Editorial: What Hath God Wrought (!?)

Most Americans who recognize the headline expression recall it as the first statement that Samuel Morse sent along the telegraph wire in 1844. It was intended (some might say sacreligiously) as an homage to the new technology of the day.

Those of a more studious inclination will know the passage from Numbers 23:23, where the context was markedly different. The Moabites, fearful of the Israelites’ march up the River Jordan, summoned a professional curser, Balaam, to direct evil toward Jacob’s people, but he instead blessed them, recognizing God’s protection of and aspirations for the Jews. Out of his amazement came the famous line quoted above.

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It is the juxtaposition of Morse’s utterance with Balaam’s that is apropos in the heartbreaking case of Tyler Clementi and of others who have been tormented and bullied for their sexual preference in recent months, and who consequently have committed suicide in the face of seeming hopelessness.

Clementi’s case points to how technology in the absence of a moral compass can result in depravity and utter tragedy. His Rutgers University roommate allegedly secretly recorded Clementi having sex with a male partner in their room, and then with another student distributed the video over the Internet. Clementi subsequently jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death.

In many of the gay suicides, technology has played a major role, through the Internet, social networking, email, instant messages and texts, in perpetuating these hideously disturbing episodes. When we reflect ourselves in the mirror of these technological “advancements,” we don’t look very pretty at all.

This lesson is a huge one when looking back on Morse’s initial telegraphic message: No technology represents a positive accomplishment in the absence of moral temperament. Many Jewish figures have weighed in since Clementi’s death both to condemn the use of technology without an accompanying ethos, and to assure gay teens that they have safe places to go and people to talk to within the Jewish community.

Brooklyn Rabbi Andy Bachman’s meaningful and poignant column in the Jewish Daily Forward (online, Oct. 1, www.forward.com) is an ideal example of a warm and caring voice that wends these ideas together: “Technology can save lives but it can also be a tool for evil. So take stock next time you’re ready to click so quickly. Think and feel before you act.”

And his words about how our caring for each other must be absolute are equally valuable: “(W)hen a young man takes his life in the way that Tyler Clementi did, we are all affected…And as the Jewish tradition teaches, we are all responsible for one another. Which means that if you’re reading this and you’re sad or angry or confused or devastated or scared and you need someone to talk to, be in touch. And always remember that you have a rabbi and a community who care about you and accept you for who you are. No matter what.”

Jews feel and think a variety of things about sexuality. Last week’s reporting of the New Jersey Jewish Standard’s treatment of same-sex wedding announcements shows that we suffer from multiple personality disorder when it comes to these issues. The Standard first published such an announcement, then retracted it under pressure from some, then un-retracted it after further deliberation and broader feedback.

The Light itself coped (albeit painfully) with this issue years ago, opting ultimately to publish such announcements. Despite the objections of some, it was the correct thing to do, because there are members of our Jewish community who we love, who are gay and who come together in union. While each of us is entitled to our own thoughts and beliefs about sexuality, none of us is entitled to force our youth into dark corners, from which the prospect of a happy and fulfilling life seems remote, if not impossible.

We can fathom no acceptable religious belief, Jewish or otherwise, that could justify the abusive, shameful, and in some cases, lethal treatment of gay teens. Even those who disagree that sexual preference is a native condition, not a learned behavior, or object to certain sexual conduct on moral or religious grounds, should meet any teen’s anguish with understanding, love and compassion, Jewish values all. That’s why the recent words of Carl Paladino, candidate for New York governor, in speaking at an Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn, were so offensive; his personal viewpoints notwithstanding, he should not be saying insensitive things like, “I don’t want (youth) to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option.” It basically sends the message to gay youngsters that they are societal castoffs, unworthy of the same emotional sustenance as all others.

So when we consider both Morse’s words and Balaam’s reverential blessing of Jews, we ought remember two very important lessons. First, anything we as humans invent in our seemingly infinite imaginations must be partnered with an abundance of moral maturity. And second, an outstretched arm and a loving countenance is something each of us owes our fellow human beings in their times of perilous emotional need. No exceptions.