This is a post from the past where the subject of empathy was raised. My understanding of the Chovas HaLevavos has changed and I don't view it as an example of empathy since it is focused on one's own pain - not the other's.
December 12 2008 Last week, as part of my research on the problem of child abuse, my chavrusa Dr. Shulem and I visited Doron Aggassi - the director of Shalom Bana'ich in Bnei Berak. As you may recall he was asked by HaRav Silman to create a community treatment program as an alternative to jail or ignoring the problem. One of the interesting points he made was that treatment consists primarily of sensitizing the perpetrators to the fact that they are actually hurting someone by their actions. This reinforces the point made in the psychological literature that there is apparently a cognitive deficit in the perpetrators and they tend not to view their victims as people - such as them -who feel pain and suffer.
We talked about the issue of why the large number of commandments regarding not hurting others should not be relevant. In other words, a secular person who is not aware that G-d has commanded not to hurt, embarrass or degrade another has some justification for his self-gratification at the expense of another. But how is it possible for people who are accomplished Torah scholars not to be sensitive?
It reminded me of something Rabbi Friefeld had said many years ago. "If the mugger was aware of the pain he caused by stealing another's money or felt the devastation that resulted from killing a husband and father and friend - it would be impossible for him to commit the crime.
So why doesn't the perpetrator feel? I just spent time researching the issue of empathy - feeling the pain of others - and so far it looks like there is no such concept in the Torah literature. There is clearly an explicit obligation to help the poor, to not hurt others, to love one's fellow man. However none of these are presented as issues of empathy but are simply cognitive behavior guidelines. Someone says he is hungry you give him food. But where do we find that we are supposed to feel the pain and suffering of the person we are to help?
I found a clear exception to the above pattern in Chovas HaLevavos (Introduction to Avodas HaShem):
The benefactor gives to the poor because the debased state of the poor person causes him pain. Thus the benefactor’s intent is to eliminate the pain that he himself is experiencing as a result of his empathetic upset and anguish cause by the condition of the poor person who arouses his pity. The benefactor can be compared to someone who cures his own pain which exists because of the good that G‑d has given him. Nevertheless the benefactor deserves to be praised in spite of his self‑serving motivation. As Job (31:19) said, “Have I ever seen someone die because he lacked clothing or a poor person that lacked covering – that I have not been blessed by clothing him and who was not warmed by the fleece of my sheep.” It is clear from what we have presented that the motivation of those who help other people is for their own selfish benefit. It is either to enhance his existence in this world or the world to come or to stop the pain he feels because of the other person’s suffering or to improve his own possessions.Chovas HaLevavos is clearly stating that it is inherent in human beings to feel empathetic pain and anguish of others. So why is this not reflected in the Torah literature - until perhaps we get to the Mussar movement or the Chassidic movement? One possibility is that since it was always assumed to be inherent - there was not need to discuss it. Alternatively it could be that empathy is simply just not a Jewish value.
Irregardless of whether empathy is explicit or implicit as a Jewish value - the critical point is that molesters do not have empathetic awareness of their victim's suffering. It also seems that they are unaware of the connection between all the mitzvos concerning people such as "love your fellow man" and what they are doing.
A significant goal for what I am writing is to try to show how the mitzvos and prohibitions can be understood from the empathetic point of view. Furthermore as Doron Agassi noted, there are clearly some perpetrators who simply don't connect the laws of Shulchan Aruch to what they are doing. Torah learning is viewed as an abstract activity that is unconnected with the real world.
Thus three goals exist so far. 1) collect the Torah literature regarding hurting others, rodef, mesira as well as obligation to call police 2) Integrate the psychological facts regarding the damage that is done with the specific prohibitions and commandments - to increase empathetic aware of the harm 3) Clarify and elaborate and concretize the prohibitions and commandments so that they are seen as applicable to real life situations. [to be continued]