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Filling the silence: Addressing violence in American culture

TCJewfolk
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We live in an age where “the process of nourishing or rearing a child or young person” as an educational ideal has become an anachronism.

It has happened in universities, malls and movie-theaters. This time, the hell-fire broke loose in an elementary school. Same old song. Perhaps we’re just jaded, but as TC Jewfolk contributor Emily Cornell recently pointed out, as horrifically saddening these events truly are, we’re no longer shocked. Massacre no longer jolts us. This is the sad commentary of our reality.

We once again are bearing witness to a futile discussion about faulty policies around gun laws and the inordinate power of the gun lobby in the U.S. The debate doesn’t go away; it only fades into the periphery between massacres, only to stir up the public once again when the headlines shout out the latest carnage. We know the arguments for and against, and are tired of them. The same is true for the mental health discussion. There will be the usual back and forth, and precious little will change.

These issues are certainly important parts of the equation, but as Emily pointed out, the problem is larger than gun control and mental health. In her words: “Wake up! This problem is so much bigger than gun control… Why is no one asking the REAL question here, which is “how do we get our people to stop killing each other?” The vitriolic and often pointless debate over the inanimate lumps of steel people often use to kill merely distracts from discussion of the real problem: people are killing people.”

The ‘pink elephant’ — the’ emperor’s new clothes — is the pervasive violence in our midst. The question we ought to be asking is not how do we prevent potential mass killers from getting their hands on deadly weapons, but why are we, as a society, producing mass killers? Period.

There is a persistent feeling of futility. It feels like the world is going hell in a hand basket at an alarming pace.  In 2012 alone there were at least a dozen mass public shootings. Were things always this way? Is the decline of ‘normalcy’ in the world as we know it real or merely perceived? Where does the corrosive damage eating away at the moral fabric of our nation come from?

The answer is often one we don’t want to hear. Usually the solution lies in something that was there all along, but has been ignored or disregarded, having fallen out of grace with the vogues of the times.

What we may not have the courage to accept is, in the words of Dostoevsky: “If G-d does not exist, everything is permitted.” With no anchor with which to know right from wrong, without belief in G-d, a society is awash in a fog of moral nihilism. It is G-d consciousness which raises the lowly human animal to the lofty plane of the human being.

(This certainly will not sit well with the agnostic/atheist crowd. We will save the moral relativity conversation for another time, but the point is equally applicable to anyone who accepts as true any code of morals and ethics with which one ought to lead their lives. Those who are so inclined may substitute “G-d consciousness” with “moral consciousness”. The point remains essentially the same.)

Today’s youth feel disenchanted and lost. They see a chaotic world around them and are led to believe that there is no real meaning to it all. Life, including their own, has no inherent purpose.  There is no unifying theme, no method to the madness.

The 3rd leading cause of death in youth (15—24) in the United States is suicide. About 75% of those individuals who commit suicide are depressed. While depression is caused by a number of factors, the inability to visualize a meaningful future filled with purpose, feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and helplessness are likely contributors.

In 1979, a well known South African Rabbi wrote: A young person becomes frightened of the futility of life. No one is going to help me, he thinks to himself. Why should I wait for some madman to unleash an atom bomb? Why must I wait for the world to go hungry, or over-populated? Let me jump out the window; let me go out in a blaze of glory. Let me tell everyone: you’re wrong, you made a mistake and it’s just too bad. Now watch me fly out the window.”

As I said, it’s the same old song. The same maladies plague our youth today, only amplified a hundred times over. And today the ‘blaze of glory’ isn’t just jumping out the window, but mowing down a few dozen innocent people as well.

But why are the youth so desperately confused? Where did this come from? What is the cause?

Once again, the explanation is hidden in plain sight: their education is fundamentally lacking.  By education I don’t mean the consumption of data, the mundane absorption of facts.  Indeed, by conventional definitions of education, not only are these kids not deficient, but in fact, they often excel.

The Hebrew word chinuch (חינוך – see Proverbs 22:6) is generally translated as education; but I find that word lacking. It is interesting that the Oxford English Dictionary defines education as: “The systematic instruction, schooling and training given to the young (and by extension, adults) in preparation for the work of life; scholastic instruction.”

