I was thinking of writing a bestselling novel called Fifty Shades of Black about a young Hasidic man in Williamsburg who decides to buy a new hat. Then I thought of writing a novel called Fifty Shades of White about a kabbalist who is thinking of buying a new robe for Shabbat.
In the end, I decided my novel would be called Fifty Shades of Black and White because, to tell you the prudish truth, I feel mighty uncomfortable about all the attention Fifty Shades of Grey is getting. I’ve heard any number of conversations about the book (no, I haven’t read it) where people forgot to blush. In a black and white world, we’d call it like it is. It’s pornography and not a beach read on a family vacation.
We justify what we read in all sorts of ways. I’ve heard people say that they read this book, which has been called soft porn or even mommy porn, for work (and what line of work are you in, exactly?) or to make sure they understand a cultural phenomenon (although they don’t seem to be reading much on global warming). My friend Sally Quinn—who read this for “research”—wrote about the book in the religion pages of The Washington Post stating that women have found God in this book, relating some of the explicit sexuality to submission to God. Fascinating idea, but let’s be honest—who are we kidding? Is the ultimate justification for engaging in subversive reading to say that it helps us become better servants of God? There are many paths to faith, but there are dead-ends too.
I was once teaching in a university and picked up the college newspaper. It had an interview with a woman on her porn star career who was coming to the campus to speak about job options. I am afraid to know what her declared major was, but it probably had more to do with frat parties than the library. All of this has raised pornography to a legitimate art form and job instead of seeing it as the ultimate weapon against a woman’s right to be treated with dignity and reverence. There was time when women had to use their bodies as sole sources of power, but we’ve come a long way, baby, too far to now walk backwards.
In the Talmud [BT Brakhot 12b], Rabba makes an observation about shame. Shame is critical to the person of faith. It is a moral barometer of permissibility and transgressiveness. It helps us understand that there are boundaries of person and soul and that when they are crossed, confusion and pain often result. Rabba, a Talmudic giant, understood that being able to experience the shame of doing something wrong puts us one step closer to personal redemption.
In comparing definitions of the word “shame,” I noticed that it is universally regarded as a painful emotion usually caused by a combination of a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness or disgrace. But what interested me more was that shame is also defined as the capacity to have such a feeling.
When we blush, discomfort and shame show up on our faces. The novelist Cynthia Ozick wrote in Writers at Work that, “After a certain number of years, our faces become our biographies.” Let our facial biographies show that our society has not lost the capacity for shame. And let us not minimize the impact on ourselves and our children of a sexuality so open and shameless that we no longer have the ability to turn 50 shades of pink.
Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.