Ethical Milestones

‘How can I do my homework while the villages in Darfur are burning?’ asks my 12-year-old daughter. It would be easy to dismiss my 12 year-old daughter’s cri de coeur as merely a savvy homework-avoidance strategy. I looked askance: Was she just struggling with that difficult piece of algebra, or was she really trying to make sense of her place in this messed up world of ours? “Just get on with your homework – when you’re 18 you can go and live in Africa and stop the wars.”

But I was smiling: This sensitive, reflective and idealistic young woman was my daughter. And I was disappointed: The parent she turned to for validation, recognition and empathy failed miserably. While parenting guides focus on the physical and social milestones a healthy child needs to attain, scant attention is paid to ethical or religious milestones that will contribute to a socially responsible child. Recently, it has become clear to me that her religious identity is being shaped by her understanding of the Orthodox community’s response to global humanitarian crises. While she attends an Orthodox girls’ school in London, which to its credit is replete with social-action projects, my daughter feels the insularity of a closed system that primarily supports Jewish causes, with only an occasional nod to a worthy non-Jewish cancer charity. I understand her completely because it’s right that a 12 year old should feel indignant and annoyed.

Milestone No. 1 is taking shape: By the age of 12, children should be able to demonstrate and articulate their sensitivity to major global issues highlighted in the news. My daughter is on track: As she constructs a hierarchy of need, she is interpreting the world around her and making order of her obligations to her local Jewish community, to Israel and the world at large. In an era of making religion “relevant” to our contemporary dilemmas, activists have sought to appropriate festivals for a social cause. Pessah has become a time to reflect on contemporary slavery and our response to human trafficking; Purim finds us thinking about agunot and the problems of domestic violence; Tu Bishvat is stamped with the perils of global warming; and Succot invariably focuses our energies on the homeless. This week, as many of us sit in the wilds of our manicured lawns in the latest version of the “click-it together” succa with zip-up windows and insect netting, our rabbis will exhort us to reflect on the transitory nature of our homes and to think about the homeless in our cities or refugee families in tent cities in warring countries. This will resonate with my daughter and help her connect religious practice and Jewish values to the world beyond Golders Green. PERSONALLY, I’m tired of the cliches. It’s pretentious to think that we can really empathize with the homeless. I’m frustrated by our grandstanding: Do we really think that we have the power to bring an end to corruption and violence around the world? I’m worried that my daughter will face so much disappointment in the future.

But I know she’s on track for Milestone No. 2: A 12-year-old child should be fuelled by a desire to “do good,” and plan on entering a helping profession to spend years in low-paying, female-dominated workplaces “doing good.” When it comes to giving charity, the Orthodox community relishes in the tzedaka, giving financial resources, and hesed, offering emotional and psychological support, that is necessary to build and maintain its infrastructure. The running costs of synagogues, mikvaot, schools where families who cannot afford the fees are subsidized, cemeteries and personnel (rabbis, ritual slaughterers, scribes) are huge and largely rely on charitable contributions from community members. Additionally, a network of gemahim (best described as free-aid organizations) offer items such as second-hand clothes and baby goods to help alleviate expenses for large families. In London, a small group of women collect money to pay for a regular meat delivery to struggling families so that they can also enjoy their Shabbat meals. Every night, another group of Orthodox women arrive at the bakeries as they are closing and collect the leftover bread to redistribute it to families in need. During the Christmas season last year, I took my daughter one evening to pick up the bread and we delivered it to a local shelter for homeless people. She was so pleased that this bread was not being wasted, but she was also impressed that the kosher bakery and the women from her community were doing something to help those beyond our neighborhood. While you and I know that soup kitchens are a Band-Aid solution reflecting a much deeper malaise, she doesn’t have to understand that yet.

As she took the bags of food into the kitchen of the homeless shelter, she was striving to achieve Milestone No. 3: A child of 12 should understand that her responsibilities to her own community and to the wider society are inspired by the values enshrined in Jewish law to look after the disadvantaged within our communities. Parents anxiously document their child’s developmental milestones – those first few steps, those first few words, his first spelling test, her first running race. Parents secretly compare their child to his peers and, fearing that their child is falling behind, will arrange private tuition and extracurricular activities to boost their child’s competitive edge. Perhaps it’s time we started to record our child’s first attempt to demonstrate his social conscience.

We’d need an international body of psychologists, religious leaders, moral philosophers, humanitarian activists and educators to determine specific milestones. At what age should a child notice injustice? When should a child pledge her pocket money to the starving in Africa? At what age should signs of healthy skepticism begin to emerge? These are significant moments in a child’s maturation and are worthy of a record. So what of the child who fails to meet his or her ethical and religious milestones? Well, just blame the parents of course. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post, September 25, 2007