A few weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine gleefully forwarded a link to a study that asserted that atheists and agnostics are more motivated by empathy to help others than the religious are. Although this isn’t precisely news (similar reports were made nearly a year before based on three other studies), I wondered why my friend (and others who passed this around) were so pleased by the findings.
I suspect it is in part because our culture valorizes emotion, and in part because this cultural elevating of emotion leads people like my friend to think that less empathy is somehow not as good, that religion, if it is to do any good, must encourage people to be more empathetic.
But I disagree. I cannot speak for other faiths of course, but the sages of Judaism knew their business when they maintained that “a person who is commanded and does receives a greater reward than one who is not commanded and does” (B. Talmud, Bava Kama 87a).
We live in a society that considers personal choice to be the highest value. However, while choice can lead us to making good decisions, and is necessary for us to make moral choices in our interactions with others, more empathy isn’t necessarily better, and indeed it may well be that in terms of moral decision-making, especially moral decision making that involves long-term planning (such as environmental choices that involve personal discomfort over long periods) or large numbers of people – especially people we’ve never met, rule-bound and rational decision-making will lead us to far better decisions.
This week’s New Yorker has a wonderful article that reminds us that empathy works best when we are in one-to-one situations – humans tend to be motivated to feel for babies who fall down wells, children shot in schoolhouses or three women with compelling stories who survived years of torture by a sociopath. Yet our reactions, though well-meaning- to such tragedies may not be useful. We want to do something, and so we send food,clothing, toys – and the towns which don’t need these things are overwhelmed. We organize to send thousands of t-shirts to Africans – thus making a situation worse rather than better by undermining local textile economies with cheap junk, or pass laws that do the opposite of what we would wish to see. The New Yorker article offers these examples:
In 1987, Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who had been released on furlough from the Northeastern Correctional Center, in Massachusetts, raped a woman after beating and tying up her fiancé. The furlough program came to be seen as a humiliating mistake on the part of Governor Michael Dukakis, and was used against him by his opponents during his run for President, the following year. Yet the program may have reduced the likelihood of such incidents. In fact, a 1987 report found that the recidivism rate in Massachusetts dropped in the eleven years after the program was introduced, and that convicts who were furloughed before being released were less likely to go on to commit a crime than those who were not. The trouble is that you can’t point to individuals who weren’t raped, assaulted, or killed as a result of the program, just as you can’t point to a specific person whose life was spared because of vaccination.
Newtown, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, was inundated with so much charity that it became a burden. More than eight hundred volunteers were recruited to deal with the gifts that were sent to the city—all of which kept arriving despite earnest pleas from Newtown officials that charity be directed elsewhere. A vast warehouse was crammed with plush toys the townspeople had no use for; millions of dollars rolled in to this relatively affluent community. We felt their pain; we wanted to help. Meanwhile—just to begin a very long list—almost twenty million American children go to bed hungry each night, and the federal food-stamp program is facing budget cuts of almost twenty per cent. Many of the same kindly strangers who paid for Baby Jessica’s medical needs support cuts to state Medicaid programs—cuts that will affect millions. Perhaps fifty million Americans will be stricken next year by food-borne illness, yet budget reductions mean that the F.D.A. will be conducting two thousand fewer safety inspections
One of the reasons I find this tension compelling is that as a Conservative, female, rabbi, I spend a lot of my time negotiating the tension between halacha, Jewish law, and the need for Jewish societal change.
Halacha by its nature requires us to follow rules, but to be who I am, it’s also necessary to find empathy for people who traditionally have been excluded by tradition, to interpret laws in ways that makes the people more equal but also to interpret law without destroying it. Those laws are the framework by which we measure moral judgements, they should be the framework through which we, as Jews, see the world. Empathy, while important, is not, cannot, and should not be, the only driving force behind a moral decision. I am thankful that the rabbis also valued svara- logical reasoning- as a means of interpretation. But even reason alone is not pure – all of us are living like fish in the water, unable to see the rules and assumptions that go to making up our world, and making decisions based upon those assumptions without even recognizing them as social constructs. Reason thinks it is unaffected by these structures, but the reality is that reason itself is affected by emotion.
