Clinton and Lewinsky. The general manager of the New York Mets. Teens shaving their heads and piercing their tongues. High schoolers killing their classmates with guns.
Popular culture in America is not providing a pretty picture to those interested in teaching their kids ethics and morals.
But how should they be taught? Whose ethics?
And what are morals, anyway?
These were the sort of basic yet complex questions being struggled over last Monday by about 80 rabbis, educators, social workers and teens at a stimulating day-long conference sponsored by the Reform movement.
It was the first of three sessions to be held over the next six months. The goal: to determine how moral character is developed and whether ethics and social responsibility can be taught.
The ultimate purpose is to develop an education program for the Reform movement — the nation’s largest Jewish movement with 875 congregations and about 1.5 million members — and its schools, camps, youth groups, Israel trips and adult study programs.
“Nothing like this has even been attempted before,” said Reform spokeswoman Emily Grotta.
The project stems from a challenge issued last year by Reform President Rabbi Eric Yoffie at the movement’s biennial convention in Dallas to develop a new code of ethics for its youth in response to the anything-goes culture of today.
In his first address as president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the official name of the Reform movement), Rabbi Yoffie cited several examples of the loss of moral behavior, including the destruction of hotel rooms by rowdy young Reform bar mitzvah guests.
“There’s an ethical crisis in our society, “ Rabbi Yoffie warned. “Jews are an integral part of that society, and we have not escaped all of those difficult ethical issues.”
But sitting in a conference room overlooking Third Avenue and 41st Street in Midtown Manhattan, one of four subgroups of 20 participants each tried tackling such questions as “What is the difference between ethics and morality” and “What it the root of the concept that morality rests with the powerful?”
The groups, each focusing on a different age group, from early childhood to adulthood, agreed that an ethics code must also include adults and parents. They also pondered how to apply centuries of Jewish wisdom to modern social issues. More specifically, they debated whether they should take a traditional Jewish approach or narrow it to a Reform Jewish approach to the issues.
“Is there a difference between Jewish and general ethics?” asked veteran UAHC camp director Rabbi Allan Smith. “Is there a difference between Reform Jewish ethics and Jewish ethics.”
Rabbi Smith contended there is, because Reform Judaism reads texts differently than its Orthodox and Conservative counterparts, and has different viewpoints on such thorny moral issues as abortion and gay marriage.
The group then shared anecdotes of problems they have encountered with teens — discovering them breaking the rules by drinking alcohol or having oral sex in summer camp. The supervisors wondered whether their response and punishment was appropriate, and why the teens did not behave “morally.”
They wondered if moral development is informed by moral education.
“This is the ‘undiscovered country,’ ” declared camp director Loui Dobin.
While much was unanswered, the subgroup dealing with youth groups agreed that in formulating a potential curriculum, their basic premise must be two-fold: that Jewish ethics constitute a fundamental component of Jewish learning and Jewish living; and that the Reform movement must balance relevance and authenticity to reflect both contemporary scholarship and Jewish wisdom.
One youthful participant, Lauren Schumer, a 23-year-old sporting a nose ring, worried about shoving a Reform Jewish moral code down the throats of youths after three meetings.
By day’s end, group leaders and participants agreed there was much to be done.
Roger Gilman, who is Reform, and a professor of philosophy at Northeastern University, recommended the ethics task force make better use of the teachings of the Talmud and traditional Jewish law, or halacha.
“I think we need to adopt Talmud Torah to inform us instead of completing rejecting it,” he stated. “We need to take it more seriously.”
But Hebrew University Philosophy Professor Warren Zev Harvey, who is Orthodox, urged the group to maintain its Reform theology of not being bound by halacha, contending it could provide new creative Jewish answers to modern-day issues that halachic Jews cannot resolve.
“This is the great advantage of the Reform — that it doesn’t have this conflict between the law and ethics,” said Harvey, one of the handful of kipa-wearing men in the room.
“I must admit that as an Orthodox Jew, I would much rather see my rabbis looking over their left shoulder worrying at what the Reform rabbis are doing than looking over their right shoulder, worrying about the haredim [ultra-Orthodox.]”
But Harvey said that the sign of a great ethicist is that one can’t tell whether his origin is Orthodox, Conservative or Reform.
“There should be no distinction between Jewish ethics and Reform Jewish ethics,” he argued.
The third moderator, Rabbi Jonathan Malino, who is Reform and chair of the philosophy department at Guilford College, disagreed. “You have to bring your own moral considerations to bear on the sources,” he stated.
Rabbi Jan Katzew, director of UAHC’s department of Jewish education, said the ultimate goal is not to design a three-week course in ethics, to be forgotten days later.
“Our goal is not to create mini-Jewish moral philosophers. We are here to create Jews.” He hoped that the task force would develop programs for teacher and counselor training within the next 18 months.
Said Rabbi Yoffie: “We have a firm obligation through our camps, Israel programs, youth groups and religious schools to provide guidance for studying what Judaism has to say and to make appropriate ethical decisions.”
The next two meetings will be held in January and March.