April 20, 2010
A Jewish Value That Has Influenced My Radio Show
In 28 years as a radio talk-show host, I have not consciously humiliated a single person — whether a caller to my show or a public figure.
And I give the credit to Judaism.
One of the best things that 14 years in yeshiva gave me was a keen appreciation of the sin of humiliating another human being. At a very young age, I was taught to memorize the Hebrew dictum “hamalbin et pnei chavero barabim, k’eelu shafach damo.” It means, “Whoever humiliates another person is considered as if he killed him.”
I cited the original Hebrew in order to explain how deep the Jewish thought on this matter runs. The literal meaning is that whoever “whitens [malbin] the face” ... is considered as if he “spilled his blood” [shafach damo]. The play on words is brilliant — the blood drains from the face of the humiliated person, and that is how one figuratively “spilled his blood,” the Torah’s term for murder.
This emphasis on not humiliating anyone is itself a subcategory of Judaism’s larger emphasis on preserving the dignity of the individual human being. There are myriad laws concerned with preserving individuals’ dignity. One example: Equally poor people are not to be given equal amounts of charity. In Jewish law, a poor man who had been wealthy receives more money than the poor man who was always poor. Dignity is one reason (the relatively greater amount of suffering is the other). This law disturbs many contemporary Jews for whom equality is the greatest value. But for Judaism, the preservation of an individual’s dignity is of greater value than the pursuit of equal economic status.
It is sometimes even greater than truth-telling. Thus, we are obligated to tell a bride that she looks beautiful, even if we do not believe it.
From the day I started on radio, I realized how easy it would be to violate this fundamental principle of Judaism. When the rabbis came up with the dictum equating humiliating a person with killing him they could not have imagined a time when one person could humiliate another before millions of people at one time. Yet, of course, that is exactly what a broadcaster can do.
When Monica Lewinsky was at the center of national attention for her affair with President Bill Clinton, radio and television personalities routinely told jokes about her. I never joined in and forbade my callers to repeat these jokes on my show. I have never understood why being a public personality invalidates the stricture against humiliating people.
I wish that all people who work in the news media had studied this Jewish law. Recall how the media humiliated Richard Jewell, the man erroneously charged by news media, not by authorities, with planting a bomb at the Atlanta Olympics. News commentators routinely humiliated him for, among other things, living with his mother.
Because of the Jewish preoccupation with preserving people’s good name, I have frequently written and broadcast about what I call the “rape of a name.” The rape of a name can be as damaging to a man as the rape of a body can be to a woman. That is why I was furious when the woman who charged members of the Duke University lacrosse team with raping her was never punished for her lie. I likewise find it reprehensible that the Rev. Al Sharpton never served a day in jail and continued to command the media’s respect after he was found guilty of helping perpetuate 15-year-old Tawana Brawley’s lie that she had been raped by six white men. Sharpton even accused Steven Pagones, an assistant district attorney involved in the case, with being one of the rapists and a racist. The charges cost Pagones his reputation and his marriage.
One reason I opposed Al Franken’s candidacy for the U.S. Senate was his engaging in such behavior — as in his titling one of his books “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot.” I always found mocking a person’s weight immoral and have identified such behavior with lowlifes, not to mention incompatible with serving as a U.S. senator. Apparently a bare majority of Minnesotans disagreed.
Many Jews think that Judaism’s way of “repairing the world” is to be politically active and take what they consider to be correct positions on social issues. A lifetime of studying and teaching Judaism has led me to a different conclusion. As a general rule, the Jewish way to repair the world is to engage first and foremost in repairing one’s own character and doing good on an individual basis. An excellent place to begin is by preserving the dignity of other human beings, even those one opposes politically. That is much harder, but usually much more beneficial to the world, than engaging in political activism.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, columnist, author and public speaker. He can be heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) weekdays 9 a.m. to noon. His Web site is dennisprager.com.