Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sexual offenders IV - Empathy deficit and Torah

 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]


  1. I will be very curious to hear what your research into this yields.

    The psychoanalytic writer (who happenned to be a very assimilated Jew who ultimately became a meshumad to Unitarianism) that has contributed the most on empathy in the psychoanalytic literature was Heinz Kohut. The word empathy is used to convey very diverse meanings by different thinkers, and I think that Kohut's definition is the clearest and most helpful.

    According to Kohut, empathy is the human capacity to vividly imagine and accurately sense what another person is experiencing, thinking and feeling. However, he also clarified how this capacity is developed--it is cultivated through the ability to be introspective. The extent to which I have an awareness of my own thoughts, feelings, fantasies, and experiences on a deep level (especially those aspects of my ta'avos and middos that I am most ashamed of or wish were not part of who I am and what I experience) will determine the extent to which I can imagine what you or any other person is likely to be feeling and experiencing. Another term Kohut used to explain empathy was "vicarious intropsection," (i.e., imagining what another's introspection would be like when he is experiencing something).

    One factors which assists in cultivating empathy is having a lot of experiences in life. Generally speaking, we become more understanding, more empathic, and less judgmental as we get older (though there are exceptions to this). If I have given a shiur and made a very bad mistake in the shiur which was embarrassing, or was afraid of making a bad mistake which was embarrassing--this will give me a great insight into what another person is experiencing when he prepares or delivers a shiur.

    However, for the most part, one's empathy is not limited by actual experience. The more introspective I am, the more I can imagine what I would feel if I were in a given situation that I have never actually experienced, or how I would experience a given situation if I had needs and problems which were like another person's, (i.e., needs and wishes which are unlike my own).

    And we often find when treating patients that their lack of empathy for others is indeed related to an inability to be introspective about themsleves. They do not pay attention to their feeligns and thoughts. They just react with action. They have blocked and split off from their conscious awareness many aspects of their mental experiences. For example, some individuals don't realize that they are acting out of a desire for kavod and admiration--they imagine they are acting only le-shem shamayim, etc. Interestingly, an individual who is unaware of his desire for kavod is more likely to give tzedaka in a conspicuous and pompous manner, attracting attention to himself. He acts as if he is "fleeing away from Kavod", but he actually flees from kavod in a manner that everyone will see that he is fleeing from kavod--i.e., he is pursuing kavod. (A bar-ilan search for "boreach min ha-kavod" will yield mekoros in many seforim which attest to this phenomenon.)

    By contrast, an individual who knows that he wishes for and enjoys kavod but also knows that it is a midda ra'ah and incongruous with the Derekh HaShem to seek honor will be more successful in giving tzedaka anonymously and will actually avoid seeking honor.

    If we conceive of empathy as an entire domain of middos and mental capacities which involve unconconscious and emotional aspects of the self, and not a single "cognitive factor" that is either "on or off", then it makes sense that the Torah does not legislate empathy as a mitzvah.

    However, there are many halakhos and mitzvos that seem to assume and encourage the development of empathy. "Be kind to the stranger because you were also strangers in the land of Egypt." This demonstrates that the Torah presumes that Jews will have an increased sensitivity for and empathy with outsiders, strangers, and minorities. It is not me'akev if one lacks empathy but is nevertheless kind, but it seems to be that to perform the mitzva be-shlemusa (le-chumra, or min ha-mehadrin) it would also involve empathy.

    Interestingly, empathy is not only a difficulty for the pedophiles themselves, but also for the people treating them. The outrage and repulsion that a normal individual experiences when hearing about sexual victimization of children by adults makes it very difficult if not impossible to maintain an empathic connection with the perpetrator. The normal human instinct is to hate and want to punish people who sexually vitimize children. And there is nothing wrong with that. Successful treatment, however, of such individuals, requires an empathic curiosity about their experiences.

    The individuals who create treatment programs for the will be challenged with trying to develop an empathic alliance with these individuals as the see that these perpetrators tend to be extremely dishonest, justify their behavior through a bizarre array of distorted judgments and self-serving rationalizations, and perceive young and innocent children as being sexually seductive and consenting to sexual activity which such children don't even understand.

    Ultimately, I precict that the problem that Rabbi Silman will find is that even though there may be much evidence that pedophiles can benefit from treatment--they way they benefit from treatment does not translate to making them safe around children. They will still be at very high risk for victimizing future children. In terms of resources for such treatments, there is likely to be a debate as to whether all of the funds and energy put into treating perpetrators would be better spent on treating victims.

  2. From a modern psychatric point of view, what you are trying to understand in the functioning of the conscience and how to develop one in a person who seems to lack any.

    The problem with most pedophiles is twofold:
    1) They lack that innate switch that tells them: adults of opposite gender are attractive and to be sought out, 8 year old boys, not so much. Thus while it is absurd to the mentally healthy individual to look at a cheder boy with lust, chas v'shalom, in the mind of the pedophile this aversion does not exist. He feels attraction, lust.
    2) Consicence - the married man sees an attractive woman who is not his wife. His conscience (yetzer tov, I guess) kicks in and says "Look away. You're married and it's wrong." In the pedophile, that voice does not exist.

