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

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Good consideration of a tough subject. Everyone wants to be the "last to arrive". Close the door behind me. Where do we draw the line as things get worse ?

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