The Lack of Shame in the Orthodox Jewish World
When I do or say something that I regret, I feel shame. I am aware that I have let myself down, and that I should have done better. Shame and regret are good emotions — so long as they encourage one to do better. Shame is a condition of a healthy relationship with other people and with God. The response to wrong actions or wrong speech, according to our tradition, is to identify the mistake, to own it by confessing it to God, and to vow to do better in the future.
Yet I am concerned that even in our most Orthodox of communities, too few people exhibit a sense of shame.
It is never pleasant writing about the moral failures of the Orthodox world, because there is so much that is good and wonderful in it. But there is sadly another side. We are exhorted not to speak ill of people, but that never stopped the prophets from speaking out against our moral failures.
There have been and are too many cases of Orthodox or Haredi Jews in Israel, the US, Europe, and elsewhere, convicted of financial, sexual, or political crimes. And too rarely have I seen any outward show of shame. It is no comfort to me that this is also the case in every single other religious, social, or national group around the world.
If the prosecuting agencies are secular or non-Jewish, they will be accused of bias, antisemitism, and double standards. And sometimes that may be the case. But not always. And if the felons or the organizations they are involved with have done good things — charitable, educational, or financial — they often will be excused (as if that in some way whitewashes their actions).
When convicted felons are turned into heroes or paraded as victims, I feel very uncomfortable. There is a long and dishonorable tradition of Haredi law breakers who claim they were unfairly victimized, even though they knew full well that they were breaking the law. They often salvage enough of their ill-gotten gains to hand out largess on their release, and are treated as heroes or victims. This is hardly a Kiddush HaShem (giving Judaism a good name).
It reflects very badly on our religious values, and it is not the sort of behavior we should be proud of.
And this pattern of behavior is indicative of a much larger problem. There is a culture in certain Haredi circles of a blatant disdain for the law. And even if it starts with disrespect, even disdain for non-Jewish law, it often ends up by taking advantage of other Jews. In Israel recently, a convicted sex felon was welcomed into the home of arguably the most revered Haredi rabbinic figure. And another rabbi convicted of sexual abuse was treated to VIP status at a well-known site of pilgrimage — as if this is a perfectly normal way of behaving. Too many well-known public figures — and even rabbis — serve jail time for offenses. I don’t need to mention names. Then they emerge as if they have done nothing wrong, and life goes on as normal.
This issue has been taken up by the admirable and gutsy rabbi Natan Slifkin on his blog www.rationalistjudaism.com.
At the root of the problem is a lack of a sense of shame, bushah in Hebrew. Maimonides, in his Book on Repentance, describes the demeanor of a someone who repents. He should “be modest and of humble spirit … admitting his errors.” A while back I read a great blog on shame by Jeremy Brown. I recommend his website too, which is more specialized.
In the blog I am referring to, he quotes the Talmud in Nedarim 20a on the line in the Torah (Exodus 20:17), “The awe of (God) should be upon your faces.” This refers to shame which shows on our faces. And it means that shame leads to a fear of sin. From this the rabbis learnt that it is a good thing to be embarrassed. Note how the Hebrew conflates embarrassment with shame. The Hebrew term, Boshet Panim, literally translates as shame-faced.
The Midrash Tanhuma calls the opposite of Boshet Panim — Azut Panim — arrogance. The Mishna in Sotah says that chutzpah and an absence of shame is what brings the world to its knees, and only Divine Intervention in the form of Elijah can redeem it. Perhaps that is why some people campaign so hard for the messiah to come now.
Modesty is such an important quality in our religious culture. It was a quality that the Bible attributed to Moses. As the Prophet Micah says, we must “act justly and walk humbly with [our] God.”