The stories of former Governor Elliot Spitzer, former Representative Anthony Weiner, and former Governor Mark Sanford contain a powerful message.
These three men admitted to being guilty of degrading moral lapses and each of them had to resign in disgrace from his office of public trust. End of story? Unfortunately, no. Each of them has now returned to the public spotlight. Sanford has been elected to the House of Representatives from his state of South Carolina, and, not to be outdone in the chutzpah department, Spitzer and Weiner are now running for high elective office in New York City – and are being given strong chances of being elected.
Now, there is such a concept as teshuva, repentance, in the religious life, and one would be less than compassionate in denying the theoretical possibility of teshuva to Spitzer and Weiner. But one can be forgiven for viewing their newfound penitence, and their shameless campaign to convince the public that they have been rehabilitated, as driven less by sincere piety than by calculated and cynical politics.
Which brings to mind the crucial role of shame in human life. Shame has been defined as a consciousness or awareness of dishonor, condemnation or disgrace. That consciousness stems from thought, from weighing options before making decisions – albeit the wrong decisions. This is why animals have no sense of shame, for an animal acts by instinct. For him there is no awareness of disgrace, and no shame involved in his actions, no matter how disastrous the results.
This is why the Talmud says that one of the three distinguishing features of the Jewish people is that we are baishanim, that we have a sense of shame (Yevamot, 79a). Shame is our distinctive characteristic. Without it, the self is easily debased, and we are like animals.
Without embarrassment, everything goes, and the concept of shame is fading from our lexicon.
The barriers of shame in general have been gradually toppling around the world, and most recently in the United States. What was once shameful and kept to one’s self is today a matter of pride and public display. Instead of being embarrassed by certain behaviors, it has become de rigueur to flaunt such behaviors, as if a sense of shame were a defect of character, a personal disability. In our narcissistic culture, where personal satisfaction and enjoyment reigns supreme, we are being taught that the healthy person has no sense of shame. We have lifted the taboos, so that shame itself has become shameful.
But beginning with Adam in the Garden who is ashamed because of his sin, that sense of shame is what makes us human.
Shame operates as a force of self-restraint. It reminds us of behavioral limits, of boundaries which we will not cross. A healthy sense of shame reminds us of our natural human obligations to others and to ourselves. This is very crucial, because history teaches one major lesson: when shame goes, the demise of civilization cannot be far behind. Which is a worrying factor about American civilization today: without embarrassment, everything goes, and the concept of shame is fading from our lexicon.
The searing words of Jeremiah leap from the page: “They should have been ashamed at the abominations they committed, but they felt not the least shame, nor did they know how to blush….” (Jeremiah 8:12).
That politicians who have so debased and humiliated themselves and their office should now seek public redemption by running yet again for public office is quite jarring. Most disturbing is the sense that they would not be running unless they felt they had a chance of winning. And what does this say about the voters who seem willing to return them to office? Is it that they are very forgiving, or that they see nothing terribly wrong in what these people did? Is the electorate totally amoral, or are we so desensitized that we do not expect better from elected officials?
We have got it backwards. The sense of shame is what makes us human. It is the last refuge of the sinner. When, as Jeremiah puts it, we have forgotten how to blush, that’s when civilization is in trouble. Shame is nothing to be ashamed of.