To read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is to feel sympathy for those whose lives have been destroyed by excessive shaming and to realize how fickle the public can be in determining who is worthy of shame. After one ill-advised Tweet on a forthcoming trip to South Africa, a Daily Beast executive was bombarded with so many negative responses her employers fired her. She collapsed in tears while cleaning out her desk and battled depression for several months afterwards. On the other hand, a Maine pastor who was caught with a prostitute faced hardly a ripple. Given the capricious nature of shame and the often dubious motives of the shamers, it is not surprising that Ronson has little regard for the enterprise.
Along comes Jennifer Jacquet, Professor of Environmental Studies at New York University. While admitting the sometimes disproportionate and selective responses to wrongdoing, the frivolous nature of the public, the perils of public shaming, and the permanent damage of humiliation, she draws a different conclusion. Asking Is Shame Necessary? she answers an emphatic ‘Yes!’ Shame is the single most effective weapon in inducing people to buy dolphin-safe tuna and otherwise adopting behaviors that will protect the environment. Shame can lead to guilt. And guilt is a powerful engine for change.
Judaism is far closer to Jacquet than to Ronson. One category of sacrifices is the “guilt offering.” The guilt offering was brought by a propitiant for a select number of trespasses (like misappropriating Temple property or breach of trust; see Leviticus 5:14-26). But a guilt offering was also in order for an act whose legitimacy is in doubt. The sinner is in doubt as to whether the act was wrongful and requires a sin offering or not. In other words, what impels the person to consider bringing a sacrifice is that person’s sense of guilt. And it is guilt that leads the sinner to atone for the perceived wrong. Yet there is a difference between what the Torah describes and what Jacquet prescribes. The guilt offering is voluntary. It is the result of a voluntary acknowledgment of guilt, not the outcome of public shame.
With the destruction of the Second Temple, and the end of all sacrifices, it is Yom Kippur that becomes the vehicle for seeking atonement. And included in the liturgy of the day are repeated references to the guilt offering. It is through our recollection of the guilt offering that we are called to look inward and by feeling guilt – and even shame – make the commitment to repent and change. Journalist Nick Romero may be right: “Shame is not only necessary, it might be our last best hope for solving the world’s problems.” And if not the world’s, surely our own.