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The Power of Shame (Metzora, Covenant & Conversation)

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On December 20, 2013, a young woman named Justine Sacco was waiting in Heathrow airport before boarding a flight to Africa. To while away the time, she sent a tweet in questionable taste about the hazards of catching AIDS. There was no immediate response, and she boarded the plane unaware of the storm that was about to break. Eleven hours later, upon landing, she discovered that she had become an international cause célèbre. Her tweet, and responses to it, had gone viral. Over the next 11 days she would be googled more than a million times. She was branded a racist and dismissed from her job. Overnight, she had become a pariah.[1]

The new social media have brought about a return to an ancient phenomenon, public shaming. Two recent books – Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and Jennifer Jacquet’s Is Shame Necessary?[2] – have discussed it. Jacquet believes it is a good thing. It can be a way of getting public corporations to behave more responsibly, for example. Ronson highlights the dangers. It is one thing to be shamed by the community of which you are a part, quite another by a global network of strangers who know nothing about you or the context in which your act took place. That is more like a lynch mob than the pursuit of justice.

Either way, this gives us a way of understanding the otherwise bewildering phenomenon of tsara’at, the condition dealt with at length in last week’s parsha and this one. Tsara’at has been variously translated as leprosy, skin disease, and scaly infection. Yet there are formidable problems in identifying it with any known disease. First, its symptoms do not correspond to Hansen’s Disease, otherwise known as leprosy. Second, the tsara’at described in the Torah affects not only human beings but also the walls of houses, furniture, and clothes. There is no known medical condition that has this property.

Besides, the Torah is a book about holiness and correct conduct. It is not a medical text. Even if it were, as David Zvi Hoffman points out in his commentary,[3] the procedures to be carried out do not correspond to those that would be done if tsara’at were a contagious disease. Finally, tsara’at as described in the Torah is a condition that brings not sickness but rather impurity, tumah. Health and purity are different things altogether.

The Sages decoded the mystery by relating our parsha to the instances in the Torah in which someone was actually afflicted by tsara’at. It happened to Miriam when she spoke against her brother Moses (Num. 12:1-15). Another example referred to was Moses who, at the Burning Bush, said to God that the Israelites would not believe in him. His hand briefly turned “as leprous as snow” (Ex. 4:7). The Sages regarded tsara’at as a punishment for lashon hara, evil speech, speaking negatively about or denigrating another person.

This helped them explain why the symptoms of tsara’at – mould, discolouration – could affect walls, furniture, clothes, and human skin. These were a sequence of warnings or punishments. First God warned the offender by sending a sign of decay to the walls of his house. If the offender repented the condition stopped there. If he failed to do so his furniture was affected, then his clothes, and finally his skin.

How are we to understand this? Why was “evil speech” regarded as so serious an offence that it took these strange phenomena to point to its existence? And why was it punished this way and not another?

It was the anthropologist Ruth Benedict and her book about Japanese culture, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,[4] that popularised a distinction between two kinds of society: guilt cultures and shame cultures. Ancient Greece, like Japan, was a shame culture. Judaism and the religions influenced by it (most obviously, Calvinism) were guilt cultures. The differences between them are substantial.

In shame cultures, what matters is the judgment of others. Acting morally means conforming to public roles, rules, and expectations. You do what other people expect you to do. You follow society’s conventions. If you fail to do so, society punishes you by subjecting you to shame, ridicule, disapproval, humiliation, and ostracism. In guilt cultures what matters is not what other people think but what the voice of conscience tells you. Living morally means acting in accordance with internalised moral imperatives: “You shall” and “You shall not.” What matters is what you know to be right and wrong. Advertisement

People in shame cultures are other-directed. They care about how they appear in the eyes of others, or as we would say today, they care about their “image.” People in guilt cultures are inner-directed. They care about what they know about themselves in moments of absolute........

© The Times of Israel (Blogs)

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