There’s a familiar phrase from the Torah that makes its way into many of life’s celebrations, most often weddings, but not limited so. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven,” it begins. “A time to be born, and a time to die…A time to kill, and a time to heal…A time to keep silence, and a time to speak…”
For some reason, these words echoed in my mind when, from the distance of thousands of miles, I heard about yet another American youth committing suicide after being bullied.
Some were native-born. Some were foreign. Some were older. Some were barely there. Much of the focus has been on the fact that many were gay or taunted for being so. It’s important, I believe, to also remember that some were not, and took their lives because the prospect of a living hell at the whim of their tormentors was more than they could handle. All were victimized in a time and age when we collectively understand the enormous power of hurtful words, a snicker here or there, and gossip that spreads like viruses on the wind. Or the Internet.
It’s easy to blame technology and schools and parents for missing the signs before it’s too late. No doubt those who point their fingers elsewhere are well intentioned. The idea that our children are taking their lives is inhumanely distressing, and we want answers. More importantly, we want prevention and healing.
“A time to heal…and a time build up.”
That is why I can’t help but think their suicides are far more than a legal problem requiring legal responses. Death out of time and kilter, at the hands of despair, and not because of the natural course of things, seems to me to be a problem of the soul. If God-talk isn’t in your repertoire, then substitute the words ‘heart’ or ‘compassion.’ The specific language, at least in this regard, seems to matter less than the intention beneath the vocabulary. We can’t legislate intent no matter how hard we try.
We can, alternatively, support institutions and individuals who are leading the way toward a new social paradigm of acceptance and responsibility, working to eradicate bullying from the inside out, through thoughtful discourse and early intervention. Places like Keshetonline.org, the largest Jewish organization of its kind committed to creating a welcoming and affirming community for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews, for example.
Keshet is the driving force behind the campaign, “Do Not Stand Idly By” and to date, hundreds of Jewish organizations and individuals, too many to recount here, have pledged their support to end homophobic bullying.
“We hereby commit to ending homophobic bullying or harassment of any kind in our synagogues, schools, organizations, and communities. As a signatory, I pledge to speak out when I witness anyone being demeaned for their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. I commit myself to do whatever I can to ensure that each and every person in my community is treated with dignity and respect.”
I learned about Keshet from reading an editorial by Rabbi Steve Greenberg, author of “Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition” (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004). Not having read his book, I cannot respond to any suggestions that it is provocative, heretical or misleading. Instead, I draw from his essay in Jewish Week that admonishes Jewish leaders who turn away from confronting the roots of bullying or refusing to take a stance against those who harm others, simply because the victim is gay.
“To my colleagues, I say this: it is not possible to abstain from choosing,” he writes. “Either we give a teen hope that a good life as a gay person is possible, in whatever religious community he or she lives, or we confirm his or her worst nightmares — and ours.”
We must do more than denounce bullying, he insists. “Religious communities of all sorts need to make it possible for a 13-year-old to expect that life will be good. We have a duty to make it clear that if a teenager discovers herself to be gay, she can still dream of a happy future. Depriving young people of hope for the future is a deadly game.”
Rabbi Greenberg is not the only religious scholar to make such requests. Calls for change are coming from many spiritual paths — Catholic and Buddhist, for example. This suggests a willingness to become vulnerable. To say, ‘We accept you as you are, come sit under the shade of our support,’ requires looking inward. Rejecting bigotry, disdain or prejudice against others means acknowledging we are capable of causing harm in the first place.
No one needs to point out that historically Jews as a group have experienced an unfair amount of disenfranchisement and harassment. Individually, we may not be gay or young or confused about our gender identity, or the victim of bullying. But everyone reading this has experienced the angst of being the outsider some time in his or her lives.
I know our season of repentance and forgiveness is behind us, but we can adapt the mainstream holiday messages of ‘peace on earth, goodwill toward all’ to the pressing issue of the day. After all, from recognition that there is a fracture comes hope and revival.
There’s a time to laugh, a time to cry, a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
If only those youngsters had felt it in their bones that it eventually gets better. If only they knew that across the land, there are many who mourn their deaths, and we see their suicides as a wake-up call.
They aren’t with us anymore to know that from tragedy comes some measure of triumph. Thanks to the actions of groups like Keshet, Jews from all levels of observance are uniting against bullying. They are making peace happen with their actions. They are making peace happen with their commitment to end bullying. They are making peace happen with their determination, as Jews, to make this world a safer place for everyone in it.
Because this, most certainly, is not the time to stand idly by.
For more on Do No Stand Idly By, visit www.keshetonline.org.