Steven Weinberg
PhD Student at Rutgers University

Haftarah Ki Teitzei: Why the only thing we should be ashamed of is shame itself

Life Tip #48: Don’t Say “Sorry”

Isaiah 54:1-10 

“Oh, I am so ashamed!”

Ironically, when someone utters these words, he or she is not really ashamed. To admit shame so blatantly demonstrates a lack of shame, or at least a discarding of shame. Shame is too covert, too secretive, too mask-based to be so grandiosely proclaimed.

We tend to think of shame as an emotion we experience when we feel absolutely mortified at our immoral behavior. If we were to, say, murder or rob another person, that would warrant a feeling of shame. Immediately afterwards, we would cry—nearly sing—the words “Oh, I am so ashamed!” before collapsing stage left.

In fact, many of us are carrying around shame throughout the day without realizing it. We would be able to count ourselves among the lucky few if we could wait to do something heinous before really feeling shame. Shame, however, does not work that way. Shame thrives on our not recognizing its being there. It is not when we say “Oh, I am so ashamed” that we feel shame but rather when we say: “I’m having a great day, how about you?”

Anytime we feel embarrassed, or hide something about ourselves out of embarrassment, that is shame. If we receive the question “how are you?” and we answer “good,” but we are not “good” at all, we have given a shameful answer. We fear that if we tell the other person how we really feel, we will be negatively judged, scorned, or rejected. Put another way, we fear that if we show another person who we really are in that moment, we will not be “good enough” for them. And so we hide our true selves—out of shame.

Shame, then, does not take much. Last week, I was in Paris. On my final day, I sat in the Jardin du Palais Royal and drank one final espresso before heading to the airport. The espresso cost only three euros. The waitress who brought it to me was very kind but it took her about twenty minutes to carry the tiny white cup out to me on a circular tray ridiculously large for such a small object. As I got up to leave, I had the strong urge to leave her a tip. I wish I could say that I wanted to tip her out of my own magnanimity and to express my gratitude for the backbreaking effort she had just endured. In truth, though, I wanted to tip her out of shame—I did not want her to view me as a “bad person” who does not tip and I also did not want to have to view myself this way. More importantly, I just did not want to have to deal with the uncomfortable, “shameful” emotions of walking away from a chic Parisian café behind the Louvre without leaving a euro on the table. Nevertheless, I decided to challenge myself. I wanted to grow my “shameless” muscle and so I just got up and left. On my way back to my hotel, I found myself walking through one of the most posh neighborhoods in Paris—the Quartier Saint-Germain de Prés. In Saint-Germain, one can scarcely take a step without tripping over a toy poodle in a pink collar. And, well, I had to use the restroom. I debated in my mind buying an espresso at another café just so I could have an excuse to use the café’s toilette. Once more, however, I decided to challenge myself and bulk up my muscle of shamelessness.  Puis-je utiliser la salle de bains, s’il vous plaît ?I expected the waiter, standing like a sentry in front of the entrance in his black bowtie, to snarl at me and tell me that the bathroom was for customers only. To my surprise, he answered “Bien sûr !” and showed me the way.

How relieving it would be if we could go through our daily lives just expecting that people would love us no matter how much we behave as “ourselves,” even if we do something impolite, embarrassing, gauche, or even mean. Sadly, for many of us, we only expect to be treated well by others if we offer them “compensation” in return—a tip, a purchase, a compliment, politeness, a conversation which interests them. Imagine if we could stroll through Paris like Louis XIV. He was the king—the Sun King—and so he knew that no matter what he did, whether he tipped or merely gave a smile, whether he used the restroom for free or for the price of a cappuccino, his people would love him. He was the Sun King, after all. That is, he was shameless.

The English language is, in a way, ashamed of the word “shame.” We have so many phrases and quasi-emotions which we employ in lieu of the word “shame.” We say instead, perhaps: “I felt embarrassed” or “I felt stupid” or “I feel guilty” or “I am shy.” Underneath all of these statements, however, is the emotion of shame. Embarrassment, stupidity, guilt, or shyness are not emotions; they are just coverups for a feeling of shame. Now, to be sure, shame can be experienced across a spectrum. One can undergo light shame—I felt a little embarrassed. One may also endure intense shame—I was mortified (or just, I was ashamed). One may also experience a lurking, insidious shame—I feel so guilty. All of these pseudo-emotions are, however, linked by the same underlying feeling—this is the feeling that we have been “unmasked” in some way—that we have exposed some aspect or side of ourselves which we would rather not be witnessed. Even shyness, which almost has a positive connotation in English, is, at its core, just shame. To feel shy is to feel afraid that we will be negatively judged if we reveal even the most superficial aspects of ourselves to others. Shyness is not cute; shyness is shame. Yet, we routinely dodge this word in English and instead find less self-accusatory words to replace it. It is as though we are even ashamed to admit to ourselves that we are ashamed.

