Thursday, November 17, 2011

Educating in Post-Moral World

I came across a recent sermon by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of KJ and Ramaz. (Hat-tip Kavannah blog). Here is the most sensational segment:

And lest you think that this phenomenon is out there and has nothing to do with your world and my world, I actually found this problem this September in my sex ethics class in the 10th Grade at Ramaz. I gave the students an assignment to read an article about something quite grotesque: it described a group of Jewish married couples who gather periodically and engage in what is popularly called swinging, that is, spouse swapping. A sort of round robin sexual orgy. I asked them how many of you think that this is wrong? And only a few students raised their hands. Astonished, I asked them how could they not think that this was wrong. I got answers like: “well, since it is all out in the open and everybody knows that everybody is doing it, there is nothing fundamentally wrong. No one is cheating on a spouse because the spouse was also swinging.”

I said to them: “what about the seventh commandment – do not commit adultery.” One student answered that these people are really not religious. What the students didn’t seem to understand was that whether they were religious or not, there is a moral code that is rooted in the Bible which defines for us what is right and what is wrong. The problem is that when pressed, many of the students simply said that if it feels good and if it feels right then who am I to judge? I told them I wasn’t suggesting that they go over to somebody who is engaged in swinging and chastise them, but that they had to have an opinion on this practice. They looked at me with some disbelief. Now, please understand, these are good kids. I don’t for one minute believe that they will engage in this kind of debauchery when they are married adults. This is not related to what they are doing or will do; this is simply an indication that these children are not thinking in moral categories and that they feel that it is somehow politically incorrect to judge another’s behavioral choices. They are picking up from society in general a reluctance to judge.

I confess that I was so disturbed about their reaction that I spent much of the course, which is actually ending next week, coming back to this subject again and again in order to show them how far they have wandered intellectually from the religious sources in which they believe. These are children who follow the Torah which tells them to keep Shabbat, Kashrut and Yom Tov and to pray. They all do these things. But they don’t seem to understand that the same Torah is the source of our moral values, and morality is not simply a matter of opinion. God gave the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai not the Ten Suggestions ! Morality is not personal; it is ultimately ordained by a higher authority. (See entire sermon here.)
Let me say at the outset that I share Rabbi Lookstein's concerns and his broad perspective. But this sermon made me think, both as an educator, and as an individual.

Are things as bad as Rabbi Lookstein thinks? In a post-modernist world, surely, the only categorical wrong is to harm another person, against his or her will, or worse, to coerce another individual. Murder and thievery are wrong because they hurt other people. But does this mean that we have absolutely surrendered our traditional sense of  a moral code? Have other educators experienced this helplessness in addressing ethical discussions? I meet many teenagers who are idealists, who are passionate about moral positions and know how to argue their case. How much has this reality penetrated?

It has made me wonder about the degree to which this mode of thinking has penetrated my moral sense. With the shifting moral sands of our contemporary world, both general and Jewish, a sometimes wonder about the changes that go on in my mind. As modern people we are also consumers of this ethical climate. When should we be judgmental and when is it wrong? In a wold which gives voice to all individuals to argue their case and to explain their motivations, do we lose a sense of  good and bad?

And is the Torah the sole source of moral values? What happens when Torah or Halakha seem to preach one way, and society sees things another way. And what happens when our instincts say that society has a good point. (An example might be, egalitarianism.)

So, feel free to read Rabbi Lookstein and to add your comments below.


Katie Woolf said...

Im not sure looking at the Torah with a view it is the sole source of morality sits comfortably with me (issues like Mamzeh come to mind). How are we to know how Gd defines the word 'moral'.
I think that its vital in times when the wider worlds' moral compass points in what seems to be in the opposite direction to Torah values, that we hold to these halachik laws so we/judaism doesnt stray too much away from within the framework which Gd wants us to live...hum..

Yael said...

So happy to see someone asking these questions.

I think taking the time to question our own moral compass (compassi? compasses?), looking honestly at ourselves and reflecting, is worth the time and effort even if we don't come up with easy answers.

But argh it would be so much easier if things were black and white.