Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the astoundz
Rabbi David A. Lyon
December 2, 2016
Congregation Beth Israel
“Humanity Begins at Home”
I was once invited to speak to a particular civic group some years ago. After my presentation to the group, which was mostly non-Jewish by far, there was time for questions and answers. The first question came from a woman who asked me if I believed whether or not the Ten Commandments should be displayed on public grounds and in public school classrooms. As a “Jewish person,” she asked, how do I feel about it?
I took a breath and began to answer her. As a rabbi who honors the separation of church and state, I told her that I believed that the Ten Commandments should not be displayed on public grounds or in public school classrooms. That was the short answer. I continued.
I added that the Bill of Rights provide the freedom of and freedom from religion. No one who enters a public space should be coerced or subjected to the suggestion or force of a religious position. I wasn’t winning points with her. I cleared my throat and continued. I said that I honor what the Ten Commandments represent for people of faith; but, the Ten Commandments are numbered differently for Catholics, Protestants and Jews. There are still only ten, but if one is Jewish, then the first commandment is, “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of the land of Egypt.” If one is Catholic, the first commandment begins with “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of the land of Egypt,” and includes, “You shall have no other gods besides Me.” If one is Protestant, the first commandment is, “You shall have no other gods but me.” So the debate isn’t only about whether or not the Commandments should be displayed; it’s also about which versionof Commandments should be displayed. Should it be the original from Torah at Sinai, or the ones canonized in the 4th century, or hundreds of years later during the reformation? I didn’t leave room for rebuttal. I continued.
I inferred from her preference for the Ten Commandments to be displayed on public grounds to be akin to displaying a talisman against evil thoughts and deeds in front of the courthouse in the classroom. From her perspective, wayward adults walking to the court house might be moved to adhere more closely to society’s norms; and, disobedient children might be inspired by the looming tablets affixed over their heads in their classrooms.
On this point, I disagreed. But, I had a solution. Finally, I said: Let’s honor both church and state. Let’s maintain a prominent place for the Ten Commandments, and let’s preserve the rights of all citizens to observe religion without hinting at a state sanctioned religion in public. The questioner looked interested. To accomplish both goals, I said, let’s begin with the premise that “Humanity begins at home.” And, if respect for humanity begins with core values found in the Ten Commandments, then they should be displayed in the home. I recommended that they be displayed over the door on the way out of the house. This way, adults and children would see the commandments; they would be motivated to live by them when they entered public space; and, they would carry them in their hearts and minds wherever they went.
The questioner was mollified. But, I struck a real chord in many others who agreed that the home must be the central place in which religion, values, and other personal beliefs should be taught, examined and observed. Inspired by the energy in the room, I went on. I explained that Jewish families affix a mezuzah on the doorpost of their homes. It doesn’t contain the Ten Commandments; rather it contains the verses from Deuteronomy 6:4ff, which begin with the words, “Shema Yisraeil, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad,” Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” The following verses are what we commonly call “V’ahavta,” and they articulate the commandment to love God with all our hearts, our souls and our might. The commandment to affix the mezuzah follows, “uchtavtam al mezuzot beitecha,” you shall inscribe them (these teachings) on the doorpost of your house.
The mezuzah reminds us of God’s presence. It’s not a talisman; it follows from Proverbs, “Im Adonai lo yivneh bayit, shav omlu vonav bo,” if God doesn’t build the house, its builders toil in vain. Proverbs makes the point perfectly. Being mindful of God’s presence at home invests our time there with mitzvot; a full awareness of Judaism’s expectations of us. Time of joy and sorrow are, therefore, guided by Judaism’s outlook. In joy, we give thanks and express gratitude. “Shehecheyanu” is a blessing that praises God for that which we could not do alone. So we say, thank you God for giving us life, sustaining us and enabling us to be in this time. In sorrow, Judaism guides us to be honest about death. We use words like “death” and “dying” to acknowledge that we should confront death without mythology, but with compassion and hope. In challenging moments between parents and children, Judaism is replete with guiding words. They flow, not from psychological insights, but from core human needs that often require sensitive guidance. With mitzvot as a guide, even emerging adolescent passions can be channeled into productive and honorable deeds.
