The essential divide between world religions is often reduced to one thing – me or we? Is the path to enlightenment, and by extension, to human salvation found by paying the closest of attention to the self or the other? The framing of this month’s issue accepts this dichotomy. I do not.
As a Jewish yogi, I have lost count of the number of times I have heard others say “we Jews, we don’t go off into caves!” But, such a critique belies a fundamental misunderstanding of eastern thought and what exactly those yogis are doing in those caves. The eastern road to enlightenment is based, not on selfishness, but on a sense of radical empathy, a transformation during which one comes to include all of creation within the personal “I.” As a Jewish mystic, such recognition is the demand placed on me by the Sh’ma, calling me to honor the total unity of all things in God.
As a human, my struggle is in uncovering authentic empathy, the ability to feel the pain of the other, without pity or judgement – to love and say, “you hurt as I do some times, as we all do.” Such genuine empathy must come through the self. There is simply no other way to achieve it. My stomach churns with fear, my heart breaks. I feel my life, and feeling it makes my suffering real. The self is the key to authentic empathy.
In his article “Imagine: On Love and Lenin” Ze’ev Maghen makes this case beautifully. Framed as an imagined dialog between Dr. Maghen and an Israeli Hari Krishna whom he meets in an airport, he explains that at the heart of Jewish empathy is particularism. First, I love my sister and my tribe. Then, by expanding my concentric circles of particularist love outward, I come to encompass the whole world. The starting point in this system is individualism, because I locate my awareness in me. I am motivated by self-preservation, inspired by personal love. Such individualism is the heart that beats within empathy, that animates it, that resonates with the beating hearts of all creatures, pulsing with the vital life-force of the world.