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Shameful Ambivalences: Dimensions of Rabbinic Shame

  • Jonathan K. Crane (a1)


According to a ninth-century midrash, God asks the wicked of the world why they did not come closer to God. Each person responds, “I was so steeped in my wickedness that I was ashamed.” Too ashamed, it seems, to muster sufficient courage to admit failures, change behaviors, and move closer—ritually if not spiritually—to God, and so they wallowed deeper into wickedness. Had these people not been so wicked, their shame might have spurred a return to God. A few centuries later, Moses Maimonides prefaces his introductory remarks to the Mishneh Torah with a quotation from Psalms: “Then I would not be ashamed when I regard all Your commandments.” This verse, coming after and completing the psalmist's prayer, “Would that my ways were firm in keeping your laws,” suggests that between action and complete lawfulness shamefulness exists. It is unclear whether the shamefulness Maimonides speaks of inspires fidelity to the law or impinges it. Either way, shame precedes (seeing) the law both lexicographically and phenomenologically. Before lawfulness, shame facilitates both regard of self as well as regard of notions of uprightness and of wickedness. At least according to these two sources, shame intertwines self-consciousness with self-evaluation; it mixes a sense of dark depths with a notion of ascent toward righteousness. Shame breeds inwardness and otherness, and can debilitate as well as empower. In short, shame simultaneously damns and redeems.


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1. Levinas, Emmanuel, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 84.

2. Pesikta Rabbati 40.3:4. This is taught by R. Alexandri, a third-century Palestinian Amora.

3. This study focuses primarily on bushah, though cognate roots will also be considered. See Stolz, E., “Boš—To Be Ashamed,” in Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, ed. Jenni, Ernst and Westermann, Claus, trans. Biddle, Mark E. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997), 1:205; Bechtel, Lyn, “The Perception of Shame within the Divine–Human Relationship in Biblical Israel,” in Uncovering Ancient Stones, ed. Hopfe, Lewis M. (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbraums, 1994), 79 n. 3.

4. Psalms 119:6. See MT Hakdamah. Maimonides does not cite this verse again in either the MT or the Moreh Nebukim.

5. Psalms 119:5.

6. Nicomachean Ethics, IV, 9, 1128b, 19–34. See also the sixth chapter in Aristotle's On Rhetoric, trans. W. Rhys Roberts, where shame is defined as “pain or disturbance in regard to bad things, whether past, present or future, which seem likely to involve us in discredit,” (accessed December 30, 2010).

7. On Rhetoric, chap. 6.

8. Ibid. Spinoza is not far from Aristotle when he defines shame as “a sadness, accompanied by the idea of some action [of ours] which we imagine that others blame” (de Spinoza, Benedict, A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works, ed. and trans. Curley, Edwin [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994]), Ethics, 3, Definitions of the Affects, 31, 2/199, p. 193. Sadness “is a man's passage from a greater to a lesser perfection” (ibid., 3, 2/191, p. 188). Spinoza differentiates shame from a sense of shame: “For shame is a sadness which follows a deed one is ashamed of; whereas as a sense of shame is a fear of, or timidity regarding, shame, by which man is restrained from doing something dishonorable” (ibid., 31/Exp. 2/191, p. 194). That is, shame is a reactive emotion and a sense of shame is a proactive one.

9. See Williams, Bernard, Shame and Necessity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) for an analysis of ancient Greek notions of shame. As will be seen, though the rabbis and especially Maimonides pick up on this notion of avoiding voluntarily doing that which is considered repugnant, they view shame as more complex than merely a fear of disgrace.

10. Genesis 2:25. See Stolz, “Boš—To Be Ashamed,” and discussion in Velleman, J. David, “The Genesis of Shame,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 30, no. 1 (2001): 2752. Simmons, Lawrence, however, in “Shame, Levinas's Dog, Derrida's Cat (and Some Fish),” in Knowing Animals, ed. Simmons, Laurence and Armstrong, Philip (Boston: Brill, 2007), 32, construes this moment as “the origin of original shame”—which mistakes this moment with the later, post-fruit, shame (see below).

