September 22, 2018

Reclaiming Dignity

As I prepare for this Yom Kippur, when we stand before the Judge of Truth, open the ledger of our deeds and recite our confessions both personal and communal, one transgression rises to the top in my mind: humiliation. We live in a culture of humiliation.

In all we read and hear on the news, on social media and in public discourse, it is apparent our society has lost touch with centuries of stories and traditions that emphasize how deeply destructive humiliation can be to one of the most precious qualities of life — human dignity.

During a congregational journey to Israel, as our group visited a Bedouin camp, our host told us of their elaborate rituals around coffee, an essential part of the hospitality dance. “We even use the coffee cup to indicate to a guest that it is time for them to go,” he said. “How do you think we do this?”

All of our guesses were of actions aggressive and humiliating: “Throw the coffee cup at the guest?” “Spill the coffee on his caftan?” 

The Bedouin frowned.

“No, we fill the cup to the top,” he said. “It is a quiet signal, and the guest can leave with dignity.”

“Dignity in Hebrew is kavod, and its root means weightiness. If you take up space, you have worth. By your virtue you earn respect. Your dignity comes by virtue of your birth.”

His words reflected a cultural trope in the Muslim world: Humiliation is worse than death.

We have our Jewish stories too. There is the story of Rebbe Akiva Eiger, who had guests at his Shabbos table, one of whom accidentally knocked over a glass of wine. The other guests were horrified as wine spread across the tablecloth. The Rebbe, seeing the embarrassment on the man’s face, swiftly knocked over his own glass, declaring, “The table must be crooked!”

Donna Hicks, author of “Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict,” and the newly released “Leading With Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People,” has worked extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as conflicts in Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, Colombia and Cuba. She is currently involved in dignity restoration projects in Syria and Libya. In her work on conflict resolution, Hicks discovered that what is of utmost importance to us human beings is how we feel about who we are. Her research shows that we are just as programmed to sense a threat to our dignity as we are to a physical threat.

“When we sense our worth is being threatened, we are flooded with dread and shame … our self-preservation instincts are very strong, inciting feelings of rage, and self-righteous revenge,” she wrote. “Our desire for dignity is even stronger than our desire for survival. People risk their lives to protect their honor and that of people in their social group: wars are fought over dignity threats. This paradoxical reaction, putting one’s life on the line to protect one’s dignity, puts dignity ahead of survival.”

If people are programmed to protect their honor at all costs, how do we navigate our way out of the current hailstorm of humiliations?

Supporters of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election still take issue with Hillary Clinton calling them “deplorables.” Liberals bristle when they are labeled as “snowflakes.” And the leader of the free world is not averse to calling detractors stupid, dogs, retards, losers and sad.

As we are increasingly overwhelmed with information, it becomes more and more difficult to capture our attention. Humiliation gets our attention.

How do we come together when we have no respect for one another?

Hicks makes an important distinction between respect and dignity: respect is earned, while dignity is a birthright. Respect is about a person’s actions. Dignity is about a person, period.

Dignity in Hebrew is kavod, and its root means weightiness. If you take up space, you have worth. By your virtue you earn respect. Your dignity comes by virtue of your birth. 

Dignity is the inherent nobility and worth of every living being. Innocent or guilty, right or wrong, conservative or liberal, sick or strong, capable or incompetent, hero or villain — if you are here, then you have substance; if you have substance, then you matter; and if you matter, you have worth. 

According to Hicks, we don’t have to respect each other’s opinions to achieve conflict resolution; what we have to do is protect each other’s dignity. 

At the heart of every conflict, she teaches, is a “dignity violator.” 

The catastrophic power of a dignity violator is explored in the talmudic story we tell on Tisha b’Av:

A Jewish man who had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza prepared a feast. The man sent his servant to invite Kamtza to his party, but the servant invited Bar Kamtza by mistake.

Bar Kamtza took the invitation as a sign of forgiveness, dressed in his finest clothes and went to the party.

When the host spotted Bar Kamtza among his guests, he said, “What are you doing here? You are not welcome!”

Bar Kamtza replied, “Please, don’t embarrass me in front of all these guests. If you allow me to stay, I will pay for what I eat and drink.”

“No!” the host replied.

“Please,” begged Bar Kamtza, “I will pay for half the cost of the feast.” He could see the rabbis and sages at the party were watching but doing nothing.

“No!” repeated the host.

“I will pay for the entire cost of the feast, only don’t shame me!”

“No!” said the host again, and he had Bar Kamtza dragged out and thrown into the street.

