Last week, police charged a group of Israeli boys with repeatedly abusing a 12-year-old classmate, often in the schoolyard. Some of the accused insisted the girl consented to the gang rapes, which they filmed and posted online. This outrage prompted dejected headlines in Ha’aretz proclaiming “SCHOOL SYSTEM AT LOSS OVER HOW TO EFFECTIVELY EDUCATE AGAINST GANG RAPE,” along with one writer’s absurd suggestion that “The way to curb teen gang rapes” is “through gender studies as a required school subject.”
The boys’ behavior is disgusting; their teachers’ impotence, dismaying. A society which cannot raise moral children is broken. Our educational system is worthless if it produces dotcom giants but moral pygmies. Our high-tech wizardry means nothing without old-fashioned morality.
Parents and teachers are failing. “Gender studies” and guilt trips won’t work. While youngsters should learn about women’s perspectives, “gender studies” are too frequently too doctrinaire. Berating children about dos and don’ts without cultivating their consciences will produce moral monkeys who occasionally mimic the right behavior but lack the necessary moral muscle when facing unexpected dilemmas.
Just as humans need oxygen to breathe, sex education requires substantive values education to work. Sex education is too frequently taught in an ethics-free zone, to avoid being “judgmental,” “traditional,” “inhibiting.” Against today’s toxic pornographic, anything-goes, if-it-feels-good-do-it, Internet and celebrity culture, that approach is useless.
We can do better, We must teach young people a sense of right and wrong clearer and stronger than today’s transactional, relativistic “niceness.” We should cultivate a sense of outrage, denouncing evil. And we should reinvigorate the notion of role modeling, constantly stretching ourselves and others.
Unfortunately, as modern society became morally derailed, many Israelis rushed to join the train wreck. In recent decades, millions trashed moral structures developed over millennia. Even the modern Zionist ethos of self-respect yielding mutual respect has been abandoned en masse. Instead, modern individualism prizes self-expression and self-indulgence as the ultimate goods. Yet individuals flourish when they care about others, commit to big ideas, and connect to something beyond themselves.
So addicted to securing “freedom from” -- the delicious liberation from oppressive constraints -- we often overlook the equally delicious notion of “freedom to,” the meaning derived from the Three “C”s of caring, committing and connecting. Embracing that “freedom to” helps individuals behave better, feel freer, and stop feeling so empty, alienated, and disconnected.
A Jewish State that cannot help produce good people and good citizens is a failure. Hebrew, a blue-and-white flag, and Jewish holydays as holidays are not enough; we need a Zionist ethic too. Just as Jewish rituals help bring alive Torah teachings, the state’s symbols should instill Jewish and democratic values. Our tribalism must facilitate transcendence; the thick web of rituals and traditions should anchor us in a better way of life. I am not a statist just to create state power; I am a nationalist seeking to stretch us as individuals by cultivating our cosmic communal goodness honed over millennia.
We must recapture the moral conversation from self-promoting rabbis, self-involved politicians and self-indulgent celebrities. That Israel’s rabbinate today is better at alienating Jews and guarding its prerogatives than welcoming Israelis into the rich, ethical 3000-year-old Jewish conversation is appalling; sincere rabbis should rebel against these hack rabbis who will even hire a convicted sex offender buddy to teach at a yeshiva. We need moral superheroes not kosher police. Rabbinic reformers must save the rabbinate from itself.
That corrupt Israeli politicians confuse not being convicted with vindication is absurd; honest politicians and outraged voters should shun crooked pols no matter what the political price. And that too many Israelis worship superficial celebrities rather than cherishing enduring values is unacceptable; we need liberation from this modern enslavement, which recently led parents to host, at their son’s bar mitzvah, a famous singer who parties with underage girls.
All the parents I know try raising their children with some sense of categorical right and wrong. Yet, many of these morally-rooted toddlers become teens adrift, steeped in our nihilistic popular culture, lacking supervision or moral anchors as counters. This parental negligence borders on child abuse.
Israelis should use our majority’s reverence for tradition to reinvigorate our national moral code. Religious Israelis should look to Torah, emphasizing how we treat each other, finding the godliness in goodness. The minority of truly secular Israelis could study the traditional kibbutz ethic or HaShomer Hatzair’s updated Ten Commandments as a modern moral code. The vast and growing majority of Israelis who appreciate tradition could learn Ethics of the Fathers, encountering traditional rabbinic wisdom strikingly relevant today or Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s teaching about “Hadar,” personal discipline and glory broadcasting individual and communal pride. Arab Israelis could read the Koran or the Christian Bible. In future rounds, different communities could switch texts, learning from each other.
With that in mind, cursing “Sylvester” as a Jew-hater who helped ban Jews from Jerusalem in 324 CE, recalling that Janus, the two-faced Roman deity who inspired the month of January represents humans’ capacity for good or ill, and acknowledging that we all live awash in secular influences, let’s have a massive Jewish ethical teach-in today, January 1. Let’s temporarily turn off all the televisions and video games and cell phones and computers that broadcast so much cultural rot – with revolting, insensitive, sexual messaging. Instead, parents and children should learn moral texts rooted in our tradition about being good and doing good.
Let’s force our children to stop wallowing in the toxic, sexist, desensitizing filth beamed into their ears and bombarded before their eyes. Instead, let’s dip with them into the wisdom and virtue of our greatest teachers and humanity’s eternal truths. Maybe then, we all might have a happy and decent secular new year.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of eight books on American history including, most recently Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, published by Oxford University Press.Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!