There is ultimately no escaping our frameworks – the best we can do is to try to balance them. And what that means is that being human, and being a good Jew, will always mean vastly divergent views on what God demands of us, and how we are to fulfill those demands. But while we are not require to finish the task, neither will we ever be free from struggling with it. And juggling all the parts of our human selves that make it difficult – and make it worthwhile.
In my last article I wrote about the need for a renaissance of mission-driven rabbis. I quoted from the powerful words of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm given at the 16th Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers in Manchester, England in 1968. I have received a lot of positive feedback on the notion that the traditional American synagogue needs an infusion of rabbis driven by a passion motivated by a compelling mission that sustains their work. In the words of Rabbi Lamm, the time has come for rabbis to reclaim the “role of rabbanim in the grand tradition.”
Another dimension to the growth of the synagogue community is what I call a “generosity of spirit.” This characteristic is so important and fundamental that it rests as the ultimate bedrock of all successful communities. A community is at its simplest a collection of individuals sharing experiences together. Communities can be further solidified by shared purpose and mission. The people in these communities invariably spend considerable time with each other in ways that individuals don’t spend with other people outside of their communities of choice. There is a lot of rubbing shoulders in the life of community.
It is this regular rubbing of shoulders that can contribute to the total breakdown of the community if a generosity of spirit does not exist. What is generosity of spirit? The Psalmist in Chapter 51, Verse 14 beseeches God to let “a generous spirit sustain me.” Ruach Nadivah – Generosity of Spirit is cast as intrinsic to the sustenance of life. A generosity of spirit is being ready to suspend judgment and accusation in the face of perceived slight and insult and maintain an open heart. This sounds simple but it takes a lot of intentional work to cultivate within the context of community.
Why did that person not say hello to me? How come that person missed the kiddush I sponsored this week? Why doesn’t the rabbi care enough about me to call me when I was ill? How could those parents let their children run wild through the Sanctuary? That person is so rude to forget to wish me a happy birthday today.
Distrust. Suspicion. Quickness to judge. Contempt. Anger. Indignation. These are all indications of a community that has a breakdown in generosity of spirit. For each one of those scenarios and the multitude of others that manifest in synagogue community, there are a range of possible reasons to explain each and every one of them. The assumption that it was meant as an affront against me and the accumulation of that sentiment amongst many people over an extended period of time absolutely obliterates the bedrock of healthy community.
People do not seek to join communities that are rife with distrust, contempt, anger and indignation. People join communities that are slow to judge others, filled with warmth and caring for each and every member. How do we further cultivate those traits in our synagogue communities? I believe with a lot of patience, a bit of forcefulness and determination.
Patience is required with the people who have developed over a period of time the traits of distrust and indignation because it takes a lot of self-reflection and inner work to build a healthy and positive attitude. It is just as important to not become indignant at those who are slow to change positively. A bit of forcefulness is required because if the community does not react against signs of a breakdown of generosity of spirit that breakdown can easily worsen and spread very quickly. Determination is necessary because even if at times it can feel like changing ingrained habits is impossible, we must nonetheless forge ahead and persevere. It is not impossible and it can be done and with enough determination we can make it so.
When we create synagogues bursting and overflowing with generous spirits we will have developed powerful models of a world redeemed amidst the world that is. Communities that demonstrate trust, respect and slowness to judge each person within that community present a picture of a humanity the way we should be all the time everywhere. “Restore unto me the joy of Your salvation; and let a generous spirit sustain me.” The joy of God’s salvation can ultimately be fully realized when we are sustained by generous spirits.
There has been what feels like a rash – an epidemic even- certainly a disease, of recent news about women whose treatment has been so horrific it defies imagination. Not only just has it been this year, but really only over the past month, that these stories have come out.
In some ways, these cases seem to have little in common. The rescue of three women kidnapped a decade ago, held captive and repeatedly raped by three lunatics, who were, we like to think, not like “us.” Three teenage girls who were raped and publicly humiliated for the serious crime of going to parties where they thought wrongly that they could trust their friends, or who were simply acting like teenagers, or for no reason at all. Three girls who were violated, two of whom were so humiliated by the public support of their violators that they committed suicide. Those boys must have been psychopaths, the girls who tormented them mean girls, spoiled. Or maybe we should mourn for the future of these boys, ruined by a single act. Hard to know, opinion seems to be split.
