9/11: Empathy and Indifference
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If I had to condense the Jewish response to evil wrought by one human being upon another, I would do it in two words: “empathy” and “indifference.” These are the two sides of the coin around which moral behavior pivots. These are the elements by which we can discuss and respond to that day.
Let me explain.
In a recent book, Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen defined empathy as the “ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feeling with an appropriate emotion.” In other words, if you are able to extend concern beyond your immediate circle of self-interest, if you are able to consider someone else’s needs, wants and wishes that may be different from yours and behave accordingly – then you are empathetic. If you are indifferent to the concerns of others, if are unable to allow for the possibility that the needs, thoughts, feelings – the humanity – of another can impact your own behavior, well, that is the beginning of evil. And when you arrive at that point, where you are so absorbed in your own beliefs, so indifferent to the humanity of another, “zeroing out” in the bell curve of empathy – well, that is where evil is to be found. As the British philosopher Edmund Burke once explained, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It is a rather simple calculus, but it is a remarkably accurate litmus test by which to track evil over the course of human history.
Since ancient times, Jews have understood the empathy-indifference continuum. According to Talmud, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem came about because of sinat hinam, causeless hatred (Yoma 9b). It was the rancor wrought by indifference, by the inability of one person to identify with the needs of another, that so frayed the social fabric of society, that it was eventually torn asunder. Destruction, pogroms, cruelties on a large and small scale across history – in each and each and every case, it is the absence of empathy that is the marker by which we find the darkest moments of humanity. There is, of course, the question of scope. But by one understanding, the evil acts of 9/11 are yet another example in the tragic arc of human history when terrorists were so blinded by their radicalism, that they spilled the blood of innocent lives.
Which leads us ultimately to the question of response. There are no words that can mitigate, diminish or minimize the horror of 9/11 – no pithy explanations that can soothe a broken soul. And yet, whether it is in response to the Temple or the Twin Towers, we are not frozen into inaction. Because in realizing that evil is found in the lack of empathy, we also identify the antidote – namely, an insistence on expressing concern for others, an intolerance to indifference. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Chief Rabbi of Palestine under the British mandate, explained that if the Temple was destroyed due to sinat hinam, causeless hatred, then redemption will only come with ahavat hinam, causeless love. Only when we come to love our neighbor without reservation, then and only then will there be redemption for Israel and all of mankind.
Jewish history is replete with individuals who chose to respond to evil by asserting empathy. Think of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who narrowly escaped the Shoah, and lost nearly his entire family. His response, significantly, was not to freeze up, not to turn solely to parochial concerns, but just the opposite. It was his awareness of humanity’s indifference to the plight of the Jews in the Shoah that drove him to fight against injustice, to march with Martin Luther King, to rage against what he called the evil of indifference. Just this past week, I visited the Begin center in Jerusalem. Begin, who like Heschel survived World War II, was – unlike Heschel – hardly a name associated with left-leaning causes. Which is why I was fascinated to discover that his very first act as Prime Minister of Israel was to send a ship to pick up 66 Vietnamese refugees whose boat had foundered. Twelve other ships, from twelve other countries, were in the area and ignored them, but Begin, who lived through a world without empathy, when given the opportunity, chose to use his position of power to perform grand acts of human concern.
It may be human to be indifferent, but it is contrary to everything our tradition teaches. Our Torah reading this morning is clear as day on this front. If you want to know how a person should walk through a world where evil exists and persists you need look no further than our Torah reading:
If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it. You must take it back to your fellow…You shall do the same with anything that your fellow loses and you find: You must not remain indifferent. (Deut. 22:1-4)
These verses aren’t just about lost property; they are an ethical code of conduct for us all, legislation cautioning us against the willful denial of social responsibility. Our sacred tradition teaches us at every turn – from Cain’s abdication of moral responsibility in asking God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” to the sin of indifference in the generation of the Tower of Babel, to Joseph’s brothers standing before their father holding the bloodstained tunic in their hands – that a posture of indifference is contrary to who we are meant to be. There is even a Yiddish idiom to describe how we should not behave: machen sich nit wissendik, “to pose as unknowing” – to feign ignorance, to be a bystander, to stand idly by. In a sense, our entire code of ethics can be distilled down to the contemporary catchphrase “If you see something, say something.” Certainly in a post 9/11 world we are no longer, if we ever were, allowed to turn a blind eye. Our security, physical and moral, is contingent on a heightened awareness of the sea of our shared humanity. We are obligated to express concern beyond ourselves, we must orient ourselves towards each other, those we know and those we don’t. This is the response to a post 9/11 world – a Jewish response, but really a response for all humanity. Lo tukhal l’hitalem, “you must not remain indifferent.” This is the only path forward in a post 9/11 world.
One the most identifiable ritual acts of the Jewish people is breaking a glass at the end of a wedding. Tradition teaches that the act reminds us, that even at the height of our joy, we must recall the moments of destruction - the shattered glass strewn over our past, each fragment representing an historic act of indifference. And the couple, who have declared abiding concern for each other, take a courageous step over those broken shards, as if to say, “We see the indifference and we choose to respond, to march forward in the only way, the most powerful way we can, with empathy, love and mutual concern.”
On this tenth anniversary of 9/11, we see the broken shards, the shattered lives, the evil that continues to linger and present itself. And yet we step forward, we step over, courageously, cautiously and most of all, filled with love, concern and empathy for our common humanity, all of us created equally in the image of God.