Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Caring for the Sinner: Homosexuality and Empathy

One of the issues that Rav Triebitz raised at yesterday's discussion is the possibility that the Netziv's approbation for the Chofetz Chaim's Ahavas Chesed - is indicative of the emergence of the empathetic approach versus the more traditional "everything is halacha" approach. The Netziv asserts that concerning bein adam l'chavero mitzvos, commonsense has a significant role in doing what is correct. In contrast the Chofetz Chaim lists halachic obligations and halachic reasoning. In essence he noted, the Netziv is undermining the Chofetz Chaim's approach - even though he gave a haskoma to the sefer. He noted also that Rav Sternbuch had related that at a major rabbinic conference the Chofetz Chaim had requested that the major rabbonim there sign a pledge never to speak lashon harah again. Rav Chaim Ozer took the document and ripped it up saying that a rav needs to be able to speak and listen to lashon harah. He said the dichotomy is whether seichel and human understanding is an essential component of fulfilling the mitzvos or does Torah precede the reality of creation in the sense that everything is halacha and human feelings are irrelevant.

In addition, Rav Trievitz noted this empathetic, intuitive approach is also referred to as yashrus. The Netziv's Introduction to Bereishis is one of strongest statements for the need for Yashrus - even in the face of piety. He famously stated that the Temple was destroyed because of the fanatic tzadikim who viewed all those who disagreed with them as apikorsim who were subject to capital punishment. 

At the end the introduction the Netziv notes that even though sin is to be hated - but we see that Avraham prayed for the lives and welfare of the sinner.
Rather G-d wanted tzadikim who were upright in the world. Because even if the non‑upright tzadikim were motivated by religious consideration - such conduct destroys the world. Therefore, this was the praise of the Avos that besides being tzadikim and chassidim and lovers of G‑d to the ultimate degree - they were also upright. That means that they conducted themselves in relation to the peoples of the world - even the debased idol worshippers - with love and were concerned about their welfare in regards to the preservation of Creation. This we see in the pleading of Avraham for the people of Sedom - even though he had total hatred for them because of their wickedness - nevertheless he wanted them to live…
 Thus Rav Triebitz wanted to say that the Netziv emphasized the importance of empathy and this was manifest in the love of the sinner. He noted that this distinction possibly is reflected in the recent change amongst some Orthodox leaders towards homosexuals. Those such as Rav Aharon Feldman who have called for understanding and sympathy for the homosexual - while rejected the sin - are manifesting empathy. As opposed to this there are more traditional rabbis such as Rav Moshe Sternbuch who view this as a major breach in the mesora and that the sinner needs to be condemned and not be viewed with sympathy or empathy.


  1. Well if empathy is what Chazal called Yashrut, then that would make it a positive midah it would seem.

    If it is a positive midah, as the Ramchal explains in the beginning of Mesilat Yesharim, Torah and Chazal would not have given it halakhic parameters. Much as they did not with things like either pride or humility.

  2. "He said the dichotomy is whether seichel and human understanding is an essential component of fulfilling the mitzvos or does Torah precede the reality of creation in the sense that everything is halacha and human feelings are irrelevant."
    I don't understand this statement at all. The Torah does not precede the reality of creation - the Torah IS the reality of creation. As I learned, it is the Halacha that 'shafs' (creates) the mitzios and NOT the mitzios that 'shafs' the Halacha.
    Regarding the issues raised here, I see a dichotomy of approach, not of Halacha. One approach says that every Jew has to be trusted to stick to Halacha and to use his seichel to determine when there are overriding concerns - gadol aveiro lishmo etc.
    The other approach is that Jews are not to be trusted with making these decisions. This is the unfortunate approach of today's Chareidi Rabbonim for the most part.
    Rav Chaim Ozer understood that there are times when a Rov must hear and speak what would normally be considered lashon hora, when in fact there are overriding issues of to'eles that make the act totally muter. The Chofetz Chaim was on such a high madreigo (unbeknownst to only himself) that he could not fathom that the same manner he used with himself regarding lashon hora could not be totally effective with everyone. Today's Rabbonim say that if you don't follow THEIR guidelines - you are a sheigetz!
    No one denies the need to love the sinner, יתמו חטאים מן הארץ, חוטאים לא כתיב אלא חטאים, but how many really know how to love the sinner while keeping the hatred for the sin, independent of the sinner.
    This should actually be very simple regarding homosexuals. Their sexual identification is something that we should be able to empathize with. And there is no issur in being a homosexual. (Although I pointed out that the main issur of לא תלבש is to prevent ambiguity in sexual identification.) On the other hand, homosexual acts are forbidden, but who among us has no Yetzer Hora? Who among us has NEVER done an aveiro?
    And if Rav M. Sternbuch is being quoted accurately, I would like to know where the heter is of not loving your fellow Jew? The פסוק of ואהבת לרעך כמוך is darshened in the gemoro to select as painless a death as possible for someone sentenced to be killed by the Beis Din. This includes homosexuals, murderers, and idol worshipers among others. Do you mean to say that we are not to view these sinners with empathy or sympathy? Then why are we commanded to love them?

