Draining Blood

Looks like the Torah and the Rabbis have something to say about President Obama’s recent SOTU.

There has been some pointed talk in the last couple of days about President Obama’s criticizing the Justices of the SCOTUS for their recent ruling on Citizens United while they sat there in the House of Representatives the other night as a courtesy to him. It seems that the President has committed the aveirah (transgression) of shaming a person in public. The Hebrew expression for this is to “whiten a person’s face” in public, conjuring the image of the blood draining from the shamed person’s face.

The Justices of the SCOTUS

In an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal today, Georgetown Law Center professor Randy E. Barnett claims that it is perfectly acceptable to criticize the Justices, but it is not all right to do so to their faces, especially if they have not been given warning of it.

“This is not to deny that the Supreme Court may be criticized. I do it myself regularly in class, op-eds, blog posts, and in the pages of law reviews. So too should the president when he thinks the Court is wrong. But not when the justices are in attendance as a courtesy to him, seated as a captive audience on national television, while surrounded by hundreds of his political partisans…Judge not the words themselves, but their effect on the audience. The president fully expected that his hundreds of supporters in the legislative branch would stand and cheer, while the justices remained seated and silent, unable to respond even afterward.”

Barnett also says that what Obama, in his haste to strike a populist tone, said about the ruling during the SOTU was actually erroneous, but that is a topic for another post.


The point of this post is that there is something for the President and all of us to learn from Jewish teachings. Yes, Leviticus 19:17 tells us that it is our responsibility to tell someone when they are doing something wrong (“You shall surely rebuke thy neighbour, and not bear sin because of him”), but the Rabbis expounded that “Whoever shames his fellow-person in public has no share in the world to come. He is one of those who will go down to Gehinnom and never come up again.” Rashi interpreted the verse from Leviticus as meaning that we are commanded to take a stand against sin, but at the same time not to embarrass the sinner. We can look to biblical figures like Tamar and Joseph for examples of how to successfully accomplish this balancing act:

“Tamar, who had the goods on her father-in-law after he visited her sexually, never named him as the offender, but only indicated what pledge he left with her, so that he could identify himself without being made ashamed. Joseph cleared the room before he disclosed himself to his brothers so that they might not be put to shame in the presence of the Egyptian court.” (Arnold Jacob Wolf, Sh’ma 4/77, September 20, 1974)

Bruria, the wife of Rabbi Meir of the Mishna, is also a good role model in this regard. In Brachot 10a she reminds her husband that it is imperative to distinguish between evil and the evil doer:

There was an outlaw living in the neighborhood of Rabbi Meir who used to persecute him. Rabbi Meir wanted to pray that he should die. “What are you thinking?” his wife Bruria asked. “Because it is written, ‘and all the wickedness shall be consumed from the earth’ (Psalms 104:35). Is it written ‘wicked’? The word ‘wickedness’ is written. Furthermore, look at the end of the verse, ‘and the evil-doers will be no more.’ Since wickedness will cease, then evildoers will be no more. You should pray that he repent.” Rabbi Meir prayed for him, and he repented.

In no way were the President’s remarks evil, nor will he be going to hell for them (and in any case, I think that “will go down to Gehinnom and never come up again,” is not intended to be understood literally, but rather is meant as a warning that one who whitens a person’s face in public is pushing himself down a slippery slope of immoral behavior from which he or she will be unable to climb up again). But it does look like he owes the Justices an apology…and they shouldn’t have to wait until next Yom Kippur for it.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.


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