“Since none of the guests protested, they obviously had no objection to my humiliation,” Bar Kamtza said to himself.

In anger, Bar Kamtza went to Caesar and incited him to begin the war that would destroy the temple.

Humiliation led to the ruin of the House of God.

How different would the ending have been had the host handed Bar Kamtza a brimming cup of coffee?

I am reminded of the 2011 White House Correspondents Association dinner when President Barack Obama and comedian Seth Myers roasted Donald Trump.

Some of Myers’ one-liners included: “Donald Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican — which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke.” “Trump owns the Miss USA Pageant, which is great for Republicans because it will streamline their search for a vice president.” And, “Donald Trump said recently he’s got a great relationship with ‘the Blacks.’ Unless the Blacks are a family of white people, I bet he’s mistaken.”

“A person, to have their dignity restored, needs to be heard, seen, recognized and understood, and to have their suffering and experience acknowledged.”

Some political commentators wrote afterward that the humiliation Trump experienced from the remarks triggered deep feelings of revenge (although Trump later said that was untrue and he enjoyed the evening).

We live in an “attention economy” in which human attention is the most valuable commodity. As Matthew Crawford wrote, “Attention is a resource — a person has only so much of it.” As we are increasingly overwhelmed with information, it becomes more and more difficult to capture our attention.

Humiliation gets our attention. As Saul Alinsky said, “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”

It’s not always easy to identify a precise dignity violation as in the story of Bar Kamtza. But Hicks reminds us that “nameless and unvoiced indignities are the missing link in our understanding of what keeps conflicts alive,” and that when we react to our being humiliated, we must remember that “our opponents are often reacting to a violation of their dignity as well, a violation we, perhaps, perpetrated.”

Humiliation was part of the warfare used against the Jews.

When visiting Yad Vashem, my son and I paused over some long auburn braids in a glass case, cut off a little girl by Nazi soldiers before she was gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

We know about humiliation, and we are uniquely positioned as a people to offer the world a theology of dignity. 

The preamble of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”

The preamble of the story of the Jewish people is the creation of the first human beings, of which Torah teaches: Human beings are made in God’s image, B’tzelem Elohim, and to shame a person is to affront the Creator.

The victim and the perpetrator, as hard as it is for us to accept, are both made in God’s image. It is not something one can forfeit. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote in “Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations”: “For almost 2000 years, scattered throughout the world, we continued to see ourselves and be seen by others as a single people…. That experience forced us to reflect on many problems that are now the shared experience of mankind, how to maintain identity as a minority, how to cope with insecurity, how to sustain human dignity in a world that seems often to deny it.”

A person, to have their dignity restored, needs to be heard, seen, recognized and understood, and to have their suffering and experience acknowledged.

Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin) tells us:

It once happened that while Rabbi Judah was delivering a lecture, he noticed a smell of garlic. He said: “Let him who has eaten garlic go out.” Rabbi Hiyya arose and left; Then all the other disciples rose in turn and went out with him, protesting the teacher’s humiliating words.

There is also the Chasidic story of the visiting rabbi who is given the first serving of a family’s kugel. The rabbi quickly eats the entire tray before anyone can take a bite. The townspeople are so upset that they run the glutton out of town. Many years later they discover that someone had mistaken salt for sugar in the kugel and it tasted horrible. To save the cook from humiliation, the rabbi had eaten it all himself. 

In his book “Improvisational Negotiation: A Mediator’s Stories of Conflict About Love, Money, Anger, and the Strategies that Resolved Them,” Jeffrey Krivis shares the case of a couple whose two sons had been killed while riding their bikes in a park. The excruciating legal negotiations dragged on for years with no end in sight. 

After one particularly grueling meeting, just as the parents were about to storm out of the conference room, the lawyer shouted, “Wait! Look, I think we’ve been approaching this in completely the wrong way … I’m so sorry. Your kids deserved to be remembered. We’ve had our eye on the money for so long, planning our court case, that we lost sight of Johnny and Scott and their value — as human beings.”

Immediately the mother began sobbing and the father started sharing memories. By the end of that session, they came up with a new idea. The new bike trail would be named after the children and a scholarship fund endowed by the state was created for children in need. 

We must remember these stories as we process the pain of victims of sexual assault. We must address the dignity violators on both sides when we approach flashpoint issues such as immigration, gun legislation and healthcare. We must identify the dignity violators that continue to fuel our feuds.

We are not to say that they who do not share my faith, my race or my ideology do not share my humanity. Rather, this Yom Kippur, let us begin the work to recognize the inherent dignity of others, and to restore it, for the sake of us all.


Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles is the senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles.