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The Power of Empathy…with Kylie Unell

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51mins

Do you ever feel like an outsider? What does Judaism have to say about the Black Lives Matter movement? Was Moses the first biracial Jew? Listen in as Noam and Kylie talk about what it means to “see color,” the limits of the English language, and how personal struggles shape us as people. About Kylie Unell: Kylie is a Dean’s Doctoral Fellow at NYU concentrating in Jewish philosophy. She was named an “aspiring Jewish philosopher” by the New York Jewish Week’s 36 Under 36. Kylie is a writer, podcaster, and the co-producer of the comedy show, Sweepstakes Comedy. She also runs Models of Faith, a photoblog sharing the stories of millennials who take their faith seriously.

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Episode Transcript

INTRO

In 2001, Indra Nooyi became the Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo. It was a dream come true. She knew the significance of this moment, an Indian woman at the helm of a fortune 500 company. Brimming with joy and pride, she could not wait to share the news with her mother. But after she shared this incredible achievement with her mother, hoping for praise, acknowledgement, something, her mother nonchalantly reacted by saying, “Hey, can you get out and get some milk?” Nooyi was incensed and hurt, and then, her mother doubled down, with, “Leave that damn crown in the garage.”

Nooyi tells this story to remind people that the possession of power, of any kind, can lead to what is called hubris syndrome. Hubris syndrome is described as “a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success.”

Power can lead to hubris and hubris can be blinding. It can be debilitating. Whether I am CEO of PepsiCo or CEO of my household, all of us wield power in some way.

So what’s the antidote? How can I combat hubris, within myself? The answer… is empathy. For some people listening, you’ll hear the word “empathy,” and be like, “Yes, empathy, that is so me,” yes, This is Judaism on one foot! And for others, you’ll hear the word “empathy” and react by rolling your eyes and feeling like it’s some liberal or compassionate, weak talking point of the left.

Now, let me take a step back for a second. This episode is about empathy, about simple recognition of the other. But it’s also about power, and how power can blind us to empathy. And, it’s about identity, about how when we get too bogged down in our own identity, it blinds us to the other, someone with a different identity. And, last, but certainly not least, it’s about racism – the ultimate way of seeing, or not seeing, the other, who’s different from me.

In fact, all the way in the beginning, when we were batting around ideas, we originally framed this purely as a racism conversation. And I’ll be honest, I was super scared about this topic. We all know that racism exists and is pervasive in society, yet we may not agree on what constitutes racism or how racism should be fought. Some of us may think there is systemic racism in many western countries and some may scoff at this idea, viewing it as a product of woke culture. I am less interested in politics and much more interested in what the Torah and Jewish thought can teach all of us about empathy and racism.

What I’m struggling with is, how do we balance identity and empathy? Saying, you’re different, but also saying, I see you as my sister, as my brother, as me?

So. As I said, I. was. scared to speak about this topic, but we knew who our perfect guest for this episode would be – Kylie Unell.

Kylie is an amazing up and coming Jewish thinker. She both believes in identity, and rejects it completely. She is equally intrigued by social media and Jewish philosophy. Kylie, as you will hear, is significantly less interested in identity than she is in ideas, so maybe me sharing that she is black Jewish woman who grew up in Kansas and is now pursuing her phd in Jewish philosophy might make her a little uncomfortable.

This conversation was clarifying, because with almost every question I threw at her, she almost rejected the premise, and forced me to think about what we were really talking about. It was challenging, and it was tough, and it was awesome.

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you Kylie Unell.

CONVERSATION

Noam: Kylie, it is so awesome to have you on the show. Welcome.

Kylie: Thanks for having me.

Noam: Thanks for being here. I want to jump right into a question that I have for you. You have written about how you reject this simplicity of being defined by identity, and I want to start by quoting you.

Kylie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Noam: Maybe it’s weird to hear your own words, but-

Kylie: No, please.

Noam: You’re like, “Please, let me hear my words.”

Kylie: It’s been two years, a year, I don’t even know.

Noam: Okay. Here’s what you said, Hirsch spoke to me, a biracial woman who did not grow up in an Orthodox home as a whole Jewish human, and not as a Jew of a particular denomination or fragmented conglomeration of multiple identities. I simply read him in the way he had intended, as a young, Jewish person trying to find my way.” What did you mean by that?

