What is the precise definition of the emotion “compassion”? Is there a difference between compassion and pity? Vadim Kelebeyev writes about the different characteristics of compassion, about the complex attempts to define it, and about its various appearances in Jewish culture.
The concept of compassion has become very useful among politicians at election time. Past head of the Kadima Party Ehud Olmert declared that he intended to manage a “compassionate economy.” In his column, “The Linguistic Arena,” in Ma’ariv, Ruvik Rosenthal interpreted the word as follows: “The capitalistic answer to the social agenda…. The poor will continue to be in the dumps, we will feel sorry for them. Really, really sorry.” Whether or not Olmert’s use of the term was as cynical as Rosenthal hints, the glaring assumption is that there is an emotion called compassion. Is this truly so?
The Even Shoshan
Hebrew dictionary defines compassion as: “Pity, a feeling of sympathy and a desire to help another in his sorrow.” This definition blurs more than it clarifies. “Pity,” brought as a synonym, is very far from the emotional position meant to be adopted by a person expressing compassion. Compassion also “suffers” from closeness to other emotions such as mercy, sympathy, grief, and empathy. The use of the word “compassion” by writers, philosophers, and historians creates a lack of clarity as this word is used to express different emotions.
Hand of Guanyin, Buddhist goddess of compassion
We can learn from the resistance of many philosophers (e.g., Plato, the Stoics, Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche, and many others) to the involvement of compassion in personal and public life, that some of them saw compassion as patronizing, an egotistical concern of man with himself which has the power to harm one’s ability to act rationally. The Stoics defined compassion as a mental disease that causes autarchy, the ability for self-satisfaction. Kant called it “a form of insulting benefit, in that it expresses a kind of generosity towards one who is not worthy.”Nietzsche claimed that “sharing one’s pain is a waste of sentimentality that causes meaninglessness damage to one’s moral health.”
Over the past few decades, emotions, especially compassion, have returned to the interest of philosophers, psychologists, and brain researchers. Today, one can find several points of agreement about the definition of compassion: a sense of compassion emerges from the negative situation of another, and most researchers agree that it entails sharing the suffering of another. The Latin word for compassion is also illuminating: “com” means “with” and “pati” means “suffering.” Therefore, the literal meaning of the word is “to suffer with.” However, the problem that has plagued many researchers is the difficulty in distinguishing compassion from pity and mercy–related but very different terms. One attempt to clarify this issue maintains that the important difference between emotions is the existence or absence of action triggered by the emotion. The urgency to help others that characterizes compassion does not exist in pity. Moreover, compassion entails a readiness for practical intervention and even brings the other closer, as an equal. Pity, by contrast, is characterized by distance and, at times, feelings of superiority and minimizing the suffering of the other. Pity cements inequality and the inferiority of the object of the emotion. We can feel pity for someone at the same time that we preserve a safe distance. In light of that, we can now understand that the criticism of compassion and the philosophical view that it is egotism at work is actually a criticism of pity.
This distinction was best understood by the Jewish-German philosopher Hermann Cohen. He believed that the perception of compassion as an emotion based on the randomness of the life experience of the person feeling compassion is not about compassion but about the expansion of the “I.”But the truth is that compassion enables people to extend the limitations of the “I”, enabling them to identify with the other and see him as a peer.
These words of Hermann Cohen continue a long Jewish tradition. Jewish sources distinguished between the different emotional stances of pity and compassion, even if the concepts are linguistically muddled. Thus, for example, in the description of Saul feeling pity for Agag, the Bible says: “And Saul and the nation felt compassion for Agag and for the best of the cattle” (I Samuel 15:8). The different interpretations of the sharp criticism leveled at Saul demonstrate that he is not feeling compassion at all, since the relationship between winner and loser in war is unequal; therefore, this should be termed “mercy.” Indeed, it is not surprising to read that in the Midrash, Saul’s actions are analyzed using the rule: “Whoever feels mercy for those who are cruel will end up acting cruelly to those who are merciful” (Yalkut Shimoni, I Samuel 121).
Of the commandment “You shall leave him” (Commandment 80) the Sefer HaHinuch writes that we can identify the connection between compassion and the actions that it leads to: “The point of the commandment is to teach our souls a praiseworthy type of compassion. We know that we are obligated to be compassionate towards the man who is suffering bodily, but we are also commanded to be compassionate towards one who is suffering financially… Whoever passes him by negates this, and demonstrates cruelty which is an ugly quality.” Later on in the text, we again see the semantic confusion between compassion and mercy: “Whoever does not have mercy, the heavens do not have mercy on him, because he does not deserve mercy.”
It seems that the most outstanding expression of compassion in Jewish tradition is found in the biblical commandment “And the stranger shall not suffer, and you shall know the soul of the stranger because you were strangers in Egypt.” This is a prime example of creating a collective image that is not dependent on personal experience but demands immediate action to alleviate the suffering of strangers in a homogeneous society. Jews are obligated to imagine the suffering of their ancestors in Egypt and to recall the story of the Exodus from Egypt over and again in order to instill the ensuing understandings on one’s behavior towards the other, the stranger. These edicts which repeat themselves 36 times in the Bible–look after the stranger, the orphan, and the widow–teach us to attempt to build a society in which people identify with those who are different, no matter what their religion. This is a basic moral norm that derives from the feeling of compassion.
Vadim Kelebeyev is a doctoral student in the Hebrew University Philosophy Department and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.