On Public Shaming, a Compassion Deficit and Monica Lewinsky

by Rabbi Jill Maderer

This week’s Torah portion, Shmini, describes what can serve as a korban–a sacrifice.  And when the wrong thing is used as a korban, tragedy results.

Recently, Monica Lewinsky has made the news, because she has begun to speak publicly about the media storm that consumed her identity.  Now at the age of 41, the former Whitehouse intern reflects back when she was 22, and made serious and foolish mistakes, when she began a relationship with her older and exceedingly more powerful boss, the then president of the United States.  Lewinsky’s boss abused his power and her friend violated her trust.  Still, the most painful part of the experience for Lewinsky was the public humiliation she endured.

In 1998, our society allowed the wrong thing to be used as a korban–a sacrifice– when Monica Lewinsky became the first person to be publicly shamed in the age of the internet.  Everyone knew her mistakes, many seemed to derive joy from degrading her, ostracizing her, reducing her to her faults, and exaggerating them beyond recognition. Every time the newspaper called her fat or the talk-show called her a slut, the humiliation was a punch in the stomach.  Lewinsky hid from the world and at times became suicidal.

In his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson submits: anyone’s poor decision can attract hordes of strangers directing hatred their way, seemingly obsessed with destruction.  “Strangers who, in addition to inflicting considerable psychological damage, sear onto their victims the modern equivalent of scarlet letters: highly ranked Google results about the unforgivable wrongs they had committed.”

It has been said it takes 20 years to build a reputation and only 5 minutes to destroy it.  Jewish wisdom reflects the fragility and precious nature of reputation in the high standard it sets for the laws of  speech.  Our tradition warns us against lashon hara–the evil tongue.  It is forbidden to say anything that would ruin someone else’s reputation–even if it’s true!  There are exceptions for critical, potentially life-saving information.  Yet for the most part, the standard is clear.  No gossip, even if it’s true.

Furthermore tradition protects dignity by forbidding the embarrassment of another person.  A story is told of Rabbi Akiva, sitting at his Passover seder table.  Rabbi Akiva’s guest spills his wine, staining the white tablecloth.  Sure enough, without missing a beat, the rabbi knocks his wine over, spilling it as well.  “Look at that,” Rabbi Akiva says, “the table is so wobbly tonight!” preserving the dignity of his guest.  Blend the teaching against the evil tongue with the teaching against embarrassment–the teaching preserving reputation with the teaching preserving dignity, and Judaism offers a powerful caution about how we interact in online communication.  As the tools for communication have grown and the borders of communication have disintegrated, we are now more than ever desperate for this Jewish wisdom.

Torah teaches “do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” There are times when keeping silent is as if we are standing by– we need to speak out for righteousness, condemn injustice.  There are moments when we are at risk of being too polite.  Then comes the hard work of determining: will my statement contribute to the cause of justice or to the culture of shaming?  Will my retweet bring compassion or mockery?  Am I clicking something–and therefore supporting it with advertising attention–clicking does essentially fund online shaming–am I clicking something for the potential to awaken empathy, or for the potential to read about a scandal?

If we are tempted to comment, retweet, or click a link that exploits someone else’s downfall, what is the source of  that urge?   Are we hungry for gossip?  Do we, in this complex world, crave easy labels and scapegoats?  Do we feel better about ourselves when we feel righteous indignation about someone else? Does it help us turn away from our own failings?  Perhaps we made mistakes when we were 22.  Perhaps we abused power at some point in our lives.  Perhaps in some superficial way, it helps us to feel better about ourselves if someone else’s mistake looks bigger than our own.

I wonder: if we can forgive ourselves for our own mistakes, will we have greater potential to be forgiving of others when they act badly?  If we have compassion for ourselves when we make a wrong turn, will we be more likely to offer compassion to others, in their imperfect moments? In David Brooks’ column “The Act of Rigorous Forgiving,” written earlier this year in the wake of the Brian Williams scandal, he writes, “I think that good people are stronger when given a second chance.  But the larger question,” Brooks adds, “is how we build community in the face of scandal.  Do we exile the offender or heal the relationship?”  He says, “would you rather become the sort of person who excludes, or one who offers tough but healing love?”  Shaming ends a conversation; closes the door to repair.

I would add to Lewinsky’s concerns about public humiliation, Judaism’s admonition about slander and Brooks’ observations about second chances.  Shaming is wrong not only because it is unethical and unkind; public humiliation is wrong because it directs our energy to the wrong place.  Like the priests are cautioned against in the Book of Leviticus, we sacrifice the wrong thing–we don’t only do the wrong action, we miss out on taking the right action.  When we turn the wrong thing into a korban, we take our eye off the ball.  Almost twenty years ago I watched as the Monica Lewinsky scandal unfolded, and the President finally began to come clean.  I remember watching the news thinking: What if the focus were not shaming, but instead social change.  What if the prosecution could stand down, the president could stop defending himself.  What if instead of spending all that energy on aggression, on self-preservation, and on humiliation, President Clinton and everyone else involved had used the spotlight on sexual harassment to create a transformative nation-wide initiative to combat sexual harassment and abuse of power in the workplace.  Instead we got shame.  We sacrificed the wrong thing.

Today, we continue to enable a culture of shame.  Lewinsky now teaches that in our online world, we have a compassion deficit, an empathy crisis.  Now, here’s the danger and the triumph of the online world–each of us has a voice.  If you and I protect reputation online, we can make an impact.  If you and I preserve dignity online, we can make an impact.  If you and I refrain from clicking onto shaming, we can make an impact and if you and I bring words of compassion online, we can make an impact.

With this first week of the Omer, the counting of days between Passover and Shavuot, the mystics have assigned the theme of chesed–loving kindness, or compassion.  And so, for this week of chesed, we turn to the words of  Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch who taught: Compassion is the feeling of empathy, which the pain of one being of itself awakens in another; and the higher and more human the beings are, the more keenly attuned are they to re-echo the note of suffering which, like a voice from heaven, penetrates the heart.

May we become attuned to others, that their pain may, like a voice from heaven, penetrate our hearts.

Delivered as a D’var Torah on Shabbat, Friday, April 10, 2015.