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.

Nigeria
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.

Thai
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.

124 Comments

  1. That is interesting although for some reason I cannot think of even one. I mean I remember learning that we couldn’t write G-d without the dash but I don’t remember what would happen to me if I didn’t. That stuck with me so much that in college I did that on a paper and it was counted against me as grammatically incorrect. I’m sure being in a Jewish private school for so many years there must have been something but I can’t think of it or maybe I blocked it out.

  2. 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.

    That’s a good one. πŸ˜†

  3. Robin — Yes, the G-d thing is interesting and Gordon explained it to me once but I don’t want try to repeat what he said from memory because I don’t want to get it wrong. I did, however, find this online:
    Jews do not casually write any Name of God. This practice does not come from the commandment not to take the Lord’s Name in vain, as many suppose. In Jewish thought, that commandment refers solely to oath-taking, and is a prohibition against swearing by God’s Name falsely or frivolously (the word normally translated as “in vain” literally means “for falsehood”).
    Judaism does not prohibit writing the Name of God per se; it prohibits only erasing or defacing a Name of God. However, observant Jews avoid writing any Name of God casually because of the risk that the written Name might later be defaced, obliterated or destroyed accidentally or by one who does not know better.
    Normally, we avoid writing the Name by substituting letters or syllables, for example, writing “G-d” instead of “God.” In addition, the number 15, which would ordinarily be written in Hebrew as Yod-Heh (10-5), is normally written as Tet-Vav (9-6), because Yod-Heh is a Name. See Hebrew Alphabet for more information about using letters as numerals.

    Carla — So many of us automatically checked our palms when we were told that — it was so funny!

  4. Oh, and here’s another Gordon email explaining if a female child born to a Jewish mother is, indeed, Jewish or not if they are not observant. A woman in my class was in that situation and Gordon shared his information with us. Also, the Seiks saving their hair and nails and placing them in a box also has reverberation for some Jews as well and Gordon shared his take on that, too:
    The way things work with a bar mitzva is this : you don’t need to have a bar
    mitzvah to be Jewish (or a bat mitzvah). Actually, it is impossible not to
    have a bar mitzvah. The whole thing with having a celebration and having the
    kid read from the Torah (which women do not do) is all more modern – the bar
    mitzvah occurs 13 (or 12 if you are a girl) years from the hebrew calendar date
    on which you are born, whether you want it to or not. It is a change of legal
    status from “not required to follow all of Jewish law” (due to being too young
    to even know what it is) to “being required to follow Jewish law.”
    If the mother is Jewish then the daughter is Jewish and so is her daughter to
    come.
    Concerning the burial of that which is considered “Shaimos” (from the hebrew for
    names, capitalized because it refer’s to G-d’s names)- the writing is collected
    and put in bags and basically buried in a cemetary. That’s just how important
    it is.
    Check out this web site : http://www.shaimos.org and more specifically the box
    they sell people : http://www.shaimos.org/bigger.htm – you buy the box at your
    local judaica store, fill it with the appropriate material, and it is then sent
    to a location where it is then given proper burial.
    Strange people, we Jews, eh?
    Gordon

  5. Growing up Southern Baptist (I’m gradually recovering from that πŸ˜‰ ), pre-marital sex was the big no-no. I don’t remember much about discussing “touching yourself.” God forbid someone say “masterbation.”
    I do remember a youth group retreat I went on the summer before I started high school. We went to Panama City and stayed at this place camp type place a block from the ocean. The theme for the week was saying no to pre-marital sex, and our daily Bible studies involved topics from this handbook we were given that outlined passages in the Bible where pre-marital sex was discussed.
    The highlight of the week was the closing session where we were to sign the last page of the handbook, which detailed a “Contract with God” that said we would not have sex until we were married.
    I’m still surprised by myself that, even at that age, I didn’t like feeling guilted into signing a piece of paper that was supposed to be some binding agreement between me and God.
    I never signed it.

  6. Growing up Southern Baptist (I’m gradually recovering from that πŸ˜‰ ), pre-marital sex was the big no-no. I don’t remember much about discussing “touching yourself.” God forbid someone say “masterbation.”
    I do remember a youth group retreat I went on the summer before I started high school. We went to Panama City and stayed at this place camp type place a block from the ocean. The theme for the week was saying no to pre-marital sex, and our daily Bible studies involved topics from this handbook we were given that outlined passages in the Bible where pre-marital sex was discussed.
    The highlight of the week was the closing session where we were to sign the last page of the handbook, which detailed a “Contract with God” that said we would not have sex until we were married.
    I’m still surprised by myself that, even at that age, I didn’t like feeling guilted into signing a piece of paper that was supposed to be some binding agreement between me and God.
    I never signed it.

  7. Carla!
    I love your moral homily! Thank you for taking the time to share it with us. Did you have any repercussions from not signing the paper?
    I have always found the “born again virgin movement” an interesting group. I don’t know how one can wipe away the physical and psychic evidence of sexual relations — the experience irrevocably changes many of us forever — but if going through a cleansing process to become virgin again in their minds helps them get along in life and marriage, then more power to them.