11. Etymologically, the term private parts which one should be ashamed to uncover comes from the Greek aidoia and the Latin pudenda—both meaning genitals and shame. The German Schamteile and French parties honteuses also convey this connection. See Williams, Shame and Necessity, 78; and Velleman, “The Genesis of Shame,” 31. Stolz, “Boš—To Be Ashamed,” 205, says that the Hebrew mevushim means “private parts,” though this term occurs only once in the Tanakh, in Deuteronomy 25:11. It is therefore difficult to say with certainty that this hapax legomenon expresses “body parts about which one should feel ashamed”; it could very well mean testicles, penis, or genitalia generally—all without any emotional overlay. Ervah is more often understood to mean genitalia. See Satlow, Michael, “Jewish Constructions of Nakedness in Late Antiquity,” Journal of Biblical Literature 116, no. 3 (1997): 448 n. 78.

12. Velleman, Genesis of Shame.

13. Post-eighth-century BCE prophets in particular. Stiebert, Johanna, “Shame and Prophecy: Approaches Past and Present,” Biblical Interpretation 8, no. 3 (2000): 255–75.

14. Bechtel, Lyn M., “Shame as a Sanction of Social Control in Biblical Israel: Judicial, Political, and Social Shaming,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 49 (1991): 4776; Bechtel, “The Perception of Shame”; Lemos, T. M., “Shame and Mutilation of Enemies in the Hebrew Bible,” Journal of Biblical Literature 125, no. 2 (2006): 225–41; Odell, Margaret S., “An Exploratory Study of Shame and Dependence in the Bible and Selected Near Eastern Parallels,” in The Biblical Canon in Comparative Perspectives. Scripture in Context, vol. 4, ed. Younger, K. Lawson, Jr., Hallo, William W., and Batto, Bernard F. (Lewiston, ME: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991); Odell, Margaret S., “The Inversion of Shame and Forgiveness in Ezekiel 16:59–63,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 56 (1992): 101–12; Olyan, Saul M., “Honor, Shame, and Covenant Relations in Ancient Israel and Its Environment,” Journal of Biblical Literature 115, no. 2 (1996): 201–18; Stiebert, “Shame and Prophecy.”

15. Morrison, Andrew P., The Culture of Shame (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996); Ellen Wehner Eaton, “Shame Culture or Guilt Culture: The Evidence of the Medieval French Fabliaux” (PhD diss., University of Toronto, 2000); Morris, Herbert, Guilt and Shame (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1971); Piers, Gerhart and Singer, Milton B., Shame and Guilt: A Psychoanalytic and a Cultural Study (New York: Norton, 1971); Tangney, June P. and Dearing, Ronda L., Shame and Guilt (New York: Guilford Press, 2002); Rochat, Phillippe, Others in Mind: Social Origins of Self-consciousness (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009). Williams, in Shame and Necessity, is wary of compartmentalizing cultures, especially those of the ancient Greeks, into one or another category like shame or guilt.

16. While Yael Richardson, “Legal Shame: Shame as a Legal Concept of Damage in Roman and Rabbinic Law” (Honors Thesis, Brown University, 2007) compares shame in Rabbinic and Roman jurisprudence, Weinstein, Mordechai, in “Towards Understanding ‘Boshet,’Alei Etzion 9 (2000): 5565, examines boshet exclusively within a halakhic milieu. Wimpfheimer, Barry, “‘But It Is Not So’: Toward a Poetics of Legal Narrative in the Talmud,” Prooftexts 24 (2004): 5186, demonstrates shame's role in a legal narrative. Jeffrey L. Rubenstein studies shame in rabbinic nonlegal literature: Rubenstein, Jeffrey L., “The Bavli's Ethic of Shame,” Conservative Judaism 53, no. 3 (2001): 2739 and The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). Josef Stern examines Maimonides’ notions of voluntariness in association with shame; see his “Maimonides’ Conceptions of Freedom and the Sense of Shame,” in Freedom and Moral Responsibility: General and Jewish Perspectives, ed. Manekin, Charles H. (Bethesda: University Press of Maryland, 1997), 217–66.

17. Though other scholars have attended to Levinas's notion of shame, none connects it with rabbinic notions of shame. See Ehman, Robert R., “Emmanuel Levinas: The Phenomenon of the Other,” Man and World 8, no. 2 (May 1975): 141–45; Kaplan, Leonard V., “Shame: Bergman on Responsibility and Blame,” Brooklyn Law Review 68, no. 4 (2003): 1159–94; Visker, Rudi, “Levinas, Multiculturalism, and Us,” in Whither Multiculturalism? A Politics of Dissensus, ed. Saunders, Barbara and Haljan, David (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2003), 91104; Ann Murphy, “The Political Significance of Shame,” Borderlands 3, no. 1 ( [2004; accessed June 30, 2010]); Simmons, “Shame, Levinas's Dog, Derrida's Cat (and Some Fish)”; and Janeta Tansey, “A Fitting Shame: Intersubjectivity and the Distance It Demands” (PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2008).

18. Only Borowitz, Eugene B. and Schwartz, Frances W., The Jewish Moral Virtues (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999) offer a few theological reflections on shame. And while Martha Nussbaum reflects philosophically on shame (and law), her work has little connection with Judaism; see Nussbaum, Martha C., Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of the Emotions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), and Danger to Human Dignity: The Revival of Disgust and Shame in the Law,” Chronicle of Higher Education 50, no. 48 (August 6, 2004), B6.

19. M. Baba Kama 8.1. Boshet is listed alongside four other areas of liability: nezek (physical damage), tza'ar (pain), ripui (medical expenses), and shevet (unemployment compensation). In T. Baba Kama 9:1, boshet functions among twelve other categories of tortious injury. See also M. Ketubot 3.7. See Richardson, “Legal Shame,” for a critical analysis of boshet laws in relation to Roman iniuria.

20. The Tannaim disagree on this point. While the majority thinks that even slaves deserve compensation for shameful injuries, R. Judah holds that they are not to be compensated for this aspect of the injury. See M. Baba Kama 8.3; BT Baba Kama 88a; BT Sanhedrin 86a. Insofar as R. Judah conceives of a class of people whose indignities are worthless, the status of the offender is irrelevant: Determining compensation is moot.

21. Literally translated as “whitening the face of a fellow in public.”

22. Indeed, publicly embarrassing is tantamount to murder and the offender surrenders any part in the world to come. See, for example, M. Avot 3.15; BT Baba Metzia 58b–59b; BT Sanhedrin 99a and 107a; MT Teshuvah 3.14; MT De'ot 6.8. Many scholars conflate the injuries of boshet and malbin. See, for example, Telushkin, Joseph, A Code of Jewish Ethics, vol. 1: You Shall Be Holy (New York: Bell Tower, 2006); Borowitz and Schwartz, Jewish Moral Virtues; Melissa Weintraub, “Kvod Ha-Briot: Human Dignity in Jewish Sources, Human Degradation in American Military Custody,” Rabbis for Human Rights—North America, 2005. Available at (accessed December 30, 2010). By contrast, Weinstein, “Towards Understanding ‘Boshet,’” 56 n. 3 differentiates these injuries clearly.

23. M. Baba Kama 8.1; BT Baba Kama 27a, 86b.

24. Rashi at BT Baba Kama 27a, s.v., v'im nithapekh and ḥayav ‘af al boshet.

25. R. Shlomo ben Adret (thirteenth-century Spain). BT Baba Kama 27a, s.v., nafal.

26. R. Shlomo ben Yechiel Luria (sixteenth-century Poland), Yam shel Shlomo 2:39. See discussion in Weinstein, “Towards Understanding ‘Boshet,’” 60ff.

27. BT Baba Kama 86b. See also M. Baba Kama 8.6 in regard to a woman who once uncovered her hair in public; however, when a man deliberately uncovers her hair in public he is liable to compensate her for boshet.

28. BT Baba Kama 86b. See discussion in Weinstein, “Towards Understanding ‘Boshet,’” 63ff.

29. Weinstein, “Towards Understanding ‘Boshet,’” 65.

30. Reines, R. Isaac Jacob (1835–1915, Lithuania). Sefer Ha'arakhim (New York: Oriam Press, 1926), humiliation, 49–51. Emphasis added.

31. Rashi echoes this point when he comments that no pity should be given to a woman who grabs a quarreling man's mevushav (this is usually understood to mean his genitals—see above note 11): she must pay for his embarrassment, and the amount depends on his as well as her social standing. Rashi, Deuteronomy 25:12.

32. See M. Baba Kama 8.6, noted above; T. Baba Kama 9.12; Sifrei Devarim, piska 320.

33. Satlow, “Jewish Constructions of Nakedness in Late Antiquity.”

34. Some rabbis construe Adam as created already clothed, however. T. Berachot 2.14.

35. See discussion in Satlow, “Jewish Constructions of Nakedness in Late Antiquity.”

36. Ibid., 444.

37. See Jubilees 3:21–22, 30–31 for an early connection between genital nakedness and shame. See also the opinion of R. Yose ben R. Bun, who calls the vagina beit haboshet (the shame house) (YT Yevamot 6.1/7b; YT Pesachim 7.11/35a). This term is first used in M. Ḥullin 9.2, and later linked to the vagina (beit hareḥem shel nekevah) by Rashi at BT Ḥullin 112a, 56a, ad. loc., and by R. Ovadia Yare of Bartinuro (1440–1530, Italy and Israel) on his commentary at M. Ḥullin 9.2. The Gemara at BT Nedarim 20a discusses the virtues of shame immediately following the assertion that whoever gazes at a woman's vagina—even his wife's—ultimately comes to sin and will beget children of bad character. On the virtues of shame, see below.

38. Guide 3:49/608. Augustine, too, is very concerned about unwanted erections; see Sawyer, Erin, “Celibate Pleasures: Masculinity, Desire, and Asceticism in Augustine,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 6, no. 1 (July 1995): 129.

39. Velleman, Genesis of Shame, 39.

40. Nightly seminal emissions are, of course, a different matter altogether.

41. Emmanuel Levinas, On Escape, trans. Bettina Bergo (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press [The original essay, “De l’évasion,” was published as a slim volume in 1935 in Recherches philosophiques], 2003), 64.

42. Ibid., 64–65.

43. Philip J. Harold says, “Shame results when we cannot hide this need and our nakedness is exposed. It is not simply a matter of physical nakedness or shame felt over the committing of wrong actions—prior to these is the shame felt over the manifestations of ourselves that we cannot control, in particular the manifestation of ourself in need, the revelation of what Levinas will later call the ‘face.’” See his Prophetic Politics: Emmanuel Levinas and the Sanctification of Suffering (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009), 6.

44. Levinas, On Escape, 65.

45. Jeremiah 48:39. See also Kohelet 11:10 and the interpretation at BT Shabbat 152a. See also Velleman, Genesis of Shame, 47 n. 25 about the symbolic nature of attempting to hide oneself.

46. Levinas, On Escape, 65. The more mature Levinas links themes of shame with freedom: “Thus this way of measuring oneself against the perfection of infinity is not a theoretical consideration; it is accomplished as shame, where freedom discovers itself murderous in its very exercise. It is accomplished in shame where freedom at the same time is discovered in the consciousness of shame and is concealed in the shame itself,” in Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Lingis, Alphonso (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 8384. Ehman, “Emmanuel Levinas,” compares Levinas's notion of freedom and shame with Sartre and, to a degree, Husserl.

47. Nausea, by contrast, may be similarly inescapable but it is unconscious of itself. See Levinas, On Escape, 68.

48. Quoted in Stern, Freedom and Moral Responsibility, 260.

49. Guide 3.8/432.

50. That naked genitals are shameful, see Guide 1:2/25 and 3:8/434.

51. Levinas, On Escape, 65. See also Williams, Shame and Necessity, 221.

52. Williams, Shame and Necessity, 220.

53. Guide 3:8/432. Aristotle says that things pertaining to the senses and touch are disgraceful (‘ar, in Arabic), that is, they are shameful. Nicomachean Ethics, 3, 10, 1118b2 (cf. Rhetoric, 1, 2, 1370a 18–25). Back in the Guide (ibid.), the knowing understand this obligation because the proper end of humankind is apprehension of God and the angels, which can only be achieved if one's natural impulses are sufficiently controlled. The unknowing, however, revel in food and drink. For this reason, Maimonides surmises, Solomon railed against fornication and intoxication throughout the Book of Proverbs.

54. BT Shabbat 156b.

55. For a discussion of the context of this story, see Rubenstein, “The Bavli's Ethic of Shame,” 29ff, and The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud, 69ff.

56. M. Tehillim 119.29. This is a comment on Psalms 119:79–80.

57. Psalms 109:22, 24 are cited. See verses 21–31 for the overall impression. Psalms 51:12 is also cited in the midrash. Levinas links shame, satiety, and desire in Totality and Infinity, 84, 117, 129.

58. BT Moed Katan 9b.

59. Joel 2:26–27. Translation from the JPS Study Bible. On this last verse, see parallels in Isaiah 45:5, 6, 18.

60. See Joel 2:18ff.

61. Ezra rules that this responsibility falls upon women, at BT Baba Kamma 82a. That ḥallah is to be eaten on Shabbat, see Moshe Isserles’ gloss at SA Oreḥ Ḥayim, Hilkhot Shabbat, 242.1.

62. BT Taʿanit 24a–b.

63. On the legal difficulties of receiving tzedakah to honor Shabbat, see comments by Magen Abraham, Magen David, Mishbetzot Zahav, and Eshel Avraham on SA, Orech Chayim, Hilchot Shabbat 242.1.

64. BT Taʿanit 24a–b.

65. See comment by the heavenly voice at BT Taʿanit 24a.

66. The phrase is mipnei k'vodan shel ‘aniyim. BT Moed Katan 27a. Many other practices were overturned to protect the honor of the poor and prevent them from being ashamed; these included drinking from clear versus colored glasses for the wealthy and poor, respectively; uncovering the faces of the dead rich but not the faces of the dead impoverished (so as to hide the fact that their faces were blackened by famine); and removing the corpse of the wealthy on a dargash (a couch-like bed with ropes holding a mattress upon it) but the poor on a bier. Many other examples of changes to prevent shame are found there. See also Meiri's commentary: Beit HaBehira, Moed Katan 27a.

67. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 75.

68. Levinas, Emmanuel, Otherwise Than Being: Or beyond Essence, trans. Lingis, 'Alphonso (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1998), 114.

69. Levinas, Emmanuel, Time and the Other, trans. Cohen, Richard A. (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987), 64. On Levinas's philosophical relations to food and consumption, see Goldstein, David, “Emmanuel Levinas and the Ontology of Eating,” Gastronomica 10, no. 3 (Summer 2010): 3444.

70. Levinas, Otherwise Than Being, 56.

71. M. Avot 1.14.

72. See Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, 202, on the relationship between eating disorders and shame.

73. Rubenstein, “The Bavli's Ethic of Shame”; The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud.

74. BT Baba Batra 81a–b. The parallel in the Yerushalmi lacks the element of shame (YT Bikkurim 1.8/64d).

75. On self-regard, see Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought, 196.

76. BT Shabbat 3b. Translation by Rubenstein, The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud, 74.

77. BT Horiyot 13b–14a.

78. A possible exception suggests the rule. Solid knowledge may not always anticipate or deflect shame, as depicted in the story of David being embarrassed by his study partners who asked him about the laws of punishing adulterers and he responds accurately. Yet this story refers to malbin pnei ḥavero b'arabbin (see above), not bushah or its cognates. See BT Sanhedrin 107a and discussion in Rubenstein, The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud, 77ff.

79. BT Baba Meẓia 97a.

80. Wimpfheimer, “‘But It Is Not So,’” 67.

81. Levinas, On Escape, 64.

82. This might be akin to Williams's notion of proactive shame.

83. BT Sanhedrin 11a. See a parallel version, without the concluding moral, at YT Sanhedrin 1.2/18c. See analysis of this sugya in Rubenstein, “The Bavli's Ethic of Shame,” 27ff and Rubenstein, The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud, 67ff.

