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Compassion: Between a Mosaic Precept and a Common Human Potential




A striking aspect of these emotional responses to others’ pain, in Hellenistic Jewish texts, is that they tend to be extended from one group to another. In a commonly found pattern, texts begin by stating that it is “normal” or “natural” to emotionally respond to the suffering of people belonging to a given group; texts then proceed to recommend that that response be extended to a larger group.



See Also: An Early History of Compassion (Cambridge University Press, 2017).



By Françoise Mirguet
Associate Professor of Hebrew
Arizona State University
November 2017


Many Judeo-Hellenistic texts address the emotions that one feels—or should feel—when confronted with the suffering of others. Emotions that we identify today as compassion or sympathy are evoked in many literary genres of this variegated corpus, produced by Greek-speaking Jews from the late Hellenistic and early imperial periods (from approximately 300 BCE to 200 CE). Narratives repeatedly portray characters moved by the suffering of others. In retellings of scriptural stories, Hellenistic authors sometimes introduce an emotion in places where the Hebrew Bible either is silent about or only implies the character’s affective reaction. As early as the Greek scriptures, some proverbs supplement the Hebrew text by adding injunctions to feel for others in pain. Philosophical and moral texts recommend that their readers be compassionate towards others. For the Alexandrian philosopher Philo, pity is the “most necessary” emotion, with the potential, when adequately guided, to become a virtue. While the Hebrew Bible tends to express responses to others’ pain by a cluster of terms—merging practical, physical, emotional, and ritual aspects—Judeo-Hellenistic authors, by contrast, emphasize the emotional component of the Scriptures’ concern with the suffering of others.

Among many other possible facets, this short article will focus on the association, in Judeo-Hellenistic texts, between compassion and the love command. As I will show, a few texts present compassion, in its most emotional and bodily components, as a vehicle by which love can be extended to all human beings. The texts that I will discuss here illustrate the role that compassion played for Judeo-Hellenistic authors in their efforts to reshape their traditional law into precepts that could be practiced by anyone and towards anyone. Construed as a core command of the law, compassion was also understood as a common human potential. In feeling and cultivating compassion, therefore, “being Jewish” and “being a citizen of the world” could meet; the emotion and its attendant practices embodied both identities.

I begin with a brief overview on vocabulary. Words for (sympathetic) emotional responses to others’ pain vary, with partial overlap. The core terms are eleos and oiktos, both of which I translate as “pity,” following the use in classical studies. They do not carry the condescending meaning of present-day “pity,” but simply refer to the pain that the self feels when encountering suffering others. For Aristotle, pity is a form of fear: seeing others’ pain may elicit a sense of dread to fall victim to the same distress (Rhetoric 2.8.2, 1385b). The word sumpatheia, “sympathy,” occurs less frequently; originally a scientific term rendering an attuned harmony between objects or bodies, it receives an affective charge during the Hellenistic period. It often presupposes some proximity (in particular kinship) between the self and the other in pain. Two terms are typical of Judeo-Hellenistic literature. First, eleēmosunē, “act of pity,” refers to an action of assistance (almsgiving when it is specifically financial), often with an emotional component (the word is built on eleos, “pity”). Second, eusplanchnia and its cognates are based on splanchna, “inner organs”; they allude to an embodied (gut-felt) response to the other’s suffering. For lack of a better term (since English has no word for such a bodily response), I translate this cluster of terms as “compassion.”

A striking aspect of these emotional responses to others’ pain, in Hellenistic Jewish texts, is that they tend to be extended from one group to another. In a commonly found pattern, texts begin by stating that it is “normal” or “natural” to emotionally respond to the suffering of people belonging to a given group; texts then proceed to recommend that that response be extended to a larger group. In the book of Tobit, usually dated from the third to the second century BCE, this expansion functions from the familial to the ethnic realm. The narrative establishes that family members respond to each other’s pain: they provide practical and emotional support to relatives in distress. Tobit, by contrast, extends this emotional rule to the full Israelite community exiled in Nineveh. He buries unknown corpses of slain Israelites; he also mourns and weeps for them (Tob 2:5-6). On his deathbed, Tobit urges his son and descendants to follow his example by practicing pity and righteousness (Tob 14:8). Through the character, the book applies an emotional requirement typical of family to the exile’s group. It thus contributes to creating the Israelite Diaspora as a bonded social group: the story of Tobit confers an affective substance to the group by modeling it after family.

Other texts display a more radical expansion of emotional responses to others’ pain. In a few passages by Philo, the first-century CE Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, pity is presented as a natural reaction—either characteristic of parents’ love for their children, or more generally typical of human nature. In a passage of the treatise On the Life of Moses, Philo evokes the scene where Pharaoh’s daughter discovers baby Moses on the Nile bank: “Then, having examined him [baby Moses] from head to foot, she [Pharaoh’s daughter] admired his beauty and health; seeing him cry, she pitied [eleein] him, her soul already turning towards a maternal emotion as if he were her own child. Learning that he was from the Hebrews, afraid of the king’s command, she deliberated about his sustenance” (Moses 1:15). Pity receives here a double construction. Pity is described as a “maternal emotion”; its prototype is a mother’s care for her own child. At the same time, pity is also the emotional reaction that enables Pharaoh’s daughter to overcome her fear of her father and transgress his command to kill all Hebrew male newborns. Pity is a mother’s natural emotion; it is also, however, a drive that allows human beings to be touched by others’ suffering and take action to assist them, even at the risk of one’s life.

Another passage by Philo makes a similar point. Here, Philo is arguing that the Mosaic law prohibits the murder of children; in an aside, he gives the example of exposed children: “Suppose that some of those passing on the road, being moved by a gentle emotion, take pity [oikton kai eleon] of the exposed ones, to the point of taking them up, giving them food, and deeming them worthy of other care—what do we think of such kind acts? Are they not a condemnation of the parents, if strangers practice what should be [proper] to parents, in regard to kindness, but parents fail to practice what even strangers do?” (Spec. Laws 3:116). Pity is “proper to parents” but also a “gentle emotion” that moves strangers to care for abandoned children. It is characteristic of the bond between parents and their children, but it is also an emotion that can be felt for anyone, in the absence of any established connection. Pity is part of a common human core (see also Virtues 144; Joseph 25). The emotion, Philo suggests, elicits feelings that are usually experienced towards relatives. Pity, as illustrated in this short passage, transforms strangers into virtual kin.

To this double construction of emotional responses to others’ pain—both a typical feature of parental love and a common human potential—Philo adds a third layer, by making pity a key component of the Mosaic law. For Philo, pity is omnipresent in the law: “He [the lawgiver] has filled almost the whole of the law with precepts towards pity [eleon] and love of humankind” (Spec. Laws 4.72). Throughout his works, Philo gives several examples of cases where the law, as he interprets it, commands pity towards specific others, including the destitute, the wounded, a raped virgin, a female captive, and even cattle (respectively, Spec. Laws 2.115; 2.138; 3.76; Virtues 114; 141). Pity, it should be noted, is never prescribed in the Torah, despite the text’s emphasis on relieving social vulnerability. On the contrary, the only three commands, in the Greek Pentateuch, in which the verb eleeō (“to pity”) appears, are all negative; they in fact prohibit showing pity in specific circumstances (Exod 23:3; Deut 7:2; 28:50). Philo nevertheless retrojects pity into the Mosaic law. Such an interpretation suggests the intimate connection that Philo (and his contemporaries) perceived between pity and Jewish identity. These different passages suggest that pity was understood as both part of human nature and a requirement of Moses’ law. There is no conflict, but convergence, between the natural law and the divine law. Pity contributes to the harmony between natural precepts and Mosaic commandments, as both express the Creator’s will.

Two texts go a step further, interpreting the requirement to pity others as an expression of the love command, at the core of the Mosaic law. Both texts effectuate a double move: they connect the love command with emotional responses to others’ pain at the very moment they extend the command to all human beings. Pity and compassion here function, I argue, as a vehicle that allows for a universal expansion of love. The first text is the parable of the Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke (10:30-37), usually dated from the end of the first century CE. I follow here recent research that understands the separation between Judaism and Christianity as a constructed process of partition spanning the first centuries; I thus understand a text like the Gospel of Luke as an integral part of the Judeo-Hellenistic corpus. The parable follows a conversation between Jesus and a specialist in the law, who inquires how to earn eternal life. When Jesus asks him what the law says on this matter, the jurist quotes the commandments to love God and one’s neighbor. Approved by Jesus, the jurist continues with a second question, “And who is my neighbor?”, which Jesus answers with the parable. A man attacked by robbers is ignored by a priest and a Levite, but receives assistance from a Samaritan man, who has compassion [esplanchnistē] for him. Jesus continues by asking who has been a neighbor for the wounded man, and the jurist answers, “The one who made pity [eleos] with him.”

The compassion of the Samaritan, expressed by the Greek verb splanchnizomai, which evokes a gut-felt sensation, is the turning point of the parable. Like Philo, the Gospel of Luke transforms pity into a core precept of the law, specifically into an expression of the command “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). Rather than answering the jurist’s question on the recipient of the love command, the parable shifts the attention to the giver, i.e., the one who should act as a neighbor. The parable gives the Samaritan as an exemplar, an outsider figure who was probably an unlikely fit to model the observance of the law. As in Philo’s passage quoted above, an outsider feels and acts in a way that would have been expected from people closer (through either kinship or legal obligations) to the one in need. Compassion, as the capacity to be touched by another’s suffering, creates a bond where none exists. The parable, through the Samaritan’s compassion (identified as pity by the lawyer), reinforces the emotional dimension of the love command. It substitutes the capacity to be touched by others’ suffering for a legal discussion of who is the neighbor mentioned in the love command. Emotional responses to others’ pain, irrespective of any obligation, move the self to feel for others in distress and assist them. The parable, not unlike Philo, interiorizes and naturalizes the motivation to assist others. The binding character of the law is transferred into the body and its feelings. By emphasizing the emotional dimension of the love command and naturalizing compassion, both Philo and the Gospel of Luke radically expand the Mosaic precept: as an expression of human nature, it should be observed by anyone, and be practiced towards everyone.

