Encore Archive

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The Sin Against Persons

Arnold Jacob Wolf (Sh'ma 4/77, September 20, 1974)

Many important commandments have been abandoned by almost all Jews, including those who consider themselves observant. One of these laws, I believe, is the prohibition against shaming another in public. 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." On the other hand, it is clearly written in the Holiness chapter (Leviticus 19): "You must sharply reprove your neighbor and not bear sin because of him." There was and is a clear responsibility to take a stand against sin, but as Rashi interprets the verse, never by shaming the sinner, or else one would, indeed, carry away sin because of him. If one is obliged to reprove, even a child or a slave, but also one's husband or wife, reproof must not be made by shame.

"Shaming" is vividly described in the Hebrew phrase as "whitening the face." Under accusation in public, one's blood leaves one's cheeks. One almost, as it were, dies of embarrassment, indicating that the sin of shaming is like murder. Murder, in fact, can find atonement, if the murderer is truly sorry. But I may shame my neighbor without even knowing what I have done, in which case I will never repent for my sin. We are commanded rather to let ourselves be destroyed than to embarrass any other person in public.

Tamar, who had the goods on her father-in-law after he visited her sexually, never named him as the offender, but only indicated what pledge he left with her, so that he could identify himself without being made ashamed. Joseph cleared the room before he disclosed himself to his brothers so that they might not be put to shame in the presence of the Egyptian court. For many generations, Jews have taken pains not to embarrass even a guilty person, much less one simply inferior in station or in power.

We are commanded not to give offense by words, by deeds, by epithets, even by hints. We are not to insult the stupid who would not even know they were being put down, nor our intimates, with whom we sometimes tend to think anything goes. Freud, in his wonderful joke book, tells of two men who behaved toward each other with scrupulous courtesy until each realized the other was a Jew, at which time they both put their feet on the furniture and dropped cigar ashes on the floor.

Shaming in the Jewish tradition

We are not allowed to recall someone's past offenses, blemished ancestry or personal weaknesses. If someone owes us money, we must not go near him in public, lest our very presence put him to shame. If we are well dressed and affluent, we should avoid poor neighborhoods and needy people. If we are collecting for a cause, we must be certain in advance that anyone we approach is able to contribute. When we recite the verse from the blessings after meals, "I have grown old without ever seeing a good person in need or his children begging bread," we should lower our voices, in case there is a beggar at our table. The Maharam said: "One who shames those who sleep in the dust has also committed a grave sin." We are not allowed to embarrass even the dead.

There is a precise etiquette for Jewish study. A teacher must not ask a student questions he probably cannot answer, nor the student ask questions outside his teacher's field of competence. Neither should they be queried in the presence of critical colleagues, nor when they have something else on their minds nor when they first enter the school-room. Blessings over study are said together, in case someone doesn't know the text by heart. So too, the ritual of first fruits ordained in the Torah, is always prompted, even if one is fully competent to say "my father was a wandering Aramean......," because the next person might not be able to recite the formula without help.

We should not watch someone eat or drink or do anything incompetently. We should not ask our host for what we don't see, because he may be unable to provide it. Virgins go out to find husbands (on Yom Kippur, according to the Mishnah) in borrowed garments, so as not to shame any poor young woman. Invidiousness is itself shame, so all our dead are buried alike according to tradition, and thus no Jew need be ashamed. Rabba said: "one is allowed to shame himself, even though it is against Jewish law to do oneself harm." But one must never "whiten the face" of any other woman or man.

But we still shame today

I believe that much of our civilization is based directly on shame. Prisons destroy prisoners by treating them shamefully. The young are harassed by restrictions (like the marijuana laws) whose only purpose can be to keep them down. Students are very often subjected to inane procedures whose effect is precisely to make them feel inferior. Blacks are treated patronizingly or disrespectfully even by whites who do not feel prejudiced, and by a system which in-builds invidiousness. Many blacks are now returning to the south where feelings are more open, rather than submit to our genteel "murder" in the North.

Some Israeli actions in the past (and, perhaps, even now) were designed specifically to demean Arabs. The deep penetration into Egypt, the destruction of the Beirut airport, the denial that Palestinians even exist: all these are, I believe, violations of the Jewish tradition, and they have cost our people dearly. Far worse is the gentle invidiousness of Israeli occupation with its assumptions of Jewish superiority and its desperate need to seem both powerful and just in a situation which cannot ever be both. But it is not only Arabs who are shamed. When protestors demonstrated against Government policy in Jerusalem some years ago, all Golda Meir could say to them was: "You are not nice." And Mayor Kollek ordered them off his grass.

In the modern world, knowledge itself has become invidious. We use our minds to master the cosmos and to surpass our colleagues. We make fun of what is intractably mysterious and act as if all can be known. The best and brightest among us serve the worst in order to demean those less successful than both of them. Vietnam and Watergate are both, as much as anything else, the tale of those who wished to grow powerful by undermining the person-hood of other men. Dissent provoked disparagement, and disparagement, in the end, death.

Jews are no different

Even the Jewish community in America no longer knows how to debate issues without destroying people. We package our women in Federation Fashionplates, condescend to our young by segregating them in do-nothing youth groups, ignore our poor and our old, and castrate our intellectuals by making them crawl for kavod. Our good causes grow by way of professional invidiousness, and our best institutions become training-grounds for making and breaking reputations. Courtesy, patience, respect for others pay no dividends, though obsequiousness and hypocrisy often do. While Jewish life goes through one crisis after another, some of our celebrities still achieve and hold office by denouncing their fellow-Jews, and raise money by insulting those who cannot give. Small congregations, small bank-accounts, small IQs are literally of no account. It is only the successful who merit our attention and even they not much of our respect. Rabbis are subject to relentless congregational gossip and honorable lay-leaders to suspicion and envy. The American cult of success has undermined what should be essentially collective and collaborative in Jewish communal experience.

Perhaps the new havurah and Jewish anti-institutionalism signify more even than new goals and new persons. They may indicate that, at last, we American Jews are ashamed of causing shame.

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