84. Each was a first-century Palestinian sage and famous for his mastery of Jewish law. In the Soncino manuscript of the Talmud, after Shmuel admitted he was the interloper only to learn law, Gamliel replied, “O Eldad and Medad [Numbers 11:26, who were worthy of God's spirit alighting upon them], all Israel knows that if I had ordered that only two should enter, you would have been one [of them] to enter.” BT Semaḥot 47a/8.6 (Soncino edition).

85. R. Yehudah ben Shmuel HeḤasid (1140–1217), Sefer Ḥasidim, 642. BT Yevamot 65b says that it is permissible, and even a commandment, to modify a statement in the interest of peace (leshanot bidavar hashalom).

86. “It is not merely that I have seen myself, or that my own licentiousness comes home to me at last, but that in that event—as the very possibility of having seen this about myself—I am exposed to the other, to what I cannot incorporate into myself or account for, and without possibility of either covering myself up or denying that it is me”: Bloechl, Jeffrey, Liturgy of the Neighbor: Emmanuel Levinas and the Religion of Responsibility (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2000), 115–16. “Shame is founded upon the solidarity of our being, which obliges us to claim responsibility for ourselves”: Levinas, On Escape, 63.

87. Spinoza and Aristotle consider shamelessness an indignity the obverse of modesty, and it is not an emotion per se. See Spinoza, Ethics: E3P30N. In the sixth chapter of On Rhetoric, Aristotle defines shameless as “contempt or indifference” in regard to bad things that spark shame. The rabbinic term for shamelessness would probably be azut panim—arrogant-faced people—which would appropriately be a converse to the notion of shamefacedness. Indeed, R. Judah ben Tema juxtaposes such people to those who are boshet panim, and asserts their ends are Gehinom and Gan Eden, respectively. M. Avot 5.20.

88. BT Sanhedrin 11a.

89. As noted above, Aristotle says that shame is caused by voluntarily doing something such as a base action. Sometimes private shame is insufficient. In its discussion about parental duties to support one's children, the Talmud depicts R. Ḥisda calling for a mortar to be overturned in public upon which a father who refuses to support his children must stand and declare, “Even a raven cares for its young, but I do not care for my young” (BT Ketubot 49b). According to Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics, 296, Ḥisda “reasoned that a father who refuses to support his children forfeits his right to be treated as a normal human being. Rabbi Chisda also hoped that this threat would motivate the man to do his duty and provide for his children.”

90. See Burrus, Virginia, Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 1.

91. More on desire and shame below.

92. BT Yevamot 79a; YT Kiddushin 4.1/2a; YT Sanhedrin 6.7/23d. See also Devarim Rabbah, 3.4; Bamidbar Rabbah, 8.4.

93. BT Taʿanit 15b–16a; BT Sanhedrin 42a. A tradition in Derekh Eretz Zuta 2 says that it is better to be put to shame by oneself than it is to be put to shame by others.

94. BT Berachot 12b.

95. M. Tehillim 119.29.

96. This differs dramatically from guilt, which is not self-aware. See discussion in note 1 in Williams, Shame and Necessity, 219ff. Nausea, too, is not self-conscious. See Levinas, On Escape.

97. “Whenever the impulses of matter impel such an individual toward the dirt and the generally admitted shame inherent in matter, he feels pain because of his entanglement, is ashamed and abashed because of what he has gone through, and desires to diminish this shame with all his power and to be preserved from it in every way,” Guide, 3:8/432.

98. “Following from the shame that confronts me with myself such that I cannot escape or deny it, there can ensue a struggle with that identification, or rather within it… . Without the possibility of either escape or acquiescence, I am, most profoundly, an antagonism. I chafe at my own profile.” Bloechl, Liturgy of the Neighbor, 117.

99. Hunt argues that this self-reproaching aspect of shame ultimately debilitates. He concludes that shame, in a way, is self-defeating. See Hunt, Lester, “Nussbaum on the Emotions,” Ethics 116 (April 2006): 562.

