Individualism and Empathy: Do We Live on an Island?

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz
November 6, 2013
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It was once believed that our core obligations in life are to G-d, our family, and our local community. All of those are, of course, still true, but as global citizens our responsibilities have expanded as our consciousness has.

We no longer can live in isolation. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great 19th century German scholar, reminds us of our new obligations in modernity.

Do not shirk the social obligations of pulsating modern life; do not regret that today’s nations, in their struggle for enlightenment, have invited also the sons of Jewish law to participate in their social aspirations and that they have opened for the sons of Israel the gates to scientific and civil endeavors and achievements (The Collected Writings, Volume 8, p. 325).

We must strive to have empathy for all people, not just those in our immediate community. Rabbi Naftali Tzi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv) taught that our righteous forefathers modeled ethical behavior to gentiles (“even with repugnant idolaters”):

This was the praise of the Patriarchs, that in addition to being righteous, pious and lovers of God in the greatest manner possible, in addition they were righ­teous (yesharim), that is, that they conducted themselves with the nations of the world even with repugnant idolators…with love and with concern for their benefit since that is what sustains creation. Thus we see how much our father Abraham put himself out to pray for Sodom… This is precisely as “the father of the multitude of nations” for even though the son does not tread in straight paths nevertheless he is concerned for his welfare and ben­efit. And our father Jacob, although he was sorely vexed by Laban who in­tended to eradicate him… nevertheless [Jacob] spoke soft words to him…and quickly became reconciled with him (Haamek Davar, Preface to Genesis).

Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak haKohen Kook teaches that we cannot (morally or spiritually) ignore the global events occurring around us.

The structure of the world, which appears at this point to be tottering due to the terrible storms caused by the sword full of blood, requires the building of the Jewish nation. The building of the nation and the revelation of its spirit is identical, and it is all intertwined with the building of the world, which is presently fragmenting and is yearning for a force full of unity and spiritual­ity, and all of this is to be found in the soul of the Congregation of Israel. The Spirit of God is full therein. It is impossible for the spirit of a person whose emotions of his soul course within him, to be still at this pregnant moment, to not call to all of the forces that lie hidden within the Jewish people: Arise and fulfill your obligations. World culture is tottering, the spirit of man is weakened, darkness envelops all of the nations… the time has arrived for the Light of God that is revealed via His people to shine…(Orot, Ha’Milhamah, 16).

American history shows that we have at times forgotten these lessons. In the period following the Civil War (termed the “Gilded Age” by Mark Twain for a thin coating of gold that masked a base interior), economic inequality flourished along with increasing segregation in the South, bolstered by Social Darwinists who proclaimed “the survival of the fittest” as if it were G-d’s plan for progress. Eventually, this immorality brought about a reaction, the Progressive era, which brought about legislation to improve housing and working conditions, woman suffrage, the income tax, and the popular election of Senators, among other reforms. After World War I, the nation retreated inward again, embracing nativism, racism, and an intolerant Christian fundamentalism, along with increasing economic inequality. The Great Depression that began in 1929, in turn, eventually led to many of the measures that still form the core of our social welfare: Social Security, disability, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, and increased workers’ rights, among others. World War 2 also brought America to confront the need to engage in world affairs again, as we helped destroy the Axis powers and their extraordinary brutality.

Today we face new challenges that have emerged from our failure to recognize that we are all in the same community. One of the core deficiencies in our current society is economic inequality, which is widening at an unprecedented rate. In 2010, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans took in 93 percent of all the new wealth generated, and the wealthiest one-hundredth of one percent took in 37 percent of this wealth. Thus, far more than one-third of all new income created in 2010 went to 15,000 households with an average yearly income of nearly $24 million. Meanwhile, 99 percent of the population had an average $80 yearly increase in income. The Bush-era tax cuts that reduced taxes on the very wealthy exacerbated this income inequality. During the period of economic expansion during President Clinton’s terms, the top 1 percent took in 45 percent of total income gains, but during President Obama’s Presidency it has risen to 93 percent.

As if this were not enough, there is evidence that economic inequality creates further barriers to a feeling of community. The Chronicle of Philanthropy published a study indicating that when wealthy people cluster together in their communities, they become less likely to be charitable. Those who make more than $200,000 annually and who live in the wealthiest communities give a lower percentage of discretionary income (2.8 percent) to charity than do those who live in more heterogeneous communities (4.2 percent). This is fully 50 percent more than those who lived in very wealthy areas. Both groups also gave far less of a percentage than those with a more middle class income, who gave 7.6 percent of their discretionary income to charity.

In addition, as Ken Stern has pointed out, in 2011 the wealthiest Americans gave 1.3 percent of their income to charity, while Americans in the bottom fifth gave 3.2 percent of their income to charity. Indeed, it appears that the wealthier people become, the less likely they are to give to charity. Instead, the very wealthy will give to universities, hospitals, museums, and other institutions that serve the elites. For example, the Koch brothers are very prominent in funding the arts (the David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center, New York, formerly known as the New York State Theater, is one prominent example) and even some public broadcasting programs (e.g., the Nova series). However, they have also donated millions to radical conservative Tea Party candidates and consistently fund organizations that deny climate change, fight healthcare reform, and oppose legislation against tobacco. They rarely offer money to charity.

