No other nation has treated the Jews better than the United States. In turn, Jews have also made major positive contributions to the nation. Jews have been good citizens and have a high percentage of voter participation than other Americans; 85% versus the national average of 52%, according to a 2018 analysis done by GBA Strategies and J Street. They have also been elected to political offices at all levels nationally.
Jews are also very visible in social, political and economic roles. This has focused attention on Jews and their public and private behaviors. When Jews make the news, it creates a ripple effect among some audiences that affect the opinions of the non-Jewish population.
So what happens when a person with a Jewish name violates a social norm or the law? And as importantly, how should the wider Jewish community react to this violation of laws or public norms and its effect on the community?
With this, we enter the world of the shanda. As the Chabbad web site says, the Yiddish word shand translates as “shame” in English. If a religious or educated Jew commits a Shanda, they may be to cited for “tzu shand” or “to shame.”
How shame is treated in the Jewish community is an ancient question with current applications. It is impossible to watch the news today without some mention of a Jewish figure who has broken a law, violated a norm or supported a person, policy or political party that other Jews vehemently oppose. This also makes it very difficult to write about this topic without using anyone’s name as an example of embarrassment. One reason is that in today’s contentious environment, a person who commits a Shanda could easily become another person’s hero.
The other reason is political or cultural sensitivity. While researching this article, no Yeshiva responded to my requests for comments on this topic. Only one rabbi responded and he said any discussion of it would only inflame anti-Semitism. This is a good observation, except that anti-Semitic acts already are at high levels, so maybe a discussion on the topic could be beneficial to the community.
But I took the rabbi’s comments to heart and worked to write an article about Jews who shame the community without including one name, pro or con, criminal or accused, regardless of political affiliation, in this article.
This is a challenge since we all have a list of Jews who have caused shame for the community. Listing these names could even become a new parlor game, but the sad reality is that there is no shortage of people to include on the list.
The Shanda problem is also complicated for a few reasons. First, some people provide financial support for a cause or party that enacts policies some consider unethical, immoral or violations of Jewish law. Second, these same offenders often justify their behavior when they say they are charitable or support a party that does bad things, but which also supports Israel. Does this excuse ameliorate the shanda?
A contemporary discussion on this topic also links us to our past. We know that Jewish culture and Hebrew laws have examined how individual acts create community shame and how these acts violate written law. We can start with the Talmud: “Three signs signify that a person has a Jewish essence: he is compassionate, ashamed of doing wrong, and seeks to do acts of kindness” (Talmud, Yevamot 79a).
Shame and being ashamed are so human, they are the first sins mentioned in the bible. “Adam and Eve felt healthy shame for disobeying G‑d’s commandment. After Cain killed Abel, Cain’s initial lack of shame was so problematic that he had to go through a long cleansing period to awaken him,” writes Miriam Adahan in her article “Shame and Emotional Turmoil” on The Jewish Woman.org.
This is an extreme example, but it makes the point. Most modern shandas are less violent, but are highly visible and in an era of social media, quickly become magnified and twisted.
Yet, while there are many commentaries on this topic, how should Jews react when one of their own violates the law or creates a situation that denigrates the larger community?
Repairing the Shanda Damage
Embarrassing the Jewish community creates problems inside and outside the community. In the words of Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post (May 17, 2011), “to be ‘a shanda for the goyim’ is to confirm the most hurtful stereotypes, thereby doing damage twice: a Jew who dishonors Jews by not only doing something bad, but doing something that confirms the worst fears of others about Jews in general.” Worse, this makes a shanda “a disgrace before the nations.”
This shame has two sources: internal and external. Jews are scrutinized more closely than other ethnic groups and like Hebrew National hot dogs, Jews are held to a higher standard. After all, Jews are the chosen people and are instructed to be a “light for the nations.” In this role, they are “representing Him and His will in the world. Transgressing the Torah or acting shamefully is bad enough, but to do so in public is a double Shanda,” according to Chabbad.
So, while we all have a list of people to include on the Shanda list, we should also focus on the opposite. Despite the obvious and hideous acts of abuse and crimes committed by some Jews, most Jews pursue goodness. This is behind the admonition Shiviti Ha-Shem le-negdi tamid – “I’ve ever measured myself against the Lord” (Psalms 16:8).
We can’t understand those who have failed miserably in their public or private lives or become criminals and caused embarrassment, but the vast majority of us can make a stronger effort to do more visible good deeds. This is a modest effort since significant damage has been done to the community. It is our job to repair it.