NEW YORK — I was saddened to hear of the death of Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old college student driven to suicide by bullying over his sexual orientation. While Clementi’s case has grabbed national headlines, it sadly is far from unique.
Last September alone, no fewer than six boys in the United States committed suicide as a response to bullying they suffered over their sexual identities. Several of the victims were as young as 13 years old.
Bullying is nothing new, but modern technology has caused it to explode in new and dangerous ways. In Clementi’s case, intimate moments were webcast. Other teens are humiliated routinely via social networks. It takes no effort whatsoever to send a tweet, post a video or write on a virtual wall.
In the old days, bullies could usually only harass their intended victims live and in person. Nowadays a teen can be abused and publicly denigrated remotely and often anonymously.
Such cases are not limited to boys; nor are they limited to situations pertaining to the victims’ sexuality. Three girls are awaiting trial in Massachusetts for their role in harassing a classmate to the point of suicide. Even when situations do not reach the point of suicide as a perceived means of escape, bullying lowers self-esteem and leads to depression and anxiety.
It is unacceptable to harass or bully anyone for any reason. It makes no difference what a person’s race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or country of origin happens to be. A person’s income or social status is immaterial. We are all created in the image of God, and the Torah demands that we extend common courtesy to one another.
Our responsibility goes even further in the case of the downtrodden and oppressed, insisting that we guard ourselves very carefully so as not to add to their troubles through our words and actions. (Causing pain to a widow, an orphan or a convert are particularly heinous acts under Torah law.)
Rabbi Akiva famously said in Leviticus 19:18 that the primary principle of the Torah is “love your neighbor as yourself.” However, the Sifra (a book of the Midrash) immediately follows that statement with what it considers to be an even more important principle: The sage Ben Azzai cites in Genesis 5:1, “This is the book of the generations of Adam.” The verse means that we all are descended from the same ancestors, Adam and Eve.
As important as the verse cited by Rabbi Akiva is, it’s too easy for us to justify hating others because they are not our “neighbor”; that is, they are not like us. Ben Azzai’s verse reminds us that black or white, rich or poor, straight or gay, Jewish, Christian or Muslim, we ultimately are one family — the family of mankind.
Hate and fear of that which is different is not something with which we are born; it is something acquired. (The song “You’ve Got to Be Taught,” the beautiful Rodgers and Hammerstein in “SouthPacific,” sends out that message.) Accordingly, I implore all parents, teachers and other role models to actively encourage an environment of tolerance.
This doesn’t mean that we have to agree with every decision that others may make in life. We may disagree with others’ theologies or lifestyles. But disagreement is not a license to abuse others. A child, a teen or an adult who harasses another person, verbally or physically, is automatically in the wrong.
At NCSY, we have adopted strict policies against acts of malice and aggression. All of our regions across North America are being instructed to have sessions on bullying. The Midwest Region, based in Chicago, already has announced a bullying program at its Fall Regional in Kansas City next weekend.
Unwelcome attention and a hostile environment are unacceptable regardless of the source. We all have the right to live free of intimidation. If we have legitimate differences of opinion with another person regarding religion, politics or other areas in which debate may be valid, that calls for thoughtful discussion and mutual respect.
I call upon parents, educators, clergy and all others who work with youth to join us in a zero- tolerance policy for bullying in all its forms, including cyberbullying. Not only will this save young lives from being needlessly thrown away, it will ensure a safer and healthier environment for all our children.
Rabbi Steven Burg is the international director of NCSY, the youth program of the Orthodox Union.