Whatever happened to shame?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
November 21, 2003
Shortly after the Nazi ascent to power, Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, one of the towering figures of pre-War Lithuanian Jewry, spoke in the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin. He quoted Avraham’s explanation to Avimelech, king of the Philistines, as to why he had said that Sarah was his sister and not his wife: ``Because I said [to myself], `There is but no fear of G-d in this place, and they will slay me because of my wife (Genesis 20:12)."’ The double negative -- ``but no" – explained Rabbi Wasserman indicates that Avraham saw much that was positive in the land of the Philistines.
Yet, no matter how advanced the society, Avraham recognized, without fear of God, there would ultimately be no brake on the worst forms of depravity. Today as well, all the achievements of a society can be destroyed by the moral rot from within.
I was reminded of Reb Elchonon’s insight two weeks ago by a news item treated by much of the Israeli media as nothing more than entertaining fluff, but which should cause us to rend our garments. As part of the gala opening of a branch of the Kenvelo clothing chain on Tel Aviv’s Sheinkin Street, the store offered a free garment for each piece of clothing that women in the store took off. Soon traffic on Sheinkin Street was stopped by gawking men in front of the store, as patrons as young as 13 rushed to disrobe in front of complete strangers. Store employees tried to convince the girls not to strip entirely, but to no avail. The lure of free new underwear was too strong.
In the accounts of pogroms from the Middle Ages, one reads of Jewish daughters calling out for pins to keep their long skirts from opening, lest they be revealed even as they were being dragged on the ground behind horses. Today a 17-year-old Jewish girl tells Maariv
, ``The girls who took off their clothes are a symbol of the new feminism, according to which a naked body is the symbol of freedom. . . . And if the adults don’t like it, they can stuff it." In her eyes, streetwalkers strutting down the avenue in hot pants are feminist icons.
ACCORDING TO THE TALMUD, the capacity for shame is one of the three defining characteristics of the Jewish people. The absence of that capacity, say our Sages, proves that ones ancestors did not stand at Sinai.
What is the purpose of shame? Let us examine the first experience of shame: ``Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked, and they sewed together a fig leaf and made themselves aprons." Until Adam sinned, there was no need for clothes because there was no tension between man’s physical/ animal aspect and his soul. The two were in perfect harmony and it was clear that the body was subservient to the soul.
That clarity, however, was lost when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit. Now, for the first time, it became possible to err and think that the visible body is the primary. Adam and Eve had to experience shame, and cover themselves, as a reminder that the animal side of their being was not primary.
The Hebrew root for shame, busha
, connotes slowing down or inhibiting. Shame restrains Man’s animal nature in order that he remember his essence as a spiritual being animated by a breath of the Divine. For that reason, the capacity for shame distinguishes human beings from animals. No animal ever experienced shame over its nakedness because no animal possesses a soul.
Efforts to blur the distinction between man and animals are as old as human history. Pagan religions were characterized by their bacchanalae, during which participants shed all inhibitions and restraint in ecstatic rites. Hitler hated the Jews for having inflicted on mankind the wound of morality. And not by accident, did the Nazis show more solicitude for the Lipizzaner stallions than for millions of human beings. Today, voices from Princeton ethicist Peter Singer (who condones bestiality) to hedonists of every sort, proclaim that man is nothing more than a more sophisticated, pleasure-seeking animal.
Yet no society based on denying man’s spiritual/ethical side, however, has long survived. And a society which raises its young without any sense of shame is a society in peril. The rot is everywhere to be seen – in our shameless political culture, in the high rates of school violence, in our disastrous educational results and our youth’s abandonment of reading for the instant stimulation of MTV.
``The youth that we meet suffer from emptiness and superficiality. . . ," says Yitzchak Kadmon, head of the Society for the Welfare of the Child. "Violence, sex, scorn [for all authority and values] – these are not seen just as legitimate, but as the ultimate delights." Asked about Kenvelo’s effort to turn 13-year-olds into strippers, he warns, ``if we don’t put a stop to all these animalistic phenomena, we will yet see even more disastrous results."
Not a pretty thought.
Related Topics: Israeli Society
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list