The most explicit text in this regard is the Testament of Zebulun, a section of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. The text probably developed in a Jewish milieu around the first century BCE or CE; it was later expanded by Christian communities. The Testament of Zebulun, in its construction of emotional responses to others’ pain, follows a pattern comparable to the passages by Philo examined above. The text begins with a narrative based on Genesis 37, where Joseph is sold by his brothers. The Testament gives a detailed description of the pity and compassion (both terms are used) that Zebulun, one of Jacob’s sons, felt for his brother Joseph, as he was almost killed by their other brothers. The emotion is thus rooted within a familial context; it is also depicted as a deeply embodied sensation. As Zebulun reports, “I was moved to pity [oikton], and I began to cry, and my livers were pouring out within me, and all the foundation of my inner parts [splanchnōn] became porous in my soul. And Joseph cried, and I with him, and my heart was humming, and the joints of my body were shaken, and I was not able to stand” (T. Zeb. 2:4-5). Compassion is here a natural reaction felt for a brother in distress; it seizes the body and is not controllable. In its second part, the Testament of Zebulun moves to moral instructions. Here, compassion is no longer restricted to the familial realm but is extended to all beings: “And now, my children, I declare to you to keep the commandments of the Lord and to practice pity [eleos] to the neighbor and to have compassion [eusplanchnian] for all, not only for human beings, but also for animals” (T. Zeb The references to " the commandments of the Lord” (as well as the requirement to “keep” them) and “the neighbor” evoke Leviticus, in particular the love command (Lev 19:18; see also 22:31), explicitly spelled out later in the text (T. Zeb. 8:4-5; see also T. Iss. 5:2). As in the parable of the Samaritan, pity and compassion function as a vehicle to expand the love command to “all human beings.” In particular, the Testament of Zebulun narratively depicts the capacity to be internally touched, in one’s own body, by the other’s pain, as if this capacity was the recipe, so to speak, to extend love to all.

The different texts examined here lead us to an apparent paradox, at least for modern readers: why do texts associate the love command with a bodily and almost impulsive reaction at the very moment they command this love to be expanded to all human beings? Today, it is hard to conceive love for all as something other than a mental decision or abstract resolution, detached from bodily and emotional drives—how could we feel for people we haven’t met? Stoic texts, as I develop in my book, also prescribe love for all; they likewise envision a movement of extension from the self’s closest bonds to the whole of humanity. This love, however, is free from attachment and passion. It is not supposed to move the self and certainly not to disrupt inner organs. Pity, in particular, is strongly discouraged. Judeo-Hellenistic texts, by contrast, are reluctant to operate such a strict dissociation between emotion and decision, body and mind. Most strikingly, in the Testament of Zebulun, the command to have compassion for all human beings and animals directly follows a detailed depiction of the bodily symptoms of the emotion. The narrative part of the text, so to speak, trains bodies to experience the commands that follow in the hortatory part. In fact, this late antique text echoes modern research on emotions: emotions, even in the bodily sensations that they elicit, are constructed practices, which embody a society’s discourses and beliefs. Emotions, at least in part, are regulated by social norms; they are a performance, more or less faithful, of existing scripts. Bodies, too, at least to a certain extent, can be trained.

Judeo-Hellenistic authors strived to develop an ethic that not only organizes a specific people, but also expresses the Creator’s will for all human beings. Compassion, I suggest, functions as a central piece of this edifice: it is understood as a core precept of the Mosaic law, while at the same time it is made into a common human drive, rooted in the human body. Because compassion derives from the parental instinct of protection and care, it can be said to be inscribed in human nature and thus be construed as a shared human potential. It is a precept that can be felt by anyone and for everyone. Compassion could thus illustrate the ideal universality of the Jewish way of life: Moses’ law elucidates the law of nature and manifests the deity’s will; it is given to the Jewish people and is applicable by and towards all human beings. Compassion, I suggest, offered the Judeo-Hellenistic community (at least its male elites) a way to cognitively and affectively reconcile its complex identity.



A few suggestions for further readings:

For a history of pity in ancient Greece:

David Konstan, Pity Transformed. London: Duckworth, 2001, as well as The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006;

For a philosophical approach of compassion in ancient Greece:

Martha C. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001;

On the universalization of divine commands by Second Temple and Judeo-Hellenistic authors:

Christine Hayes, What’s Divine about Divine Law? Early Perspectives. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015;

On emotions as bodily practices:

Monique Scheer, “Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (and Is That What Makes Them Have a History)? A Bourdieuian Approach to Understanding Emotion.” History and Theory 51 (2012), pp. 193-220;

More generally, on the history of emotions:

Susan J. Matt, Peter N. Stearns (eds.). Doing Emotions History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014.





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