Kylie: Well, that was from an essay that I wrote about Samson Raphael Hirsch’s book, The Nineteen Letters, which is a book from 19th century Germany. I read that book for the first time when I was a sophomore in college, and it was an incredible experience. I used to keep a list of five things that I was grateful for and five things that I wanted. One of the things that I wanted, when I read it, was for every Jewish person coming into college to read that book. It helped me situate myself in the Jewish story and understand what it means to be a Jew. Coming to New York, I’m from the Midwest, I’m from Kansas, originally. I lived in Israel for a while, then I lived in North Carolina, and then I came to New York, so I’ve lived in the Midwest. I’ve lived in the home of the Jew. I’ve lived in Israel, I’ve lived in the South, and then I came to New York, which is a beast of its own nature.

Noam: Also, the home of the Jews.

Kylie: The U.S. chapter of the Jewish home. It didn’t set in immediately, but looking back on it, my race has been more of a focal point in my Judaism while I’ve lived in New York, more than it was in any other place that I’ve lived. Reading The Nineteen Letters, I didn’t think about these questions, and race was not something that came up for me when I was thinking about this, because I was reading a book by a man who expressed a philosophy about what it is to be human, what it means to be a Jew in the world, and how to be a Jew in the world. I’m a Jewish person, and so I study Jewish philosophy, because it helps me understand what it means to be a Jewish person. I just see the ideas and they speak to me as a person, because, first and foremost, that’s what I am.

Noam: Right. The way I see what you’re saying, Kylie, is that you view the world and trying to understand the world by trying to consider the ideas over identity. Is that right? Is that accurate?

Kylie: Yeah, I mean, largely. I think identity is important, but I don’t think that it’s everything, and I certainly don’t think that it’s something that trumps humanity. It’s funny, because I’m actually, very particular about difference, in a certain respect. I think every single person is very different, but that difference is the thing that makes us the same. I actually do focus a lot on identity, but I don’t extort it to be the definition of a person. I don’t focus on the identity as the definition of a person, I focus on the person and all of the aspects of their identity are a big part of it. Literally, since I was a kid, before any notions of race and difference and hierarchy or whatever the world wants to put on that today, came into my mind, as a kid, I saw that every single person had a different shade. I was very, very attuned to skin color. My shade was tan, my mom’s shade was a darker peach, somebody else was this shade. Every person had a shade and it never mattered because, “Okay, fine, everybody has their different thing,” and so I’ve always, actually, been very attuned to different. Yes, I do focus a lot on ideas separate from identities, but identity is a very important part.

Noam: How do you view seeing difference? Is seeing difference, is that good? Is it bad? The Judaism-

Kylie: It’s hugely important.

Noam: Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, has written extensively about this idea from the Bible, from the Torah, that it says, veahavta l’reyacha kamocha, that you should love your neighbor like yourself. It says that once, and then it says veahavta et hager, you should love the other, the person who’s not like you. I think it says that 36 times throughout the Torah or Tanach, the Bible, at 37 places. It commands us to love the other. You’re saying that the veahavta et hager should be love the stranger?

Kylie: Yeah. Well, I think love– you can fit so much in to ‘other,’ other is such an umbrella term, that other could be somebody from a different tribe. What does it mean to be other?That’s a very vast term, very vague.

Noam: Right. Rabbi Sacks says it… He says the word ger has several meanings. It could be convert. It could be Gentile. It could be foreigner living among people of a different group, but he then says the term can also be interpreted broadly to mean the other. I’m not saying it’s the definitive definition of the word ger, but I’m wondering if it could help us think about whether or not seeing difference is a good thing or whether or not seeing difference is a bad thing. I’ll give you an example, okay? I’m a white male or to say it differently. I’m a white-presenting Jewish male, depending on who I’m talking to and how people-

Kylie: Your skin color changes, depending on who you’re talking to.

Noam: My skin color description changes based on who I’m talking to and so that’s a real question. I remember filling out surveys growing up and I did not know. My wife, Raizie, is the same way. We joke about… We didn’t know this, but in high school, I actually never knew what to fill out the bubble like Caucasian?

Kylie: Yeah, they’re the worst.

Noam: When I spoke to my colleagues, when I was at USC, when I had told them the story, they’re like, “What are you talking about? You didn’t know to fill out white Caucasian? Are you a moron?” There’s this whole challenging dynamic. For some people seeing difference is a good thing for other people, for a long time, there was a value, at least in saying, “I don’t see color. I actually don’t notice any differences. Who cares? You’re black, you’re yellow, you’re white, you’re whatever. Who cares? You’re brown, you’re this shade, you’re that shade.” I’m wondering if it… Now to say such a thing, to not see a difference is considered awful. It’s a terrible thing. Of course, there’s a difference between people and you should honor that difference. It’s all part of this mosaic. How do you view it?

