Leah Bieler

To Civility

“You should be ashamed of yourself!” Could a phrase, an admonition, feel any more out-of-date? Who in their right minds thinks they have the authority to tell me I should be embarrassed about my behavior? First amendment rights and all, I can say whatever I please. Freedom of speech, yada, yada, yada.

True. Nearly all of the time, we can say whatever we want without fear of prosecution. A certain vocal segment of the population, railing against ‘political correctness,’ has been complaining for years that they are unfairly constrained in their speech. Unable to express what they truly want to express. Shamed into remaining silent.

And who can argue against that? Shaming someone for expressing an opinion? How could that possibly be a good thing? Doesn’t the Talmud say, “one who shames (literally: makes the face blanche) a single person in public, it’s as if they have spilled blood?”

Here’s the thing, though. I’m here to argue the other, presently unpopular opinion. I’m arguing in defense of shame.

Shame, or fear of embarrassment, is the reason your second grader doesn’t yell, “No! you can’t make me!” when a teacher says it’s time to sit in circle time. It’s what convinces your budding teen to shower on a somewhat regular basis. It’s why you haven’t gotten fired for screaming obscenities at your boss when she sends a last-minute project to your inbox at the very end of the day.

Shame was also what kept people from public rantings about Jews controlling the media, or calling the First Lady an ape. Or about women being responsible for their own sexual assault.

Until now.

There has been so much written about why so many Americans, even if the majority voted against him, voted for Trump. And post the election itself, it seems that the very people who voted for him are now nervous that he might actually DO the things he talked about during the campaign. Corey Lewandowski himself, Trump’s former campaign manager, made it clear that Americans supporting his candidate didn’t actually take the things he was promising seriously.

So what is it that they did indeed like about the bombastic, self-focused, serially bankrupt businessman who boasted about committing sexual assault?

‘He says what we’re all thinking.’ This is an important statement to unpack. Clearly our president-elect seems to be lacking a filter when it comes to saying whatever pops into his head. And this lack of concern for the consequences of your speech, this lack of shame, is very enticing. Because, if the things you are thinking in your head are worthy of shame, does that mean you’re a bad person on the inside? And does suddenly experiencing the freedom to say those heretofore banned things make you feel free? I suppose it could.

But unfettered freedom to say what we feel has its consequences, not the least of which is its corrosive effect on our society as a whole. And those who have unlocked the fences in their minds, and let the wild dogs out the door, will have to be responsible for what happens next.

In the Jewish community, debates about politics and Israel have always been heated, as any argument is when the participants care so deeply about the subject at hand. In the end, though, for most of us, there was a foundation of understanding. Understanding that even when we disagreed, it was clear that both sides were doing this out of love – for the Jewish people and for Israel.

But once you (I’m looking at you, Mr. Friedman) start calling fellow Jews “worse than Kapos,” you are attempting to divide the Jewish people in pursuit of a sound bite. Something inside must certainly have told you that what you were about to say was beyond the pale. And still, you said it. Because it felt good to let it out. To see the reactions on people’s faces.

This lack of shame which has insinuated itself into the Jewish body politic has great destructive power. Left unchecked, it can tear our community apart. But we don’t have to allow it to take hold.

So, for the new year, a toast. Here’s to civility. To thinking before we speak. To taking into account the effects that our words can have on others. To paying attention to that little whisper inside our heads, when we know what we want to say is better left unsaid. In this new year, I wish everyone just a little bit more shame.

About the Author
Leah Bieler has an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics. She teaches Talmud to students of all ages and backgrounds. Leah spends the school year in Massachusetts and summers in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. Sometimes she writes to get a break from them. The children, that is.
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