  8. Well, we didn’t publicly say whether we had signed the paper or not, but during that session, it seems like I remember them turning the lights down and playing this religious music, as if they were setting the mood for a “private time with God.” However, there were 30-40 kids in the room, and if you looked around, you could see who was writing and who was not.
    I know there were kids who did sign that paper who did not keep their virginity through high school, and I often wondered if they ever remembered signing that paper.
    And I don’t think I could have done a “virgin second time around” thing. There are so many emotions going on there, and I’m emotional enough without putting myself through some process that tells me, “Forget about those guys. You didn’t really have sex with them.”

  9. Well, we didn’t publicly say whether we had signed the paper or not, but during that session, it seems like I remember them turning the lights down and playing this religious music, as if they were setting the mood for a “private time with God.” However, there were 30-40 kids in the room, and if you looked around, you could see who was writing and who was not.
    I know there were kids who did sign that paper who did not keep their virginity through high school, and I often wondered if they ever remembered signing that paper.
    And I don’t think I could have done a “virgin second time around” thing. There are so many emotions going on there, and I’m emotional enough without putting myself through some process that tells me, “Forget about those guys. You didn’t really have sex with them.”

  10. This is such a good story, Carla! It’s interesting how things get imprinted on us when we are young in an attempt to teach the right thing. I am there in the room with you and I see that paper in your hand!
    I agree the emotional wreckage that many have to heal from after the first sexual experience is something few would wish to repeat. Even those who “save themselves” for marriage are not always able to have the idyllic experience they read about in books.

  11. Another thing is, when I was 14, I actually couldn’t imagine being ready for such an experience. I remember sitting with some girls in a class a few months after this retreat – girls who weren’t there and hadn’t signed a paper – and one of them made the comment about a guy she had a crush on. She said she wouldn’t mind “jumping his bones.” I was flabbergasted that someone my age could consider herself ready to have sex with someone.
    Perhaps it was just me being way too naive.

  12. Another thing is, when I was 14, I actually couldn’t imagine being ready for such an experience. I remember sitting with some girls in a class a few months after this retreat – girls who weren’t there and hadn’t signed a paper – and one of them made the comment about a guy she had a crush on. She said she wouldn’t mind “jumping his bones.” I was flabbergasted that someone my age could consider herself ready to have sex with someone.
    Perhaps it was just me being way too naive.

  13. As adult experiences start earlier and earlier there is a certain cheapening that happens in the process where special things become crass.
    I would have the same response today you had back then hearing a 14-year-old talk about bones jumping. Ugh! The only person who might consider that “hot” is the owner of the bones about to be jumped… but probably not!

  14. Damn work I miss out on so much. Actually my father is the Jewish one although his parents were just barely Jewish…I think they even would have a x-mas tree. My mom was raised Irish Baptist I think but she converted when she married my dad but my mom knows a lot more about Judaism than he does…he can’t even read Hebrew but she can. My parents are strange. My dad was raised in Manhattan while my mom was raised in Tulsa Oklahoma. Oh and my dad is the one that wears a cowboy hat and listens to country πŸ˜†

  15. Damn work I miss out on so much. Actually my father is the Jewish one although his parents were just barely Jewish…I think they even would have a x-mas tree. My mom was raised Irish Baptist I think but she converted when she married my dad but my mom knows a lot more about Judaism than he does…he can’t even read Hebrew but she can. My parents are strange. My dad was raised in Manhattan while my mom was raised in Tulsa Oklahoma. Oh and my dad is the one that wears a cowboy hat and listens to country πŸ˜†

  16. Robin! — We missed you! We needed you! Thank you for a serious return away from Carla’s unsigned virginity! Your family background must frame your experience in really interesting ways. I like your mother’s commitment to purpose!
    Carla — You are so lucky Robin came in here and rescued you from yourself!
    :mrgreen:

  17. Robin! — We missed you! We needed you! Thank you for a serious return away from Carla’s unsigned virginity! Your family background must frame your experience in really interesting ways. I like your mother’s commitment to purpose!
    Carla — You are so lucky Robin came in here and rescued you from yourself!
    :mrgreen:

  18. Yeah I won’t be around as much during the day anymore but I make sure to catch up during lunchtime.
    Yeah it’s all really strange. Also I grew up in my early years in Chelsea which is a really low class city but I went to school at a private school I had to take a van to get to with others in the area. Needless to say they always looked down on me in private school because I was “poor” as they saw it. Then I moved to a more middle class town and started going to public school where suddenly I was spoiled. It was strange and very confusing. I guess you can say my family and how I grew up doesn’t really fit in any stereotype or whatever.

  19. Yeah I won’t be around as much during the day anymore but I make sure to catch up during lunchtime.
    Yeah it’s all really strange. Also I grew up in my early years in Chelsea which is a really low class city but I went to school at a private school I had to take a van to get to with others in the area. Needless to say they always looked down on me in private school because I was “poor” as they saw it. Then I moved to a more middle class town and started going to public school where suddenly I was spoiled. It was strange and very confusing. I guess you can say my family and how I grew up doesn’t really fit in any stereotype or whatever.

