SHAME AND SHAMEFULFriday, June 11, 2010
One of the positive moral qualities that the rabbis of the Talmud used to identify the Jewish people is
that of having a sense of shame and embarrassment. In fact the rabbis went so far as to say that one
who possesses no proper sense of shame - did not have his feet present at Mount Sinai...
Without a sense of shame there can be no proper remorse for unjust and illegal behavior, nor can
there be any hope for repentance and redressing wrongful behavior. The Hebrew words for shame
and embarrassment appear often in our prayers and play a central role in our entreaties for Heaven's
forgiveness, especially on Yom Kippur. The sense of shame also appears throughout the words of the
prophets of Israel and in the Psalms of David.
Brazen behavior and attitudes are counted as being some of the worst character traits that can afflict
a Jew. King David never allowed himself the luxury of simply forgetting about his mistakes but rather
his innate sense of shame kept his previous errors omnipresent in his mind and heart. In fact, it was
this sense of continuing shame before God that was the hallmark of David's spiritual being and
So, shame is a positive trait, spiritually and morally speaking. The only question that truly arises is what
one should be ashamed about. And here the line between shame and shameful is unfortunately often
crossed in mock piety and hypocritical crocodile tears. Criminal and guilty behavior should leave one
with a permanent sense of shame throughout one's life. Unfortunately, this is often not the case - and
later life retains just a slight stain.
A Jewish member of the United States Congress declared after, the Gaza flotilla incident, that he was
now ashamed of being Jewish. Of course like unfortunately many other Jews, has no real connection
to Jewish practice, tradition or behavior. He is ashamed of being Jewish because being Jewish in our
'modern, progressive, humanistic' and intensely false and hypocritical society makes him very
Those who are ashamed of being Jewish, and who view the State of Israel as a 'mistake' waiting to
be undone, have no true sense of shame but rather are simply engaging in shameful behavior and
suicidal statements. Many Jews are not ashamed to openly violate the written principles of moral
behavior found in the Torah but claim to be ashamed because of the fact that the UN, Europe, the
State Department and the liberal media do not like us.
We Jews are a proud and resilient people who have survived all persecutions and all attempts to
annihilate us. Jews who are ashamed of Judaism, the Jewish state, the edicts of the Torah, of the
public appearance of other Jews looking Jewish, engage in hateful and shameful behavior. One
can feel demeaned and shamed by the acts of individual Jews - unfortunately, lately, highlighted
in many a financial and tax scandal. But that is no justification for being ashamed of Judaism and
its Torah and of the privilege of being a Jew.
One should never confuse Jews with Judaism or rabbis with religion. A sophisticated view of things
will enable one to differentiate correctly between the necessary sense of shame and sinking into
the abyss of shamefulness.
I think that this is what the rabbis had in mind when they said that the lack of a proper and
proportionate sense of shame shows that the Jew's connection to Sinai has somehow been
severed. There is much shameful behavior that abounds in our society today. There are no permanent
stigmas left in society any longer.
The Talmud advised that people who were found guilty of wrongful behavior should adopt a low
profile - leave town, so to speak - and not continue in a brazen manner to live on as though
nothing occurred. A healthy dose of shame can be most redemptive. Not having such a sense
of shame turns all later behavior into being shameful.
Not allowing our society to have any legitimate standard of behavior 'the Torah' as the
measure of one's actions completely atrophies the ability to have a healthy sense of shame
. In its stead, false shame creates shameful statements and behavior. Self-pride and self-identity
forms the key ingredients of being a Jew. And paradoxically enough such pride and identity
allow one the necessary strength and honesty that will create the trait of positive shame by
which one can improve one's life morally and spiritually.