The Case for Collective Shame

Shame can only live in a culture that values civility. A culture that understands Freud’s teachings about civilization and its discontents. That to live together we must follow rules.

I have often wondered what would happen in our society if instead of sending all guilty people to prison we gave them the opportunity to feel shame by putting some of them into old-fashioned pillories in the public square. Put up a sign explaining their misdeeds. Let the community laugh at them, point fingers, maybe throw a tomato or two-ripe, of course, for fear of hurting them.

Being in the stocks might embarrass them and cause them…shame! Maybe public shaming would reduce recidivism and act as a deterrent to others, especially impressionable young people. Perhaps the introduction of shame into the community would encourage more  members to follow the rules of civility.

I grew up in a family and a time when illegal actions committed by a member of the Jewish community brought shame to the whole community. I remember watching my parents’ response to a news report about a lawyer or a doctor or a businessman charged with some offense. They’d cringe, and then sigh with relief- “Oh thank God, he’s not Jewish.”

I believe in Am Yisrael. We are one nation, one people, one family. And I feel shame when one member of the family behaves dishonourably and brings ignominy to the family. It’s best described as a collective sense of shame and guilt. When Brooklyn Rabbis extort money from husbands refusing a “get” and I read that in the NY Times, I feel terrible shame even though I don’t live in Brooklyn.

When a rabbi in a religious community assaults members of the community and tries to hush them up and I read it in the national news, I feel shame. But I don’t live there either. When Jewish boys in Israel spit on other Jews because they aren’t observant enough, I feel shame. Not just because of their behaviour but that they were taught this behaviour by their teachers-their revered Rabbis. Is Am Yisrael supposed to say nothing? When Jewish boys are accused of desecrating a cemetery I feel shame. When women at the Wall are harassed by those who have decided that they are closer to God than the Women  at the Wall, I feel shame. I don’t live in Israel.

We are one people, a small group. We must never let ourselves become so fearful of the opinion of others that we stop naming our reprehensible behaviour for what it is.  Do we not speak of Am Yisrael on Yom Kippur-Forgive us, pardon us and grant us atonement. We, we, we.

We were all at the mountain where the cloud hovered, and the Presence was felt, and the Word was given. And all of us, we, together brought those revolutionary morals and values out of the desert, what Thomas Cahill calls the Gifts of the Jews to humanity.  “The Jews gave us the Outside and the Inside-our outlook and our inner life. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact-new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice-are gifts of the Jews.”

We are the light unto the nations. And as Am Yisrael we carry that gift with us wherever we travel. That is what we chose as a people 3500 years ago.

I have posted some news articles about shameful behaviour perpetrated by our people on Facebook pages that I follow. And I have been called a racist because I started the Post with “Is this how Jews behave?” I am upbraided for using “we.” I was told other groups of people don’t do that. That’s right, they don’t.

How much better would our world be if more groups of people felt collective shame and guilt? How much better would life be if Palestinians, instead of celebrating the killing of a Jew, felt collective shame for those in their community who commit such barbaric crimes?

I was upbraided for referring to the Rabbis who kidnapped, extorted, beat up those husbands as barbaric. How dare I? There are behaviours far worse. True.

But I am a Jew, part of Am Yisrael, and when a Rabbi breaks God’s laws, when he takes advantage of his position in the community, when he distorts Jewish law for his own aggrandizement, when he teaches his impressionable young people to disrespect others, feeding the yetzer harah, the evil inclination, he is barbaric. He is “marked by crudeness, a lack of restraint in taste, style, or manner.” He, the teacher, the leader, has broken the covenant with our God.

Democracy functions partly because of the social contract: the will of the people as a whole gives power and direction to the state.  The social contract of the Jews is with God.  I don’t remember being taught that breaking one commandment might be less shameful than breaking another. Are their degrees of shame in Judaism? I don’t remember being taught that one can justify disrespect, sweep it under the carpet, when our people commit it.

We must never forget the responsibility that we undertook at Mount Sinai. A holy people committed to shining the light of God. We must never base how we behave on the behaviours of others because that is moral relativism, anathema to Judaism.


About the Author
Diane Weber Bederman is a multi-faith, hospital trained chaplain who lives in Ontario, Canada, just outside Toronto; She has a background in science and the humanities and writes about religion in the public square and mental illness on her blog: The Middle Ground:The Agora of the 21st Century. She is a regular contributor to Convivium: Faith in our Community. "