In the Image: A Jewish Theology to Confront the Bullying Epidemic

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January 3, 2012

This past September, at least six teens took their own lives because of homophobic bullying. Six families, who hoped to watch their children grow up and pursue their dreams, instead buried their children in the ground.

Most of us were shocked and sickened by this news. But I also imagine that most of us went back to work or school and soon forgot about the nightmare that so many teens face around the country. Yet there’s a question we need to ask: what can we do about our children growing up in a world where it can be so dangerous and humiliating to be yourself?

It is easy to blame bigots–their violence and their crudeness makes it easy to hate them. But we have to confront the fact that bullying is only possible because people tolerate it. Even though most of us would never bully another person, we are actors in a society that sends all kinds of messages about gender and sexuality, and that makes easy targets out of those people who do not conform to the majority standard of “normal.”

Example: When the mother of 13-year-old Asher Brown of Texas repeatedly asked her son’s school principal for protection after her son was getting beaten up and taunted for being gay, the school did nothing. After months of relentless attacks, Asher shot himself in the head.

Example: Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old from Indiana, went to his high school administration for help when he was being bullied and beaten up for being gay. When they failed to do anything to respond, Billy hung himself.

Though the bullies are doing the dirty work, communities often send the message to young people that certain behaviors and identities are shameful. In a 2009 survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network of over seven thousand gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender middle- and high-schoolers, almost 90% experienced harassment over the past year and more than 60% felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation.

In contrast, growing up in a community where many of my family, friends, and teachers were gay, I learned by deeds as well as words that homosexuality is just another form of love, and that love is a good thing. That message, however, was complicated by my religious tradition. The Torah, our holy text, itself countenances a culture of homophobia and shame, by forbidding gay sex and calling it an abomination. Indeed, many of today’s inheritors of this holy book, both Jewish and Christian, have made this prohibition a mainstay of their religious rhetoric and values. On this painful issue, it seems that organized religion is often more the problem than the solution.

So, as a soon-to-be rabbi, who is both respectful of tradition and certain of the wrongness of homophobia, I ask myself, how can one take a stand on this issue that is both progressive and Jewish? Are there countervailing narratives within the tradition that would support our work confronting bullying and homophobia?

For me, the starting point is the belief that the Torah was written by people who were doing their best to figure out what God wanted of them. I consider the text holy not because every word of it is literally true, but because it is part of a process of people striving towards the Ultimate–even if the people who wrote it were fallible, shaped by their own time and place. So when the Torah tells us to stone adulterers, allows Jewish men to forcibly take women prisoners of war as their wives, or commands men not to lie down with one another, I believe these are places where we have to simply say, “On this one, our ancestors were reflecting values of their age.” And following our minds and hearts, we have to go in a different direction, even if that means a break with tradition.

But we should also realize that breaking with tradition is itself a core feature of Jewish tradition. In every generation, we are called to choose the parts of Jewish tradition that are most meaningful to us, and to chart a course that is both connected to the past and to our own sense of what God wants of us for our future.

Yet for committed Jews, heading in a new direction means more than just discarding laws that we feel are outdated. If we want change, we should look to the core values within our tradition that support a new moral and religious framework. I don’t think we have to look very far. I believe that basic value is Tzelem Elohim, the Jewish idea that all people are created in the image of God, I contend that full acceptance of this notion leads to a theology of openness and inclusivity – and to make my case I’m going to look at three texts that focus on different aspects of this principle.

First, I want to share a famous 2nd century Talmudic debate between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai. They argued over the question: “What is the most basic principle of the Torah?” What is the core teaching from the Torah on which the rest of Judaism is founded?

