Bias Toward Action

By Bryna Leider

Two weekends ago, I heard about the tragic fire that took the lives of seven children. The next day, I cried on a street corner with the sister of a high school classmate who recently died while waiting for a Get. A few days later, I watched a video clip of a woman describing how she was molested as a child by a Rabbi at her shul. In the middle of all of that, a plane went down in the French Alps.

I wanted to hide. I wanted to excommunicate myself from the Internet and watch brainless TV on an unending loop. I wanted to tell the creators of Design Thinking that they need to put a caution label on their empathy exercises and email all of the teachers I’ve preached to that they should actually try to get children to a six on the empathy scale, and not to eight. I wanted to tell the people in my office to change their event from “radical empathy” to “tempered empathy” because radical empathy is dangerous.

The New York Times recently published an article describing the work of a cognitive neuroscientist who is studying empathy, specifically as it applies to “…intractable conflicts around the world.” In one study, Emile Bruneau found that people “…tended to feel much less empathy – less joy at the successes and less sorrow at the misfortunes – for members of the other team than for members of their own team…. And…the width of this empathy gap did not correlate with a person’s empathy rating on personality assessments; it was not wider in less empathic people or narrower in more empathic people. What it did correlate with was the strength of a person’s group identity.”

We might not like to admit it, but when horror hits Jewish people, in our city, who are friends of friends, we feel it more deeply. Bruneau is trying to isolate and identify how the feeling we have towards “our own” can be extended to “the other,” such as Palestinians and the Roma in Europe. If Bruneau succeeds, in the space between our present and our future peaceful world, might we all become emotional wrecks?

One of the most memorable parts of the Pesach Seder is spilling wine while reciting the plagues. The encouragement to demonstrate empathy for the suffering our enemies endured always makes me proud to be Jewish. Then I get to “shfoch chamatcha” and I’m a little embarrassed. But this year, I get it. I have been really angry. My wrath has been directed at people who are choosing to keep their heads in the sand about the agunah issue and at the universe for allowing so many people to die so young. I am furious at those who enable the continued perpetration of child abuse and domestic violence by shielding the abusers. This anger has impelled my typically complacent self to act.

I’m no expert, but this is where I think we both hold onto sanity and help the world get better. Consciously attaching empathy to action circumvents depression. Channeling empathy-induced anger into morally principled actions is what leads to positive change. Instead of being afraid of empathy, we need to open ourselves up ever further and do so with a “bias toward action.”

Bryna Leider is the Director of the Day School Collaboration Network at The Jewish Education Project.