In the graduate school class I teach, I open the semester examining moral homilies — stories that are used to manipulate behavior in childhood for the greater good of society — and, I ask my students, why are most of those homilies rooted in religion and culture instead of the law or the economy and what were the moral homilies that formed you growing up?
We then look at their moral homilies from a scientific standpoint — can the lesson of the story be independently verified as accurate and useful — or is there a different, non-scientific, reason behind the homily and, if so, what is the intent of the homily beyond simply scaring the body into submission and who provided the homily?
Some students have no clue what I am asking of them and I provide a non-religious homily that was effective when I was growing up in Nebraska: If boys touched themselves “down there” seeking pleasure, hair would grow on the palms of their hands.
Why was that story told to young boys? So we would not inappropriately fondle our genitals in public or in private because once you start — it is hard to stop! Why the hairy palms? To scare us into submission against our innate desire — to have hairy palms is to stand out and to be identified as a “toucher” and a non-socialized member of society.
Most young children want to fit in and if you have to shave your palms every day at age 10 you will be unable to hide the scent of the after shave after. At least that’s what our Boy Scout leader told us.
I ask my students not to use The Ten Commandments as their moral homilies because I am seeking living stories and not a dead list of rules: I want “if/then” examinations — “If you touch yourself down there, then…”
Some students still have no clue what I am asking of them and so I provide the following bit of information from my good friend Gordon Davidescu who shares the moral homilies of his childhood growing up in a Jewish home:
According to the told testament, Jacob is the first person mentioned in the Bible as having an illness. Is it accurate that Jewish commentary suggests from that story that he prayed for his illness so that people would be given time to put their affairs in order, heal old wounds and pass along information to those who survive.
G-d visits Abraham after he circumcises himself. That episode teaches that it is a proper thing to visit those that are not well. Rabbis later found sources that state that when you visit a sick person, you take away 1/60th of the person’s illness. That alone won’t make a person well as a person walking half-way the distance remaining to a
wall will never technically reach it but it certainly does help.
There is an episode where there are people who are stricken with a plague for having sworn falsely and thus having used G-d’s Holy name vainly. They were forgiven, but Moses was instructed to have all those afflicted by the plague gaze at a copper snake, coiled around a staff.
That’s where the symbol comes from, btw, of the snake coiled around the staff somehow being a representative of medicine. There was an affliction called tzaaras, which made a person’s skin appear snowy, and also caused various levels of rash. This ailment came about from something that is known as lashon hara (literally evil tongue) which is speaking ill about a person.
For example, if person a told person b that he saw person c having a ham and cheese sandwich (assuming all involved are Jewish) that is Lashon Hara. It doesn’t benefit person b, it certainly doesn’t benefit person c, and what does person a get out of it? Anyhow, in the 40 year traveling of the wilderness, people who were afflicted with tzaaras had to reside outside of the normal encampments until a certain time period had passed.
Even though tzaaras was not transmittable in the normal sense of the word, the fact was that the person had done something to have this ailment and thus could not stay with the normal encampment, which had a certain level of holiness.
Disease started with Jacob. He wanted to know when he was going to die so that he would be able to properly bless his children.
Here are some fascinating examples from some of my students:
Seiks in India
Hair and fingernails and toenails must never be thrown away. Pick hairs from your comb and brush and collect nails bits and place everything in a special box for proper disposal later. To not do this is to go against the bodily gifts of God and you will be punished if you do not honor Him.
There is a special healing cream made from elephant lard that will soothe aching muscles, heal pneumonia, cure skin rashes and close open wounds. It can only be found in Nigeria and must be purchased there to be effective anywhere else. If you run out of the cream you must make a pilgrimage to Nigeria to purchase more and if you do not import the cream yourself your family will not be properly protected from sickness.
Sons must spend time as monks in a monastery or their families will not earn public honor. Daughters do not count in the eyes of the community but they will be semi-accepted as a substitute if no son is born to the family.
I find these behavioral stories exciting on cultural, intellectual and aesthetic levels and I am curious what moral homilies bound you as a child and how and why were they presented to bend your behavior as an appropriate adult? Your moral homilies do not need to be based in religion to be effective and shared here.