In addition to being Memorial Day weekend, this past weekend marked the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. I think Shavuot is one of my favorite lesser-known holidays. I enjoy it so much because it is now commonly commemorated by staying up studying (studying Torah, in the broadest sense) all night. A holiday where you’re supposed to study? Yes, please.

‘Shavuot’ means weeks, and the holiday commemorates the giving of the Torah (and, as part of it, the ten commandments) at Mount Sinai. I’m not going to go into the details of the holiday, but if you’re interested, you can get the basics here.

In previous years in San Francisco, there was a shul crawl during which participants would have dinner at one synagogue, study sessions at several others, and a short service at another. This year, for whatever reason, they didn’t do this and all of the activities took place at one synagogue. I like the idea of going to multiple places with people from all of those places participating, of getting to see the inside of different buildings, of the party-like atmosphere that occurs when you’re walking with a large group of people to the same destination at night in the city. It wasn’t meant to be though. C’est la vie. I still was able to attend several study sessions with people who were also motivated to learn and came from different faith backgrounds within the Jewish religion.

In one of the discussions we teased out the tension that can occur in Jewish ethics between taking responsibility for the actions of others when they act immorally and you do nothing, and the prohibition against publicly shaming or embarrassing another. To back up, in the Talmud (a key text in Judaism), there is an interpretation of Leviticus 26:37 “And each man will fail because of his brother…” that says that all of the Jewish people are responsible for each other, and that this applies when a person can protest another’s actions but fails to do so. Assuming that this is the case, which is a huge assumption, if Sam gossiped and Alex let him continue without attempting to tell Sam that he was doing something immoral, Alex would also be acting immorally. There are nuances here, of course, (e.g. If Alex does everything he can to make Sam stop gossiping but Sam still does so, is Alex ethically liable? Is it as if Alex is gossiping as well, or is it a greater or lesser transgression for Alex to keep his mouth shut?), but the gist is, you’d better speak up if someone is doing something wrong. Add in the idea that shaming someone is an offense to be avoided at great lengths, on par with murder (Whoever shames another in public / Is like one who sheds blood. – Bava Metzia 58b) and you’ve got some tension when, say, your friend is about to spill the beans in a group setting that where you can’t pull him aside privately.

The more interesting part of the discussion, which we unfortunately didn’t linger on because we were running out of time, was the question of what counts as public shaming and/or public embarrassment, and when is or isn’t it acceptable. If someone makes a mistake in reading the Torah, for example, someone is supposed to call out the correction (and is required to do so, despite any embarrassment caused to the reader). I think this is less about one rule trumping another than it is about the nature of the social situation and the reasons for (or type of?) embarrassment. It certainly isn’t character assassination at work here.

The other two study sessions I attended were really interesting as well (one on mikvehs – ritual baths, the other on the Book of Ruth), but I’ll leave it here for today.