Antisemitism Festering in a Shame Culture

While browsing through various commentaries on the first Torah portion of the year (Bereshit), I came across a reference by the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to the noted anthropologist Ruth Benedict, who, based on research she conducted for a post-World War II book on Japanese mores and behavior, derived a distinction between two kinds of social cultures: guilt cultures and shame cultures. Rabbi Sacks was rather taken with Professor Benedict’s observation and cited it somewhat regularly as a theme in his commentaries on a number of different Torah portions. Not without good reason. Understanding the substantial differences between these concepts and how the various components of social structures – nations, religion, ethnicity – behave can potentially provide illuminating insights in such matters as statesmanship and diplomacy, national and international politics, and civil liberties and rights. What’s surprising, though, is that I’ve yet to encounter this area of study being used to explain or at least clarify the subject that Jews throughout the world have been preoccupied with for generations: antisemitism.

There are, to be sure, obvious examples of these two types of cultures. Asian cultures – Japan, Korea, Vietnam – are very clearly concerned about shame; here, what matters most is the judgement of others. Specific types of behavior are expected and thresholds of performance are very clearly defined. Failing to meet those standards results in social punishments such as but not limited to public ridicule and communal disapproval. Judaism, on the other hand, along with the others that were very heavily influenced by it, are generally defined as guilt cultures that behave in accordance with the individual’s conscience and personally derived principals. Society’s conventions, though by no means absent or unimportant, are not overly relevant in such cultures; what matters is how personal behavior is influenced by individual definitions of right and wrong.

Although many societies exhibit traits of both types of cultures, there is generally little difficulty identifying which of the two is dominant, particularly when an individual or even an entire community fails to meet that culture’s expectations. In shame cultures, such failure results more often than not in focused and intentional humiliation. For those who are part of guilt cultures, the result of failure is depression and inner torment. It should therefore come as no surprise that suicide is not an infrequent consequence of failure in either.

But while theologians and philosophers, including Rabbi Sacks, make a strong case advocating the notion of Judaism being, first and foremost, a guilt culture, something seems to be missing in the proof they provide. Although there has been considerable debate throughout the last several centuries as to whether Judaism should be classified as a religion or nation, there is little question that the fundamental forms of Jewish behavior and attitudes have naturally emerged from the basic tenants of the Torah. The concept of sin, for example, is basically defined as defying, intentionally or not, the violation of G-d’s commandments and the myriad of laws, rules and regulations that were derived from them; the drive to fulfill these requirements is based on guilt not shame. Rabbi Sacks summarized Professor Benedict’s distinction between the two types of culture in the following way: Shame cultures are collective and conformist. By contrast Judaism, the archetypal guilt culture, emphasizes the individual and his relationship with G-d. What matters is not whether the Jewish people conform to the culture of the age but whether they do what is good, just, and right.

An argument can be made, though, that the cultural influence of Judaism as practiced in Israel is different than that which is practiced in the diaspora. Here, there are no foreign standards or expectations that have to be met. That which defines us as a religion similarly defines us as a nation; there are, in other words, no mores related to work ethics, academic achievement, dress, cuisine, holiday celebrations, and the like that we need to comply with…or, conversely, be concerned – or be shamed by – that we are noncompliant with.

Jew living in the diaspora, though, are forced to find a way to dance at two weddings simultaneously; they are driven by the tenants of Judaism as well as by the social conventions of the country that is hosting them. There was a time, not too long ago, when Jewish children were forced to participate in Christmas presentations and pageants; refusal was met with derision from their classmates and teachers. Observant Jews are compelled to explain – very often to unsympathetic ears – why they must leave their offices early on Fridays during the winter months. And political extroverts rarely hesitate to blame the Jews whenever American soldiers are sent oversees to engage in warfare, when there is a rise in the price of gasoline, or when murderous terrorists create havoc in urban centers.  Little wonder that many Jews living in North America, South America, Europe, or Africa are forced to take defensive positions in response to current events; those less confident or proud in their Jewishness become overly influenced by the forces typical of a shame culture. And the results, not infrequently, goes beyond humiliation and insult but transcends into something far more serious: antisemitic overtures and violence.

The idea of public shaming, interestingly enough, has been raised more than once as a means of combatting antisemitism. In much of the western world, perpetrators of antisemitism are indicted and prosecuted under discrimination laws, which have been proven to be weak and ineffective. In cases where existing legislation does not provide sufficient deterrence or protection, governing officials must release clear, unambiguous declarations that antisemitism is a malicious and hateful crime and will not be tolerated. More importantly, individuals, corporations and government entities engaged in antisemitic incidents or making antisemitic statements must be publicly exposed and condemned. It’s their heads and not Jewish ones that should hang low in shame. The current and growing backlash against Kanya West is long overdue; the damage to an antisemite’s reputation and financial security should become the rule and not an exception.  Then and only then will antisemitism cease to be something that is shrugged off as inconsequential and apathetically accepted.

And antisemites will not only be burdened by public shame but by inner guilt as well.

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
Related Topics
Related Posts