Between Separating Ourselves and Seeing Ourselves in Others

BY YAEL BURGESS EISENBERG


When a gentile came before Hillel and said he would convert to Judaism if Hillel could teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel did not turn him away, as Shammai had done. Hillel told him: “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation.” This classic Talmudic account addresses a core element of Judaism—compassion, a principle Jews continue to value today. In fact, a Pew Research Center survey from 2021 found that 72 percent of American Jews say leading an ethical and moral life is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them. 

Jews of all denominations and practices overwhelmingly affirm that Hillel’s focus is their focus as well. Being able to understand the effects of one’s actions and maintain empathy may seem simple and obvious. However, because of differing interpretations of the Torah and Jewish law, the practice of empathy can come in many different forms. So, what level of compassion are Jews expected to have? Are we expected to exhibit boundless compassion in all situations? 

In characteristic fashion, the Talmud gives us one outermost example. A scene is painted: two people, presumably in the desert. One person has enough water to sustain themself and only themself. If they share the water, both people die. Rabbi Akiva taught that the water should not be shared or gifted. Instead, the person who owns the water should drink it. This is an extreme scenario, but it is enlightening. Whether water, or perhaps money, you are not obligated to share with another if it seriously threatens your own interests. This hypothetical demonstrates an initial limit to Jewish consideration. 

However, another reading is offered, which provides a more conventional account of Jewish compassion. In the same hypothetical, in order to sustain one’s life, one must take on the burden of watching another die, something that would provoke a compassionate response in even the most hard-hearted person. Thus, Ben Petora taught that in this scenario, “It is preferable that both of them drink and die, and let neither one of them see the death of the other.” This suggests that to watch the death of another is so morally and emotionally terrible that it is ultimately preferable for two people to die rather than one. Ben Petora’s decision recognizes compassion for all humanity, but Rabbi Akiva’s teaching of self-sufficiency first ultimately takes precedence over Ben Petora’s. 

Now let’s apply this teaching to the question of the debt Jews owe to the world. Without a doubt, Jews are called to be empathetic to others. However, we can also expand the hypothetical of these two individuals in the Talmud to the Jewish community and the world. We should, at the very least, not destroy ourselves in our attempt to lift up others. Total selflessness is not the correct model. 

Another notable element informing Jewish kindness is Jewish hardship. In Exodus 23:9, we are told to “not oppress the stranger.” That could’ve been the end of this verse, but instead the instruction is immediately followed by a reminder that we “know the feelings of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Remembering our ancestors’ experience gives us reason for empathy. Recalling our hardships in Egypt is all the reasoning required to remind us to help others, and in particular, outsiders and the downtrodden. The explicit command for us to be caring comes from a place of affliction—which is remembered each year at the Passover seder and resonates still today given the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the diaspora. In fulfilling our responsibilities to the world as a light unto the nations, we must return to our roots as a nation.

Judaism is a tradition of collective memory. Every Jew experiences the Passover seder yearly, recalling everything from the tears of the Israelites to the bread that didn’t have time to rise and came out as matzah. The Jews of Egypt suffered, so when instructing them to have compassion, God reminded them of this harrowing experience. Today, we Jews are the living descendants of these slaves, and their pain is our own. Jewish empathy comes from a recognition of our peoplehood. Ironically, but very intentionally, by separating ourselves from the world, we have empathy for the people of the world. 

Compassion is a key part of the Jewish people’s relationship with the world. But we first need to remember our peoplehood and collective trauma in order to act as a light unto the nations. Hillel again says it best: “If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?” While we are called to help others, we cannot neglect our own responsibilities in the process. We should consider any costs of Jewish compassion and weigh them against other potentialities, just as Rabbi Akiva and Ben Petora did, and must balance between separating ourselves from others and seeing ourselves in others, as shown by God’s command in Exodus. Jews owe the world compassion, but not unlimited compassion.

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