Shame, spirituality and the Oscars slap

If Will and Chris had spent Shabbos with the men in black at our Shul this past week, we could have avoided the whole Bad Boys vibe at Sunday’s Oscars. Our Shabbos farbrengens aren’t scripted, and we discuss anything from the spiritual to the contemporary. This week, we explored comedy roasts. Yup, I kid you not. Who woulda thunk it would be headline news the next day? The guys wanted to know why people take verbal pot-shots at each other over a lechaim when the Torah forbids embarrassing others. 

It all started at my drosha in Shul. I had shared an insight into the story of Aaron’s first day on the job as High Priest. Picture the scene: Aaron steps up to the plate for the inauguration of G-d’s embassy on Earth. The entire nation watches with excitement- and Aaron hesitates. Moses whispers, “Aaron, what are you ashamed of? This is why G-d selected you”.

What was Aaron ashamed of? His appointment as High Priest was a badge of honour, a powerful Divine endorsement. 

Aaron’s issue centered on the offering he was to bring to the Temple. Of all the various animals G-d had mandated to be used as sacrifices, Aaron was told to offer a calf. Imagine how that would have triggered the spiritual leader who had been tainted by the Golden Calf. He hesitated, embarrassed by the symbolism. 

It is unthinkable that G-d would have set him up for disgrace, so Moses encouraged him, “This is why you were chosen”. We all have chapters of our biographies that we hope nobody will discover. As Moses addressed his brother’s ambivalence, he taught us that a mess-up should become a catalyst for growth. There’s no shame in being human, so never shame someone for being human. 

That thought sparked a robust discussion at the farbrengen. If you’ve never attended a farbrengen, it’s difficult to describe. A farbrengen is an informal space to explore spiritual concepts, share a lechaim and drill down into the spiritual battles we face. When the fabrengen heats up, people confront each other openly about their spiritual foibles or personal challenges. The interactions are raw and revealing- sometimes embarrassing. 

As we debated the merits of the unfiltered farbrengen, I remembered a conversation I once had with a pre-bar mitzvah boy. I had asked what his favourite form of entertainment was, and he had replied that he loved watching YouTube. No surprise. When I asked who his favourite YouTubers were, he rattled off names of people I’d never heard of. 

“What do they do? Are they gamers? Musicians?” 

“They roast people”, he explained. 

Ok. I had no idea what that meant. I’ve since learned that “roasts” are where you publicly insult people for laughs. I used to think that best man speeches were distasteful. 

Laugh at someone, and the whole world laughs with you. Well, almost the whole world. The butt of the joke won’t be laughing. One-way laughs pump one person’s popularity at the expense of another’s self-respect. The roast misses George Orwell’s insight that “the aim of a joke is not to degrade the human being, but to remind him that he is already degraded.” The farbrengen aces it. 

Judaism equates public humiliation with murder, so roasting people is treif. Moses called a would-be assailant “wicked” for lifting his hand, even before he struck his opponent, so there’s no excuse to slap the guy who insults you. The toxic Hollywood theme that good guys are entitled to use violence leaked from the silver screen onto the Oscars’ stage. The catalyst was the long-accepted comedic form of public insult. Neither is defensible. 

Could this have happened in a Shul? Probably. But, a heart-to-heart where we laugh our way to solving our shared struggles? That could only happen in a spiritually healthy space, as our Shuls should be.   

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler together with his wife, Naomi and their eight children, runs Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group.