Don’t Stand Idly By – A Response to Bullying and Homophobia

Embedded in our faith tradition is story after sacred story which inspire us to find the courage not to be a bystander. We need to talk to our children about being bystanders.

The construction underway at CBJ is exciting! While the decisions about finishes, tiling, paint color, chair selection, electrical voltage are beyond my capacity, I am very interested in one particular decision – which verse should be inscribed on the new ark.

It’s a daunting task to summarize the vast sea of Jewish teachings into a few simple phrases. The ancient Rabbis tried to make Judaism accessible by reducing it to key principles and I find myself wondering which is best:

  • Rabbi Akiva taught: “Love your neighbor as yourself – this is the major principle of the Torah.”
  • Rabbi Elazar taught: “Have a good heart.”
  • In the book of Leviticus, we are taught: “Be holy.”
  • The prophet Isaiah taught: “Do justice, carry out deeds of righteousness.”
  • One Rabbi taught that Judaism boils down to the belief that each human is created b’tzelem elohim – in the Divine image.

However we choose to summarize Judaism, there is a related principle that I believe captures the behavioral implications of each of the previous statements: Lo Ta’amod al dam re’echa – Don’t stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed – literally “Don’t stand on your neighbor’s blood.” At this moment, I’m drawn to that statement as one to go above our new ark.

This statement reminds us that Judaism’s primary imperative is to intervene in order to save life. That imperative is stirring in my heart these past few weeks as we have heard case after tragic case of young life ending too soon. In the last five weeks, there have been five suicides by young men on college and high school campuses across America. If we live by an ethic of “not standing idly by”, then we must think seriously about what could have possibly saved these young lives. We must seek to understand the dynamics of their situations, the causes and context of their actions, and the ways to avoid similar situations for other young people. We need to talk about how to prevent young people from feeling so desperate that they see no alternative to taking their own lives. Two of these boys, Tyler Clementi and Raymond Chase, were nineteen years old. Asher Brown and Seth Walsh were thirteen, and Billy Lucan was fifteen when he committed suicide. We know that each of these young men felt that the taunting and bullying of peers was simply too much to bear. And this isn’t just something that happens in “other” communities. A teacher in our own area shared a note that a gay student had written, describing being beaten up and shoved against the lockers, and multiple YouTube hate groups being made in his name.

A large part of this issue is about being gay. Suicide is among the top three killers of young people, and gay and lesbian kids are four times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. Rabbi Steven Greenberg, an Orthodox gay Rabbi, wrote a powerful piece in this week’s J. in which he shared the statistic that 1 in 6 LGBT young people contemplate suicide and 1 in 20 makes an attempt.

Another aspect of this issue is bullying, and the challenge of teaching the ethics of privacy and respect in an age of technology which makes sharing information so commonplace. The events of the past weeks need to serve as a wake-up call to our schools, our places of worship, and our communities. We need to think together about how to teach and live by the ethic of not standing idly by as our neighbor’s blood is shed.

Two weeks ago I shared with the synagogue that our board has signed a petition called: Do Not Stand Idly By: A Jewish Community Pledge To Save Lives. The pledge reads: “As members of the Jewish tradition, we believe that each person is created in the Divine Image, and therefore we respond with outrage and anguish at the spate of suicides that have occurred in recent weeks, that have been brought on by homophobic bullying and intolerance. We therefore hereby commit ourselves to standing up against homophobic bullying and harassment of any kind in our synagogues, our schools, our organizations, and our community. As a signatory, I hereby pledge to speak out whenever I see anyone being demeaned for their actual or perceived sexual orientation. I commit myself to doing whatever I can to ensure that each and every person in my community is treated with dignity and respect.”

After what has happened in these last weeks, I hereby commit myself to what it says in the Torah: “Lo ta’amod al dam rey’echa – you shall not stand idly by when your fellow or sister’s life is in danger.”

Our synagogue initiative is one beginning, as a way to awareness. And now the serious and hard work begins – thinking about what really needs to happen and acting in partnership to address the changes. I believe that religion can play a key role here as a means of instilling ethics. A core teaching of Judaism is that each person is a reflection of divinity. Imagine how different life would be if we looked at everyone we encountered through this lens, how it would be if we saw their divinity rather than as a label or an object to play off our own insecurities.

Bullying prevention begins when our homes and schools teach that kindness and empathy are more important than grades or extra-curricular activities. Prevention becomes real when we live and teach the ethic that you cannot stand idly by when another is being threatened or hurt. Being serious about not standing idly by means teaching our children that bullying only thrives in places where bullies have an audience. Dr. Rona Novick, a child psychologist who specializes in bullying, points to statistics that 85% of bullying cases are witnessed by other children, with typical reactions ranging from ignoring the bullying to taking an active part in it. Addressing the issue of bullying at its core means that we give our students an understanding of their role when they witness bullying – encouraging them to at least not join in, and at best help stand up for the bullying victim. We start to make inroads when we have meaningful education as to what constitutes bullying, so that children understand there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. When you don’t get involved, you hurt those who are victimized.

This morning’s Torah portion, Vayera, is full of stories of people who would not stand idly by when innocents where threatened:

  • When God tells Abraham that Sodom and Gemorrah will be destroyed, Abraham intervenes and argues with God.
  • When the men of Sodom shout out to Lot to let the two strangers be released to the mob, he exposes himself to their anger in defending them.
  • When Ishmael is about to die, it is God who intervenes and opens Hagar’s eyes to the water.

Embedded in our faith tradition is story after sacred story which inspire us to find the courage not to be a bystander. We need to talk to our children about being bystanders. The girl who laughs when her friend teases someone, the boy who looks eagerly at the video posting that embarrasses another student – they both sustain the bullying. We must help them develop the skills to find their voices and say, “Lay off.” “That’s not ok.” “He’s really a good guy.” “Let’s not do that to her.”

It’s easy to make the solution too simple – to punish and vilify those we find guilty of crossing the bullying line. Dr. Novick cautions that rather than punitive punishment a better response to a case of bullying would be to assign the bully an adult mentor who could serve as a role model to “help them see the error of their ways, and corral their smarts and their energies for positive rather than negative social action.” We certainly need boundaries and consequences; but we also need to resist simplistic solutions that actually worsen the situation.

We also have to open our eyes to broader societal issues, especially with current technology. Communication has changed drastically in the last decade, with a greater and greater percentage of interpersonal communication taking place while we are alone, in front of a screen. We e-mail, IM and Facebook message each other – all without the benefit of the facial cues that come from looking another person in the eyes. Gossip, voyeurism, and the fact that nothing is ever lost in cyberspace create a situation where privacy no longer exists and terrible pain can be inflicted permanently. Again – there isn’t an easy solution – but we begin to think about this issue in the context of teaching values. We need to impart an ethic of empathy and privacy when it comes to technology.

It is time to step forward. It is time to respond to bullying and homophobia by declaring, “We will not stand idly by.” We will act thoughtfully. One of our 7th graders posted a note on her Facebook highlighting this as an important issue to be addressed, and asked others to copy the message of awareness and put it on their Facebook pages. Every act creates ripples that change society.

I close by reaching out to those who may be the victims of bullying, or who feel alone and confused as you confront your sexuality. Know that you are a precious reflection of divinity. Know that you are unique and special. Know that you have adults here who will support you and be here for you. Call Bill or me any time, day or night, and know that we will be here for you.

Elie Wiesel teaches that “the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.” We will not be indifferent. We will not be silent.