    So you have a dangerous combination - a person attractive to a vulnerable target who lacks the ability to say no to his urges.

    In the end, the only real treatments of pedophile is quite simple - they are to be isolated from their victims. The pedophile who spends him day around adult males he feels no attraction to cannot get into trouble (problem 1 is therefore dealt with). Yes, he will continue to have desires to escape such an environment (problem 2 remains) but with supervision this can also be avoided.

  3. This may relate to the move away from the rationalism of the Rishonim. For them, mitzvos were very much about internalizing character traits such as compassion and empathy - see the comments of Rambam and Ramban on shilach hakein. But with the rise of kabbalah, mitzvos have changed to acts aimed at mechanistic mystical manipulations.

    See too R. Aharon Hirsh Fried's articles at, he talks about how mitzvos are learned as mechanical acts without internalizing the value system.

  4. How would the mitzvah of 'Nosei b'oll chevercha' be explained if not with the mental capacity of empathy?

  5. tzipschum said...

    How would the mitzvah of 'Nosei b'oll chevercha' be explained if not with the mental capacity of empathy?
    Empathy requires seeing and feeling the way another person does.
    If I am asked to help out someone who has no food - my helping is not proof of empathy. It could be simply the result of social pressure or desire to impress others or simply a mechanical rule of giving to the poor.

    For example Berachos(28a):[[ Rabban Gamaliel thereupon said: This being the case,15 I will go and apologize to R. Joshua. When he reached his house he saw that the walls were black. He said to him: From the walls of your house it is apparent that you are a charcoal-burner.16 He replied: Alas for the generation of which you are the leader, seeing that you know nothing of the troubles of the scholars, their struggles to support and sustain themselves! He said to him: I apologize.17 forgive me. He paid no attention to him. Do it, he said, out of respect for my father. He then became reconciled to him.

    Could be understood simply as that Rabban Gamliel simply had no knowledge of the suffering of others. Empathy would require that he knew the facts and could feel their suffering as if he were in their place.

  6. To interpet the words "Nosei b'oll .....", you are being asked to 'Carry the burden of your friend', the physical act of carrying a burden is the first step in feeling (emphathizing) the weight and difficulty of a person's burden (trouble, obstacle, challenge, etc).

  7. tzipschum said...

    To interpet the words "Nosei b'oll .....", you are being asked to 'Carry the burden of your friend', the physical act of carrying a burden is the first step in feeling (emphathizing) the weight and difficulty of a person's burden (trouble, obstacle, challenge, etc).
    it is only a behavioral reaction and does not necessitate any empathy or even developing empathy.

    I agree that it could lead to empathy - but that is exactly what I am looking for. Where are the connective steps the explicit statement that one must also feel the suffering of the other individual? There are definitely statements concerning the community - but all that I have found are behavioral understandings such as donating money or fasting.

    You might look at the commentators concerning Bereishis Rabbah (24:7) dealing with Vayikra (19:18) - why does Ben Azzai disagree with R' Akiva?

  8. In chassidic literature, empathy is stressed. This is expressed as finding the common shoresh of neshama.

  9. Can you give a summary of the discussion with R' Treibitz? (after Yomtov)

  10. I recall that R' Dessler in his the section of Michtav MiEliyahu entitled 'Kuntrus Hachesed' (it's towards the beginning of the first volume - I don't have a copy on hand now) discusses how many people who five charity or perform other acts of kindness feel compelled do to so out of feelings of empathy. As I recall he goes on to explain how this is in fact a lower form of performing the mitzva, because the giver is performing the act to make themselves feel better ad well, and not as a pure act of giving. This is similar to the quote from Chovos Halevovos. R' Dessler is clearly not saying that in such a case it's preferable not to give, but that this is just a starting point and not the 'shleimus' of the mitzva.

    It could perhaps be understood that G-d is giving us these mitzvos with the understanding that people may naturally perform acts of kindness, but somehow performing the same acts not just out of empathy but for some higher cause (whether just because G-d commanded it, or Kabbalisticaly for some tikkun) is preferable. As someone mentioned earlier though this was very likely not the understanding of many rishonim, rather the mitzvos work to bring out and increase our innate goodness, or help develop it in people who are lacking it.

    Another idea I had is that the commandments are something like a safeguard to ensure that even if someone doesn't posses a high level of kindness, empathy, etc. they will still be obligated to perform such acts at least at a minimal level in order to comply with the halacha. Of course once such halachas exist we wouldn't chas vesholom say that someone who develops there character traits to a certain extent has 'evolved' past the need for these basic halachas. This may be more in line with some of the rishonim, but on the other hand is understandably a somewhat dangerous argument.

    However, even according to Chovos HaLevovos, R' Dessler, etc. I don't think anyone is saying that empathy is inherently a negative or 'non-Toradike' idea, rather that it may be only the first step in character development, and not a high/highest level as secular moralists may see it.