The German language, by contrast, appears to be less ashamed of the word “shame”—Scham. Scham is far more embedded into the German language than shame is in English. In German, there are an array of compound words which include “Scham” as one of the two halves. Compound words are, by the way, intrinsic to the German language. German is extremely savvy at taking two different words and combining them together to form a new, original meaning. Some of these have even made their way into English. For example, the word Doppelgänger is, as we all know, a person who looks an awful lot like another, separate person. Doppel in German means “double”; Gänger we can roughly translate as a “goer” or a “walker.” A Doppelgänger is literally a double-walker, one who duplicates another in his or her gait, stride, appearance. In English, we are also familiar with the word Schadenfreude. Schadenfreude occurs when we take pleasure in the misfortunes of another. In German, Schaden literally means damage or harm, and Freude means joy. Therefore, Schadenfreude is the joy we feel at the harm which befalls another person. Interestingly, English is also not unskilled at creating compound words, though it does so far less frequently than does German. We combine, for example, the words bride and maid into the word bridesmaid—the maid or the servant of the bride. We combine the words match and maker into matchmaker—a person, usually an elderly woman, who brings together two single people and makes them into a “couple”—into a “match.” We could have said, in English, she is the maid of the bride or she is the maker of matches, but a bridesmaid is not exactly a maid of the bride, and a matchmaker is far more than a maker of matches. We English speakers are too clever for that—instead we, like our German cousins, synthesize two separate words to create a new, superior word with its own unique meaning—bridesmaid, matchmaker. In English, however, we do not have too many expressions employing the word shame. There is, of course, the infamous “walk of shame,” often employed on college campuses, in which a person walks home the next morning after a one-night-stand. But I cannot think of too many others and I certainly cannot think of any compound words utilizing shame. Quite the contrary in German. In German, compound words abound with shame therein. It seems as though the entire anatomy of private parts in German is described with the word Scham: Schambein (pubic bone), Schamlippen (lips of the vulva), Schamhaar (pubic hair), Schambereich (pubic area). German has its own word for the feeling of shame—Schamgefühl. In 2017, a neologism was born: Flugscham. This is the shame one feels for flying on a plane (Flug means “flight”) because of the harm it causes to the environment. There is the word Fremdscham. “Fremd” means “foreign” or “other.” Fremdscham is a word which in English would perhaps translate as “cringeworthy”—Fremdscham describes our feeling of discomfort when we witness the shame of others. And there is Schamrot, in which “rot” means “red.” Schamrot is an adjective which indicates that one’s face has blushed (reddened) in shame.

In English, we say all the time that we feel guilty. As discussed, what we are really saying here is that we feel shame (unless we are in criminal court and we feel that we are about to receive an unfavorable verdict—a rare occurrence in anyone’s life). German is much more careful to distinguish guilt from shame. In German, to say that one feels guilty immediately suggests that one has done something legalistically wrong. By contrast, to say that one feels shame immediately suggests to a German that one “is” wrong or perhaps has done something “soulfully” wrong. In Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, the main character, Josef K., seems to be ashamed of shame. Instead, he, like native English speakers, attempts to trick himself into believing that guilt is his enemy—not shame. The novel consists of a series of interactions with a nebulous “court” in which Josef K. pleads his innocence and insists that he has done nothing wrong. Yet, the more he argues with the court, the more elusive a judgment of “innocent” becomes for him. In The Trial, the word “guilt” appears ninety-one times. The word “shame,” by contrast, appears just four times. Nevertheless, the final and culminative line of the novel contains the word “shame”: “It was as though the shame would outlive him.” Josef K. attempted to disguise his shame—that is, a feeling of embarrassment about himself—with shame’s relative, guilt—a feeling that one has committed a specific, discrete crime. While guilt and shame seem awfully close, they are actually devastatingly distinguishable. Ironically, guilt shields one from shame; it suggests that one has committed a single, isolated wrong—a mere drop of evil in the bucket of overflowing goodness. Guilt requires no masking: after all, who would mask one slip-up in an otherwise perfect and loveable track record? With shame, by contrast, the entire bucket is slopping about with evil water. Hence why English-speakers so routinely offer up the word “guilty” instead of “shame”—as Josef K.’s trial shows, shame is the only emotion about which we should feel shame.