It is more interesting that the original meaning of the word – “The process of nourishing or rearing a child or young person” – is now obsolete.

We live in an age where “the process of nourishing or rearing a child or young person” as an educational ideal has become an anachronism; is it any wonder that despite the tremendous advances in technology, communication and travel – bridging physical distance — the gap between people has never been greater? People have never felt so isolated from each other.

Education is not merely an exercise in academics; rather, first and foremost, the objective of a true education is to raise moral and upstanding members of society. Education is the molding of character. As Hegel once put it, “Education is art of making man ethical.” Truth and true values never become obsolete; only, unfortunately, ignored or forgotten.

Parents naturally want the best for their children. E.g., we want our children to have food of the highest quality. Education is the food of the mind and soul. Food can sustain, but food can sometimes be poisonous as well. Just as food must be filling as well as nutritious, so must education not only fill the mind but shape the soul.

In my grandmother’s kitchen hangs a small plaque with the following words, penned by school teacher, child psychologist, and psychotherapist Haim Ginott, written on it:

Dear Teacher,
I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness:
Gas chambers built by learned engineers.
Children poisoned by educated physicians.
Infants killed by trained nurses.
Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.
So I am suspicious of education. My request is: Help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.
Reading, writing, arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

Germany of the 1940’s was the most intellectual nation of its time; leaders in the study of ethics and philosophy. But without the “foundation of wisdom” – the knowledge and accountability to a Higher Being – they sank to unimaginable depths of inhumanity.

What I’m suggesting, without claiming to be the sole heir to The Truth is: when something this tragically horrific happens, it behooves us as a society to reflect on its possible causes. To retrace our collective steps and examine how we got here. Will we find ‘The Answer’? Maybe not. But we can certainly find direction. 

Inserting a moment of prayer in schools is a controversial topic, but is it possible to consider it on its merits, and outside its contentious backdrop? I firmly believe that a program that would call for all public school teachers, at the opening of every school day to conduct a moment of silent meditation with the pupils would be an invaluable and simple way for schools to improve our society. One way to promote that children grow to be decent and upright is by teaching them to begin each day with acknowledging a Power that is greater than them.

The substance of this reflection time would depend entirely on each individual. This will inevitably open the dialogue between children and parents, since, presumably, most children will ask their parents how to fill those sixty seconds.  (Incidentally, Lack of parental interest is another major factor in teenage suicide. According to one study 90 percent of suicidal teen-agers believed their families did not understand them.) And “the heart of the fathers [will be returned] by the children” (Malachi 3:24), by asking them before they go to school: “my teacher is going to tell me to think for one minute – what should I think about?” This, of course, will require parents to take responsibility for their child’s spiritual life.

Since this is not a moment of prayer — that, of course, would be a perceived violation of the sacrosanct Separation Of Church And State — rather a non-sectarian moment of silence, it need not be an exclusively religious idea. When asked by their child how to fill one minute of silence, every parent, no matter their religious persuasion, should be able to suggest some topic of significance on which the child can dwell. Not “lollipops,” or “football,” or the “prowess” of attacking other children; rather, they will instruct their child to meditate about matters which will make them worthy of the name human being.

A child should be given the opportunity at the start of each day — during school hours — to meditate on matters of vital importance: their purpose in life and the belief in the Creator and Ruler of the World (which in non-religious terms can be termed “purpose and accountability”).

Is a moment of silence the answer to all of society’s woes? Is it the silver bullet that will solve all of the world’s problems? I wish it were that simple. What it is, however, is a step in the right direction – that of creating awareness and responsibility in the language and consciences of our youth, and ultimately in all of society.

It is a step in the direction of a better tomorrow.

A drop of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A moment of silence in reflection of an inner spark of Divinity – the tzelem elokim – which defines our humanity; the recognition of, and respect for the sacredness of all life; and the imperative to live life morally and ethically, would inculcate values that would perhaps prevent the need to have a ‘moment of silence’ in memory of victims of godless crimes.

This post was written by Rabbi Zalman Bendet and originally published on TC Jewfolk. Follow TCJewfolk on Twitter:@tcjewfolk. 

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