Humiliation

by Deanna Levine

I give this D’var Torah in loving memory of my dear father, Ellis Levine (zl), who passed away on 12 June 1997 (the second day of Shavuot, 7 Sivan 5757) and my dear mother, Cissy Levine (zl), who passed away almost exactly two years later, on 18 May 1999 (3 Sivan 5759).  My dear late mother’s 17th yahrzeit was on Thursday and my dear late father’s 19th yahrzeit is today.

 

I also give this D’var Torah in loving memory of my very special brother Ian, who sadly passed away on Tisha b’Av, 9 Av 5769 (30 July 2009). 

My talk is based on Pirkei Avot – Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 3, Mishnah 15, as explained by Rabbi Dan Roth in his highly acclaimed book, entitled “Revelations”.        Note that I use the words, humiliation, embarrassment and shame interchangeably.

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A Sage of Yavneh, Rabbi Elazar HaModai, says: “He who humiliates his fellow in public, even though he may possess Torah and good deeds, he has no portion in the World to Come.” That is a startling statement.

 

Rabbi Meir Chodosh was once in the hospital for surgery, when a doctor came in to perform some blood tests.  Reb Meir asked his visitors to step outside while the blood was drawn.  When they returned, they asked him why he had wanted to be alone, but Reb Meir did not want to discuss the matter and changed the subject.

 

Some time later, a student was alone with him and pressed him to reveal what he was hiding about the incident. ”The doctor is a good doctor,” Reb Meir explained reluctantly, “but he is not proficient at locating veins.  He has to poke several times before succeeding.  I realized that he may be self-conscious about this in front of others, and I wanted to save him from being embarrassed in public.”

 

Let us further examine the idea of not humiliating others in public.

 

It is forbidden to shame a person at any time, even in private.  The reason that the Mishnah specifies shaming in public is because the severe punishment of losing one's share in the World to Come applies only when one shames someone in front of others. “Public”, in this regard, is not necessarily a hall filled with people: even three people suffice.  Since the instigator also counts as one of the three, shaming a person in front of two other people is already sufficient to forfeit one's portion in the World to Come.

 

We learn this concept from Joseph.  Before he revealed his identity to his brothers, he directed all the Egyptian guards to leave the chamber.  By being left alone with his brothers, Joseph was putting his life in danger.  The brothers had the power to kill Joseph, who had  antagonized them and had threatened to keep Benjamin as a slave. When they were alone with him they could easily have killed him, putting an end to all the pain and hardship Joseph was causing them.  Before he even had a chance to reveal his identity to them, he would be dead.

 

Joseph was fully aware of the danger.  Although he realised he might be killed, he asked the Egyptians to leave, so that his brothers would not be humiliated when he revealed his identity to them.  He said to himself “I would rather die than humiliate my brothers in front of the Egyptians.

 

Even if the other person is at fault, there is no justification for embarrassing him.  So, if a guest breaks an expensive ornament in your home, or accidentally wipes out all the photos from your digital camera, before you groan out loud – which would embarrass him in front of those present – take a deep breath and remind yourself of the strict obligation not to humiliate him publicly.

 

A late 19th century Torah giant, Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin, used to deliver a weekly shiur (lesson) in his home, and before each shiur, his attendant would prepare tea for him.  Once, the attendant mistook the salt container for the sugar bowl and put salt in Reb Yehoshua Leib's cup.  Since Reb Yehoshua Leib's doctor had prescribed that he should use a lot of sugar in order to increase his energy, the attendant had mistakenly stirred several heaped spoonfuls of salt into the glass.

 

Upon discovering the error, Reb Yehoshua Leib's wife quickly tried to warn him but Reb Yehoshua Leib had already drunk some of the tea, making sure to hide any sign of distaste.  After the students left, his wife asked him how on earth he had managed to show such self-restraint.

 

“What?”  he uttered. “And shame a Jew in public?”

 

Now, there are exceptions to the rule. One is permitted in Halachah (Jewish law) publicly to humiliate someone who is committing an injustice if that is the only way to stop him (Kovetz He'aros 70).  For example, one would be allowed to publicise that a certain man is unfairly withholding a Get from his wife if more diplomatic methods have not helped. 

 

…which brings me to the present day…

 

The London Beth Din recently began to name and shame men who have for many years been refusing to give their wives a Get. This was sometimes done with the support of other Batei Din by arranging for notices to be placed in shteibels, synagogues and advertisements were placed in the Jewish Chronicle, all with photographs of the men. Synagogues have been urged to refuse them entry, and people have been invited to consider whether it would be appropriate to have social or business contacts with a Get refuser until such time as the Get has been given.

 

This is called humiliating someone for a positive purpose and it is permitted, although there are certain conditions in the Halachah (Jewish law) which have to be complied with – but that’s a talk for another day!   

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