In a 2016 New York Times Op-Ed, Sally L. Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld observe that modern American culture has been “down on shame [as] a damaging, useless emotion that we should neither feel ourselves nor make others feel.” This trend is unfortunate, they argue, because it ignores the positive role that “appropriate shame”—which they define as “the feeling that one has failed to live up to one’s own standards”—can play in changing problematic behaviors, especially addiction.
It is true that there is an increasing resistance to the idea of shame as a “helpful” emotion, both in the psychological literature and in popular culture. June Price Tangey and Ronda L Dearing, in Shame and Guilt (New York: Guilford, 2002) conclude that in contradistinction to guilt, “shame is an extremely painful and ugly feeling that has a negative impact on interpersonal behavior. Shame-prone individuals appear relatively more likely to blame others (as well as themselves) for negative events, more prone to a seething, bitter, resentful kind of anger and hostility, and less able to empathize with others in general.”
More recently, Brené Brown, in books, articles, and a TED talk that has been viewed more than 1.7 million times, follows Tangey and Dearing in distinguishing shame and guilt. Guilt, she says, is when one understands that one’s actions were bad and acknowledges the need to make amends—or in religious language: that one has sinned and needs to make teshuvah (to repent). Shame, far from simply a failure to live up to one’s own standards, is the feeling that one is bad, unworthy of love and connection. In such a case, sin feels like a permanent condition,and teshuvah seems impossible.
We see echoes of these dynamics in rabbinic responses to Parshat Shemini, which opens at the end of the week-long ordination period for Aaron and his sons, the Kohen Gadol (high priest) and his assistants. They are now ready to take up the family business of performing ritual sacrifices in the mishkan, the portable tabernacle that stands amid the Israelite encampment. The eighth day has much resonance in Jewish tradition, not least of all as the day of a male child’s brit milah, the ritual circumcision that ushers a boy into the covenant of Abraham. It is also the first day of work—of avodah, of service—after the seventh day, the Sabbath, and thus resonates with the story of creation.
This work is the immediate topic of Moses’ instructions to Aaron: “Take a calf of the herd for a sin offering…This is what the Eternal One has commanded that you do, that the Presence of the Eternal One may appear to you. Then Moses said to Aaron: ‘Draw near (k’rav) the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, making expiation for yourself and the people…’” (Leviticus 9:2, 6-7).
The great medieval commentator Rashi wonders why Moses tells Aaron to approach the altar—wasn’t that clear from the previous instructions? Rashi’s answer comes from the Sifra, a rabbinic commentary on Leviticus: “Because Aaron was ashamed and was afraid to get too close, Moses said to him: ‘Why are you ashamed? You were chosen for this!’” This answer is tantalizing, but leads to further questions: Why was Aaron ashamed? Why is Moses’s external validation necessary, and what is the antecedent to his “this”: Was Aaron chosen for the work, or on account of his shame?
The text of the Sifra helps a bit:
“Draw near to the altar”: A parable: to what is this matter akin? A king of flesh and blood married a woman and she was ashamed in his presence. Her sister came in to her and said: Why did you enter into this? Is it not only for the sake of ministering to the king? Embolden yourself and serve the king! Similarly, Moses said to Aaron: My brother, why were you chosen as high-priest? Is it not only for the sake of ministering before the Holy One of Blessing? Embolden yourself and perform your service! (Thus: “Draw near!”) Others say: Aaron perceived the (horned) altar as an ”image of an bull” (Psalm 106:20) and was frightened by it, whereupon Moses said to him: My brother, you’re afraid of that?! — Thus: “Draw near.” Embolden yourself and draw near to Him.
The gender dynamics and psychological implications of this passage could lead a discussion in many directions, but here I want to point out a few responses to the questions above. In the first half of the midrash, Aaron is like the humble queen, overtaken by shyness and shame before the king, whether because of her sense of unworthiness in comparison to her exalted spouse or out of a fear of exposure and rejection. Her sister, like Aaron’s brother Moses, points out that service to the king (in this case sexual intercourse, presumably leading to an heir) is why she is here in the first place, thus reminding her of her innate worthiness to be queen. Shame here has no place; it can only interfere, preventing people from performing their ordained service.
The second half of the midrash points not at any innate unworthiness, but at a shame derived of one’s actions—or guilt, according to the researchers I cited above. By referring to Psalm 106, the text recalls Aaron’s sin of the Golden Calf (which commentators also perceive in the parasha’s opening lines, when Moses instructs Aaron to take “a calf of the herd for a sin offering): “They made a calf at Horeb / and bowed down to a molten image / They exchanged their glory / for the image of a bull that feeds on grass” (Psalm 106:19-20).
In this case, Moses’ admonition reminds Aaron that God had forgiven him, had still chosen him, and was drawing him close. Reading this midrash, the prominent 19th-century Hasidic rabbi known as the Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger) proclaims that Aaron’s sin and the resulting need to repent—to make teshuvah—was in fact precisely what allowed Aaron to be chosen as High Priest. To support this claim, he cites the Babylonian Talmud, which states that completely righteous people can never stand in the place occupied by ba’alei teshuvah (successful penitents). Guilt and repentance, then, are necessary to fully experience God’s presence, whereas shame (in the modern sense of feeling unworthy of love and connection) can only impede it.
The rabbinic and Hasidic attitudes towards shame, to be sure, do not consistently track this modern dichotomy (and speak well of shame as an emotion that can prevent us from sinning and is necessary for successful performance of the mitzvot). But we moderns—with so many potential barriers to coming close to the Holy One, and with an even greater awareness of the crippling role of shame—would do well to take up the strand of thought that emphasizes how shame can make us feel unworthy of approaching God, and how being an imperfect, growing and changing person makes us not unfit but especially fit for doing holy work.
Rabbi Jim Morgan was ordained at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, and serves as Rabbi/Chaplain for Center Communities of Brookline, a division of Hebrew SeniorLife, and as the Rabbinic Advisor for the Worship and Study Minyan at Harvard Hillel.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.