Reflections on Pittsburgh: Can Universities Help Sow Seeds of Empathy?

By Marc Brettler

On Tuesday, three days after 11 Jewish congregants were murdered while praying at the Tree of Life-Ohr Lesimchah Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Duke University Judaic Studies professor Marc Brettler was asked to say a few words to a class on scripture that he co-teaches with experts on Christianity and Islam. This piece is based on his comments.

The name “Tree of Life,” is based on Proverbs 3:18, “It is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and whoever holds on to it is happy.” In its original meaning there, the “tree of life” refers to wisdom, the main theme of wisdom literature, such as Proverbs. But in rabbinic interpretation, it refers to the Torah, which is equated with wisdom, and is seen as the source of greatest wisdom. What an irony that this slaughter should have taken place in a synagogue, in the very presence of the Torah scrolls that are supposed to lead to life. And the second name of the congregation — for two congregations had merged — Ohr Lesimchah, meaning “light leading toward rejoicing,” only compounds the irony.

Teaching a scripture course, and in some sense “representing” Judaism — both as a practicing Jew and as a scholar of Jewish Studies, has made me very reflective at this moment: What are my goals as a professor of religious studies? What are my, and our, goals in the class? What is really important? How should we measure success?

I do not believe that education solves all problems. But experience has taught me that it is much harder to demonize something or someone you know. Teaching about other traditions in courses like this, in a religious studies department at a liberal arts university, is not an attempt to convert or persuade, but to encourage some knowledge of these other traditions. In particular, we highlight the complexity of religious traditions, including the beauty that they each contain — such as amazing Qur’an chanting, the gorgeous fourth century Christian Codex Sinaiticus, or an exquisite illumination of Jonah being spewed out of the big fish in a Hebrew Bible manuscript. I hope you have begun to appreciate this beauty and complexity, and are learning now something that it took me decades to learn — that you can value aspects of traditions that are not yours, creating what Professor Bishop Krister Stendahl, the late Dean of Harvard Divinity School, whom I knew, called “holy envy.” And I hope that you are gaining respect for all these traditions, and for those who practice them — removing them from the category of the absolute “other.”

Maybe this is too much to hope for. But I believe it is not. In the last three days I have received emails from colleagues and students expressing their grave concern and solidarity, and these have been tremendous bright spots in these dark times. I would like to share one with you, from a Hindu student who took a course in Judaism and Hinduism that I co-taught with an Indian-American colleague last semester. To me it reflects part of what I hope to accomplish in this course, and as a professor of Jewish Studies:

Dear Professor Brettler,

I think back to our class often and about the new perspectives it gave me on the connection between Hinduism and Judaism and the similarities between the Indian American and Jewish American experience. While I would have previously found the event in Pittsburgh on Saturday undeniably tragic, I found myself feeling more personally connected and experiencing a deeper sadness than I believe I would have had previously. I just wanted to express my deepest condolences for what happened, and say that I will always be a strong ally to the Jewish community. I hope, all things considered, you, your family, and other close ones are coping okay. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do to help the community in this time, but I wanted to express my feelings of solidarity with the Jewish community and hope it helps to make people feel a little more safe.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do as humanistic educators is to create empathy. In fact, the topic we are now covering is translation of scripture — and the very act of translation means wanting to understand something we do not yet understand. Thus, the two ideas of empathy and translation are connected; they are both paths into trying to appreciate what is initially foreign. I hope that through this course, representing three inter-connected, but quite different traditions, you’ll grow in appreciation of that fact. Meanwhile, I will hold on to this student’s letter. Her words give me a little hope that, in at least in one heart, education can help sow a seed of understanding, and sometimes even empathy.

Marc Brettler is Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor in Judaic Studies at Duke University and a member of the American Academy for Jewish Research and the Council of the Society of Biblical Literature. His books include How to Read the Bible and and he is co-editor of the Jewish Study Bible.



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Duke University Opinion and Analysis

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