Empathy keeps coming up in my life lately, both professional and personal. It seems to be at the root of much of what is good in our world, including philanthropy. I am beginning to believe it may also be an essential component of curing that which ails us as a society.
It began with two books I’m reading, which for entirely unrelated reasons, have empathy at the heart of their message. In “The Better Angels of Our Nature” Steven Pinker (backed by extensive historical research) makes a compelling case that violence has been declining for millennia. At least in part, he argues, this is true because of the powerfully civilizing effect of humanity’s (relatively recent) ability to empathize with others. In “Do the Kind Thing” Daniel Lubetzky (son of a Holocaust survivor and founder of the Kind bar company) cites empathy as one of 10 key principles of his business success.
Many of my recent conversations in the community have dealt with empathy as well. Recently, someone expressed a deep anxiety over how divided our country seems to be. Why, she asked, has our political discourse become so much about hating those that disagree with us?
I heard in her words a deeper question: Where is our empathy?
Then, before work one morning, I opened up my phone to find an article from a national nonprofit leader entitled Nonprofit Work is an Endurance Sport; Empathy is our Muscle. In it was a powerful message about how empathy is at the heart of what we do in the non-profit world. In essence, the writer argued, empathy is who we are and what we do – it is the key to our efforts to help repair a broken world.
Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” It is the emotion that makes philanthropy possible. A website on Jewish philanthropy put this idea nicely: “Done properly, tzedakah requires the donor share his or her compassion and empathy along with the money.” The concept of justice, which is embedded in the definition of tzedakah, means that we should understand the needs of those that we help.
Empathy is not just a concept saved for philanthropy, though; it should be part of our relationships with others as well. Unfortunately, our society now seems not only to disagree on everything, but to lack a sense of empathy as well. Disagreements over policy or politics have devolved into exchanges of hateful language and personal animosity.
In the midst of this enmity, there is one thing that I think we can agree upon – part of our obligation as a people is to ease the suffering of others. As a society and as a people, the time has come for us to find unity around the concept of helping to repair our broken world.
To understand the challenges faced by the homeless teen, the burden of the family struggling with a terminal illness or the ravages of domestic violence or sexual assault compels all of us to act out of an inherent sense of empathy. These tragedies must not be ignored; not simply because they are unjust, but because they represent suffering on the part of other humans who we believe were also created in the image of G-d. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said, “To know G-d is to act with justice and compassion, to recognize His image in other people, and to hear the silent cry of those in need.”
If we can find unity in this idea, if we can empathize with those in need, then our belief in the power of tzedakah offers a chance to bridge our divided society. This is our work - to repair our broken world.
Can philanthropy’s embrace of empathy serve to bring our broader society together? It is not yet clear. We certainly don’t agree on much, but if we can agree on helping those who are suffering, that’s a good place to start.
Maimonides understood the power of empathy for others and explained it much better than I can, capturing the essence of empathy and its importance in all aspects of our lives:
“And whatever I do not want for myself or my friends, I do not want for that other person. This is the meaning of the verse, ‘And you shall love the other person as yourself.’ (Leviticus 19:18)” – Maimonides, Sefer Hamitzvot
Michael Johnston is the President & CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of