Kylie: Well, I think the difference is what the color means, which has changed in some ways. If you don’t notice color now, you’re not noticing struggle. You’re not noticing being treated as lesser than, in certain places. You’re not noticing a person’s experience. By washing over that, or by not noticing that or not paying any attention to that, you’re not acknowledging a person’s pain, which I see as being really, really problematic. Whereas in the past there was a different, I guess, definition or there were different associations with color, with a particular race and that’s always changing. What I think is problematic is focusing so much on color the way that we’re focusing on it now, or on race, is focusing a lot on negative experiences, which I think is really important.

Kylie: I think it’s really important to acknowledge negative experiences, but I think it’s just as important, if not more to move past them, to process them, again, really important to process and to face, but we have to move past. All that I’m seeing now is this desire to just sit in it, to just sit in it. I’m not seeing any movement away from it. I’m not seeing much effort to move us closer to recognizing shared humanity through human noblement, this idea that humans have something beautiful to contribute to the world and are not evil.

Noam: Got it. Let me ask you a strange but simple question. Are you opposed to racism?

Kylie: Yes.

Noam: Yes. You’re opposed to racism. Would anyone say no to that question anymore? Would anyone say, “No, I’m not opposed to racism,” outside of extreme fringe, crazy people?

Kylie: No. Nobody would say…

Noam: Everyone would be like, “Yeah, I’m opposed to racism.”

Kylie: Of course.

Noam: Do you think in how we ought to be thinking about racism, which I think we can define as oppressing of people based on their skin color or ethnicity, or demonizing them or giving them fewer opportunities, whatever it is, but something like that? Would you say that Judaism’s opposed to racism?

Kylie: I think it’s a complicated question, actually.

Noam: I’ll tell you why I think this is a really important or challenging question. We both just agreed that racism is not a good thing. We both agreed that it would take a crazy fringe person to be like, “Yeah, no, I’m a racist.” You and I both think that Judaism is amazing and it’s a great thing. Then I asked what I think is a fairly straightforward question, which is, is Judaism opposed to racism? Now we have a longer answer, so I’m looking forward to hearing the longer answer.

Kylie: I think Judaism, what is Judaism? How do you define Judaism? Everybody has a different definition of it. The definition of it has evolved. I think what the Torah stands to show us is that there is an ideal.

Noam: Okay, what’s the ideal?

Kylie: The ideal is acknowledging one God, living in accordance with Jewish law, because that is a means of ethical living and something that promotes Jewish unity in the world, and makes us an ohr hagoyim, makes us a light unto the nations. Not necessarily because we don’t eat at McDonald’s, but because the principles behind these things and the things that they symbolize serve to show the greater truth, which is that there is one God. They’re human beings and one thing that I think the Torah is very careful to show us is that human beings are constantly failing. I am thinking of Miriam, Miriam says something about Moshe’s wife. Moshe’s wife, she calls her a kushit. There’s multiple interpretations obviously, because it’s Judaism and it’s the Torah, so there’s going to be a lot of-

Noam: I mean, Rashi says it means she’s a beautiful woman.

Kylie: Of a particular color, and there are interpretations that say that was, racist is super anachronistic, but that was something that was-

Noam: Derogatory, perhaps, right?

Kylie: Exactly. A derogatory remark on his wife. I think that hatred of people or strong dislike of people or having problems with people is something that’s entirely natural to the human condition. When we have certain insecurities, we find something to pinpoint. If I am insecure about my weight and I see a person who’s thin, I’m not going to like that person. I think it’s really a part of the human condition. I think that what that instance with Miriam shows us is that is Judaism racist? Does Judaism condone racism? Absolutely not. Are people weak? Do people have weaknesses? Yes. It’s fair to say that Judaism does not support racism, but the whole point of Judaism is to help human beings who are inherently frail beings, who are going to mess up sometimes, get on the right track. Human beings might do things that are racist and wrong, but that certainly doesn’t mean that Judaism supports it. We have examples from that, if you interpret it that way, in the Torah.

Noam: Right. From a Jewish perspective, from a Torah perspective, we can point to law after law, idea after idea, that God created all human beings in the image of God. That demonstrates that there is no hierarchy of race whatsoever. That’s determined at the outset from God at the very beginning, let’s be clear. The reality, like you’re saying, Kylie, is that human beings may do things that are not in concordance or not following what the ideal values are of what has been set in front of them, which is how Judaism has set this in front of them. That doesn’t make Judaism at all racist in the slightest. It just means human beings are mishandling the law or mistreating the ideas that they’re learning.

Kylie: That’s the point of ideals and that’s the point of law. I think we see that throughout, Pesach Sheni is an amazing example of that.

Noam: You get a second chance.