In the haftarah for the parsha of Ki Thetze, Isaiah prophecies on this strange, paradoxical, mysterious feeling of shame. He says in chapter fifty-four, verse four: “Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed. Do not cringe, for you will not be put to shame. For you will forget the shame of your youth.” With these words, Isaiah conveys some critical ideas on shame. First, he emphasizes how unhealthy shame is: it is an emotion to be feared and which causes fear. Shame is a deep unrest and dissatisfaction within our core. It is to be treated and cured at any cost. He also states that we will forget the shame of our youth. With this idea, Isaiah conveys that shame is an emotion which we learned as children. Somehow, as children, we were conditioned to believe that love from others was not guaranteed. We may have been taught, for example, to be kind and courteous to other children. Implicit in this message may have been that if we were not kind and courteous, other children would not like us, would judge us, would become our enemies. We may have been taught that we should profusely apologize if we caused another person discomfort or pain or suffering, even in the most frivolous way. Implicit in this message may have been that we are only sometimes loveable; we are loveable when we behave, but we are not loveable when we do not behave. Hence: if you want love, behave yourself. These messages we received from society in an array of configurations—from our teachers, from our parents, from other children’s parents, from television, from just observing the world around us already conditioned to act this way—cemented themselves into our minds. The mind, in short, having endured thousands if not millions of these covert messages over the years or decades built up a hefty, brawny “shame muscle” which will not go gently into that good night. When Isaiah said that “we will forget the shame of our youth,” he was offering us a gift equivalent to ten years of free therapy with a top-notch psychologist.

I expressed earlier that shame is the only emotion about which we feel need to feel shame—this is why, as English-speakers, we so readily substitute other words for it. This is why Josef K. spent the entire novel squabbling over guilt and scarcely mentioning “shame” until the final sentence of The Trial, when he is executed. The shame of shame might seem to be a damning conundrum, but there is a relatively easy way out. It is paradoxically only when we acknowledge our shame that we throw off our shame. This is why, as I stated at the very beginning of this piece, that one who is cries out like a soprano on stage “O, I am so ashamed!” is ironically not experiencing shame in that moment. She is relieved of shame because she has admitted it, owned up to it. The mask has been removed, and shame absolutely thrives on masks; it cannot survive long without them.

Because shame sustains itself through masking, it often masks itself even to its host—that is, even to us. This may explain why I experienced these light moments of shame throughout a simple stroll across Paris without even recognizing the emotion; I thought the discomfort and bashfulness I experienced with the waitress and the maître d’ was just “discomfort” and “bashfulness”—surely not shame, anything but shame. Another insidious, undetected realm in which shame hides itself is in the casual apology. It is disturbing how often we apologize throughout the day when an apology is not at all necessary. I’m sorry; Sorry about that; Sorry!; Oops, sorry. In order to become more shameless, we can start by simply eliminating “I’m sorry” from our daily verbiage. Fascinatingly, it can feel rather uncomfortable to leave out “I’m sorry” in one’s day-to-day interactions. Bump into someone at the supermarket and, for a change, do not immediately smooth over the awkwardness by quickly uttering “I’m sorry.” Why should you be sorry? It was an accident, after all. And moreover, we are not saying “I’m sorry” here to express genuine contrition but rather to ward off the possibility that—let the heavens forbid it—another person could view us as “bad,” and we would subsequently be less loveable. Instead of apologizing, let the discomfort be there; let it be a sign to ourselves that we deserve to receive love irrespective of our behavior, that no misdeed can ever render us “bad” or undeserving of full acceptance and love. Deep down, this stranger loves you, this stranger sees you as Louis XIV, if only he or she got to know the “real” you behind the masks which both of you are wearing. The discomfort, and maybe even shame, you feel as you keep your “I’m sorry” within is simply what it feels like when your muscle of shamelessness at last begins to bulk itself up.

Another rendition of this article can be heard on my podcast The Schrift: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for Modern Times, available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

About the Author
Steven Weinberg is a PhD student at Rutgers University in the German Department. His dissertation is on Franz Kafka and the Kabbalah. He grew up in Philadelphia, but moved to Israel in his late twenties, where he studied literature at Ben-Gurion University. Currently, Steven lives in Berlin, but travels to Israel and America as often as he can. His blog is based off his podcast, The Schrift, a weekly lecture series on Torah, German literature, and meditation. The Schrift is available on Apple and Spotify platforms.
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