Why do Jews embrace shame?


Maybe by the time you read this, Israeli authorities will have identified a Jewish suspect in the horrible attack in Duma that left a Palestinian toddler dead and other family members severely injured.

But as of now, all we know is that after several days of investigation by the Israeli police and secret service, the only sign that the attacker is Jewish is the Hebrew graffiti at the crime scene. No suspects have been identified and no leads have been reported.

This hasn’t stopped the Jewish world from emoting in a loud and public display of shame and soul searching. The revulsion at the Duma attack, in fact, has been no less severe than the revulsion expressed a few days earlier when a religious Jew blatantly committed murder at the gay pride parade in Jerusalem.

In each case, our rush to shame was immediate. We expressed our shock and horror at the depravity shown by one of our own. This is the standard Jewish response. When a Jew kills, the first people who cry out are the Jews. It’s the eternal Jewish instinct — to look inward.

Where does this instinct come from? When did it start?

“It started at the very beginning with Adam and Eve,” my friend Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller said. “They felt shame at being naked and exposed, so when they heard the sound of God, they ran away and hid. When they learned that you can’t hide anything from God, especially not shame, that was the beginning of Jews embracing shame.”

The sober nature of shame is what creates a mindset for solutions. Don’t be fooled by the loudness and the hysterics coming out of Israel. Beneath all the public flogging and recriminations is a quiet engine of self-correction. It’s cumbersome, halting and flawed, but it’s there.

According to Rabbi Berel Wein of Jerusalem, shame is one of the three main character attributes that the Talmud ascribes to Jews. “As long as shame existed,” he writes on his blog, “the possibility for repentance and self-improvement also existed. Therefore the prophets of Israel exhorted the leaders and people to at least ‘be ashamed of your behavior, O House of Israel!’ Only when the sense of shame disappears does hope wane for a change for the better.”

Tova Hartman, a scholar from Jerusalem, goes even deeper. She sees emotions like shame and guilt as rooted in what she calls the “trauma of randomness.” It’s too painful, she said, “to imagine a world where everything is arbitrary, where good or bad things happen at random.”

So we must embrace a certain amount of guilt, of responsibility, to create a semblance of order. “If we can’t connect our actions to our circumstances,” she said, “we feel helpless.”

This instinct for taking responsibility transcends even the facts of history. The Romans may have destroyed the Second Temple, but the Jewish tradition places primary blame for that destruction on the “baseless hatred” among Jews. The Musaf prayer we’ve been reciting for the past 19 centuries during the festivals of Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot picks up on this theme of Jewish guilt with one fateful phrase: “Because of our sins, we were exiled.”

The very act of Jewish prayer is intertwined with self-correction. The root of the Hebrew word for prayer is judgment. “Our daily prayers are an act of self-evaluation,” Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation told me. “We humble ourselves before God so we can self-reflect and work on ourselves.”

Our tradition holds us responsible, even when we’re really not. In the biblical story of a corpse being discovered between two towns, the talmudic lesson is that we accept moral responsibility because we failed to accompany him out of town.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, the former chancellor of Yeshiva University, commented on this unusually high standard of responsibility:

“How wise were our Sages! With their insight into human nature, they realized that this man had not successfully resisted his attacker because he left that town demoralized. The elders of the town failed to walk that man out onto the highway, they failed to encourage him on his way, they failed to make him realize that his presence in their community was important to them, and that his leaving saddened them. They simply did not take any notice of him.”

If there’s one thing Jews have become good at, it’s taking notice of other Jews. Whether regarding high-profile disasters like the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scam or more petty issues like an annoying neighbor, we notice. For all the evils of gossip, it does have the redeeming value of serving as a self-correcting mechanism. As professor Adrian Furnham writes in Psychology Today, gossip “sets the limits of the clan, culture and tribe.”

These limits are invariably related to shame. If a rabbi knows that he will drown in shame in front of his family and community if he’s caught in a flagrant ethical or criminal violation, does that not serve as an incentive to behave?

Because I come from the world of “Let’s not air our dirty laundry in public,” it’s sometimes painful for me to see stories of public Jews who mess up. But I’ve come to appreciate how shining a light on our warts and sinners is what helps us grow and improve, both individually and collectively.

I confess that it turns my stomach when I see our adversaries take this wrenching self-criticism and turn it against us, as when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced he would take Israel to the International Criminal Court because of the attack in Duma. What chutzpah! This is from the same man who names roads and stadiums after terrorists.

“Shame and guilt can be undervalued in our community,” Seidler-Feller said. “That may be the assimilationist impulse. But the positive dimension to shame is that it activates a search for repair.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes a distinction between shame and guilt, noting that guilt is the more productive emotion of the two. As I see it, they both play a role — Jewish shame has fueled the Jewish sense of guilt.

It’s true that self-flagellation can sometimes go too far, but then again, so can over-protectiveness. This is especially true in the case of Israel, when our community is often divided between those who brazenly criticize the Jewish state and those who instinctively defend it.

No Jew on the planet right now is defending Yishai Schlissel, the religious zealot who killed Shira Banki at the Jerusalem gay pride parade, bringing shame not only on himself, but on the very Torah he claims to defend.

The horrific nature of Schlissel’s act has unleashed the full force of collective Jewish emotion, as if that little seed of shame that was planted 5,775 years ago in the Garden of Eden has now come into full bloom.

The cliché is accurate: Jews feel responsible for one another. When a Jew goes horribly bad, we take it personally — all of us.

I confess that it turns my stomach when I see our adversaries take this wrenching self-criticism and turn it against us, as when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced he would take Israel to the International Criminal Court because of the attack in Duma. What chutzpah! This is from the same man who names roads and stadiums after terrorists.

I know, it’s tempting at this point to suggest that other religious groups ought to emulate the Jewish way. After all, can you imagine the power of a billion Muslims expressing collective shame each time a Muslim committed a violent act? 

The problem is that once we start flaunting shame, it loses its integrity. It’s like being arrogant about the fact that you’re not arrogant. 

The sober nature of shame is what creates a mindset for solutions. Don’t be fooled by the loudness and the hysterics coming out of Israel. Beneath all the public flogging and recriminations is a quiet engine of self-correction. It’s cumbersome, halting and flawed, but it’s there.

I have no doubt that after all the crying and yelling is over, Israeli society will come out ahead, bruised and humbled, but still resilient.

I also have no doubt that plenty of sober minds in Israel right now are working to prevent more shameful episodes of Jewish terror. And they’re not even waiting for the evidence to come in from Duma.

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