Tuesday, August 30, 2011


In the news, whether politics, current events, or celebrity following, “shame” seems to be the word. People seem to have lost the ability to discuss or debate an event or topic, or plainly just refuse. When we see celebrity news in even limited amounts, it tends toward the use of drugs, relationship failure, threats of jail, or drunkenness. It titillates. Not so much is even made of who won an award or their work as a whole.

Even much has been made of shame in child rearing. I can’t tell you how many times as a teacher I have heard variations of the theme that all ‘so and so’ really needed was a ‘kick in the pants’. When in truth, most of the time children who needed the most guidance had very clearly been kicked enough.

The Rabbis say, “Whoever shames his fellow person in public has no share in the world to come. He is one of those who will go down to Gehinnom and never come up again.” Shame is, of course, closely related to Lashon Hora.

“Shaming” is described as a “whitening of the face.” Can someone die of embarrassment? It seems unlikely, however, because of the comparison of the blood draining from the face and causing the person to go pale as well as the damage to their reputation in the community, shaming is compared to murder.

Leviticus 19:17 tells us, “You shall surely rebuke thy neighbour, and not bear sin because of him.” Notice that it doesn’t say you should shame him, nor does it say you should talk about him to the general public. His errors should not be expounded upon, or speculated upon, and certainly not for entertainment purposes or to further a cause. It does not say, either, that he is answerable to you. Rashi’s interpretation is that we are to have a stand against sin, but not shame the sinner. This sounds like a delicate balance.

One example of how this may be achieved is the story of Tamar who recounts the pledge she had from her father-in–law, Judah, but not that they had had relations. Another example is when Joseph revieled himself to his brothers in Egypt. He did this without on lookers and only out of absolute necessity. His brothers had sold him into slavery only after abandoning a plot to kill him, so if he wanted to shame them, he clearly had a lot to work with. So did Tamar. Tamar’s relationship with Judah resulted in a pregnacy. Aditionally, she had the proof of the belongings he had left behind and the rather scandulious fact that he had mistaken her for a ‘harlot’.

There once was a beautiful custom of woman wearing borrowed clothes on Yom Kippur when unmarried men would be looking for brides. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said, "… the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothing so that they should not embarrass those who did not own such.” Given the current economy, perhaps this is worth remembering. Further, we are also not allowed to speak ill, even of the dead. "One who shames those who sleep in the dust has also committed a grave sin."

We know that it is human nature to measure a person against our own yardstick, and since they are not us, find them wanting. How quick are we to ‘tell some home truths’ once we are angry? How anxious to pontificate about someone’s perceived shortcomings, especially when things don’t go our way? How hasty are we in joining in? But the parameters are clear. We are not to shame someone for being not as smart or not as wealthy or not as educated, as we would like him or her to be. We are not to shame people for owing us money, past offences, ancestry, or personal weakness. There are rules of etiquette built around this, too numerous to name here.

And if we believe that Gehinnom is a spiritual condition, rather than a place, then maybe the point is that shaming someone not only harms the target and both their reputation and connection to the community, but we harm ourselves, spiritually and socially, when we undertake these behaviors. And that’s a shame.

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