    1. Unkown wrote:
      "No one denies the need to love the sinner, יתמו חטאים מן הארץ, חוטאים לא כתיב אלא חטאים, but how many really know how to love the sinner while keeping the hatred for the sin, independent of the sinner."

      Regarding sinners - where do you see that one is to sympathize with a thief or empathize with them? or if one transgresses shabbos or is intermarried - there is no assertion of empathizing with them.

      Actually there are many that do deny this. For example despite the drasha in Berachos 10a from Beruria - Rashi says that the verse in Tehilim is actually talking about the sinner. In fact the same verse is used again later on 10a in which it is understood as referring to the destruction of sinners.

      Actually where do you see that we are commanded to love sinners? Mitzvos such as lo sonu specifically exclude sinners

      This topic needs more explanation and I hope to get back after Shabbos

    2. To tie this issue with our earlier discussion of mental illness. I agree that time changes descriptions of mental illness. Thus, homosexuality was some 60 years ago illegal in England, and also considered a mental illness and included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a disorder. Today, it is no longer called a disorder, and might even be a criminal offense to consider it one in some countries. But the phenomenon has always existed. Its labeling has changed.

    3. I hate sinners who march for the sin they engage in and try to set policy to legalize that which is base and the most vulgar.Society needs to react with outrage at those who engage in these horrible parades.If not,...there will be no society.

    4. I wrote in the main about loving the sinner. ואהבת לרעך כמוך - you shall love your friend as yourself. See סנהדרין מ"ה ע"א and נ"ב ע"א וע"ב. The פסוק of ואהבת לרעך כמוך is used to teach ברור לו מיתה יפה, so it is clearly referring to sinners.
      Can you love someone with whom you cannot sympathize or empathize? I don't think so.

  3. Is R' Chaim Ozer's refusal an indication that the Chofetz Chaim's Loshon Hara works are largely an innovation?

    1. No- he refused because a rav needs to listen to lashon harah. the Chofetz Chaims restrictions serves to freeze communication which is important for a Rav to know about to help people.

    2. if the rav is allowed to hear it, it means that someone must say it...
      and the logic works for a "civilian" as well, since we must make day to day decisions and cannot ask the Rav every minute what to do.

    3. no, it doesn't mean that a person is allowed to say it. it means that if the person is venting or has something to say, the rav can listen.

    4. Wouldn't the Chofetz Chaim agree that someone may listen to lashon hara if it is leto'eles? What situation would Rav Chaim Ozer and the Chofetz Chaim disagree in?

  4. Regarding the Netziv's haskoma to Ahavas Chesed, he says explicitly at the end that halacha supercedes the yashrus approach, bringing ribis as an example. Although yashrus would advocate lending money for low ribis to a needy person, halacha forbids it. So I don't see that he would disagree with the Chofetz Chayim in practice.

    1. the point being not that the Netziv accepts that halacha is the final authority - but rather he acknowledges that seichel has an important role in what a Jew is obligated to do. The Chofetz Chaim seems to view that everything can be defined with explicit halachic statements or sevora applied to these halacha.

    2. R' Avraham 1: Ribis is an interesting example. When there ceased to be enough interest-free loans for aniyim, so that yashrus and halakhah diverged, we came up with heter isqa as a means of conforming to both.

  5. An emphathetic approach is much older than that. See these quotes from Tomer Devorah:

    Even if his neighbor is crushed through suffering as a
    result of his sins he should not be hated, for ‘after he has been disgraced, he is as your brother.’ He should welcome those who suffer and are punished and have mercy upon them. On the contrary, he should save them from their enemies and should not say:
    ‘His sufferings are the result of his sins’ but he shoul d have compassion upon him according to this quality, as I have explained.

    "in this way he should carry all of G-d's people as a
    nursing father carries the sucking child. He should gather the lambs in his arm and carry them in his bosom and le
    ad gently those that give suck. He should think of those that are cut off, seek those that are young, heal that which is broken, feed that which stands still, restore those that are lost.

    He should have pity on Israel and carry their burden with good spirits, as does the Supernal Merciful Father Who bears all. He should not tire nor hide himself, nor become weary in lead
    ing each one according to his needs. These are the qualities of Wisdom, of the father merciful to his children.

    Furthermore, his mercy should extend to all creatures, neither destroying nor despising any of them. For the Supernal
    Wisdom is extended to all created things- minerals, plants, animals and humans. This is the reason why we
    were warned against despising food. In this way man's pity should be extended to all the works of the Blessed One just as the Supernal Wisdom despises no created thing for they are a
    created from that source...

