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LETTER FROM THE EDITOR
EMPATHY PLUS COMPASSION
Kudos to Sarah Breger for calling out the “constant meanness” on so many social media platforms, and for urging the cultivation of empathy (“From the Editor: A Passover Call for Empathy,” Spring 2022). As a physician-writer who has a good deal of exposure online, I definitely resonate with Ms. Breger’s experience. I would like to suggest, though, that “empathy” is but the first step toward developing a “Jewishly ethical” way of relating to others—whether online or in person.
Empathy is essentially a felt sense of what another person is experiencing. This is very important, but differs from compassion, which involves both the felt experience of another’s suffering (empathy) and the wish and intent to alleviate it. Thus, compassion entails empathy, but goes beyond it to some act of caring or comforting. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “If you are going to be compassionate, be prepared for action!”
In fact, too much empathy without compassionate action can lead to feeling overwhelmed with other people’s intense feelings—a common experience of many health care professionals during the years of the pandemic. There is a close connection between compassion and the rabbinical term gemilut chasadim—generally translated as “acts of loving kindness.” This is known in rabbinic tradition as one of the three pillars upon which the world stands (Pirkei Avot 1:2).
Perhaps such acts are too much to expect from any of us, as we navigate the “mean streets” of social media platforms. Restraining our anger and hurt is hard enough! Yet as we strive to develop our character, compassion is the next step up from empathy.
Ronald W. Pies, MD
SOFTENING OUR HEARTS
Thank you for your perspective on the subject of empathy. It is good to hear concern from the community for this most valuable asset of the human condition. I pose another idea: We are all born with a conscience; however, many allow their consciences to be “seared” through hardening their hearts against moral outrages. Ultimately, since our conscience is from God, the hardening of said conscience is also a hardened heart against God. Do we have control over this? We do, but it might take care, prayer and counseling to break through the shell of a hardened heart. Why not turn to God now and ask His help as to what can and should be done about this?
St. Petersburg, FL
TALKING WITHOUT LISTENING
I am thoroughly enjoying the articles in the Spring 2022 issue of Moment Magazine. I think your emphasis on empathy in the lead up to Passover and Easter was very appropriate and always timely.
I think the lyrics of the Paul Simon song “The Sound of Silence”—“people talking without speaking/people hearing without listening”—capture the global issue. On the continuum of politics are dialogue, conversation and debate. Once they end, then confrontation develops in all of its forms. Some of it is in demonstrations, some in boycotts, and some leads to political violence.
The saddest and perhaps most tragic example of the failure of dialogue, conversation and debate is when it occurs on college campuses, where Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s concept of the “marketplace of ideas” should be the norm. But we should not be surprised that dialogue, conversation and debate are corroding on college campuses when that is what is happening in the body politic across the country, not to speak of what is going on in the rest of the world.
If this direction is to be reversed, then we must develop stronger forums for dialogue, conversation and debate, but a requirement of this is that everyone’s voice must be heard respectfully. While this may be a lofty ideal, in my view it is the only solution, however difficult it may be to achieve.
I wonder how different our society would be if in school, at an early age, students were taught to examine all sides of issues. They would be forced to engage in dialogue, conversation and debate and would come away with an understanding of issues, including, or especially, those on which they disagree. If we started this form of education tomorrow, it would take generations to achieve, but if we don’t begin now, it will never happen.
Are we too far gone to think this is no longer possible? I hope not, but I often despair about our chances.
Alan Jay Rom
MORE THAN A DAUGHTER
Your profile of Susannah Heschel (“The Rabbi’s Daughter,” Spring 2022) was a deep and thoughtful look at a biblical scholar who is at the forefront of the march toward social justice and reframing Judaism in the tradition of the prophets. I was interested in her expertise regarding the history of biblical scholarship, antisemitism and Jewish scholarship on Islam and feminism in Judaism, and enjoyed the long discussion of her belief that Judaism has much to offer to the moral problems of our times. And the discussion of her father’s affinity for Black theologians was fascinating. Yes, she is the daughter of a famous rabbi, but the article made clear that Professor Heschel is an important person in the Jewish world to learn from in her own right. Kudos to journalist Manya Brachear Pashman, who wrote this beautiful piece.