  11. Empathy may be subject to a conflict between the Rambam and the Ramban.
    The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim) writes that the reason for commandments that forbid cruelty to animals is that animals have feelings. He admits that this approach conflicts with the Mishnah (Berachos) which says such laws are decrees and nothing to do with mercy.
    The Ramban (discussing the verse of sending away the mother bird) says that such mitzvos are decrees but at the same time have the purpose of preventing people from developing cruel character traits.

  12. I must confess don't understand this discussion. The mitzvah (Vayikra 19:18) and you shall LOVE your fellow AS YOURSELF is as clear a directive of empathy as anyone could ever ask for. The commentaries of Rash, Ramban and Ibn Ezra among others on the spot leave no doubt about this. Indeed the Ramban on the preceding verse hammers home the point, as though it needed to be. The exclamation "I AM HaSHEM that immediately follows the directives is emphasis enough. That same exclamation follows the directive to love the ger - because we too were gerim. Indeed, it is to a ger who wants to know the entire Torah 'standing on one foot' to whom Hillel responds with "Do not to others what you would not have done to you - The rest is commentary. Go study!" The Kli Yakar makes precisely this point on this pasuk in vayikra. The Rashbam stands conspicuously alone in making a small-minded comment on the verse. The laws of tzedakah are clearly designed to encourage empathy - See Maharal on the Netivoth Olam - Netiv Hatzedakah who makes particular mention of the fact that while the order of the a;phabet places the daled and heh together at the beginning of the alef-bet, while the letters tzadi and the kuf stand together at the end, (much like certain classes of society who naturally stand aloof from one another) the word tzedakah intersperses these letters - symbolically bringing these strata together so that they must interact and feel for one another. The Torah is meant to be transformative - but at the same time, part of its 'genius' is to recognize that feelings can not be legislated. Only behavior can. (Clearly, one can be menavel birshut haTorah as well.) Still, to miss that the Torah has a central theme of empathy running through it is to be tone-deaf to one of its core messages. The fact that this verse is stuck in the middle of Vayikra is also not happenstance, either.

    The problem with child-abusers and other sexual predators is that their understanding of empathy is often warped - and used by them to excuse their abusive behavior as something "good" for the victim or "desired" byt the victim. Hillel may well have been aware of the problem of warped ethics and therefore chose the negative phrasing "Do not unto others as you would not have done to you" rather than the positive formulation' when expressing the principle to the ger.

    In any event, the notion of Empathy thoroughly permeates the narrative and legal content of all Tanach - To miss it is to miss one of Torah's truly central lessons.

  13. The comments that explain the attitudes of commentators and poskim who saw child abuse and yet made no reference to it as a failure to develop the virtue of empathy in Kohut’s sense of the term are part of an important insight. There is a general failure of empathy in interdenominational discussions within Jewish life, a good example being the failure of Religious Zionists and secular Jews to understand the role a lifetime of learning plays in the life of a ben torah. We see similar attitudes on display in current responses to the problems of child abuse. It is not farfetched to explain the recent behavior of Rebbetzin Shkop, Rabbis Schechter and Rabbi Friedman as basically an inability to put themselves into the mindset of the victims of abuse.
    At the same time the hypothesis is not conclusive. The failure to fully identify with the victims because of larger concerns about the welfare of the community might be nothing more than giving different weight to conflicting moral considerations. It is somewhat analogous to the recent empirical results regarding who is a consequentialist/utilitarian on moral questions and who chooses a deontological approach. I find myself agreeing at times with those who take the larger picture into account, and as a result am somewhat less supportive of the victims interests than others. My conjecture is that attitudes change as we age. Younger people are more willing to blame the rabbi irrespective of the rabbi’s status and contribution to the community. Older people worry more that the abuse issue is being used as a wedge issue to depreciate charedi life.

  14. Dear Rabbi E.
    I'm surprised that you don't seem to think that the concept of empathy can be clearly derived from the Gemara in Shabbos 31, where Hillel states that "desoni aloch, lechavroch lo sa'avid," is "kol haTorah kula, v'idach pirusha hi--zil g'mor".

    Also, I'm surprised at the willingness to jump to a conclusion that the whole concept has no Torah basis simply because you haven't yet come across it in your research--isn't the Torah "aruka mei'eretz midah, u'rechava mini yam"? And along those lines, "delo ra'inu eino raya."

    For the concept in Chassidus Chabad, one example can be seen here:

    "A care in a man's heart, yash'chena." [1]
    Our sages offer[2] two interpretations of that last word:
    "Remove the care from the mind"[3] or "discuss it with others."[4]
    The Tzemach Tzedek commented: "...with others" who are "others" only in the bodily sense, but are completely united with him, for they empathize with him.

    1. Empathy is not simply doing a kindness to another. It is not responding to the other person in the way you would want him to respond to you. Empathy is taking the other person's perspective and understanind how HE FEELS AND THINKS.


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