Rabbi Steven Pruzansky

The Death of Shame

by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky

Watching the implosion of Anthony Weiner for the second time stimulates a few thoughts. His attempted run for Mayor of NYC, bound to be aborted in the near future either by himself or by intelligent voters, is painful to watch. His confessions seem strangely detached, read in a bland tone without obvious expression as if he is on emotional auto-pilot. His wife is similarly pained, although she cannot be shocked except by the extent of the dysfunction of the man she married and assumed was normal.

There was a time when non-Jewish women desired to marry Jewish men, assuming that they would be less likely to stray, deviate, drink to excess, beat or exhibit other signs of aberrant, anti-social behavior. Jewish men without any semblance of loyalty to the Jewish people or understanding of their heritage willingly complied and they too sought out non-Jewish women for marriage. The one bright note in the tragic sagas of Weiner and the similarly intermarried, again running-for-office reprobate Elliot Spitzer is that perhaps non-Jews will re-consider marrying Jews, thereby driving down the intermarriage rate. Jewish men do not seem as desirable as they once were; in fact, these two are embarrassments irrespective of their ethnic origin.

What would possess these two individuals to return to the public eye, run for office, and subject their families and themselves to increased scrutiny knowing that they both have…issues? Certainly both feel a compulsion for public service, presuming that they can do what others cannot do. They must enjoy the publicity, the acclaim and even the occasional criticism – all of which make them feel important. But they have to be particularly obtuse not to realize that they are laughing stocks, notwithstanding that both stood (stand) reasonable chances of getting elected to their respective posts. Part of their success is media-driven: both make great fodder for the media beast because their stories are so salacious. Part of their success is attributable to their faith in Americans as a forgiving, even forgetful, people. And part of it traces to something else that is now endemic to American life: the death of shame.

Shame was murdered when morality was reduced to a lifestyle preference that is completely subjective. There was a time when a married, two parent (male and female) family with children was not only the norm of American life but socially desirable. Today, people boast about families existing in all forms, with different configurations and lifestyles on which any moral judgment redounds to the detriment of the putative judge. The other day I walked past two young women talking in a public place, and overheard one saying “she lives with her boyfriend in a house on the other side of…” and kept walking.  I never heard the end of the sentence, but what struck me was that, not long ago and in my own lifetime, no one would talk that way in a public place, and couples living together before marriage would be discussed in hushed, embarrassed tones if it would be discussed at all. It is still that way, thank God, in the world in which I live, but modern culture, its value system and celebration of all that is different and deviant, can be oppressive at times, and perhaps always. Decadence is so normative it is no longer perceived as decadence.

Misfits like Weiner and Spitzer benefit from that non-judgmentalism, always able to trot out spokesmen, celebrities or acolytes to declare that one’s private life is private, should not intrude on one’s public service, and should always remain a private matter between husbands, wives and their paramours. They can count on people saying “let one who is without sin cast the first stone,” and gleefully point to other similarly-situated sinners who have resumed public roles. One would think that, at least for the sake of their wives and children, they would be better advised to slink off to some obscure job with a low profile and focus on what is truly important in life – family, children, values, reputation, and even – if they chose wisely – divine service. Have some shame, at long last!

There is an ongoing debate on whether or not the wives of these degenerates deserve sympathy. On the one hand, they are both strong, intelligent and successful women who are making their choices with the eyes open even if their heads are not held high. On the other hand, they are doing what they can, under extremely trying circumstances, to keep their families together, and that is most admirable. On the third hand, they both benefit from the prestige that attaches to the prominent politician, and may be willing – as the Kennedy wives were – to tolerate a certain amount of indiscretion in order to retain that prominence. Weiner’s wife, long-time aide to Hillary Clinton, certainly has her boss as a role model. I tend to be more sympathetic than not, especially because they will always go through life with the stigma of “wife of so-and-so who…” and that is not a particularly desirable notation on a resume. And surely they know – as Weiner’s wife seem to know now – that a happy ending will be an unlikely and unexpected coda to their marriages.

What has changed? Society used to pay lip service to the morality of the Bible, so that even people who did wrong at least knew that what they were doing was wrong, as in immoral. Now, the only offense is the personal wrong done to the spouse, which is why her support is crucial to the miscreant’s rehabilitation. But as a society we have lost much – innocence, decency, standards and responsibility. Every lowlife can retreat behind the wall of “personal morality,” and then, as has become customary, wrap himself in the warm blanket of “therapy” which transforms the scoundrel into the victim or patient. If only it were sincere.
We were a better society when the private was kept private, when character was a person’s most cherished asset, when a good name was worth more than money, when a person could watch the news with his children without cringing, when dignity and self-pride actually meant something, when moral standards were objective and widely embraced if not always heeded. Those were the days before the television confessionals of misfits became a daily staple, when politicians and public figures would actually balk at answering questions they deemed “too personal,” and decency, loyalty and responsibility were nobler values than personal expression, freedom of choice, and individual happiness. Those were the days; today, even hypocrisy would be a blessing because it presupposes some objective standard of good behavior.

The Talmud (Masechet Sanhedrin 55a) states that after a conviction for the crime of bestiality (still frowned in our ultra-sophisticated, tolerant society – the last remaining barrier!) both the perpetrator and the animal are executed. But why should the animal be executed, the Talmud asks, it is an innocent beast? The answer is that we do not want that animal to “walk in the marketplace and have people say, ‘so-and-so was executed because of what he did to that animal.’”
There is such a concept of moral pollution, even more harmful than the toxic fumes emitted by Chinese factories. It is deleterious to our spiritual aspirations to have constant reminders thrust into our faces of debauchery and depravity. It is even worse when they are Jews who are intermarried, such sorry representatives of the Jewish people in the general world.

The World Street Journal several weeks ago featured the post-scandal life of John Profumo, who threw himself after his personal downfall into charity and good works for the rest of his life. One longs for that sort of dignity.  Is repentance is possible? Of course – after contrition, being again tested and not failing, and after acknowledging the bad behavior and not just regretting getting caught in the bad behavior. That takes years, not months. That takes humility, not the exhibitionism that is almost a prerequisite to political life.

It would also take the reawakening of shame, whose return would be most welcome to our troubled world.


Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, a synagogue consisting of nearly 600 families located in Teaneck, New Jersey, and one of the most vibrant centers of Orthodox Jewish life today. He has served since August 1994. Previously, Rabbi Pruzansky was for nine years the spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Chaim in Kew Gardens Hills, New York. While in New York, he served a two-year term as President of the Vaad Harabonim (Rabbinical Board) of Queens.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas


  1. “Shame was murdered when morality was reduced to a lifestyle preference that is completely subjective.” Yes, and one could even take it further. Shame was murdered when the more private aspects of life became just another sound byte on the TV. My generation, the hippies of the 60’s and 70’s, for example, took something as beautiful as lovemaking between a husband and wife – talked about to no one but each other – and made it banal and, as Leon Hale would say, “common as an old shoe”. And down the slippery slope we slid, with Madison Ave happily providing the grease. Bodily excretions, sexual preparations, genital dysfunctions…let’s just put them all on the flat screen and pipe them into everyone’s home, shall we? And everyone’s silence is tacit approval.

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