Kylie: Right. If you don’t observe Passover correctly, if you slip up in an area, you get a do-over kind of. It’s not because you are not expected to live up to the ideals of Passover. It’s not because you are allowed to go and have challah because you’re hungry for it, it’s because you’re a human being and there’s an ideal and you’re supposed to live up to the ideal and sometimes you won’t. The 10 commandments are some of the most basic laws, but we need those basic things.

Noam: Love the 10 commandments.

Kylie: Ten commandments are great.

Noam: Big fan of the 10 commandments.

Kylie: I have a poster of them in my room. I love them. No, I think that we have an ideal. That’s why Judaism is so great. We’re not fallen and we’re not born sinners, we’re just-

Noam: Do you think people are good? Do you think people are intrinsically good?

Kylie: Hundred percent.

Noam: You do think that?

Kylie: Absolutely, they’re good.

Noam: Why do you think that?

Kylie: Human beings are inclined towards the good. I don’t have to explain it. I just believe it.

Noam: You believe it? Okay, so-

Kylie: I just believe it. Not only do I believe it, I know it. We are inherently good and we make mistakes and we sin.

Noam: Okay. Then listen, in our liturgy, we say that, Kylie, we say, elokai neshama shenatata bi tehoa hi.  We say that, “God, this soul that you’ve implanted in us is Torah.” It’s pure. It’s good. When we do things that are incorrect, we have an opportunity to have a little bit of a circling around, which is what the word teshuvah means, a return, a whole circle. We get to improve upon ourselves, but you’re saying humanity is ultimately good. Listen, one of my mentors who I love deeply likes to say to me, “Noam, just remember, people suck.” Now, I love him but I view life differently. I view life that people are inherently good, but we do often make choices that we don’t want to make, or we don’t think is the right choice. I think that that happens often.

Kylie: Just because human beings are good, doesn’t mean that there aren’t societies that cultivate the bad in people. It’s really important to have societies, to have religions that move people towards the good because we have a Torah. We have an instruction guide to move us towards where we’re so supposed to be. And there can be societies and different religious sects that are extremists and that move people away from the good, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not inherently good. They just haven’t been properly cultivated.

Noam: Interesting. Do you think Judaism, the Torah, has anything to say to Americans in the last couple years with the Black Lives Matter movement?

Kylie: Of course.

Noam: The reason I thought of that as you were talking is, you define the word Torah perfectly in my opinion, an instruction guide. Does the Torah provide any instruction for how we ought to have been behaving over the last couple years with Black Lives Matter?

Kylie: Yes, but I think that it also is incumbent upon each individual to take it upon themself, which is very hard to do, but to think about for themself, what it is that they want to be putting into the world and how it is that they want to be acting in the world and the Torah has something to teach, but it has to be interpreted and met by individuals.

Noam: What is that? Let me push you on that, Kylie, what does it look like? What does it mean for an individual to be influenced by the Torah to behave in a world in which Black Lives Matter is front and center? What do we do?

Kylie: Black Lives Matter is a really tricky example because it’s a political movement.

Noam: I know. It is a political movement.

Kylie: It has arisen in a particular time where race is something that people are thinking about a lot more. They’re looking at people through the lens of race more than maybe they were in the past and there’s a reason it’s cropped up. I take Black Lives Matter and I use it as a representation for the current moment, I guess, and where things are at in general.

Noam: Let me ask it differently, okay? Does the Torah, does Judaism have anything to say with how we should have reacted to George Floyd’s murder?

Kylie: No.

Noam: It doesn’t have anything to say. Why not?

Kylie: Well, I think-

Noam: Who ought to be teaching me how I should be responding to George Floyd? Should it be Joe Biden, Donald Trump?

Kylie: Yourself.

Noam: Myself? Who’s guiding me?

Kylie: No, we don’t need pundits. That’s the question, and this is where it’s hard for me to step out of my own head. I’m thinking a lot, and not only am I thinking a lot, I embody the two different worlds. I’ve been giving-

Noam: What do you mean by that? What does it mean to embody the two different worlds?

Kylie: I’m black and I’m Jewish. I literally have a foot in each world. Part of my genetic code comes from each world. I have generations of each within me. It’s really hard for me to step out. I almost don’t want to be instructive and say what somebody who didn’t grow up like me should do or what is even in their capacity to do, because I honestly don’t know. I only know my mind. I only know how my mind works and, but what I think is very important and I recognize that this is very difficult to do, is it’s important to think about what it is that you feel as you react to something or as you see something. One of the biggest problems that I see today is that people don’t trust themself enough, or themselves enough to have an opinion of their own, but need other people to give them an opinion. That’s widespread. That is so widespread.

It’s hard. I’m struggling with it so much right now because I’m a product of the culture. I am inclined towards wanting validation by some legitimate source to say what it is that’s true or what’s not. I don’t think we’re cultivating an environment where people can trust themselves anymore.

