Just about a week ago, on Shmini Atzeret, many of us read in synagogue the book of Kohelet, known more widely to most as Ecclesiastes. People who know the book tend to regard it as more than a little cynical, and clearly, the author of the book- ascribed by tradition to King Solomon in his old age- had been around the proverbial block more than a few times. There was little that he hadn’t seen, and he was sure that what he was yet to see would not be new to him. Ein hadash tahat hashamesh, he famously said- there is nothing new under the sun.
When I first heard the tragic story of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who took his own life after his dorm roommate and a "friend" had secretly broadcast his intimate sexual encounter with another man over the internet, my mind flashed back to the lyrics of a song from "Hair," the musical that had served as the anthem of my generation… "How can people be so heartless, how can people be so cruel?"
Nothing new under the sun, I thought, especially when it comes the human capacity for cruelty. Like so many in my community, in addition to the anti-gay aspect of the crime, I was horrified by the fundamental thoughtlessness and cruelty of the act. How do you do that to someone? How do you so invade their privacy, and then exponentially compound the offense by using modern technology to include the entire wired world in your thoughtlessness? Stunning; just stunning.
I hate to reduce this terrible event to another teachable moment, but if it doesn’t become one in religious communities, we will truly have been derelict in our responsibility, and unworthy of calling ourselves "religious" in any meaningful way.
For thousands of years now, and I’m sure for thousands more yet to come, biblical scholars will ponder what it means to have been created "in the image of God," as Genesis tells us that we were. The text is so rich, so pregnant with possible meanings, that no one can really know what the original meaning of the text was.
But no matter how one chooses to read and understand those words, it surely must mean that we must treat our fellow human beings as God-like creations, gay or straight, Jewish, Christian or Muslim, single or married, citizen or foreigner… Ours is not to decide who is worthy of dignity based on our limited capacity to know. Nowhere that I can find has the Torah saying that only people like us are in God’s image. To imply that is to distort the text, and to corrupt it. We do something like that at our own peril, and at the peril of the Tyler Clementis of the world.
How could we ever justify that?
The world doesn’t have to be as Kohelet described it… But only we can make it a better and kinder place.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation