When Rabbi Manis Frideman authored Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore? in 1990, he was reflecting on trend that had started long before. People have lost a sense of shame. It was once the case that no one dared to reveal any part of his or her undergarments in public. Not only was it considered poor taste, it was a cause of embarrassment. Nowadays, men and women harbor no such compunctions. It was once the case that people would not talk publicly about intimate relations. Nowadays, it is reason for boasting. When I was first ordained as a rabbi and couples came to see me prior to the wedding, they whispered the fact that they lived at the same address and actually were ashamed to relate this information. Today, more than half the couples who come to see me are living together before marriage and have no reluctance to say so. Nowadays, criminals boast about their crimes on the internet.
In his commentary on the Torah, RaShI – Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaqi of Troyes – reflects more than simply a quaint old preoccupation with shame. RaShI understands that a sense of shame is actually a virtue.
The Torah reports that when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, they could not respond. They literally trembled in his presence (Genesis 45:3). The immediate and most plausible explanation of their reaction is that they feared for their lives. Remembering how they mistreated their younger brother and then sold him into slavery, they were sure that Joseph, the second most powerful man in Egypt, would now take his revenge. But this is not RaShI’s thinking. RaShI explains that the brothers did not recoil in fear. They trembled in shame. Now seeing their brother alive, they could not help but think of their bad behavior. They were filled with remorse and shame about what they had done. They had, perhaps for the first time, come to appreciate the wrong they committed.
That RaShI favoured this explanation over what seems to be the obvious one is more than a statement about how RaShI applies the well-known rabbinic principle of judging people favorably. RaShI sees a sense of shame as instrumental in judging conduct and thus shaping ethical living. Without a sense of shame there is no path to rehabilitation.