Noam: That’s a scary thought. Kylie, is there a specific thought that you have that you don’t feel comfortable sharing, that you want to share?

Kylie: Yeah. I think it’s time to come clean. No, I don’t. There’s nothing that comes to mind.

Noam: I want to talk to you about empathy. How do you feel about talking about empathy?

Kylie: Let’s do it. I’m game for it.

Noam: I want to tell you how I see empathy and I want to hear your reflections on that. First of all, it’s important to always know this when speaking to me, I come from a product of two therapists. Meaning if your identity, let’s say is black and Jewish and it’s in your genetic code, my identity is my mother’s a clinical social worker and my father is a clinical psychologist.

Kylie: Gotcha.

Noam: The word empathy made it into our homes prior to Brene Brown, making it so popular. The way I’ve always seen empathy is that it’s essentially a deep understanding of someone else’s experience. It’s the ability and the desire to see the world as the other sees it while retaining my own ability to not become lost in it. Really, what it means is that, “I am showing up for you. I am there.” When I’m listening to you, I’m not running to say something about myself. That’s a real challenge when we’re engaging in a relationship that when someone’s telling you something going on in their lives, we start thinking about myself and we start responding in a way that sees what the person is saying in a relationship to me. That’s not empathy and that’s the real challenger. To quote Brene Brown, she says, “Empathy is communicating that incredibly healing message of, ‘You’re not alone.'” I think that this is a deeply biblical idea for a few reasons. Number one, Tehillim 91:15, one of my favorite lines ever, very simple, imo anochi btzarah, “I’m with you in your troubles,” that’s what God says.

“I’m with you in your troubles.” That is empathy. If I were to ask you, Kylie, why was Moses selected to be leader of the Jewish people and help the Jewish people exit from Egypt and enter the land of Israel? Why was he selected? Why Moses? With many other biblical characters, we know the answer, with Moses I think that the answer is even clearer. It says, vayar, and he saw,” he saw people’s troubles. There’s an obvious question, what does that mean, “He saw”? Well, I like to we’re quoting Rashi a lot. Rashi says something so simple and so magnificent. Listen to this. He says, The difference between Moses and everyone else is that he gave of his eyes and his heart to be in distress with them. That’s empathy. “I feel what you’re feeling. I see what you’re going through and I feel it too. I feel it too.” Empathy to me is so important in human relationships, and I think the Torah makes that crystal clear. How do you see empathy? How do you view empathy in your own life?

Kylie: Oh, so many thoughts on all of that. The empathy that you define in the beginning, I think is a beautiful idea. I think it’s an ideal that most human beings will never reach. You quoted Tehillim after that, and it was God who had empathy. I think it’s only God who’s capable of having empathy to that degree. I think humans will strive for that, but-

Noam: Isn’t it our goal to do imitatio dei, to imitate God?

Kylie: A hundred percent, yes. I think only God is capable of seeing human beings in themself, seeing a person and treating them in their individuality. I don’t think humans are fully capable. We will work our entire lives to get there, but it’s work. I think God is the only being that can do that perfectly. I do not think it’s possible for us to empathize, and I think it’s actually problematic to define it and encourage people to do it because it’s-

Noam: Really?

Kylie: Yeah, because it’s so hard to do. See this person and treat them as though they’re their own person and don’t cast any of your insecurities onto them, don’t cast any of your ideas… How can I not? I’m only in my head. How can I not do that? I’m going to work on it. I’m going to get there. I think the Moses point is really interesting. He’s a fascinating person. He’s not technically biracial, but in his own kind of way, I think he of the first. He’s the Jew who was never raised among Jews who was raised only in Egypt, and had an inherent connection. It’s the exact way that I feel. I have a connection, I’m studying Booker T Washington and Moses Mendelssohn. I have a connection to both. I feel it. I was not raised in the black community, but I feel that connection. Moses felt that connection to a Jew. When he saw a Jew being beaten, he leaped up to rescue that person.

Kylie: He didn’t know why, he had no idea he was a Jew at that point. He felt something. That knowledge of the two worlds is critical. Only he could have that. I think to be able to see in the way that you described, is a recipe for depression and a deep sense of insignificance. I really do.

Noam: Tell me why.