But these are aberrations, are they not? Committed by bad people, people not like us. Continue reading
A couple weeks ago news stations around the country featured the story of an 87-year old woman, a resident of a nursing home in Bakersfield, California, who was denied CPR by a nurse even while the 9-1-1 operator pleaded with her to administer the life saving intervention. The audio recording of that 9-1-1 conversation sends chills down our spine as we listen knowing that her refusal to offer treatment results in that elderly woman’s death. The nurse claimed to the 9-1-1 operator that it was against the policy of the nursing home to attempt life saving intervention by any of the employees and her sole job was to only call for help and wait with the patient. The facility later confirmed that this is indeed their policy.
The response to this incident was an overwhelming display of horror and disgust. How could anyone sit idly by while a person quite literally dies in front of them? This is even more pronounced when the person who refuses to help is a nurse, a member of the medical profession. This case and the wrong committed is so clear and unequivocal that it requires little commentary, if any.
The situations that are obvious are not where the struggle lies. We are defined not by doing the right thing when it was obvious but by the times we navigated uncertainty and chose to act properly and justly. Life is made up more of the gray than the black and white. How do we navigate the uncharted? How do we find direction when there is no immediate and visceral reaction of what we should or should not do?
This is what placing oneself into the fabric of a religious tradition is all about. It is embracing the limits of the “I” and finding strength in shared wisdom and collective insight. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the sooner one can accept the boundaries of what they, alone, can decide or figure out — that not all situations are as obvious in what one should do as the case of the nursing home in California — the sooner one discovers real strength and moral bravery.
Oftentimes, our society’s stark individualism is traced back to the experience of the rugged Western frontier of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet, nothing could be farther from the truth. A man or woman who decided to venture out and settle the front range of the Colorado Rockies or attempt to make a go of it in Southwestern Utah by themselves was not only doomed to failure but risked their very lives. The Western frontier would not have been transformed and struggling farms and communities in their infancy would not have overcome all obstacles and survived if not for the total embrace of the power of the “we” and the inter-dependence of one person to the other.
There are times where the decision to make is obvious. Those times we can act alone, confident in our course. The majority of our lives are not composed of such moments. A community of ideas and a faith tradition connect us to wisdom that has been forged through the test of time and hammered in the fires of experience that transcends the lifetime of any one person. Let us not abandon the the power of community and the teachings it offers in the absolute pursuit of the “I”.
Earlier this week, Rabbi Shira Stutman wrote a short essay in Slate about her realization that when she was in middle school, she had been a “mean girl.” After seeing it posted several times in my Facebook feed, I went and read it. I don’t know Rabbi Stutman personally (although we move in the same circles, and people I know and respect like and respect her, and I’m pretty sure we’ve met once or twice), and frankly, my initial reaction to the post was …subdued, compared to – well, certainly compared to a great many of the comments posted.
It was the level of vituperation in the comments that led me to spend some time thinking about whether I had missed something. Certainly, her point that we all struggle to be our best selves and don’t always succeed is not novel. Her opportunity to reflect on whether or not there are still parts of her which bully others, is reasonably laudable. So, what was it that so incensed so many of her readers?
Then this paragraph caught my eye:
The Lavender Ladies, by the way, remain my lifelong friends. They are the ones who I would trust with anyone or anything, the ones who danced at my wedding, who flew cross-country when my father died, who hold my deepest secrets. They now are mothers of daughters, too, deeply involved in the work of justice and of building community. They are Good People. We want our bullies to be Bad People, but, like Whitman says, we contain multitudes.
Certainly all the Lavender Ladies were children, and they grew up. But it is enough to say that they are good people because she trusts them, because she has remained friends with them, because they are deeply involved in work she respects?
They were children who -together- were on the cusp of adulthood, and they acted as a group. She asks herself about whether she is still, somewhere within, a mean girl (an appellation I hate, by the way, for its genderedness – my experience is that boys engage in just the same kind of behavior)? But what now bothers me is that there was no examination of the group dynamic – are they good people, if they act well towards one another? Is that enough? I would say no, it’s not. We know that people act differently in groups, that we are susceptible the actions and attitudes of those around us. The rabbis recognized this – it is why we have Jewish law – halacha is intended to build a community where the group dynamic is influenced from the start. That’s why there is such picayune attentiveness to the minutia of daily life as well as broad sweeping principles in halacha. It’s not sufficient of course, but it may well be necessary.
