Toward A Radical Empathy


The First Temple was destroyed [in 586 BCE] because of three sins committed by the Jews of that period: idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. The Second Temple was destroyed [70 CE] because senseless hatred was prevalent. This teaches us that the offense of senseless hatred is the equivalent of the three sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and murder.

— Babylonian Talmud, Yoma, 9B

The Second Temple was destroyed because of senseless hatred. Perhaps the Third will be rebuilt because of causeless love.

— Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook, first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel

Whether it’s our argumentative nature (two Jews, three opinions) or the capacity for anyone to hold a bullhorn in this age of social media, it’s been a particularly bad year for Jewish communal discourse. At times, the vitriol and venom we’ve witnessed, particularly but not restricted to issues around Israel, has been so biting that I’ve wondered whether this would be the moment of Temple destruction, had it not already happened.

At this year’s Passover seder, as my family proceeded with its annual custom of identifying a modern-day plague afflicting our world, I called-out “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is the tendency for human beings to surround themselves in an echo chamber of like minds and like opinions that serve to reinforce their existing viewpoints on given issues. With the proliferation of options that continue to validate our own opinions (only making us more intractable), this modern-day plague feels more potent than ever for me.

Which could explain why I keep gravitating toward a pressing call that has emerged across sectors, industries and disciplines for a new civil discourse, one that respects and validates other perspectives, even while we may disagree with them. It’s a far cry from the incivility and even hatred we’ve seen in our own community, aimed at those who may hold views different from ours.

What would it look like if we actively pursued data to disconfirm our biases? If we watched news broadcasts that held different political viewpoints than our own? If we joined Facebook groups that we were challenged by instead of those we “liked?” What would happen if we all took time in our days to actively engage in conversation with “the other” — whoever they might be?

What would happen if we embraced empathy as the core value of our time, considering the world from a place other than our own? If we were able to recognize that walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and seeing the world from another’s vantage point were not only valuable, but also an imperative to making our communities and the world a better place?

In some ways philosopher Martin Buber describes these empathetic encounters as “I-Thou” relationships (as opposed to “I-It” encounters) achieved when people dig behind the surface to gain a deeper understanding of the other person. So powerful are I-Thou encounters that they become mutually enhancing and potentially transformative relationships.

I’m not so naïve as to suggest that we will ever collectively reach a place of such high attainment and unconditional love, but I’m hopeful enough to recognize the transformative power of empathy on our community — an essential leap forward if we hope to ever return to an era of civility and a thoughtful exchange of ideas.

As an educator I believe that empathy is critical to the design of relevant and meaningful experiences for our learners. More than any curriculum, Jewish learning will be more meaningful if we accept where our learners really are, and take that as a starting point for the educational experiences. Moreover, if teaching empathy leads to it becoming a life skill, that teaching is invaluable; regardless of their age, learners need empathy to better prepare them to see the world from multiple perspectives.

Empathy is uncomfortable. Difficult. Challenging. But it is a skill that can be learned and developed. And embracing empathy as the new imperative — challenging ourselves to view things from a new perspective —makes us not only better people, but also better, more effective professionals, living and working in a more vibrant and dynamic community.

David Bryfman is the chief innovation officer at The Jewish Education Project, which will sponsor a Jewish Futures Conference on May 13 in New York; the conference is dedicated to radical empathy and is open to the public.