I’m teaching rabbinic students a text in the Talmud that is famous for a story it contains (more on that another time). But a question that I keep asking myself is why the idea of hurt feelings and public shame is considered to be such a major concern that the rabbis 1600 years ago considered it to be one of the most serious ‘sins’ that means God becomes directly involved?
Then it came to me. For the first time in teaching this text I understood.
For those of us with children of school age, we will know that two weeks ago was antibullying week. It’s a week to give schools and children a framework to focus on their relationships with other children in the class, the atmosphere and collective responsibility for that atmosphere in the classroom and a set of expectations of behaviour. It’s a subject close to my heart. Close to my heart because I have a 9 and 7 year old at school and close to my heart for other reasons.
I can remember moving I think from year 5 into year 6. I never really fitted in properly at school, I liked science, nature, classical music and learning. My best friend left the school. He moved away. I felt lonely. And then I went to school one day and discovered that a rumour was circulating around the school about me. It felt like everyone knew it. A year 3 kid came up to me and said “you’re that one who is doing that thing.” It was the last straw. I picked him up by the scruff of the neck and threatened him. I was then called into the head teacher’s office with my parents to answer why I had made an 8 year old cry. I felt let down by the headteacher who could not psychically see that I was being bullied.
Later that year I had an envelope put through our letter box with excrement inside addressed to me. Then that summer, the park behind my parent’s house was locked by kids inside to keep me out. The girl I fancied, who I spent hours cycling and playing with was on the inside laughing at me.
It was the reason I said to my parents I wanted to go to a secondary school where no-one else from my junior school or neighbourhood was attending. I wanted a fresh start.
Moving schools I taught myself, eventually, to like pop culture so I could fit in. I still wasn’t cool (not like now!) but at least I didn’t stick out. And I was aggressive. Because there was no way that anyone was ever going to see me as a target again. And I survived and spent my young adulthood relearning how to live a life of compassion, of strength in vulnerability.
Last week was antibullying week. And it was also the week I taught the next part of a section of the Talmud. It deals with the power of words. And part of the clear challenge of the text is the question of whether there is a direct line to God in our prayers. And if God listens, then what? And the pain of hurt feelings through the power of words is the rabbis’ great concern. A sort of opposite of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
The Talmud records (bBava Metzia 58b-59a):
תני תנא קמיה דרב נחמן בר יצחק כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים…
אמר רב חסדא כל השערים ננעלים חוץ משערי אונאה שנאמר הנה ה’ נצב על חומת אנך ובידו אנך א”ר אלעזר הכל נפרע בידי שליח חוץ מאונאה שנאמר ובידו אנך א”ר אבהו ג’ אין הפרגוד ננעל בפניהם אונאה וגזל וע”ז
“It was taught in front of Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak – anyone who embarrasses his follow in public it is as if he committed murder.”
But it’s not just about public. Because the text goes on to say:
“Rav Chisda said, “All the gates [to God directly] are locked except for the gate of a hurt, as it says, The Eternal God stood upon the plumblined wall with a plumbline in his hand…Rabbi Elazar said: Everything is punished by an intermediary except for hurt…For three types of sin the veil between God and man is not sealed – hurt, theft and idolatry.”
There is nothing between God and man. There is a plumbline of pain heard direct by God and there is a plumbline of pain needing some kind of Teshuvah (repair, repentance).
I was teaching the rabbinic students at the Leo Baeck College about this text. I’ve been teaching rabbinic students for 12 years and the rabbinic literature programme for 8 years. In that time, I’ve never realised something absolutely fundamental to this text, which plays out in the page that follows.
There is a reason why there is a direct line to God with regards to public shame, hurt through words and humiliation. The point is not that they are categorically religious sins. It’s that they are social transgressions with mortal consequences. The power of bullying, of name spreading, of humiliation, is found in the public response. As such the society, or community, or organisation, or school became part of the culture – the ecosystem that permits the transgression.
The social responsibility that can stop this kind of behaviour whatever the context is essential. In the page of the Talmud that follows, the community of rabbis have too much to lose in conceding or changing their discourse. And in the moment that they have too much to lose, their friends lose everything. That is the cost of failing to confront the harm of bullying. That is why there is a direct line for God to hear the cry of the hurt feelings. In the absence of social condemnation there is only God.
Social responsibility is hard to pin down, it is hard to articulate but it is why I felt completely alone in school. It’s why I discovered a community of friends in RSY-Netzer who held each other to account that inspired me to want to become a rabbi in an intentional community.
Our aim is high. Our responsibility is enormous. Our sense of the divine looking down with plumbline in hand is before us. In this age of Social media exchanges and public discourse being at an all time low we have to take this seriously. No community, organisation, school or workplace has too much to lose and yet they have everything to gain. And using our social connections to help, to love, to care, to show compassion, to build, to create, to be vulnerable without fear of repercussions because through vulnerability we grow – this is our mission as Jews. This is the message of antibullying week for me. Shabbat shalom.