So, the talk at the civic luncheon ended civilly. If I were asked the same question, today, I wouldn’t change my answer. Even in the age of the Internet, the importance of the home as the central place from which lessons for life and the world are taught has actually grown and deepened.
You may recall a young man at Rutgers University who took his own life. He was observed through a hidden camera having relations with another male student. The eavesdroppers uploaded the video to the Internet, and in one keystroke sent it for the entire world to see. In the past, keyholes and transom windows served similar low-tech purposes; and they were all terrible crimes against another’s privacy. But, now, at the hands of thoughtless co-eds, an Internet connection makes what was once seen only through the keyhole or over the transom, something for the entire world to see. The humiliation felt by the victim became an event he believed could only be overcome by removing himself from the world.
And, in recent days, another young person was bullied to the point where she believed that only way to end it was to end her own life. This isn’t bullying like we might have experienced on the playground; we overcame that kind of bullying by going home. Today, bullying follows young people everywhere they go and to places they haven’t even been. The Internet brings the weight of a prurient voyeuristic world to bear on a young person’s shoulders. It can be insufferable.
In the aftermath, we raise questions about the perpetrators’ scruples and core values. But, one question must be: what lessons should the perpetrators have learned at home long before they left for school that day? I’d like to offer two possible answers:
First, just as the home remains a critical incubator for our children’s development, so does the role of their parents. Parents don’t give their children the keys to the car before they have a license, they don’t permit them to go anywhere in the world without supervision, and they don’t let them stay up until all hours of the night. But, nearly every young person has a cell phone and many of them are much younger than 13 years-old. With that cell phone they can talk, text, send and receive pictures, and surf the web without boundaries any time of the day. In effect, they are everywhere you told them not to be, at hours you told them not to go. Technology has extended the boundaries of the home, which are a parent’s duty to protect. How many parents check their children’s cell phone text conversations or even their Facebook walls? It’s not an invasion of our children’s privacy. We check their bedrooms; now we have to check all the places they live including the Internet.
Before the age of 21, when a young person’s brain is still developing and a sense of right and wrong is still coming into focus, our children desperately need parents and role models to set the boundaries. And, those boundaries should come from religious sources that articulate time-tested lessons on human decency and dignity.
Second, preachers in the pulpit are supposed to teach that God created us all in God’s image. When some preachers preach that people who don’t live a life faithful to the Gospel are condemned to hell (because they’re gay, lesbian, black or Jewish), they fan the flames of xenophobia and knowingly or not put lives in jeopardy. It’s not because their souls are condemned. It’s because their well-being is threatened by those who are taught to believe that the “other” is not valued in this life.
The Rutgers students who were charged for their despicable act ruined many lives. But, their single act of poor judgment was really the fruit of many poor decisions that took root long before they arrived at Rutgers. Along the way, did their parents ever condemn bigotry, religious intolerance, and homophobia; did their religious leaders, if they had one, ever preach that there is value in every life created by God? The same can be asked of parents whose children leave for school and corner a fragile child on the playground.
Fanatics exist on both sides of religious ideas. There are those who are secular and blame religious teachings for fomenting these incidents; and there are those on the far right who teach only a narrow view of God’s love. In the middle are those who struggle mindfully every day to identify religious ideas that speak to our time and place and which validate norms and principles for the sake of humanity. A home that lacks values founded on principles of dignity, civility and liberty, condemns its inhabitants to lives of bigotry, intolerance and servitude. The result is rarely positive and the victims are always part of a tragic ending to what was supposed to be a marvelous life story.
Parents, rabbis, ministers and neighbors share a profound responsibility to teach, inspire, guide and protect impressionable young people. We owe it to them. We owe it to ourselves. In a world that we did not create, we should treasure the power we’ve been given to inspire hope to build a better world.
As you make your way this Shabbat, enter your homes tonight for the first time again, acknowledge the mezuzah on the doorpost of your house, if you have one, and let God’s presence build the home you wish to know for yourself, your family, and everybody who will ever be touched by your words and your deeds. Remember, “Humanity begins at home.”