Tyler Clementi's Tragic Suicide: Kohelet was Right
10/08/10
Special to the Jewish Week
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Just about a week ago, on Shmini Atzeret, many of us read in synagogue the book of Kohelet, known more widely to most as Ecclesiastes. People who know the book tend to regard it as more than a little cynical, and clearly, the author of the book- ascribed by tradition to King Solomon in his old age- had been around the proverbial block more than a few times. There was little that he hadn't seen, and he was sure that what he was yet to see would not be new to him. Ein hadash tahat hashamesh, he famously said- there is nothing new under the sun.

When I first heard the tragic story of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who took his own life after his dorm roommate and a "friend" had secretly broadcast his intimate sexual encounter with another man over the internet, my mind flashed back to the lyrics of a song from "Hair," the musical that had served as the anthem of my generation... "How can people be so heartless, how can people be so cruel?"

Nothing new under the sun, I thought, especially when it comes the human capacity for cruelty. Like so many in my community, in addition to the anti-gay aspect of the crime, I was horrified by the fundamental thoughtlessness and cruelty of the act. How do you do that to someone? How do you so invade their privacy, and then exponentially compound the offense by using modern technology to include the entire wired world in your thoughtlessness? Stunning; just stunning.

I hate to reduce this terrible event to another teachable moment, but if it doesn't become one in religious communities, we will truly have been derelict in our responsibility, and unworthy of calling ourselves "religious" in any meaningful way.

For thousands of years now, and I'm sure for thousands more yet to come, biblical scholars will ponder what it means to have been created "in the image of God," as Genesis tells us that we were. The text is so rich, so pregnant with possible meanings, that no one can really know what the original meaning of the text was.

But no matter how one chooses to read and understand those words, it surely must mean that we must treat our fellow human beings as God-like creations, gay or straight, Jewish, Christian or Muslim, single or married, citizen or foreigner... Ours is not to decide who is worthy of dignity based on our limited capacity to know. Nowhere that I can find has the Torah saying that only people like us are in God's image. To imply that is to distort the text, and to corrupt it. We do something like that at our own peril, and at the peril of the Tyler Clementis of the world.

How could we ever justify that?

The world doesn't have to be as Kohelet described it... But only we can make it a better and kinder place.

 Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation

Last Update:

10/13/2010 - 08:35

Comments

Supporting gay marriage is not the same at honoring the inherent worth and dignity of people made b tzelem elokim who happen to have same sex attractions. We do not need to pervert halacha in order to give in to an agenda that has nothing to do with honoring the dignity of the human person. Matrimony is for one man and a woman. Homosexual relationships can be acknowledged and they must receive equal benefits and privileges as marreid couples. Treat them like married couples but don't call it marriage. Call it a partnership, a commitment, but not marriage, which it is not and can never be. Treat them with respect, just as you treat the mechallel shabbos with respect. However, halacha does not change to accomodate whim. The halacha does not bend for a man who has a toeva for another man, or for a Jew who has a toeva for cheeseburgers. The rabbis in Teaneck were not being homophobic- they were standing up for the Torah, and if you don't like Judaism as defined and practiced for millennia, don't deceive yourself and say that you practice Judaism.
Rabbi Skolnick - thank you for your wise words of love and support. As the father of a young man who happens to be gay and Jewish, we need more rabbis - Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Renewal, Reconstructionist - to be visible in their support for LGBT persons. Please check out www.jewsformarriageequality.org which list the nearly 300 California clergy who stand for equality. As the founder of Jews for Marriage Equality, I would be privileged to add your name to our list. Again, thanks, Steve Krantz.
As some of you may know, a group of orthodox rabbis in Teaneck, NJ have pressured their local Jewish paper to stop publishing same-sex union announcements which they find offensive. Though it received international condemnation for its decision to stop publishing these ads, the paper finally bowed to the orthodox pressure. Tyler Clementi committed suicide just a few miles from Teaneck, NJ where these homophobic actions in the Jewish community, all done in the name of Judaism and God, took place. The Teaneck rabbis have now issued a statement on their actions. None of them signed it; they prefer to remain anonymous. In it they express their outrage and pain that anyone would condemn them for their acts. Their venom ( their word which they use to describe our reporting) is reserved for the online media that has refused to allow their actions to go unreported. Meanwhile, gay men commit suicide as they are attacked and, in NYC, have the biggest homophobic hate crime in the history of the city, according to the police, committed against them. http://jewishdailyreport.wordpress.com/2010/10/09/teaneck-rabbis-whatever-it-is-we-deny-it/

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