100. BT Nedarim 20a. Repeated in Yalkut Shimoni, Yitro, 301, and in R. Abraham ben Isaac's (Narbonne, twelfth century) Sefer HaEshkol, Hilakhot Tzniyut 35b. See also Mekhilta d'Rebbi Ishmael, Yitro 9; Mekhilta d'R. Shimon Bar Yoḥai 20:17. Conversely, M. Shemuel 28.7 says the sign of shamefulness is that one does not sin (at all).

101. On Maimonides, see Stern, Freedom and Moral Responsibility. See also Williams, Shame and Necessity. Bloechl, Liturgy of the Neighbor, 118, says, “feeling ashamed means having to accept a self one would otherwise not have seen (and now would no doubt like to forget).” The internal audience not merely gazes upon the self, but simultaneously rejects (i.e., evaluates negatively) that which is seen.

102. Guide, 3:52/629. He returns to the theme of excrement: such men strive so that “their secret conduct with their wives and in latrines is like their public conduct with other people.” See also Stern, Freedom and Moral Responsibility, 263.

103. BT Shabbat 119b; Yalkut Shimoni, Yermiyahu, 276.

104. Jeremiah 6:15.

105. See Schofer, Jonathan Wyn, The Making of a Sage: A Study in Rabbinic Ethics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005) for another study of the interrelationship of procedural and character ethics in Judaism.

106. BT Moed Katan 9b.

107. The prayer welcomes divine instruction (“open our eyes to Torah”) so that uleʿ olam lo nevosh (“we are never ashamed”). In Siddur Rav Amram Gaon, one admits that one is like a vessel full of shame and humiliation: v'harei ani lefanekha k'khlei malei bushah v'khlimah (found in the section Seder Tefillah for a new month).

108. Spero, Moshe Halevi, Judaism and Psychology: Halakhic Perspectives (New York: Ktav 1980), 196, in a Freudian move, claims that “neurotic shame … [is] often rooted in unresolved adolescent rebellion in which the authority of the father, earthly or divine, is rejected in all its manifestations.” Yet Spero does not see any way for shame to have either prosocial or proreligious aspects.

109. Exodus 20:17. BT Nedarim 20a. See also M. Tehillim 1.10. The term shamefaced is used here to echo the Exodus verse that speaks of God being before the people's faces. See commentary by Ran, BT Nedarim 20a, s.v., melamed shebushah.

110. BT Nedarim 20a; Yalkut Shimoni, Yitro, 247.

111. This corroborates Spinoza's definition of a “sense of shame.” Ethics, 3, Definitions of the Affects, 31/Exp, II/191, p. 194. See reference to Spinoza at note 8, supra.

112. Richardson, “Legal Shame,” 9, says that the human struggle is “to maintain the status of one with the capacity to feel shame, but to behave in such a way so as to avoid feeling shame.”

113. See Levinas, On Escape, 63.

114. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 84.

115. Ibid. And a bit further on, “The welcoming of the Other is ipso facto the consciousness of my own injustice—the shame that freedom feels for itself” (86). See discussion in Ehman, “Emmanuel Levinas,” 142.

116. See Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 117, 129.

117. Ibid., 84.

118. Ibid., 86–87.

119. Ibid., 88. See also Levinas, On Escape, 63.

120. It is curious that Levinas links morality with emotion and not cognition when he says, “Morality begins when freedom, instead of being justified by itself, feels itself to be arbitrary and violent.” Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 84; emphasis added. Pirke Avot 2:16 also teaches that though a task is great, one is not free to abscond from responsibility for it.

121. Levinas, Otherwise Than Being, 128.

122. BT Nedarim 20a. See also YT Kiddushin 4.1/65b. This phrase is repeated more than twenty times in rabbinic literature.

123. Deuteronomy 29:14.

124. Ran, BT Nedarim 20a, s.v., lo amdu avotav ‘al har sinai.

125. Magen Avot L'Rashbaẓ, 5.27.

126. Recall Maimonides’ MT Hakdamah epigraph that shame precedes “regarding all Your commandments.” See note 4, supra.

127. Obviously, it is possible to be shamefully proud, that is, to manifest hubris.

Shameful Ambivalences: Dimensions of Rabbinic Shame

  • Jonathan K. Crane (a1)


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