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Embarrassing a Person is Like Killing Them

 

(This was written before The Covid-19 shutdown but it still seems to resonate now, with all of us watching each other on social media and Zoom, and trying to figure out who’s accomplishing the most or being the coolest or the most responsible, and who’s telling the truth and who’s lying and why. And most of all, we’re trying to figure out the rules of social engagement during a time of social distance. Let me know what you think.)

In sixth grade bible class, at my Jewish Day School, we learned that embarrassing someone is like killing them. At least theoretically. In the Talmud it says that he who publicly shames his neighbor is as though he shed blood, and it would be better to throw oneself into a furnace rather than embarrass another. We learned tons of other lessons in our mini-law school class that year, but the embarrassment law stuck with me most, because, for me, embarrassment was a daily occurrence. As with most crimes, the commentaries on the bible encouraged a financial recompense for the crime, instead of direct revenge, and I was looking forward to all of that money.

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“Money for treats?”

Embarrassing me was a common sport among the girls in my class. They’d pull me aside to comment on my bra sticking out, or on my weight, or on my general un-coolness. They’d spent years criticizing me for my hygiene, my clothes, my vocabulary, my intelligence, my height, etc. They even humiliated me in my own home at my sleepover birthday party one year, hurling insults and tissues at me form the attic while the rest of my guests hunkered down with me behind the door to my room. The teachers did nothing. The parents did nothing. This was back when bullying was considered normal and teachers rarely intervened. I’ve been told it’s different now, but I don’t know.

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Ellie’s not sure either.

Being bullied by the girls at school was bad, but my father was the biggest source of embarrassment in my life. The sexual abuse was covert, but his campaign to make me look foolish was out in the open. When I was four years old he told my then six-year old brother to take a picture of me sitting on the toilet – and for this he taught my brother how to use his good camera and how to break the lock on the bathroom door. My brother could barely keep his shoelaces tied at that age, so my father must have worked very hard to teach him such specific skills. He didn’t bother teaching my brother how to develop the picture, though; he made the full-sized print himself, and framed it.

I didn’t know about the anti-embarrassment law back then, but I still felt wrong criticizing my father, even for his obviously abusive behavior, and I was criticized by other adults whenever I did get up the nerve to complain about him. This taught me that I shouldn’t speak up if it might cause my father pain, even if my intention in doing so was to protect myself. Because why should I matter more than he did?

That history has made me very sensitive to my own desire to heap scorn on others. I want to be very careful that I’m being fair in my criticisms, and I don’t want to be mean just because it feels good to be mean. And, after reading more of the small print, I’ve found out that there is more subtlety to the anti-embarrassment law: You’re required to testify in court, even if it could cause someone embarrassment; and, if someone repents and asks forgiveness, you can’t remind them of their past behavior (though it’s unclear how one might know if someone has gone through the full process of repentance, most of which happens in private). So now I’m even more confused. You are directly told to speak up when you see someone doing wrong; but there are all kinds of punishments for having embarrassed someone. How can you know when to speak up and when to remain silent?

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“Why would I ever be silent?”

I started to think about this issue recently when a man I know was following me around. He never threatened to harm me, and he never left scary voice mails on my phone, but he would stand too close to me when I was talking to other people, and follow me to my car, even when his car was on the other side of the parking lot. I did my best to discourage his behavior, by creating physical distance, and not making eye contact or conversation. A normal person would have gotten the hint, but he did not.

He knew about my abuse history, or he’d been told, but it was a further sign of his own psychological and social issues that none of that seemed to register. With my Masters in Social Work in my back pocket, I felt like I should know how to handle his behavior in a compassionate and understanding way, but knowing about his problems only made me feel guiltier for wanting to feel safe.

I tried to tell some of the women around me, thinking they would understand and offer support and advice, but they saw him as harmless. Oh, he likes you, they said, as if I should be flattered. I wondered if I was making a big deal about nothing, except that it was jangling my nerves, and making me scared to go to places where I knew the man might be. Even my therapist pooh poohed it, saying, you’re an adult, just tell him to leave you alone. This, technically, is called minimization and blaming the victim, but she didn’t see it that way.

I wanted the behavior to just stop. I didn’t want to have to confront the man in some way that might embarrass him, or me. But I also wanted other people to notice what was happening and protect me, and no one did. So I finally reached out to someone in authority to ask for help, as carefully and discreetly as possible, and help was offered quickly, and with kindness. The situation still isn’t great, but it’s better. Most likely, I should have asked for help sooner, before the situation became so overwhelming. As it is, I still feel anxious when I see the man, even when he’s doing nothing wrong. But I also feel uneasy about writing this, unsure if I’m revealing too much detail that could allow someone to identify him and cause him embarrassment.

And all of that made me wonder, why do I believe that I have to be so much more careful about not embarrassing him than about taking care of myself? Did I learn that from home? From school? From society at large? And why didn’t I also learn about the requirement to speak up when you see wrong-doing? Was that left out of my education, or was it actively discouraged?