We know from studies that people are inclined to act well towards people who are in their group. We know that groups can be easily led to be not just competitive, but downright ugly towards those “outside.” We also know how those “in” and “out” groups get formed – often by picking an out group and defining ourselves in relation to it. Groups made this way form easily, and are difficult to break down.
It’s actually pretty likely that all the Lavender Ladies did grow up to be decent people. In fact, they were probably all decent people even in middle school – except when they were together, and happened to come upon the wrong person.
What I would like to see is us questioning ourselves not about whether any of them – by which I mean “us” – are good or bad people, but whether we are good or bad groups. Americans have very little sense of ourselves as being defined by group identities – especially those of us who are or can pass as white. And yet in many ways it is our groups which define us most deeply. There is even a social theory that posits that our personalities are actually only a collection of social ties. It is how we act in our social networks that most shows who we are – and perhaps is most truly who we are. It is easy to be a lion when you’re the only cat in the room.
As adults, we engage in this same kind of behavior more subtly – and more powerfully. How does this kind of group think inform the way we talk about what’s going on in Israel? Between different aspects of the Jewish community? The way we talk about poverty? As children, we can hurt one another badly enough, but as adults, the very same dynamic can play into politics on even a global scale. Rabbi Stutman opened a very important conversation, but if we leave it at one individual examining her actions as an individual, it is simply not enough. Because even if we are not each guilty, we are certainly all, together, responsible.
The other day, I noticed, to my amusement, that Facebook had changed the status update a bit. In place of whatever used to be there (I have to admit, I can’t quite remember, it was so innocuous) there is now a revolving collection of queries, most of which seem to be something along the lines of, “How do you feel today, Alana?”
Now, I am perfectly sure this was done with the intention of making Facebook a warmer, more personal place. But most of the folks I know seem to have had the same reaction as I did: why does Facebook all of a sudden want to be my therapist?
Part of the reason that Facebook is so popular is that it allows us to maintain relationships with people who have gone far from us physically, or sometimes even with people who are near, but we simply don’t have time to actually go to see. But when Facebook starts acting as if it, itself, is the thing we’re interacting with, a lot of us suddenly become uncomfortable. Yet, in truth, Facebook does influence how our relationships exist through its medium. Our interactions are short; on our own terms; they don’t require us to face our friends – or those with whom we tangle in argument. We post pithy idioms, and funny pictures, and those who agree with us “like” them, and those who don’t …slip away, or “unfriend” us.
It’s very different than the kind of relationships a community is made from. I worry that fewer and fewer people join synagogues (and churches, too, have this problem). In “online communities,” we feel as though we are connected, but to whom are we connected, really? Instead of looking into the faces of people who are older than us, younger than us, politically of a different stripe than us, we are peering mostly into a mirror.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone – I recently ran an app that measured my Facebook posts – it told me that over the past year, I’d written enough words for a book. While I am grateful that social media allows me to stay in touch with people who might otherwise have drifted away, in some ways, I rather wish I’d written the book, instead. Granted, I use social media as part of how I make my living. Also granted, I rather like confrontation and argument. I enjoy disagreement and the sharpening of teeth over different opinions, so that when I go to shul, and someone has a very different idea than mine over what the government ought to be doing, well, I relish the discussion – even if neither of us walks away convinced. So, I don’t find Facebook all that comforting.
One of the great gifts of a synagogue, or a church or a mosque is that we come into contact with people who are there at different stages of their life, who have different opinions about everything – and yet we are brought together for a common purpose, and in the task of glorifying God, we are required to set ourselves aside.
I’m not advocating dumping Facebook, or ignoring Twitter. Heck, I’ll even give the new MySpace a try if it offers anything interesting. But it is a relief to be obligated for set times every day, to disconnect from them, and instead of looking at a screen, look at living faces. Even when they’re scowling at me. I think if I decide I need a therapist, I’ll go find one with an actual couch.