    1. If you are referring to compassion someone who clearly is a sinner - the gemora Berachos 10a is clearly earlier. On the other hand the description regarding someone who is suffering - simply assumed to be because of sin - is one of sympathy and kindness - not empathy.

    2. The Netziv is describing the use of seichel and yashrus i.e., a a natural human reaction to the pain of another - unfiltered by aprior halachic considerations.

      Whether this represents empathy and something new or merely a reaction to the halachicization of reaction to suffering is not clear to me. Rav Triebitz analysis of the Netziv is relying on interpretation and inference rather than clear statements.

    3. " On the other hand the description regarding someone who is suffering - simply assumed to be because of sin - is one of sympathy and kindness - not empathy."

      Can you please clarify the distinction between these two (sympathy/kindness vs. empathy) in this context?

    4. RDE, your comment of March 31, 2013 at 10:23 AM in which you write, "someone who is suffering - simply assumed to be because of sin" reads like Eliphaz's response to Iyov, not the book's conclusion.

      But you're missing that the Ramak makes exactly the points I did in the original discussion: he likens rachamim to nursing and the parent feeling their child's hunger, and refers to nosei be'ol im chaveiro WRT his emotional "yoke".

  6. As opposed to this there are more traditional rabbis such as Rav Moshe Sternbuch who view this as a major breach in the mesora and that the sinner needs to be condemned and not be viewed with sympathy or empathy

    traditionalists do does this across the board or just for homosexuality?

    1. Clearly the nonsympathetic attitude is true in the area of intermarriage, Shabbos transgression, adultery, theft, child abuse etc.

      In fact traditionaly what areas have sinners been viewed with sympathy in the way that certain rabbis view homosexuals?

      Tinok shenishbat is an issue of ignorance. Where do we find that someone who has sinned because of his yetzer harah is given sympathy? Even the case of Beruriah (Berachos 10a) seems to referring to unintentional sinners.

  7. Wondering if there is any way to get recordings of these classes:

  8. It sounds like this discussion was mainly about empathy regarding those who commit sins (victimize others) rather than those traumatized by their own victimization by others. But the earlier discussion you raised on your site was about those suffering abuse and being stigmatized, how to help relieve their suffering, etc. How do you see the explanations of Rabbi Triebitz fitting in with that earlier discussion?

  9. Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch definitely sees the trait of compassion (rachamim) as involving sympathy and empathy. Here's chapter 17 from Horeb:

    "Compassion is the feeling of sympathy which the pain of one being of itself awakens in another; and the higher and more human the beings are, the more keenly attuned are they to re-echo the note of suffering which, like a voice from heaven, penetrates the heart, bringing to all creatures a proof of their kinship in the universal God. And as for man, whose function it is to show respect and love for God's universe and all its creatures, his heart has been created so tender that it feels with the whole organic world, bestowing sympathy even on beings devoid of feeling, mourning even for fading flowers, so that, if nothing else, the very nature of his heart must teach him that he is required above everything to feel himself the brother of all beings, and to recognize the claim of all beings to his love and beneficence.

    Do not suppress this compassion, this sympathy, especially with the sufferings of your fellow-man. It is the warning voice of duty, which points out to you your brother in every sufferer, and your own sufferings in his, and awakens the love which tells you that you belong to him and his sufferings with all the powers that you have. Do not suppress it! If you thrust it back too often, it will no more well up of itself, and you will have cut yourself off from the company of all your fellow-creatures, and you yourself will have destroyed the first proof of your mission as man and Israelite. Your heart becomes a stone, and there no longer sounds in it the voice of God, reminding you of your mission.

    Do not suppress it either as the disturber of your own comfort. Rather see in it the admonition of God that you are to have no joy so long as a brother suffers by your side. Do not suppress it because you feel it calling on you to share your possessions. Rather let it be a sign to you that your property does not belong to you, but that God has given everyone in need a claim on it. Do not suppress it out of shame for an unbecoming weakness, out of shame for that which God has given to you yourself as the warranty for your noble mission as man and Israelite. When the sigh of suffering humanity elicits a kindred sigh from you, when its sorrow makes your countenance also sad, and the tear of sympathy comes into your eye--then you are ennobled; that is what proves you to that you are man and Israelite.

    Yet be on your guard against letting sympathy degenerate into a hypersensitivity which identifies itself with the sufferers to such an extent that it retains no composure or power or strength to help. Such excess is fatal to the performance of the duty to which sympathy calls you. Rather accustom yourself at an early age to give practical help to suffering of every kind. (Y.D. 247.)"

  10. I took a look at the Netziv's introduction to Breishis and find nothing there about empathy. He speaks of yashrus, which he defines as a desire for the world to persist regardless of man's wickedness.


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