Kylie: I think that’s the only way to be able to cultivate that kind of empathy because you’ve experienced, and it ennobles, if that’s possible, deep sadness. I don’t think it’s everybody’s calling. I think that there are particular people who are called to be depressed. What it does is it puts you in the absolute dumps where you come to face the world is it actually is. You come to see yourself as such a worthless human being that you eventually worked your way up to seeing your worth, and that enables you to see worth in other people. William James is another example of that. Some of the greatest artists are able to do that. It’s not something that’s for everybody. It’s not something that is given to everybody. It’s like the gift of depression, if such a thing can be said. I think that Moshe, Moses, felt worthless as a person. When God chooses him, he tells him multiple times, “No, this is not me. You have the wrong guy. I can’t do this. Look at the way that I talk. What are people going to think?”

Kylie: Then God is like, “Look, your brother’s coming. He’s going to welcome you. Aaron’s going to help you.” Moses had such a low sense of self. Why? He was raised in a palace. He was groomed to be a Pharaoh, in essence, but he had a sense of worthlessness, I believe, that’s my interpretation of it. I mean, I don’t just believe that, it is said Moses was the most humble man. What does it mean to be humble? It’s that he didn’t even think he was fit for the role, but I think it’s so much deeper. What does that mean on a human level? He felt worthless. When you feel that way, you’re able to see more in people because you faced yourself.

Noam: It’s so interesting because when I think of humility, I don’t think of humility as worthlessness. I think of C.S. Lewis who says that humility is not thinking less of oneself, it’s thinking of oneself less.

Kylie: Hundred percent. Well, let me clarify. I don’t think that humility is a sense of worthlessness, but I do think that humility can be born through a sense of worthlessness. I think I said this earlier that he comes to see his worth. It’s the road from feeling worthless to seeing your worth. Every human being has inherent dignity has worth, exist in the world and doesn’t have to justify their value or their existence. They exist for a reason. Some people doubt that and have no clue why they exist and feel totally worthless. The process of coming from worthless to worth, is the process that I think Moshe undergoes, and he has to fight. Some people feel a deeper sense of worthlessness and really have to fight to see their worth and to realize that they have inherent value in the world.

Noam: Well, I want to go back to what you said earlier about empathy being, or my definition of empathy being something that is so difficult as to be unattainable. I’m wondering, if that’s true for humanity, that’s one thing, but do you have anyone in your life that you’re able to extend full empathy to? Do you have anyone in your life who does that for you? What is that experience, if you do have that?

Kylie: I’m working on it, I’m definitely a work in progress. I think my mom is very good at it. Treating all people as having worth and a story to tell, we always get in our own way. I can do it. I definitely cast my ideas onto other people and think about other people through my own experiences and my own beliefs. I’m working on moving through that and past that to try and let other people just be other people. I think it’ll always be something that I strive towards and get better at, but don’t necessarily achieve in the godlike sense.

Noam: Well, maybe I described an extreme version of empathy, but empathy is also looking at someone in the eye and when they’re in the same room as you and being present, right?

Kylie: Yeah.

Noam: That’s also empathy. I’ll give you an example from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with empathy that I think is fascinating. Professor Mohammed Dajani Daoudi was one of the leaders at… I forgot which university in Israel, I’m blanking on the name of the university, but he really fundamentally viewed Israel as awful. Then one day his father or his mother was particularly sick and he saw “the act of kindness and grace,” this is a quote from him, “by the Israeli medical personnel who treated his parents kindly.” It utterly changed him to the point that what he did, this is the famous part of Professor Dajani Daoudi, is he took a number of his students, his Palestinian students to Auschwitz.

He said, “The empathy that I saw, the very basic thing, that it was actually remarkably unremarkable.” The way that the Israeli hospitals, doctors, and nurses were taking care of his parents, he was like, “They were just treating my parents as though they were one of their own.” It was a “Oh, my gosh” moment. Then he said, as a result of that empathy, he wanted his Palestinian students to have empathy for the Jewish experience, which is part of the Jewish story is Auschwitz. Just to see that power of empathy. I don’t know if I’m wrong here, and I’m happy to be wrong here. If I learned something new, you just taught me something incredibly new about Moses being like in multiple different spaces, I never thought of him that way. I’m wondering if empathy, genuinely feeling empathy, showing empathy and being shown empathy can change, really the fabric of how we all live our lives. Then even more than that, I’m wondering is empathy the highest of values or when there are other values, empathy clashes with other values, maybe justice, empathy needs to yield. How do you view it?

Kylie: This just reminds me that I don’t like the English language that much, because I think it’s really limited. I don’t like the word empathy. I think it’s like love. We have one word for love. Farsi, a Persian language has 80 words for love. Other languages have so many words for things because it gets at certain nuances. Yiddish is a really good example of this for the Jews. People have languages that convey so many different… There’s love of father, there’s love of mother, there’s romantic love, there’s friendship love, there’s love when you see a sunset, like there’s so many different types of it. In some way I think it’s the same with empathy, but I’d almost rather say curiosity.

