Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.
When I was fifteen, one of my partners in crime was a cousin of mine. At family gatherings, he and I would perform show stopping improvisational comedy skits that had our family members roaring for hours. My cousin probably does not remember this, but he taught me the memorable pun for the word gladiator. You know the old game. The teacher tells you to make a sentence using a word like gladiator. So you say, “A lion ate my mother in law---and I’m gladiator!” At thirty eight, I still chuckle at this retort which I knew carried with it all sorts of popular stereotypes about mothers in law before I even had a mother in law. Mind you, I have a mother in law whom I love and respect, and who I am very glad no lion has eaten. But the absurdity of this word play still tickles me.
What does not tickle me is the frightening truth about the human condition which is conveyed in the recent blockbuster movie, Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe. The movie portrays with graphic precision the total disregard for human and animal life displayed by ancient Roman society, as slaves were hurled into brutal, “fight to the death” contests attended by blood thirsty citizens of all classes. Watching it with my wife one night, I was transported back to 1987 in Italy, which she and I visited together with my in laws. Viewing the Coliseum in Rome, I couldn’t get past an ugly paradox. The Romans, with their advanced culture, employed their mathematical brilliance and their keen aesthetic eye to create this architectural masterpiece which was the site of some of the cruelest bloodshed in human history. I encountered a similar paradox later that year when, touring the British Museum in London, I suddenly realized that the British Empire had gloriously preserved the riches of diverse cultures by raping and robbing them, all in the interests of civilization. I struggle the most with this paradox of “brilliance and brutality” when studying the Holocaust. How could German society - which at the time of Hitler’s rise to power was the world leader in everything from science to the humanities- use its phenomenal gifts for the development of a genocide machine which claimed the lives of eleven million human beings, six million of them Jews? I have to conclude that intelligence is no guarantor of goodness, and that the heart of darkness often blots out conscience and compassion. Aristotle’s assertion that reason is what nobly sets us apart from other animal species has not made complete sense to me for a long time.
My son recently brought home a children’s book about gladiators by a respected educational publisher. It describes in loving detail and colorful cartoon pictures everything you would want to know about these men, including what they ate, the weapons they used, and how to say “Ave Caesar! Morituri te salutamus!,” which is Latin for the gladiators’ salute: “Hail Caesar! We who are about to die salute you!” The educational goal of the book is noble enough: it tries to impart intimate knowledge of the Roman empire and its excesses to the young reader in an objective manner. Yet it is that objectivity which gnaws at me. Certainly, critical and dispassionate inquiry is a hallmark of Western culture. We cherish it as the mechanism for teaching values such as tolerance, respect for diversity, and the rule of democratic law. But I fear that at some point education can become so value neutral and objective that young people will use it to objectify others. Too many cultures have educated generations of the best and the brightest, who used their intellectual skills to act like monsters. Is American education travelling the same path when we encourage students to be competitive, market driven successes while we shy away from teaching moral reasoning, values, and character development?
Admittedly, I am making sweeping generalizations in the form of alarmist questions. I am not suggesting that we erode the separation of church and state by imposing a specific set of values on public education and public life. Yet as a spiritual leader I take my cue from the prophets of ancient Israel who railed against the demeaning of human life and the injustices perpetrated against the weakest members of that sophisticated society: its poor, its sick, its disenfranchised, the ones about whom no one cared and who were often abused. The prophets’ criticisms transcend time and place to speak loudly to us, reminding us that “justice will roll down like mighty waters” and that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation” only when we teach ourselves and our children to strive for those ideals. How about requiring all high schools in America to teach the Anti Defamation League’s excellent “world Of Difference” curriculum which promotes tolerance? How about encouraging an Advanced Placement course in ethical problem solving? Why not establish a year of required national service for all high school or college graduates, to promote their sense of obligation to community and to sharpen their moral leadership skills? Our children -in fact all of us- need to learn more than the value of the profit motive. We need to be motivated by the values of the prophets. To paraphrase the late John Lennon, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one who envisions this kind of America. Awash in big money and deep poverty, great power and political apathy, our divided and often selfish society is hungry to revive its public dialogue about who we are and what we stand for. If we don’t revive it, we risk turning into a culture of moral mannequins: well dressed and pretty but hollow. Our task is to avoid becoming a community of masters and gladiators. Our survival as a civilization depends upon our fulfillment of that task.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.