Recently, when I heard that some prominent men were criticizing Gayle King for even asking about Kobe Bryant’s well known past misdeeds, after his death. Some people were going so far as to send her death threats. And I wondered if this emphasis on not embarrassing people is exclusively focused on men, rather than on women.

This is the #MeToo movement encapsulated. Women stood up and said, No more, we are going to speak openly about sexual assault so that men will be stopped. And, immediately, the men invoked their version of the anti-embarrassment law. As if the embarrassment and shame caused by the abuser to the victim is not as important as the shame the victim causes by publicly accusing the abuser. Even if the man is never indicted, and he gets to go back to his regular life, he will already have been shamed. So, with statistics showing at most a five percent chance of a false accusation of a man, all women should be disbelieved, or worse, silenced before they can be believed or disbelieved.

When President Trump complains that his critics are mean and disgusting and causing him harm, there’s some validity to that. People are giving accounts of hateful, and disgusting, and embarrassing behavior committed by the president, and they do intend him harm in speaking up about his behavior. So, are they wrong for causing him harm? Is that the kind of embarrassment that is prohibited?

In my house growing up, and in my world growing up, the answer was yes. You are harming him by accusing him, even if he’s guilty, and you have no right to cause him harm. But, is that what the bible intended to teach us? And if it did, do we have to listen?

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“No. The answer is no.”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Teaching Leviticus

 

For the next few months, I will be teaching a synagogue school class on Leviticus (Vayikra, in Hebrew), the third book of the Bible. It’s an odd book for children to study, with its focus on laws that applied in ancient temple times: laws for the Levites (the priests and their helpers) around purity and sacrifices and holiness. There’s also a section on dietary laws.

Cricket and bird

No, Cricket. You can’t eat the Canadian bird, even if she’s kosher.

But the fact is, the class will be based on a pre-set curriculum with very few actual quotes from the text, and much more focus on the ways these issues can be extrapolated into the modern lives of Jewish children. This makes a lot of sense. What’s the point of bogging down children’s minds with long passages, in Hebrew, about rules for priests who no longer exist? Judaism used to be a temple cult, with animal sacrifices, but long ago transformed into a synagogue and prayer-based religion.

Except, when I went to Jewish day school as a kid, we read everything, and we read it in both Hebrew and English, and it had an impact. We learned about “an eye for an eye” and that it should be translated to mean “money for an eye,” because the victim should be adequately compensated for the loss, rather than inflicting a similar loss on the perpetrator. We also learned about who’s responsible if someone’s ox falls into a pit on someone else’s property, and how punishments should vary based on whether a crime was intentional or accidental. It was, a little bit, like law school for ten year olds.

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“That doesn’t sound like fun to me, Mommy.”

We also read the stories of the prophets in Hebrew, like a novel, without even bothering with the commentaries most of the time. Our Hebrew was pretty great, now that I look back on it.

I can’t say whether all of that was better or worse than what we do at the synagogue school; it’s just very different. My students still struggle to sound out words in Hebrew, confusing similar looking letters for one another, and struggling to remember which sound goes with which vowel sign. And the bible classes are meant to be taught in English. But I’d still like to infuse more of the Hebrew text into the process; not because it’s part of the set curriculum, but because I want them to know that there’s a connection between the lessons we’re learning in class and the Torah that we read with such awe during services in the sanctuary. We dress the scroll in velvet and silver, and we read it with a special silver pointer, from a parchment written by hand by a single scribe. I want them to hear the ancient Hebrew, and the strange melody of the chant, and to feel the connection to the past that makes it all feel so sacred and phantasmagorical to me.

I’m a little bit anxious about the transition to something so much more clearly planned out. This will be the only year, at least in synagogue school, that they study the book of Leviticus, so I can’t hop around and choose to teach whatever interests me at the moment as if I’m picking from a vast Chinese food menu, the way I do in the Hebrew class. There are important lessons here that won’t be addressed elsewhere and that will be helpful to them in preparing for their Jewish lives. But I’ve gotten used to the creativity of the Hebrew class, where we can spend fifteen minutes trying to shape the Hebrew letters with our bodies without feeling like we’re wasting time (I have one student who can do a bridge pose that looks exactly like the Hebrew letter Chet – it’s possible she has no spine).

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“What letter am I, Mommy?”

It’s a balancing act, to bring the kids some of the magic that I feel, without overwhelming them with too much that is beyond their abilities for now. I need to make it fun, and relevant, and engaging, and useful to their daily lives, but I also don’t want it to feel so familiar that it loses its spark.

So, I need to study the lesson plans carefully, and study the book of Leviticus itself again, and try my best to teach my kids about holiness and where to find it in their lives, in their communities, and in themselves. And in dogs. There’s got to be room for the dogs in there somewhere.

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“There always has to be room for us.”

Wish me luck!

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?