Beit Midrash

  • Jewish Laws and Thoughts
  • Serving Hashem, Mitzvot and Repentance
To dedicate this lesson

Shame And Shameful


Rabbi Berel Wein

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 committed 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 accomplishments. So shame is a positive trait, spiritually and morally speaking. The only question therefore 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 often times it does not do so thus rendering later life to be little more than shameful.

A Jewish member of the United States Congress declared after the Gaza flotilla incident that he was now ashamed of being Jewish. Of course he 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 uncomfortable. 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. 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 and pronounces. 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 our 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 behavior and activities creates a complete atrophy of the ability to have a healthy sense of shame. It is what instead allows false shame that 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.
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