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Rabbinic Sensitivity and Empathy

Empathy is the first trait we learn about Moses, our teacher. The first action the Torah informs us that Moses did as an adult is, “vayetze el echav vayar b’sivlotam” – he went out to his brothers and saw into their suffering. Rashi elaborates that he “directed his eyes and heart to be distressed over them.” One would think the Torah should have said “vayar et-sivlotam” – he saw their suffering. But Moses saw deeper. He saw his fellow Israelites and felt what they felt. Moses’s initial strength as a leader was that he could meet his people where they were.

I was asked to write about what I “will try to be aware of and sensitive to” as a future rabbi. It is such an important question, but such a difficult one to answer. Anything I mention here will only be a fraction of the sensitivities that I will have to display when I, with G-d’s help, begin working professionally as a rabbi in just a few years. I hope to always try, in earnest, to live up to the statement of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who said, “The quest for vigorous and sensitive spiritual leadership should retain high priority.” (Leaves of Faith vol. 2, p. 350)

In today’s generation, rabbinic authority sometimes feels weak, and rabbis are struggling to persevere in a society that so strongly emphasizes individuality. Still, at least in my experience, people deeply desire to connect with rabbis. While a rabbi is a necessary resource for answering questions when something goes wrong in the kitchen, people also need a Rabbi with whom they can connect, who will be concerned with their spiritual growth, and who will judge them favorably, l’chaf zekhut. Like Moses, a rabbi needs to be able to meet his congregants where they are.

A couple of specific points come to mind in terms of crucial sensitivities in today’s world. First, I think it is important to be careful about being judgmental, both in dealing with Orthodox and with non-Orthodox Jews. When I joined the Orthodox community at the beginning of college, after growing up in an observant Conservative home, my biggest fear was being judged for my background and by my past experiences. There is an incredible opportunity to welcome Jews into the Orthodox community if we are sensitive to their journeys and help them acclimate to their new community. Converts may join Orthodoxy for practical reasons yet they may still have ideological struggles, and that tension needs to be met with understanding.

Additionally, as far as things go for Jews who have always lived within the Orthodox community, we must understand that Judaism is not equally “easy” for every individual, and we must not make assumptions based on his or her religious background. Bad experiences can affect one’s relationship with the Torah. Who can blame those who only remember their Rebbe yelling at them and dismissing their questions? The term “off the derech” can be horribly misleading. A derech, a path, is always progressing as long as one lives. One’s current place on the path might not be the same as it will be at a later point, and we also have to remember that not everyone’s path is, or should be, the same.

It became clear to me during the conversion scandal in Washington, D.C. that I was largely blind to the experiences of many converts. I always assumed that it was a rosy experience. Many accounts that I have read in recent weeks have demonstrated that this is, too often, not the case. One rabbinic figure correctly pointed out in a recent panel that we must do a better job of understanding what it is like to be in a convert’s position. To broaden his point beyond conversion, I hope that when any congregant approaches me with an inquiry, I will have the sensitivity and foresight to see not just the answer of either “permitted” or “forbidden,” but also the pain and fear that might accompany such a question.

Finally, when it comes to the issues surrounding women’s roles in the Orthodox community, I think it is essential to display sensitivity towards these issues. Before taking a stance on any given issue, I think it is highly valuable to really listen to their points of view and to allow them a constructive forum for expressing their views. I do not want to make the mistake of assuming that a woman’s sincere desire to connect with G-d is some sort of “impure motivation”. I’ve never been in her position and can only imagine what her yearnings are. In Hillel’s words, “al tadin et chavercha ad she’tagia limkomo” – do not judge your fellow until you stand in his or her place. With respect to this issue, I echo Rabbi Yona Reiss who said in a recent lecture to rabbinical students that “there is certainly that area in which it is incumbent upon all of us a community to make sure that women are comfortable… in various areas, we’ve always given and should always continue to give a tremendous amount of deference to the women in the community in terms of what they need, particularly regarding matters of family purity”.

I unfortunately will not be able to permit everything that I will be asked to permit, and I will not be able to validate each individual’s choices as halakhic, if they are not. But that does not come at the expense of holding deep respect for those that come my way, regardless of where they are. I once heard the phrase “uncompromising standards and unconditional love” – whether or not the statement holds true in all situations, I find it teaches us that our allegiance to the halakhic process should not come at the expense of being sensitive individuals.

Rav Simcha Raz documents a profound narrative in his Sippurei Tzaddikim (p. 360): Rav Yisrael Salanter was very cautious about watching the wheat and flour to be used for his matzah, from the harvesting of the wheat until it was fully baked. He himself would supervise the workers, ensuring that it would all be done halachically. When the baking was completed, he would generously and discreetly tip those who had worked on his behalf.

One year, Rav Yisrael was sick and could not supervise the whole process. One of his students who was to perform the duty in his place, asked him, “what should we be most cautious about?” Rav Yisrael replied: “be most cautious regarding the dignity of the woman who is kneading the dough, to not get angry at her, to cause her trouble, or to embarrass her. She is a widow…”.

It is evident that the virtue of some of our best leaders, and what I will always try to emulate, was their empathy.