chevron-thin-right chevron-thin-left brand cancel-circle search youtube-icon facebook-icon twitter-icon


In Praise of Shame

August 26, 2010

After an overdose of local news a few nights ago, I went onto Amazon and typed in “shame.” As I expected, all I could find were books about overcoming shame, how to move beyond it. The top hit was Healing the Shame that Binds You, but there were many more: Letting Go of Shame or Healing the Shame We Don’t Deserve, and so on.

But isn’t there shame that we do deserve? What about learning to live with shame that is almost unbearable? Isn’t it precisely by becoming harrowingly aware of our faults and misdeeds that we become better people? Why no books about living with shame, rather than just getting beyond it?

It’s not only in the world of books that shame is taboo, where the only goal is to avoid it. We do the same in Israeli society, deftly moving the spotlight from our misdeeds to someone else’s alleged fault. Perhaps successfully, perhaps not, we try to convince ourselves that we bear no responsibility. What’s certain, though, is that this pattern allows us to avoid the introspection that might actually make us better people and, ultimately, a better country.

BY NOW, most of us have forgotten Eden Abergil, the former IDF soldier who posted on her Facebook page photographs of herself posing in front of bound and blindfolded Palestinians. What she did is revolting on a myriad of levels. For me, though, what was most astounding was her absolute unwillingness to consider the possibility that she had done anything wrong.

Did Abergil not care that she was humiliating those Palestinians (for they must have known that they were being photographed)? Did she not care that she was affecting how they would think of Jews? Did she not realize what the momentary (and sick) satisfaction she would get from this display of – of what? – might do to the image of her country as those photos flashed across the world, or the light it would cast on her (former) fellow soldiers, most of whom do their best to protect their country with incomparable decency?

At first, she feigned naïveté. “I still don’t understand what’s wrong,” she said to Army Radio, because the “pictures were taken in goodwill; there was no statement in them.”

But then, worst of all, she tried to shift the blame. She aimed her sights at the very army she’d betrayed, because she’d been informed that she’d be stripped of her rank. “The army let me down,” she said, expressing anger, not shame. “I’m sorry that I served in such [an] army.”

On that count, she’s right. It’s a shame that someone like her served in our army.

But Abergil is only sorry that she served in the army. She has no regret that she humiliated her prisoners, brought shame on the army or was raised without her parents teaching her that the best thing to do when you’re clearly wrong is to acknowledge that – and to grow from it. No, she’s part of the “healing the shame we don’t deserve” society, in which everyone except us is at fault.

At least the officer who is accused of having stolen laptops from one of the Turkish flotilla ships had the decency to cover his face at his first hearing. Is it possible that he’s now ashamed? One can only hope.

BUT THIS is not just an army matter. What about Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, whose recent book, Torat Hamelech, argues that non-Jews may be killed indiscriminately in war, and who asserts, in Chapter Five, that “even babies who [are innocent] – there is good reason to consider killing them because of the future danger that will be created if they are raised by evil-doers like their parents.”

So the police investigate Shapira for incitement, but instead of acknowledging that something is clearly amiss with religious education in parts of Israeli society, wide swathes of the rabbinate close ranks, arguing that rabbis must have freedom of expression. If the police can indict for this, religious freedom will be endangered, they insist. Magically, it’s now religious freedom that’s the issue, not the fact that some of the country’s religious “leadership” is condoning murder.

Whether or not this ought to be a police matter is a good question. But, so too, is the question of what is the ideal collective response to a book like Shapira’s. Is society well served when legalities afford us escape from confronting our painful failings? How is it that a country that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust can produce “religious” leaders who sanction the wholesale murder of babies? Most Israelis don’t see this as a reflection on our collective society.

What’s happening to us that we’re producing Abergils and Shapiras (and others) in ever increasing numbers? Do we not recognize the danger of our unwillingness to confront the shameful parts of who we’ve become? Of course we’re at war, and yes, we do have very real enemies. But when our battles blind us to the danger of being unwilling to admit that some dimensions of this society are simply shameful, haven’t we lost something sacred? With Israel so unfairly delegitimized at every turn, it is only natural that we will instinctively seek to defend the country we love. Sadly, there are too few Jews willing do to that today.

But that instinct must have limits. When the world applies double standards or is hypercritical in its treatment of the Jewish state, patriotism demands that we fight back. But when things go wrong, when there’s incontrovertible evidence that something is seriously amiss with Israel’s moral education (or at least parts of it), genuine patriotism demands that we acknowledge that, too.

For the danger of constant self-justification is very real. If we continue this pattern of avoiding shame and shifting blame, even if we are successful in saving this country, we may wake up one day and realize that what we saved wasn’t worth having in the first place.

Sign up to receive
Daniel Gordis' email dispatches