Sensitivity

Sensitivity to others creates a sense of community solidarity. Solidarity is not conformity. The right to hold differing views is sacrosanct in the Talmud.

By BEREL WEIN
December 24, 2010 15:15
3 minute read.

There is a value in Jewish life and law that encompasses the necessity of exhibiting sensitivity toward the feelings of others. This value is not rigidly defined in halachic terms as an etrog or a succa is. It exists in a far more amorphous realm, one that is almost meant to be cultural and self-understood.

Because it is not rigorously defined, there are really no textbooks on the subject, and from my years of experience in Jewish education, it is certainly not part of the core curriculum of most Jewish schools. This is a pity, for the lack of sensitivity to others and their feelings and needs has certainly created a much more fractured, aggressive and badly divided Jewish society both here and in much of the Diaspora than is necessary.

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In the 19th century in Lithuania, Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant founded what came to be known as the Musar movement. One of the values that he stressed almost above all others was the necessity for a Jew to be sensitive to the plight, beliefs and needs of others. The Musar movement was greatly influential in Lithuanian Jewish life, especially in most of the yeshivot until World War II. Alas, just as almost all of Lithuanian Jewry did not survive the war, neither did the Musar movement. There are still yeshivot that pay lip service to the values and texts of that movement, but in truth its influence is minimal in today’s Jewish world.

What a pity! It is not that we are violent toward one to another, though that tendency is unfortunately also on the rise, as much as are simply insensitive and unfeeling. The rabbis pointed out that even giving charity must be done in a sensitive and honorable way. Today the industrialization of charity giving has created a terrible separation between the donor and the recipient, a lack of human connection and a frightening callousness to the entire subject.

I took a Lufthansa flight from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt am Main this past week. I had never flown Lufthansa before and I never visit Germany – my personal prejudice. But since I had to arrive in Chicago at a certain hour, the only connection that fit my schedule was through Frankfurt am Main, and so I flew Lufthansa.

As the plane took off and the steward read the stock announcements about food service over the public address system, I was struck by his statement that no pork is served on flights to and from Tel Aviv. This impressed me as an extremely sensitive statement of policy, taking into account the sensitivities of the Jewish and Muslim passengers that make up the bulk of the traffic between Tel Aviv and Frankfurt am Main. Maybe the history of Germany in the 20th century still weighs on the German psyche and has made it more sensitive to others. I would certainly hope so.

A friend of mine who recently made aliya asked me if all Israeli drivers were aggressive and discourteous. I replied that one should never generalize, but there is no doubt that people who are less narcissistic and aggressive and are sensitive to the needs of others are much safer and saner drivers. In general, a large heaping of sensitivity would do wonders for the mood of our society.

Sensitivity to others creates a sense of community solidarity. Solidarity is not conformity. The right to hold differing views is sacrosanct in the Talmud. Because of this, the Talmud also emphasizes that the other person’s viewpoint is to be taken into account and not rejected out of hand. The schools of Hillel and Shammai disagreed over 312 matters. Even though the school of Hillel was more numerous and authoritative, it nevertheless was always sensitive to the opinions and rulings and feelings of the school of Shammai. In many instances it withdrew its opinion in favor of the one of the school of Shammai where it gathered that it was a principle that the school of Shammai could not abandon. Therefore, the Talmud relates that both of the teachings of Hillel and Shammai are those of the living God.

In the long run of life and society, sensitivity is the lubricant that gives one a smoother existence.


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