Can you give me some pointers for "Jewishly guiding" my kids through the morass of pop culture - reality TV, snarky videos - that seems to delight in embarassing people? I don't want to sound like "a mom"....but if I could sound like a spiritual leader, it might go over better....
I am happy to share some thoughts about your question. Let me start though, by saying, it is ok to “sound like a mom.” I can tell you that this and many other rabbis are who they are because they listened to their mom’s even when they didn’t like what they were saying.
That being said, there are a few good issues to address here. The first is the Jewish tradition’s thoughts on the content, which is embarrassing others. The second is whether or not there are victims in these videos. A third is the Jewish tradition on peer pressure which I think factors in significantly here.
The Rabbis of the Talmud make very strong statements about the seriousness of embarrassing another person. Consider the following:
“Rabbi Nachman the son of Rabbi Yitzchak said, that one who embarrasses another in public, it is as if he spilled his blood (i.e. killed him)” –Bava Metzia 58b
“Rava taught…One who shames his fellow in public has no place in the world to come.” Bava Metzia 59a
Obviously, these are some very strong statements, and perhaps are a bit extreme in our culture, but they do make a point. Embarrassing someone is not something to be taken lightly. Consider asking your kids to think about a time they felt embarrassed. How did it feel? How did they feel about the people who embarrassed them? Are they looking forward to the next time? I am sure you will hear that it was a lousy experience, one they are not looking forward to reliving. If that is the case, why buy into a culture that thrives on evoking that same terrible feeling from others.
This brings us to the next point. Your kids will likely tell you, “come on it is harmless,” or the classic “everyone is watching these.” This is where we need to look at whether or not, these videos are victimless and what Judaism has to say about peer pressure.
In The Peep Diaries, Hal Niedzviecki, takes a close look at the toll of our internet culture. In a sad chapter he tells the story of a young man who videotaped himself in the high school a/v lab playing Star Wars, and wound up having the video stolen and posted to YouTube. He was so humiliated that he had to leave school and be treated for the depression that he suffered from his embarrassment. These videos and shows do have victims. Even if we didn’t post them, we add to their suffering by watching them and laughing at their pain.
As for peer pressure, we find in the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot or The Teachings of Our Fathers an important teaching about peer pressure. We find in chapter 2 mishnah 6 that Hillel taught; “In a place with no worthy people, strive to be a worthy person.” I have always taken this to mean that we cannot let ourselves off the hook because everyone around us was making bad choices; we need to strive to live up to our own standards regardless of our surroundings. It could be a great conversation to have with your kids. What are the standards they would set for themselves? How would they know when they are living up to them?
I realize it is never easy to get kids to swim upstream against pop culture, but a thoughtful family conversation could be a great place to start.
Have you tried asking your kids the following question - How would you feel if the person being embarrased is you? I hope they will respond with - I would not like it.
Once they say that, you have your opening. You can go on about hypocrtical (a good word for the modern generation) is their enjoying heaping on others what they would not want heaped on themselves. That should be an easy sell.
You can try speaking about the dangers of being embarrassed. People who are subject to embarrassment often go off the deep end in despair. Would they want to be part of that, of aiding those who delight in ruining other peoples' lives?
If these arguments do not win the day, then you have more serious problems with your kids than you realize.
Disappointingly, perhaps, I'll start off with Shakespeare, rather than a Jewish text - "To thine own self be true." While you are welcome to enter the journey of becoming a Rabbi or other Jewish clergy, as a parent, you are a "spiritual leader". Invariably, your children will take their religious cues from you - and how you engage Jewish values in making your own decisions. In my work with teens, they tell me that they get their values from their parents. However, they have no idea where their parents got their values. Here are some tips in talking to your children:
1) Dibur Emet (Speaking truthfully) - Be honest. If they can see that you struggle with ethical decisions and, more importantly, often make decisions that you later regret upon reflection, it weakens their ability to write you off as a hypocrite. (Notice I said "weakens", children seeing hypocrisy in their parents goes at least as far back as Joseph's brothers complaining about Jacob's double-standard with his children.)
2) B'shem Omro (In the name of the person who said it) - The Rabbis of the Talmud valued this middah by never stating a teaching in their own name, but making sure to share from whom they learned it. Do this with your values as well. If you share not only where you learned your values, but also Jewish stories or Hebrew terms that illustrate those values, you will give your children an anchor to sustain them.
3) B'tzelem Elohim (In the image of God) - This may be a catch-all value, but it is important in the areas that you have cited. If we truly believe that we are created with an ideal of the best that can be, then we treat our bodies and our ego with more care and respect. If we remember that all humanity is created b'tzelem elohim, then we give care to what we think and say about others as well.
Where do these values (and many more) come from? There has long been a practice in Judaism known as mussar. Mussar is the dedicated study of improving ones behavior through specific Jewish texts. Rabbi Jan Katzew, now Senior Consultant for Lifelong Learning for the Union for Reform Judaism, but formerly Director of Education when he headed a URJ Ethics Initiative, was a proponent for the idea of tikkun middot. Just as we look to fixing the world with tikkun olam, tikkun middot is the process of fixing ourselves. The idea (which can be found here explained for families, based on text from Pirke Avot) is that Judaism has many values. These are separate from the mitzvot, or commandments. Values are often in conflict. For example, we might not want to tell the whole truth (dibbur emet) when our three-year old shows us their latest portrait. Instead, to show respect (kavod), we would praise them for how much work or creativity they have shown. The most important part is that if we only give commandments (Do this, don't do that), we do not develop in ourselves, or our children, the capacity for moral decision making - needed in any case which might not fit the parameters of a narrow do this/don't do that.
The American Jewish Libraries Association has a great list of middot, but no citations.
Dr. Eugene Borowitz and Frannie Schwartz wrote an excellent guide for beginners called Jewish Moral Virtues, published by the Jewish Publication Society.
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