Empathy Doesn’t Come with Conditions

A Jewish response to the murder of George Floyd

There is a Jewish law regarding visiting a house of mourning which requires the visitor to remain silent until the mourner begins the conversation. This ostensibly minor regulation encompasses so many basic principles in the Jewish view of mourning.

First, it emphasizes that the primary goal of the visit is not what you say to the mourner, but the mere fact that you are there. You are there to express empathy, not “to explain the ways of God to man.” Even if the mourner never says a word to you, and the two of you sit in silence for the duration of the visit, you have fulfilled the mitzvah of consoling the mourner. The Rabbinic warning, “Do not try to comfort a mourner at the time that his deceased relative (still) lies before him,” is relevant in a house of mourning too. By his or her silence, the mourner indicates that this is not the time for words, but simply for validation and solidarity.

Second, waiting for the mourner to speak reminds you that your job is to follow, not to lead. The mourner will take you into his or her world, as far as you are allowed to go. Once you see where the mourner is comfortable going, you may, if you are close enough, and empathetic enough, be able to steer the conversation to topics that would be therapeutic. But none of that can happen unless you allow the mourner to first reveal the edge of the landscape of grief. Unless you are admitted to that world, you cannot help. You must operate within the mourner’s world, accepting it as reality, and not try to impose your own world upon another.

All of this can be reduced to the single word: empathy. True empathy means being there for someone and experiencing that person’s struggles as he or she does, without trying to superimpose your own reality on theirs. 

Empathy is more than an interpersonal trait. It goes to the heart of imitatio Dei, our obligation to imitate God. A well-known comment of the preeminent Jewish biblical commentator Rashi explains why God introduced Himself to Moses from within a burning thornbush: I am with him at a time of distress (Ps. 91:15). Wordlessly, God situated Himself in the world of suffering inhabited by the Hebrews. Another explanation of Rashi (Ex. 2:6) teaches that when Pharaoh’s daughter first glimpsed baby Moses on the Nile, she saw the Divine Presence with him in his floating refuge. If God Himself could silently enter the world of a crying infant, she realized, surely an Egyptian princess could penetrate the world of oppressed slaves. And so she rescued Moses. Empathy was at the root of redemption.

Properly experiencing empathy requires context. Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin (1887-1933) explained the context that we must recognize in our dealings with those disadvantaged in society. He noted that the brief biblical verse demanding that we not oppress an orphan or widow contains no fewer than three instances of doubled verbs (Ex. 22:22). Rabbi Shapiro interpreted this wording to mean that every wrong committed against a person lacking the normal supports of family resonates two-fold by evoking in that person the memory of their original handicap. “No one would dare do this to me, if my parent/spouse were here to stand up for me.” Thus each offense causes double suffering, ultimately to be repaid doubly by a compassionate God.

Our African-American brothers and sisters are now, in rabbinic terms, in a state of “a mourner whose deceased relative lies before him.” The murder of George Floyd has produced a sense of personal bereavement. But that is not all. Each such event evokes, as Ta-Nehisi Coates lists them, “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy.” At this moment, they are both the mourners and the widows and orphans of our tradition. What they need is our empathy. 

What does this mean in practice? It means that if those of us in the Jewish community and beyond temper that empathy with caveats, we are ignoring the example of God and the obligations imposed upon us by Jewish law. Asking at this moment for reciprocity in the form of combating anti-Semitism, for instance, is like visiting a house of shiva and saying, “Oh so sorry for your loss, and about the $100 you owe me…” Alluding to George Floyd’s priors means that you are not seeing through the eyes of the mourner. Condemning the entirety of the Black Lives Matter movement at this time for some of its affiliates’ excoriation of Israel or other political stances is, to the ear of the mourning members of the community, the opposite of empathy. When God appeared in the burning bush, He did not condemn the Hebrews of the day who were bearing tales or worshiping foreign gods. Responding to the phrase “Black Lives Matter” with the rejoinder “All Lives Matter” should evoke the memory of Holocaust Memorial Day statements where Jews were listed as just another group persecuted by the Nazis or omitted entirely, and shows utter indifference.

By its very definition, empathy doesn’t come with conditions. I am with him at a time of distress. God performed the ultimate act of empathy to live in the realities of an endangered baby and a nation of slaves. His example inspired an Egyptian princess to unprecedented empathy for her father’s dehumanized Hebrews, an empathy that bred Moses, who led the people to freedom and received the law that binds us all in empathy.

Then as now, only with true empathy can we hope to be redeemed.


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