Fifty shades of red

Shame and the capacity to blush are necessary components of protecting the spirit and the soul

In his book first published in 1989, “Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore,” Rabbi Manis Friedman bemoans the loss of modesty and decency in society, and describes it as the greatest obstacle to achieving authentic love and intimacy. If twenty-six years ago people failed to blush when exposed to indecency, perhaps today one could best describe our society as one that fails to even notice or identify indecency.

This week, the highly provocative and grossly immodest movie “Fifty Shades of Grey,” based on what has become an iconic, best-selling, sensual book series, will be released. The books were deemed so lewd and vulgar that in 2013 a Brazilian judge ruled that they either had to be removed from bookstores altogether or wrapped and placed out of the reach of minors. Before bowing to pressure, the public libraries in Brevard County, Florida, banned the books because of their highly controversial content that has been described by many as a form of pornography.

What is completely shocking and frankly, terribly disturbing, is not only how many sophisticated, successful, mainstream members of society have read the books and eagerly anticipate seeing the movie, but how open they are about it and how utterly unembarrassed they are to admit it and discuss it in public. Once upon a time, there was shame and indignity associated with satisfying a base, animal impulse to read or view indecent material. If one viewed or read such things they did so in private, denied it in public, and did all they could not to be caught with it.

It is frightening and disconcerting how today, instead of the person who unabashedly boasts of reading or watching such things being the outcast, it is the individual who considers reading or watching Fifty Shades or other material like it licentious behavior that is unbecoming and unfitting a decent, moral, and modest person who is dismissed as a prude, a puritan and a killjoy.

Sadly but unsurprisingly, a casual and accepting attitude towards material that was once deemed lascivious and inappropriate is not only true in secular society, but is becoming increasingly present in the Torah-observant community as well. Unconscionably, a Jewish women’s organization is showing the film as a fundraiser. A Purim business is promoting “Fifty Shades of Grey-themed Mishloach Manos.” In 2014, the most popularly borrowed books in the heavily Orthodox community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn Public Library was the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.

Just because society has lost its way regarding modesty and appropriateness doesn’t mean we need to imitate them or dumb down our own sense of dignity and ambition for a life of sanctity. Having healthy boundaries of decency is not an issue of prudishness, or religious fanaticism, or narrow-mindedness. Unlike other religions, Judaism sees pleasure, even sensuality, in the appropriate context as a mitzvah, a noble and spiritual act. But appropriate context is the crucial and key element of achieving true intimacy, of promoting love rather than lust. Guarding our eyes is critical for the health and well-being of our relationships and for preserving the capacity to experience intimacy. The more dulled our radar for indecency and the more casual we are with immodesty, the more we struggle to experience functional, fulfilling, and satisfying relationships.

Being overexposed to images and ideas that are unrealistic and entirely divorced from reality can’t help but hurt the expectations in our relationships and from our spouses. Viewing indecency may satisfy the momentary urge of the body, the animal impulse in all of us, but it poisons the soul, our Godly spirit, and becomes an obstacle to experiencing the eternal pleasure that comes not from hedonism or decadence, but rather from self control, discipline, and a life of dignity and self-respect.

Shemiras ha’einayim, guarding our eyes and protecting ourselves from vulgarity, has always been a challenge, but it has never been nearly as difficult as it is today. It is not just the ease of access to graphic material due to the explosion of electronic devices and the proliferation of the Internet, but it is the larger issue that we live in a society that has utterly erased the taboo and stigma once associated with possessing and viewing it. When and how did it become acceptable in the world at large, and in the Jewish community in particular, to admit openly and discuss publicly that you read erotic books, watch salacious movies, and are avid followers of shows that contain graphic and explicit nudity?

We are all human, we all have moments of weakness, and have personal indiscretions and areas to work on. But what happened to being embarrassed or ashamed of doing things that are beneath us? What happened to keeping it private, personal, and to ourselves? Perhaps one could argue that certain literature shared between a couple could stimulate greater intimacy in their relationship and can be used constructively. However, our moral compass in this area has become so mis-calibrated that social media is full of devotedly observant men and women unabashedly linking to articles, referencing books, and reviewing movies that they should be humiliated for anyone to know they saw or plan to see.