  20. Carla — I am working up a “blog insubordination” form for you to sign and notarize and return to me ASAP!
    :mrgreen:
    Robin — We miss you during the day. Please, Robin! Less work; more commenting!
    :mrgreen:
    Your childhood sounds like a rich playground of conflicted alienation. I love it! Exploit it in your writing once you have a feeling of distance and perspective against it.
    Robin — We do thank you for virtually hosing down Carla. She was getting a little riled up!
    :mrgreen:

  21. Carla — I am working up a “blog insubordination” form for you to sign and notarize and return to me ASAP!
    :mrgreen:
    Robin — We miss you during the day. Please, Robin! Less work; more commenting!
    :mrgreen:
    Your childhood sounds like a rich playground of conflicted alienation. I love it! Exploit it in your writing once you have a feeling of distance and perspective against it.
    Robin — We do thank you for virtually hosing down Carla. She was getting a little riled up!
    :mrgreen:

  22. I don’t think I’d have any problem exploiting it at this point in my life…it’s pretty funny now. I think some of my friends still think I’m spoiled, which maybe I am a little but I’m still living paycheck to paycheck.
    Hey I’m here for the hosing.

  23. Robin — I’m with you on that!
    :mrgreen:
    Carla — You obviously don’t read this blog on a regular basis. I enjoy NOTHING. NOTHING!
    :mrgreen:
    Robin — Ah! I can’t wait until you read your “I’m here for the hosing.” comment in context. Bwa-ha-harr-heh-ha!
    :mrgreen:
    Carla — On your side… on your back… (THOSE ARE ALL QUOTES FROM YOU AND ROBIN QUOTES, YA KNOW!)

  24. Robin — I’m with you on that!
    :mrgreen:
    Carla — You obviously don’t read this blog on a regular basis. I enjoy NOTHING. NOTHING!
    :mrgreen:
    Robin — Ah! I can’t wait until you read your “I’m here for the hosing.” comment in context. Bwa-ha-harr-heh-ha!
    :mrgreen:
    Carla — On your side… on your back… (THOSE ARE ALL QUOTES FROM YOU AND ROBIN QUOTES, YA KNOW!)

  25. Robin — I’m with you on that!
    :mrgreen:
    Carla — You obviously don’t read this blog on a regular basis. I enjoy NOTHING. NOTHING!
    :mrgreen:
    Robin — Ah! I can’t wait until you read your “I’m here for the hosing.” comment in context. Bwa-ha-harr-heh-ha!
    :mrgreen:
    Carla — On your side… on your back… (THOSE ARE ALL QUOTES FROM YOU AND ROBIN QUOTES, YA KNOW!)

  26. Well, Carla, we certainly know from your comments today The 40-Year-Old Virgin isn’t your life story. Bwa-haa!
    :mrgreen:
    Seriously… it looks like a hilarious movie and I think Steve Carrel is a terrific talent. He’s so perfect in The Office. I want to hate him in that show but I can’t stop laughing long enough to even prompt it!

  27. Well, Carla, we certainly know from your comments today The 40-Year-Old Virgin isn’t your life story. Bwa-haa!
    :mrgreen:
    Seriously… it looks like a hilarious movie and I think Steve Carrel is a terrific talent. He’s so perfect in The Office. I want to hate him in that show but I can’t stop laughing long enough to even prompt it!

  28. Well, Carla, we certainly know from your comments today The 40-Year-Old Virgin isn’t your life story. Bwa-haa!
    :mrgreen:
    Seriously… it looks like a hilarious movie and I think Steve Carrel is a terrific talent. He’s so perfect in The Office. I want to hate him in that show but I can’t stop laughing long enough to even prompt it!

  29. I knew there was a reason my online ears were turning red, or whatever happens when people mention your name online. Hee hee.
    The funny thing about Judaism is that in reality, you can’t be half Jewish any more than you can’t be half pregnant. According to Jewish law – you can take it for what it’s worth – if your father is jewish but your mother is not that makes you approximately… not at all jewish.
    Then again some people might see this as a plus. Friday nights are suddenly a little more free. πŸ˜›

  30. I knew there was a reason my online ears were turning red, or whatever happens when people mention your name online. Hee hee.
    The funny thing about Judaism is that in reality, you can’t be half Jewish any more than you can’t be half pregnant. According to Jewish law – you can take it for what it’s worth – if your father is jewish but your mother is not that makes you approximately… not at all jewish.
    Then again some people might see this as a plus. Friday nights are suddenly a little more free. πŸ˜›

  31. I knew there was a reason my online ears were turning red, or whatever happens when people mention your name online. Hee hee.
    The funny thing about Judaism is that in reality, you can’t be half Jewish any more than you can’t be half pregnant. According to Jewish law – you can take it for what it’s worth – if your father is jewish but your mother is not that makes you approximately… not at all jewish.
    Then again some people might see this as a plus. Friday nights are suddenly a little more free. πŸ˜›