This self-isolation from the community can have harmful political effects as well. The very wealthy Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney rarely gave press interviews during his unsuccessful run in 2012. He revealed his true feelings when he spoke in May 2012 to a group that he assumed were fellow wealthy Americans, and did not know that he was secretly being taped. He characterized the “47 percent” of Americans who were going to vote to re-elect President Obama as…

dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims…. who pay no income tax…. my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

The attitude that the poor and middle class are “those people” persists in today’s political gridlock, and is demonstrated by the unfortunate tendency of a radical fringe to force cuts in aid to the poor as the price of avoiding total chaos through default. Consider the following perverse reactions to real problems:

  • In the spring of 2013, there were 3.8 million job openings in the United States, but there were 11.7 million unemployed (not counting those who have given up trying to find a job). Thus, there remain 3 applicants for every available job. In spite of this, over the past several years, Congress has forced the cutback of unemployment benefits from a high of 99 weeks to 26 weeks or fewer (depending on the state).
  • The economic recession has resulted in 47 million people going on food stamps (SNAP), a number that has not decreased, in part due to sequestration cuts demanded by the Republicans in Congress that have kept tens of millions of people in poverty. In September, radical House Republicans pushed through a Farm Bill that included $40 billion in cuts to SNAP, in spite of the reality that more than half of food stamp recipients are children, and most of the people receiving food stamps are working Americans.

The current emergency situation, where the United States faces defaulting on the expenses that Congress has already approved, has further illustrated this community collapse. During the past week, protestors whipped up to a frenzy by radical politicans came to the White House with a Confederate flag, while one speaker openly called President Obama a Muslim (oddly, the leading figure behind the war on the poor and the immigrant is Senator “Ted” Cruz of Texas, who ironically was born Rafael Cruz in Calgary, Edmonton, Canada, of a Cuban father and American mother). In another development, a pro-gun rights group has announced its intention to hold a gun rights rally on December 14 (the anniversary of the mass shootings at the Sandy Hook school), in Newtown, CT, where the mass killings occurred. Predictably, none of these pro-shutdown demonstrations protested against aid being cut to the poor.

Our current turmoil confirms the need to maintain the needs of the community in everything we do. We may ourselves be capable of having certain luxuries, but the rabbis caution us against the consequences of living on our own island.

The rabbis taught:

Formerly, they were wont to convey [victuals] to the house of mourning, the rich in silver and gold baskets, and the poor in ester baskets of peeled willow twigs, and the poor felt shamed: they therefore instituted that all should convey [victuals] in osier baskets of peeled willow twigs out of defer­ence to the poor. Formerly, they were wont to serve drinks in the house of mourning, the rich in white glass vessels, the poor in colored glass, and the poor felt shamed: they instituted therefore that all should serve drinks in colored glasses out of deference to the poor (Moed Katan 27a).

One’s wealth is not defined by what one owns in their possession but by what they have given to others to help them. A king once summoned Baron Rothschild, the British Jewish philanthropist, and demanded to know exactly how much the Rothschilds’ assets were worth. The baron brought the king a ledger in which a figure was tallied. “This is a large amount,” said the king. “But I know you are worth much more. Give me a true figure.” “Okay, this is a list of all my charities,” the baron explained. “You asked to know how much I’m worth, and this is all I really own. The rest is up in the air.” He was teaching that from the view of eternity, we only really “own” the money we give away. The money we spend on ourselves (or die with) has no eternal significance, whereas the money we contribute to help others has eternal value.

Not only in terms of financial resources, but emotionally, we are also to cultivate empathy for the other in a challenging spot. Rabbi Nachman of Breslove teaches this point well.

Sometimes when people are joyous and dancing, they grab a man from outside the dancing circle, one who is sad and melancholy, and force him to join them in their dance. Thus it is with joy: when a person is happy, his own sadness and suffering stand off on the side, But it is a higher achievement to struggle and pursue that sadness, bringing it too into the joy, until it is transformed ….you grab hold of this suffering, and force it to join with you in the rejoicing, just as in the parable. (Likkutim II: 23)

As demonstrated by Rabbi Nachman’s story, we all exist in one circle and it’s not complete when one is outside of it. The Jewish community (and human civilization!) are just too interconnected for radical individualism.

A man is traveling on a boat when he starts drilling a hole beneath his seat. The other journeyers yell: “What are you doing?” The man continues to drill and replies “Why do you care? I am only drilling under my seat.” But as water floods the entire boat, they shout “But you will flood the boat for all of us!” (Midrash Rabbah, Vayrika 4:6).


A modern illustration of this may be fracking, which results in cheap natural gas and great monetary rewards for the oil and gas companies and the people whose land is used for the fracking, but which may have a dubious effect on the community and the environment. For example, it was estimated that fracking created 280 billion gallons of polluted wastewater in 2012. Considering that fracking often occurs in areas subject to drought, and that many cash-strapped farmers are selling their water to companies for use in fracking, should we not question the value of fracking for the entire community?

Often the largest challenge is just realizing the consequences our life choices have upon others (upon those we know and those we do not know). Each moment in life, some new realities are nigleh (revealed) and other realties are nistar (hidden). How much complex consciousness can we hold at one time? We determine each moment how wide we expand our minds and how deeply we open our hearts. We must all learn to reveal the hidden truths we need to see to actualize our unique potentials to help ourselves and others.

Embracing our collective destiny and interconnectivity would have radical implications for our social systems and our view of the individual. On the societal level, we can no longer educate individuals in isolation. Dewey opposed the Hobbesian view that individuals must actively form “social contracts.” Rather, he suggested that humans are inherently social beings by nature. Progress will emerge from natural human interaction.

It is difficult to open our hearts to others who we do not know and who have problems that we do not know how to solve, but this is where the miracle of human existence lies. The most amazing leaders and acts of kindness have emerged from those who embrace their human spiritual potential for empathy and love.

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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, and the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Insitute. Rav Shmuly completed his Masters at Yeshiva University in Jewish Philosophy, a Masters at Harvard in Moral Psychology and a Doctorate at Columbia in Epistemology and Moral Development. Rav Shmuly is the author of Jewish Ethics and Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century and his second book was Epistemic Development in Talmud Study.

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