There is a rare genetic disorder called congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis (CIPA) in which those diagnosed with it, simply cannot and do not feel any pain at all. While an inability to feel pain might sound attractive, consider that many people with the disorder suffer terribly because they have no alert system that something is wrong. Some pass away from undetected appendicitis, others have bone infections or internal bleeding and never know anything is wrong before it is too late. Children need to be watched with extreme caution, because they can burn themselves and not be aware of it. While we go to extremes and great expenses to avoid pain and to relieve it, the capacity to feel pain is an essential component of securing our safety and well-being.

Just as pain, while unwelcome and unappreciated, is a necessary component of protecting the body, so too shame and the capacity to blush are necessary components of protecting the spirit and the soul. Shame is the pain of the neshama, alerting us to something being wrong, a line being crossed, a boundary being violated. The lives of people with CIPA are in danger because their pain sensors are broken and they don’t know if something is wrong or threatening their well-being. Our lives are in danger if our spiritual pain sensors are malfunctioning and failing to alert us to something morally wrong, behavior that is indecent that threatens our spiritual well-being.

Seichel hu ha’busha v’habusha hu ha’seichel. Discernment and embarrassment go hand in hand. A discerning individual feels a natural sense of discomfort and disgrace when a boundary of appropriateness has been violated. In her book, “A Return to Modesty,” Wendy Shalit writes, “Embarrassment is actually a wonderful thing, signaling that something very strange or very significant is going on, that some boundary is being threatened – either by you or by others. Without embarrassment,” she writes, “Kids are weaker, more vulnerable to pregnancy, disease, and heartbreak.”

When mainstream members of society proudly boast of having read the Fifty Shades trilogy and the essentially pornographic film version is being shown in theaters across the country, we cannot help but realize that we are to a large degree living in a shameless society. It cannot be a coincidence that the more shameless society has become, the more it has struggled to create functional, healthy, long-lasting marriages of fidelity and fulfillment.

As Torah-observant Jews, a people of decency, modesty and aspiration for purity, we must work overtime to preserve our sense of appropriateness and to retain our capacity for shame. If we post to Facebook with a link we should be embarrassed to have seen privately, let alone to share publicly, we are acting shamelessly. If we forward emails that contain inappropriate images, a racy joke, or language that we should not use or be associated with, we are acting shamelessly.

While the rest of the world moves towards shamelessness, we must remember we, the Jewish people, are to distinguish ourselves specifically through the quality of shame and the capacity to feel shocked. The Talmud in Yevamos 79a states: “Ha’banim ha’kesheirim ha’busha nir’ah al pneiheim ki mi she’hu byshan hu siman she’hu mizerah Avraham, Yitzchak v’Ya’akov.” We the Jewish people can be identified by our natural inclination towards blushing when something is prust: inappropriate or improper. A byshan is not a prude. He or she is one who has maintained a pristine quality, a natural alert system of when a boundary has been crossed and when a border has been violated.

The culture today is to share the intimate details of your life with friends over coffee or with coworkers at the watercooler or in real time over Facebook. What happened to modesty, to privacy, and to a sense of shame that some things are not meant to be shared with the world? If we become numb and oblivious to the distortion of decency, if we lose our busha, than we lose our seichel, our ability to discern between right and wrong, correct and incorrect, between appropriate and inappropriate.

Let’s recalibrate our moral compasses. Let’s repair and renew the feeling in our spiritual nerve endings. Let’s reinstate the very trait that makes us proud descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.

When presented with the opportunity to read or see books or movies whose material is raunchy, vulgar and lewd, let’s make clear that they are beneath us, and instead, rediscover the capacity to turn many shades of red.

This blog first appeared at

About the Author
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is the senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue in Boca Raton, Florida.