Nedarim 20: Shame on Me

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |
In the siddurim commonly in use today, on the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh, we pray that we should be blessed to have "chaim she'ein bahem busha uchlima, a life that has no shame or disgrace". Being shamed is a most awful experience, and to embarrass someone in public is equated with murder (Bava Metzia 58b). 
Yet other versions of this prayer actually say the exact opposite, with the prayer for chaim sheyesh bahem busha uchlima, a life that has shame. This in keeping with the teaching of our Sages that the character traits of the Jewish people are rachmanim, bayshanim, and gomlei chassadim; merciful, bashful, and doers of kindness (Yevamot 79a).  
We live in a generation where people have little shame[1]. Nothing is too outrageous as long as one is talking about consenting adults. Our Sages saw matters differently. "This [the biblical verse] teaches that busha, shame, leads to fear of sin" (Nedarim 20a). It is the sense of shame that goes a long way in preventing us from sinning. Lose it, and we lose our moral compass. "Whoever possesses shame will not easily sin, and whoever has no shame, you can be assured his ancestors did not stand on Har Sinai" (Nedarim 20a). Character is, to a greater degree than people like to admit, passed down from parent to child. Our DNA consists not only of physical attributes, but moral ones too. And just as we make lifestyle adjustments to improve our physical DNA, so we must do for our spiritual DNA. In the worldview of our Sages, shame and Sinai are one and the same. Our encounter with the Divine makes us realize the great potential we all have, and shames us as we realize how far we may have strayed from that potential. 
The Talmud juxtaposes these teachings about shame with a series of teachings regarding sexual immorality-- an area where shame is dearly needed. The connection between shame, sin, and sexuality dates back to Adam and Eve, who developed a sense of shame over their naked bodies only after sinning. Absent sin, the physical and spiritual worlds were in complete harmony, and there was no need to cover ourselves. When sin entered the world, tension developed between the physical and spiritual, and clothes became necessary to cover our bodies[2]. 
"He used to say: az panim, the shameless go to Gehinom, uboshet panim, those with a sense of shame, are destined to the Garden of Eden (Avot 5:24)." Yet such is only true in regards to character development. In regard to intellectual development, the opposite is true. As the Maharsha explains ein habayshan lomeid, one who is bashful cannot learn. 
On its most basic level, one who is afraid or embarrassed to ask questions, afraid that such might reveal his or her ignorance, can never learn. Questions are the building blocks of learning. But it means much more. Not only must we lack busha, we must even demonstrate a form of azut panim, chutzpah, a willingness to challenge those much greater than us. We must internalize the learning and not just parrot what our teachers say. Learning must involve questioning, debate, analysis--there is little room for humility while we are engaged in learning.  
"Rav Nahman bar Yitzchak said: Why are the words of the Torah likened to a tree, as it is said, It is a tree of life to them that grasp it? This is to teach you, just as a small tree may set on fire a bigger tree, so, too, it is with scholars; the younger sharpen the minds of the older" (Taanit 7a). This beautiful sentiment is immediately followed by, "this is similar to what Rav Hanina said: I have learnt much from my teachers, and from my colleagues more than from my teachers, but from my disciples more than from them all".  It is only when we question our teachers without humility that they can learn from us, enabling us to learn even more from them. Busha is a powerful tool--we must learn when to apply it and when not.


[1] I recall Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt"l, mentioning to us how when Ingrid Bergman had an affair, she was "forced" to leave America for a period of six years (and you can even verify this on her Wikipedia page)--such was the shame that people had for such behaviour. Times really have changed - and not for the better!

[2] And when a person dies and the physical and spiritual worlds are no longer in tension, one rips one's clothes.