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Festivals of Faith – Rosh HaShana: The Sense of Shame

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays

The Sense of Shame*

We moderns have, to a large extent, lost the ability to feel ashamed. Young people grow up with an attitude of sneering cynicism, and moral restraint is treated like an anachronism, an outdated inhibition. Shame is unknown. Our theaters and our entertainment places glorify profanity and immorality. But we are not shocked; we no longer have shame. Television, radio, newspapers, and magazines often publish the kind of pornography that once would have occasioned wide embarrassment and a public outcry; but today we accept it as inevitable, and no one is ashamed. People come to weddings in the synagogue dressed immodestly; Jewish organizations openly and aggressively flout the most sacred Jewish traditions; Jews, especially college professors, proudly proclaim their religious ignorance from the rooftops—and for all this there is no shame.

And yet, bushah, or shame, is an integral part of teshuvah, repentance or the genuine Jewish religious experience. Maimonides counts bushah as one of the fundamental aspects of repentance, the dominant theme of this holiday. It is mentioned repeatedly in our Selihot prayers and on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If, then, we are ever to change for the better, if Judaism is ever to advance and Torah ever to triumph, the first thing we must do is recapture the ability to blush; we must relearn the art of feeling ashamed.

What is shame? Our inquiry is not merely for a dictionary definition. The problem of what it really is has been discussed by some of the world’s greatest  literary figures, psychiatrists, and philosophers. Allow me to present to you the findings of one writer who recently devoted a whole book to the subject (Helen Merrell Lynd, On Shame and the Search for Identity, 1958).

Shame is the feeling of a sudden loss of identity. Every man has a picture of himself as he likes to think of himself and have others think of him. When he suddenly stands exposed as something less than that, something inferior, not at all the kind of person he thought he was and others thought he was, when he is astonished at how he has fallen short of his own ideals, when his own image of himself is cruelly jolted and disarrayed, and another, unpleasant identity is revealed—that is shame.

Shame is thus a reaction to the blow to our self-esteem, the discrepancy between our exalted view of ourselves and the sudden revelation of a lower, more vulnerable, and less worthy self. Shame is therefore relative to a person’s standing in the eyes of others and, even more, in his own eyes. Mr. Average Citizen who cheats a little on his income tax is engaging in a mischievous national sport; there is no shame attached to it. But the elected official who won office on a platform of “honesty in government” and who is so apprehended—he is filled with shame. The college sophomore who cannot solve a differential equation may feel bad. The math professor who suddenly forgets how to do it is ashamed.

If you have a high image of yourself, then you feel shame when you fail that image. If you have a low image of yourself, shame is improbable, for your self-identity has not been questioned. The root of the sense of shame is as old as the human race itself. The first human couple experienced it. In the beginning, Adam and Eve were naked, but ve-lo yitboshashu, “they were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25). Later, they sinned— and they futilely looked around for something to cover themselves with, for now they were ashamed. Ashamed indeed: they thought of themselves as worthy, Adam as the yetzir kappav of God, the creature of God’s own hands; Eve as the em kol hai, the mother of all life (Gen. 3:20). They inhabited Paradise; they were the most perfect of God’s creatures; they spoke with God. Suddenly, rudely, crudely, they were shocked by their own failure, by their inability to resist a miserable piece of fruit—and so they were ashamed. A new and cheaper self was exposed.

And how wonderful and invaluable, how civilizing, is this sense of shame! For when we experience it, we are shaken by our failure to live up to the ideal picture of ourselves, and so we are compelled to change our real self, just discovered, and transform it so that it will conform to the higher, more ideal image we entertained. This, indeed, is the essence of teshuvah, repentance. That is why Maimonides teaches that after the sense of bushah or shame comes repentance, which attains its highest expression when a man is be able to say, “Ani aher, ve-eini oto ha-ish—I am another, I am no longer the same man” who committed those evil follies (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:4). I have transformed my identity, my very self, my whole character, so that now I really am the person I originally thought I was! No wonder the Sefer Hasidim taught that ha-boshet ve-ha-emunah nitzmadot; ke-she-tistallek ahat, tistallek havertah, “shame and faith are intertwined; take away one, and the other disappears” (ed. Margaliyot, #120, #350).

If, therefore, we moderns have largely lost the sense of bushah, it is not because we have a high opinion of ourselves. Quite the contrary, it is because we have too low an opinion of ourselves, because we have almost no self-esteem, no image of dignity to be jolted and hurt. Our sophisticated generation has been nurtured on Freud and weaned on Kinsey. We have been taught to expect the worst in ourselves. We have become conditioned to the beast in man, so much so that if we sometimes are confronted with a genuinely human act, we are surprised. Our problem is that we have so contemptible a view of our own inner value, our own moral worth and significance, that that which is mean and despicable seems to us to fit into the picture we have drawn of ourselves. And if there is no discrepancy, no exposure, no jolt, there can be no bushah, and hence there can be no impetus to grow and improve and transform ourselves.