Rabbi Avi Weinstein

It Seems That Public Humiliation Is Really Not Cool EVER!

In Uncategorized on March 10, 2009 at 9:41 am

The Talmud in Sanhedrin 11a offers three instances where individuals behaved badly and nevertheless they were spared public embarrassment through the grace of others. It was considered laudatory not to call an individual out for indiscretions in front of one’s peers.

In one case, seven judges were invited to deliberate over the calendar year and eight came, even though these deliberations were by invitation only.

Rabban Gamliel had ordered his emissaries to invite seven judges only to find that eight had arrived. He asked the one who had not been invited to step down. Shmuel Hakatan (who had been invited) immediately said, “I was not invited but only came to see how it’s done according to the law.”

In this case it is presumed, I think, that the Beit Din crasher didn’t know that these were closed deliberations and therefore was spared embarrassment.

In a second case, someone had come into Rebbe’s class stinking of garlic, and Rebbe asked whomever it was to leave the class, and Rav Hiyya (who had not tasted garlic) immediately left, and the rest of the class followed, so as not to embarrass Rav Chiyya.

This case one could also presume that the perpetrator was not aware of Rebbe’s aversion to garlic breath, and was therefore protected from being publicly humiliated.

The Gemara asked where did Rav Chiyya learn this lesson and the Gemara says it was learned from Rebbe Meir.

In that case a woman comes to the Beit Midrash of Rebbe Meir and states that one of his students had betrothed her through conjugal relations. Rebbe Meir (who had not done this) immediately gave her a writ of divorce and all of his students followed suit, thereby protecting the individual student who had behaved in such a dishonorable fashion with a presumably indiscreet partner.

The Gemara then brings examples in the Bible either where it explicitly states or learns by inference that Biblical figures and even God Himself go to great lengths not to publicly embarrass those who have egregiously sinned, even though they were certainly punished.

For example, the Gemara sites an aggadic passage where Joshua asks God who disobeyed His commandment and took spoils of war when he was commanded not to, and God rebukes Joshua by saying in effect, “Do I look like a snitch, draw lots and find out yourself.” Even in this case God was reluctant to single out an individual and preferred to punish all of Israel.

I wonder why public censure is so illegitimate, even in cases where the miscreant has brought great misfortune on his brethren? It is a terrible thing to humiliate someone publicly, but in some of these cases, public censure would not only seem permissible, but effective in righting a wrong where others had not only suffered but even died.

In a certain way, the burden of the individual is greater because of this sensitivity. A whole group will be punished because of ones misdeeds. Feelings will be spared but only at great sacrifice and great humiliation to the group. For people of conscience, that would certainly make them feel worse and maybe this is truly the meaning of the oft quoted “All of Israel is responsible for one another” (Shavuot 39a)–not only because we must endure the punishments caused by others misbehavior, but even then their feelings have to be taken into account and their dignity preserved.


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