I’m a deeply curious person and I’m an open person and I’m friends with a lot of people. I know people who are living on the street in my neighborhood and will talk to them for an hour. I know everybody who works at the coffee shops in my vicinity and I’m very open, I wouldn’t call it empathetic though. I think what it is is that it’s a curiosity about people and it’s seeing… What you’re telling me about this professor is it sounds like he became open to hearing about and learning about another people’s experience. I think of that as being different from empathy in some ways. It’s an openness to learning about people. It’s an openness to discovering people. I think this is my problem with empathy, I can never get out of my mind and I can never see people outside of my perception of them, but I can learn about them. It’s a very subtle difference-

Noam: So then how do you – from a Jewish perspective, how do you deal with the phrase, Al tadin et chavercha ad she-tagia lim’komo, meaning “Don’t judge your friend until you’re in his or her place.”?

Kylie: Again, it’s a commandment. It’s something to strive for. It’s something that we’re supposed to do.

Noam: Okay. It’s a prescription?

Kylie: We might not. Yeah.

Noam: It’s a prescription. It’s saying this is an instruction, but I think the goal of a prescription or an instruction is to ultimately do everything you can to get there, right?

Kylie: Yes. A hundred percent. I think what you’re saying is not antithetical. The fact that there is a prescription does mean that you’re supposed to strive towards it and you’re supposed to achieve it when you can. If you have a moment where you see somebody and you meet them and you’re… I don’t know, the only way I can think to do this is if you’re like on shrooms or something, I don’t know how you do this as a sober human. I’ve never done shrooms, truth be told, but I hear that it shuts off your ego. We’re human beings, we have egos. We see the world through ourself, through our own minds, but it’s something to always strive for. It means that you’re going to get as close as you can to that. Some days you’ll do better than others. That’s the point of Jewish law as I see it.

Noam: Right. Shai Held, really thoughtful rabbi, presents us with, I think, a bit of a dilemma. I want to hear how you would solve this dilemma. He claims that one of the most fundamental claims Judaism makes about the world is that every human being in the face of the earth, black and white, male and female is created in the image of God and is therefore infinitely valuable. That’s what he claims that Judaism does for the world. All of us are infinitely valuable. Doesn’t matter what our sex is. Doesn’t matter what our skin color is, doesn’t matter. That’s a wonderful thing about Judaism, ostensibly. Then in a recent survey, in August of this past year, 2021, a survey of Jews of color found that 80% of respondents, they had experienced discrimination in Jewish settings. What’s going on there? If Judaism is so good at articulating that every human being is infinitely valuable, what’s the distance between the teachings of Judaism and Jewish people feeling like they are discriminated against in a Jewish setting? From your experience, what’s your take on that? You’re biracial, right? You are black, you are white. I can’t speak to this nearly as well, I think, as you can, because we were just talking about with regard to empathy. How do you see it?

Kylie: I think that it’s not possible or smart to classify the opinion and the work of the Jewish community as a whole, because we’re so big and we look so many different ways. My community in Kansas City was very different. My experience in that community was very different from my experience in the Jewish community in New York. New York Jews know New York Jews. A lot of them have come from Holocaust survivors, they’re people who came from Europe who can trace back their roots to a certain place and who have stayed in a largely homogenous community for a long time, whereas Kansas City, I don’t know, it looked a little different. Maybe it was because it was the Midwest. People have been there for generations, but it’s more integrated. It’s less of a bubble. New York it’s more in a bubble. I can’t exactly speak to the Jewish community as a whole.

Noam: Well, to you Kylie, have you experienced discrimination in a Jewish setting?

Kylie: Yeah. I’ve experienced people saying stupid things. It’s hard to classify what it is, what is discrimination? I want to say I have faced pain, feeling like an outsider in the Jewish community. I’ve experienced pain, wanting to feel like I fit in and putting myself on the outside more than putting myself on the inside. It fundamentally comes from me. I go to a kosher restaurant and I feel like an outsider. Nobody’s doing anything to me. That’s the truth. I have been to places and nobody’s doing anything. Then I ask myself, “What do you expect? Do you expect to walk into Izzy’s barbecue in Crown Heights or the Upper West Side and somebody to roll out a red carpet and say, ‘Kylie, we know that you speak Hebrew and we know that you’re getting your PhD in Jewish philosophy. We see you. We see that you’re just as Jewish as us. Please come in order a barbecue sandwich'”? No.