THE NEW PROPHETS
This article is such a profound and beautiful synergy of touching personal stories that illustrate great depth of character with blazingly radical theological frameworks directly applied to lived realities and dreams of social transformation. In the piece Heschel says, “If religious leaders really want to effect change and move forward together, they would be wise to step aside and let modern-day prophets on the margins lead the charge.” Who are these prophets? She says that people who identify as people of color, nonbinary, LGBTQ—“those who keep the faith even when shut out, denigrated, even sexually abused”—have the clearest view. “From the margins, they see through the fog of progress on the surface and identify the deep need for change.” Thank you, Rebbe Susannah Heschel, for your prophetic vision and voice.
Jewish Studio Project
Falls Village, CT
HESCHEL’S LASTING IMPACT
A brief memory illustrating why this article in Moment is particularly poignant to me: In 1982 the Israeli teen magazine Maariv LaNoar published a three-page spread entitled “Keren Wants to Be a Rabbi,” all about my feminist pursuit of ordination in Beer Sheva. In 1983 I was gifted Dr. Susannah Heschel’s book, On Being a Jewish Feminist, and learned I was not alone in southern Israel but part of an incredible world of Jews who shared my practices and beliefs. Since then, Heschel has been a shining example in her scholarly activist Jewish feminist work. This piece captures so much of how Heschel continues to teach and be a role model.
Karen Reiss Medwed
LIKE FATHER, LIKE DAUGHTER
I love the juxtaposition of prophets and feminism in this piece. When I was senior staff writer for the National United Jewish Appeal office in New York in the late 1970s, I read Abraham Joshua Heschel’s books extensively and quoted him very often.
Los Angeles, CA
ASK THE RABBIS
A NEW ERA FOR JEWISH WOMEN
I read with interest your article on 50 years of female rabbis (“How Is Judaism Different After Half a Century of Female Clergy?” Spring 2022). While the Reform movement broke ground with the ordination of Sally Priesand, it didn’t change anything for the Conservative, Orthodox or Hasidic movements, which rely heavily on halacha (Jewish law) to make their rulings. I’d like to take us back to the 1970s and to a Jewish consciousness-raising group called Kol Isha, which literally translates as “a woman’s voice.” It is also the name of the section to which women are relegated in an Orthodox synagogue and from which, ironically, a woman’s voice is not to be heard.
This group of women wanted to understand why women couldn’t participate equally with men in leading services according to halacha and to see if there was a way to circumvent the laws. So they invited Judith Hauptman, a Talmud teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary who was well-versed in Jewish law, to join them and teach them. She did, and together they went through the laws pertaining to this subject. After many months of study, and armed with their new knowledge, Hauptman and the women of Kol Isha stormed the Rabbinical Assembly’s convention and demanded that they take their questions seriously and find ways to have their demands met. The RA is the professional organization of the rabbis of the Conservative movement. Within the organization is a subcommittee known as the Committee on Laws and Standards, which takes up such questions and studies them within the confines of halacha and presents responses.
Because of this, women were eventually declared legally bound by many of the same laws as men had been for years and were now eligible to perform the rites and services.
This was indeed a new era for Jewish women. And because of this demand and the deep seriousness with which the rabbis approached the situation, eventually Conservative Judaism accepted women to be ordained as rabbis. And because of this, it became a serious question for Orthodox Jews to begin looking into, too. And so, we owe a debt to Judith Hauptman—who is now a rabbi herself, a PhD and a Talmud professor at JTS—and to the women of Kol Isha for their insight and stick-to-itiveness for pursuing their demands and curiosity.
Nita Polay Levin
TALK OF THE TABLE
MEMORIES OF SEDERS PAST
Passover was always special—food, family, wine. The Talk of the Table (“Adventures with Gefilte Fish,” Spring 2022) was very poignant for me, since my mom always made her own with whitefish, pike and carp and no recipes. Also, the fiction story, “Why is there a Buddhist at this Seder?” rang a bell, reminding me of being stuck in traffic, mom’s traditional chicken and brisket and sometimes controversial conversations. Thanks, Moment, for helping me relive past seders with fond memories.
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