah – manufacture.

Putting together bits of wood to make, for example a chair, or a table.

This is the lowest kind of creativity, we can all do it, we all do it all the time.

And this level of creation is marked with consumption of fruit with inedible shells – pomegranates, walnuts, almonds, pistachios and on the list goes.


And then the journey continues with the modality of Yetzhirah – formation.

Turning a tree trunk, for example, into planks of wood.

This is a little more sophisticated, as a kind of creation, but not by much. We can all do Yetzirah.

And this level of creation is marked with the consumption of fruit with edible exteriors, but an inedible core – olives, dates, cherries, plums and on the list goes.


And the journey continues with the modality of Briah – creation.

This is the highest form of creation we, as humans, can manage – if indeed it is within our grasp at all.

Creating a tree from a seed, an acorn, for example.

And this level of creation is marked with the consumption of fruit with no protective inedible elements at all; grapes, figs, apples.


There is a fourth level of creation – Aztilut – the creation of the thing that creates the seed that begats the tree, but that is beyond our realm, as finite humans.

There are no fruits we can eat to touch this level of creation.


But the most remarkable aspect of this matching of kinds of creative potential and power to fruit is that the most high, the most impressive acts of creation are matched not to the tough, well protected fruit, but the bare fruit, the naked fruit, as it were.

The fruit most easily bruised, damaged, destroyed.

This is the great irony and great truth about life.

The more boldy and brilliantly we live, the more we are at the mercy of our environment.

The more tiny, secure lives we lead, the better protected we are, but the less creative we are able to be.


So this is the call.

That we should our lives more like a willow,

More open to the most powerful levels of creation, willing to take risks,

Willing to bend and rebound.

Living in tune with our God and our Universe.


Shabbat shalom and Happy New Year to Trees Everywhere.

[1] Ps 150

[2] See the introduction and translation in L. Fine Judaism in Practice (Princeton 2001) p.81 & sub.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Fame - of sorts


I’m to be featured in a programme about God and the Internet.

Radio 4, Monday 9th February, 11:00.


More info, in case you are interested, here



Bad Weather Closing In and It's Nothing To Do With The Snow



Two members of the community have lost their jobs this week – and that’s only the members I know about. In a week when so much attention has been paid to the weather forecasts, it does feel as if we are standing on an exposed plain watching stormy clouds rolling in.


Care of those facing economic difficult, temporarily or otherwise, has always been a central part of Jewish community and commitment. At a time where so many are in fear I offer the following three pieces of Rabbinic advice.


Do let us know in the Synagogue. We would want to be able to help on a personal basis and besides there may be opportunities we are aware of that could assist you professionally. We also have a fund for those who are facing financial need, if you are interested in applying to that fund, please contact by e-mail. Of course there is no question of withholding any ability to engage with any part of Synagogue communal life from those facing financial need, we just need to know.

In fact you should tell everyone. Loss of employment in this current climate is no cause for embarrassment or denial, Rather, at least for your Jewish friends, letting us know that you face financial difficulties gives us opportunities to perform a mitzvah – an obligation to recognise our mutual responsibilities. Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Lazeh teaches the Talmud. The phrase is usually translated as ‘All Israel are responsible for one another,’ but the exact means is that there is an insistence that we accept a need to act as financial guarantors for one another. Our oft-spoken communal responsibilities are firstly financial.


Secondly do approach the Employment Resource Centre - - The ERC offers advice and guidance on developing a CV, training in interview preparation techniques, advice concerning job search strategy, career guidance and networking as well as additional specific training seminars. It is a service provided free to the entire Jewish community and several members of my previous community have found their support invaluable.


Thirdly – don’t stop. We live in a society that encourages (and almost demands) we place our professional responsibilities at the centre of our identities – ‘How do you do, I am a banker, an accountant, a ….’ When we lose our job we lose not only the income (and that is grave enough), we also are threatened with a loss of identity. Don’t stop. ‘Even the poor person who is sustained by charitable handouts must give charity,’ teaches the Talmud, that is a demand designed not to increase charitable contributions, but instead to increase the sense of dignity in the giver. If you can’t make the financial contribution you would wish, make contributions in other ways. Just don’t let the loss of employment strip you of your ability and willingness to be a force for good in the world. Judaism refuses to consider human beings = their employment. We are, more importantly, the sum of our relationships with our fellow human beings and the Divine – the cosmos in which we all find ourselves. Loss of employment cannot be allowed to get in the way of those relationships. Indeed, with a little more time, take advantage of the opportunity to nourish those relationships.


Tell us, contact the ERC, don’t stop.

And pray.


Harachaman hu yifarnasenu b’cavod – May the Merciful one bring us an honourable livelihood.


May it come to us all,

Shabbat shalom.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Why I love the Bible, the messy dark Bible

Because no-one has put it better than Yehudah Amichai


I’ve Filtered out the Book of Ester

I’ve filtered out of the book of Ester the residue

Of vulgar joy, and out of the Book of Jeremiah

The howl of pain in the guts. And out of the

Song of Songs the endless search for love,

And out of the Book of Genesis the dreams

And Cain, and out of Ecclesiastes

The despair and out of the Book of Job – Job

And from what was left over I pasted for myself a new Bible.

Now I live censored and pasted and limited and in peace.


A woman asked me last night in the darkened street about the weel-being of another woman

Who had died before her time, and not in anyone’s time.

Out of great tiredness I answered her:

She’s fine, she’s fine.

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