I don’t ever want to minimize pain and painful experiences and feeling like the thing that makes you different is something that makes you lesser than, I think we all experience that in certain places where we are. If you know I’m going to Bnei Brak and are dressed wearing your hat backwards and your t-shirt and whatever, you’re going to feel like an outsider, which is ridiculous. You’re just as Jewish as the other people there, but you’re going to feel like you’re going to walk into a store and they’re going to look at you funny. Everybody experiences that, and I don’t want to minimize it by saying, “Well, you experience it too.” I think there is something shared about it, which could be the empathy.

If we’re going to use the word empathy, the closest thing you can say is, “I’ve experienced this thing. That’s kind of like that time you experience that thing. I relate to it.” That’s the closest you can possibly get is opening your mind to thinking about that and not saying, “Well, you’re biracial-

Noam: Kylie, I think it’s a great framing. I think it’s a really helpful framing.

Kylie: It’s different from, “You’re biracial. You must feel like an outsider or tell me your experience.” Why don’t I hear, “When do you feel like an outsider? Can you relate to me on this? I’m sure you felt this way at other times. It’s not just that I’m black so I’m the only one who’s ever felt this way.” I’ve never felt lonelier than in the last couple years when my race has been so important to people.

When my experience as a Jew of color, quote-unquote, in the world, has been the most important thing, I’ve never felt more separated from the Jewish community than before, because all of the attention is on this thing that I’ve experienced. Hasn’t anybody else ever experienced not feeling like they fit in? I feel like they have, I feel like that’s high school for most people. I think people have felt that way, but because my skin color looks different, then that becomes the focus of it. Have I experienced discrimination? Maybe. Maybe there was somebody who had a really limited perspective that they chose to look at me and think a certain thing. I’ve certain only had people who feel like they are privy to knowledge about my identity. I feel that way. If I see somebody who looks like me, I am super curious what they are.

I’m like, what? You’re at shul, with me and we look similar… I’m trying to move past that because I’m working on seeing myself as more of an insider than an outsider. I’ve put myself on the outside, needlessly so. If there’s going to be change in the community, it’s not going to come from me saying, “Hey, treat me differently.” It’s going to come from me saying, “Hey, I fit in here whether you realize it or not. If you don’t think that I do, that’s your problem.” Frederick Douglass was once on a train and he was put with the suitcases. Somebody came up to him and said, “Mr. Douglas, how can you sit by so contently while somebody just put you back here, don’t they know who you are?” He said, “I know my worth. I know where I should be. If somebody chooses not to see me as that, they’re the ones who are miserable. They’re the unlucky ones.”

Noam: Kylie, this is really awesome. Really interesting. One of the things that you said just now that has me thinking, is that in some ways, at the time that people were most interested in you is when you became most lonely in the last couple years. People being intrigued about your experience, in some ways othering you in the sense that, “Well, you must, you’re so different. You’re like an alien.” You’re like, “Oh.” “What’s it like to be you?” You’re like, “I actually didn’t know about myself. This is a weird existence until you made it the case that my existence is so odd.”

Kylie: It’s not unique to me. It’s not unique to the extra melanin in my skin. It’s not a byproduct of skin tone.

Noam: Right. Kylie, anything else you want to leave us with?

Kylie: Thank you. No, thank you. That’s it. I really enjoyed this conversation. It’s exciting-

Noam: We’re incredibly grateful that you were able to join us. I think having a human being like you, who is evolving their thoughts and allowing yourself to continuously think about ideas and continuously grow and to reflect and to refine, I think is something that all of us should be doing more and more in 2021. Thank you for giving us permission to do that.

Kylie: Thank you. You’re welcome, I should say.

OUTRO

This conversation was not the easiest…in a good way. I’ll be honest – Kylie resisted some of the premises of our conversation starters and was unsure about some of her takes on these vexing modern challenges. and I think Kylie gave voice to what many of us are thinking about with regard to questions of empathy and racism. Well, we’re all still trying to figure it out.

And by the way, I have to add something unrelated to today’s topic of empathy. And that is something Kylie talked about at the end of our conversation. She mentioned how the past year, year and a half, has brought about her own evolution of thought. I love that.. I marveled, even at the time, at the uniqueness and the humility in that sentence. How many of us admit to ourselves, and admit out loud to the world, that we’re still evolving, that we’re still thinking about things and adjusting, and not 10000% sure of ourselves, and our thoughts? Imagine if people asked our thoughts about things, and we simply said, you know what, I’m still evolving, I’m not sure. Still figuring it out.

So, here’s my takeaway from this episode. People want to be free to be who they are, not to feel like they’re put in a box based on what others are perceiving. As Kylie put it so well, no one wants to feel like an outsider. So that’s my challenge to myself, based on this conversation. I want to approach people – friends, strangers, family, anyone – and really listen to who they are, not who I see them as. And maybe then, I can really see them for their reality. That feels pretty empathetic to me.

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