Rabbi Akiva’s famous answer – similar to Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels is – “’Love your neighbor as yourself’ (from Leviticus 19:18) – that is the most basic principle.” But Ben Azzai disagrees, and gives an answer that may initially strike us as strange. He says, “I have a greater principle than yours. ‘On the day that God made human beings, they were made in the image of God; male and female God created them.’ (Genesis 1:27)”

Each of these approaches is compelling in different ways, but I am drawn to Ben Azzai’s principle because I believe it opens the door to a more universal morality. Ben Azzai tells us that everyone is created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, which means that everyone is holy. Everyone has value. And so we must care for everyone. Akiva tells us to love our neighbors. Ben Azzai demands, through b’tzelem Elohim, we must care for everyone, not just our neighbors – not just the people who look or talk or believe like we do. He teaches that our kindness must not depend on our own self-love, but on our understanding that humans are holy, because they are in the image of God. Ben Azzai recognizes that we have a responsibility to other people, even those we don’t or cannot like, because they still have inherent value as beings in the image of God.

Second, accepting that we are tzelem Elohim means accepting that God values diversity.

In Tractate Sanhedrin the Mishnah asks, “Why was Adam created singly? …To show the greatness of God, the Supreme king of kings, the holy blessed one! A human king has coins stamped out in a press, and they all look a like. But God stamps each of us in the imprint of Adam, and no two human beings are the same!”

The Mishnah’s point here is that God’s capacity to create countless unique beings is a manifestation of God’s greatness. Though we are each different from one another, we are each in the image of God. And if we are to praise God for creating diversity and uniqueness, it follows that we should honor and celebrate each person’s individuality. Further, if multifaceted humanity is in God’s image, God must be infinitely multifaceted also. Honoring each person’s uniqueness, then, can be a way of recognizing each person’s unique way of manifesting God in the world. The more we honor each person in the human collective, the more we can discover God in the world.

Third, and finally, tzelem elohim teaches us to recognize the sacred dimension of our own lives. Here I quote my rabbi and teacher Arthur Green, in his book, Radical Judaism, describing an encounter he had with his teacher and my hero, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Green writes,

“Why are graven images forbidden in the Torah?” I once heard Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel ask. Why is the Torah so concerned with idolatry? You might think (with the Maimonideans) that it is because God has no image, and any image of God is therefore a distortion. But Heschel read the commandment differently. “No,” he said, “it is precisely because God has an image that idols are forbidden. You are the image of God. But the only medium in which you can shape that image is that of your entire life.”

In the first two texts, **tzelem elohim gives us a way to think about others, as valuable in themselves and holy for their uniqueness. In this third text, our tradition invites us to go one profound step further. We come to understand that being in God’s image demands that we act in God’s image. And the more we act in Godly ways, the more we continue God’s work of creation, making our lives reflect God’s image.

Now let me descend from the world of theology and return to the problem with which I started. What should we – what must we – do about homophobic bullying? In this context, what does it mean to act in God’s ways?

Concretely, I don’t imagine that anyone in this community engages in any of the truly disturbing homophobic behavior I’ve talked about. We’re not “those people.” But again, what should we do? Here’s a start.

We need to confront bullying in schools and the workplace. It doesn’t matter whether the “issue” is gender, ethnicity, religion, social class, physical appearance or something else. We cannot allow people to be targeted for who they are, and instead need actively to work to foster cultures of inclusivity and mutual respect. We need to work for policies that hold administrators, teachers, and supervisors accountable for the bullying takes place under their watch, and institute programs like Facing History and Ourselves to educate students about the value of diversity.

We must do everything we can to make belittling anyone’s sexuality unacceptable, out-of-bounds behavior. If you hear a gay joke, call the joker out, even at risk of personal embarrassment. Recently, when someone said, “That’s so gay” in front of me, I said, “Whoah, you sound homophobic. Did you mean to be a hater?” To my surprise, the person apologized.

Get your place of worship to affirmatively go on record as welcoming people of all sexual orientations and promote their openness in publicity and from the pulpit. And, get them to Sign Keshet’s anti-bullying pledge to be found at

More generally, if more of us could live by these values, treating other people – even those it is harder for us to like – with respect and compassion – if we remembered that each life has a role to play in manifesting the image of God in the world – I believe bullying would be stopped in its tracks. Then, we would understand that each of us bears the urgent responsibility of fostering a world where people of all sexualities and genders are celebrated for being themselves. And we would make the world a better place, a clearer reflection of the One who created us.

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