Many of us love a good delicious piece of pie. It does not matter whether that pie is cherry, blueberry, chocolate chip or strawberry because there are very few taste sensations like a scrumptious piece of pie. Yet, our love of pie should not carry over to our community building and organizational framework. Because the thing with pie is that for every piece you consume there is one less piece left. This way of looking at community – if you have a piece then that is one less piece for me – is not only wrong but damaging.
All too often community leaders can see their city demographics as slices of a pie. The slice could be called “senior citizens” or the slice could be called “left-handed dark-haired Democrats with three children and two pets,” regardless of the term, that grouping is seen as a limited quantity item that one either gets or does not get. The reality of the matter is that community members are more like human beings than they are like slices of a pie.
A person appreciates engagement. People respond when organizations and the individuals who run them are attentive to their needs and their desires. A community member desires to feel that they matter and what they bring to the table is critical. If one organization can provide that or if two organizations can provide that, the result is the same: engagement with the community and strengthening the bonds of affiliation and cohesion. There are times where a shopper will exclusively only rely on one company or one product to meet their needs. There are people out there who will only drink one type of soda and no other. However, for every one person that will never deviate from their brand loyalty, there are many more who will go where they find meaning, connection and where they are appreciated regardless if that means shopping at one store, two stores or even three.
When the various community organizations come to realize that they ought not to be expending so much energy, time and resources on aggressively competing but rather on making sure they are offering the best service they can possibly offer and that the needs of each person that comes through their door is being met to the fullest extent then we will have moved in a very positive direction away from seeing every individual as another slice of pie to be fought over. The added dimension to moving away from the pie model is that, from the perspective of the community member, a Jewish community that is collaborative, that is cooperative and that is friendly with each other, is one that makes all the various organizations more attractive and more desirable.
Let us leave pie to the dining room and out of the board room.
Do Not Separate Yourself from the Community
When a standing-room-only crowd shows up for a township meeting in a quiet, relatively affluent suburban community, you know something important is happening. Not only did neighbors fill the township hall seats and spaces along the walls and doorways, but they also filled the room next door that had been equipped with closed-circuit TV for the overflow crowd to be able to be full participants. It was quite a lesson in democracy and politics.
My town is embroiled in a zoning battle, prompted by a request of a major international corporation whose headquarters are locally based. The company has a large open-space campus with offices and research facilities in the center. It claims that the changing business environment has rendered its usage of the facility increasingly obsolete and rather than rebuilding or redesigning the corporate space, it wants to commercially develop the open space. The plan would give developers a chance to build townhouses and a sprawling continuing care senior facility.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea if it weren’t for the fact that the local roads have already become maddeningly congested at peak hours, with no solution in sight. And there are potentially serious environmental issues with the property that have not yet been resolved. And the property is the one last tract of open space in the area. And the proposed new master plan would be locked in for 20 years – without legal means to change course if the community so desired. Most significantly, the dense population of this area would dramatically change our neighborhoods.
So our community organized and hired a lawyer and a planner and rallied to attend meetings. It was important to be there.
The town planner presented a theoretical framework that justified a new plan. But from the citizens’ perspective, many real-life concerns were not taken into account. The public listened respectfully, awaiting our turn. It was such a polite expression of democracy in action.
The lawyer and planner for the citizen’s group took up the floor. The stark distinctions between the citizens’ concerns and the theories of the town planner were laid bare.
The democratic process is a blessing even though it isn’t always pretty. The property owner has a right to ask for these changes. And we have a right to voice our opposition. And I’m proud of the unifying community spirit that this cause has engendered in our town.
The great rabbi Hillel said, “Do not separate yourself from the community, and do not trust in yourself until the day of your death.” (Pirke Avot 2:5) This wisdom is remarkably powerful for moments such as this. To the corporation, who has made this town its home for 70 years, I would say, “Do not separate yourself from the community!” Your responsibility to your community should guide your hearts. We ask you to honor a basic value of neighborliness: Do No Harm.
And to our community, we must then say, “Do not trust in yourself until the day of your death,” meaning: have humility. The greatest breakdown a community can have is in its inability to recognize the “right” in each other. I was exasperated when we got home very late from the planning board meeting and I exclaimed to my husband, “This is our community and they can’t be allowed to ruin it!” He was more level-headed than I was at that hour, and he simply said, “they have rights too.”
Do not separate yourself from the community. Both Hillel and American democracy got it right.