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Teaching Our Children: Ethics and Shavuot

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In the weeks before the death of Osama bin Laden thrust the debate over the efficacy and morality of torture back into the headlines, a disturbing report was released by the American Red Cross. After speaking with hundreds of American teenagers, it became clear that the generation that has grown up since 9/11 is woefully uneducated in the rules of war. Most of them have never heard of the Geneva Convention, and more than half believe that there are times when it is acceptable to torture an enemy prisoner. 56 percent believe that retaliatory killings of prisoners is acceptable. Even more shocking is the statistic that 41 percent believe that is acceptable for an enemy under some circumstances to torture American troops.

This is the generation raised on "24," convinced by the narrative that torture keeps us safer and unengaged in the moral question of whether torture is ethically permissible regardless of its efficacy. In the past 10 years, we have seen a normalization of torture in popular media. It's what the good guys do to win, and winning means doing whatever it takes. That is the compass that guides actions, not our covenant with other nations or the American commitment to conduct just and ethical wars.

These teenagers, of course, will soon become our soldiers, and nearly 80 percent of them believe that the United States should do a better job of educating youth in humanitarian law before they are of the age they can enlist. I find that statistic heartening: teenagers are smart and they know why they don't know what they don't know. If they have failed to learn, it is because we have failed to teach them. If they believe torture is OK, it is because they have seen the United States torture and the architects of torture go unpunished. As we contemplate our laws and moral obligations as a nation, we are both performing them in the present and modeling them for the future, for our children.

What does it mean to obligate ourselves both for the present and the future? Starting the night of June 7, Jews around the world will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, the night that we received the Torah at Sinai. Coming just seven weeks after our redemption from Egypt at Passover, Shavuot is a celebration of the covenant between God and Israel. This sacred moment transcends time: just as at the Seder, we say that each one of us needs to see ourselves as though we personally left Egypt, Jewish tradition teaches that every member of the Jewish people, past, present and future, was present at Sinai. As a result, we all consented and have a stake in the ritual and moral imperatives contained in the Torah, the Jewish constitution.

There is a beautiful midrash that teaches when God offers Israel the chance to receive the Torah, God asks for a pledge in return as a guarantee that they would keeps its laws and ethical teachings. The Israelites offer God several different possibilities: first, their sacred ancestors (like the first monotheists, Abraham and Sarah); then, their prophets (fiery defenders of injustice like Isaiah and Amos); and finally, the Israelites offer their children, the generations to come, as their pledge. God accepts this, saying, "Your children are a good pledge. For their sakes, I will give you the Torah."

Why are the children such a good pledge? The Israelites understand that a commitment this serious cannot be made on the merits of the past but through a commitment to future action. They cannot know for sure that their children will follow the laws and ethical imperatives they are receiving. They are making a commitment to that through the lens of their own deeds, their children will also come to behave as God demands. The Israelites are pledging hope to God, rather than memory, in return for the Torah.

Right now, we're celebrating Shavuot, but June is also Torture Awareness Month, a month when we recognize and support victims of torture (from regimes all over the world) and pledge ourselves to accountability for American use of torture in the War on Terror. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (of which my organization, Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, is a key member) has made the theme of this month "Repairing the Brokenness," an awareness that until we acknowledge as a nation what we allowed to happen in our names, until we take responsibility for our actions, we cannot truly repent and move forward, as President Obama has asked us to do.

The Red Cross report reflects our national brokenness. Why should torture be wrong and why do our enemies deserve humanitarian protections? If they are willing to do anything, ask our children, why shouldn't we?

But in return, just like the Israelites, we must also pledge hope. We must recommit to teaching through our actions that every human being, even our enemies, are created in God's image -- and that entails responsibilities in how they are treated, even if they would not do the same in return. As a nation, we must once again embody a commitment to waging just warfare and to upholding humanitarian law. The Torah teaches us that just because we can do something, our higher ethical commitments mean that we should not. We must show our children that this is what it means to be the good guys.

Around the Web

Rabbis for Human Rights-North America

The Progress Report: The Secret Red Cross Torture Report

The Red Cross Torture Report - The Daily Dish - The Atlantic

 The Jewish Ethicist - The Ethics of Torture

 As Torture Debate Heats Up, Jewish Groups Stay Mum – Forward.com