Morally outraged? Public shame last resort

Jan. 28 was a typical day at Joe’s Coffee Shop in East Atlanta, Georgia. The smells of distinct Intelligentsia Coffee were wafting through the air, and the usual mix of coffee patrons were busy mulling about the roomy space and sitting at tables.
Asma Elhuni, a Georgia State University graduate student and hijab-wearing Muslim, was sitting at a table by herself, working on her computer, when she first noticed Rob and his camera pointed right at her. Asma claims to have tried to ignore him at first, but soon engaged Rob in a conversation that she would videotape herself on her phone.
“You like taking pictures of Muslim women?” Asma asked Rob. Rob initially laughed off her question, claiming that he wasn’t taking a picture of her but of something in the shop’s background, but soon became defensive and abrasive. Seating himself at Asma’s table, Rob leaned in and called her a dirty name only to follow that up by asking Asma if she had a green card (Asma is an American citizen). Rob was in for a surprise if he imagined that this would be the last that he heard of this short encounter. Asma posted her video to her Facebook page with the caption, “Fight back with your cameras y’all,” and encouraged everyone to “spread widely.”
Within only two days Asma’s video went viral, having been viewed by 1.6 million people and shared 17,500 times.
This, in fact, is how this story came to my attention. A Facebook friend of mine had heeded Asma’s charge and shared the video with all of her friends. She was morally outraged and wanted the social media stratosphere to know it. Writing in the style of the Dick and Jane children’s books of the 1930s she added her thoughts on the matter:
“See Rob!
Rob is a bully!
Shame Robert K. … (last name withheld by the author)!
Rob is Islamaphobic!!!!
Shame Robert K. … (last name withheld by the author)!”
The interesting thing is that both Asma and my Facebook friend posted the video to share the kind of discrimination that Muslim women encounter in America, and I’m sure they imagined that by doing so they were helping to further their moral cause. But what of the fact that in this very process a man, however nasty he may have been in that coffee shop, was publicly tarred and feathered?
It wasn’t long before Rob’s identity and Facebook page were discovered and he was soon inundated with death threats and nasty comments. Rob was clearly concerned that this new notoriety could impact his livelihood as well and posted an apology to all of his business partners for his less than stellar behavior.
As a student of Jewish law, the irony of this story is glaring. To maliciously hurt someone’s feelings with mean words in private is no doubt an egregious sin of onaas devarim (“words that hurt”) and one of the negative commandments of the Torah (Vayikra 25:17), but to publicly shame someone is far more egregious!
The Talmud famously notes, “He who publicly shames his neighbor is as though he shed blood (Bava Matzia 58b).” It hurts to be insulted and demeaned in private, but to suffer the fate of public shaming is something else entirely. Unfortunately in our day and age we hear too often of teenagers ending their lives rather than having to face another day of public humiliation due to leaked pictures or videos that had been spread online by their peers.
The Talmud’s words are all too poignant. And although it is true that there are cases in Jewish law when public shaming is allowed, and even meritorious, this device of destruction is kept under strict lock and key, only to be utilized in cases when all other methods of rebuke toward a sinner have been attempted and fallen flat. Public shaming is not meant for your everyday conflict, however painful that conflict might be.
Recently a congregant of mine shared with me that she had come to the conclusion that she had no interest in being ritually observant and would be satisfied by just being a good person. “Well,” I told her to her utter surprise, “you’ve got to learn a lot of Torah to accomplish that!”
You see, as much as our tradition shines its light on the kosher status of different food items, and the permissibility or lack thereof of different actions performed on Shabbos, it equally teaches us how to behave toward others, how to act ethically in the workplace and how to engage with social media. Had Asma or my Facebook friend asked my advice on the matter I would have encouraged them to post the video online, encourage everyone to share the video, but first and foremost to hire a video editor to blur out Rob’s face. The message of the video would come out just as clearly but with the moral clarity to know that no one has to suffer public shaming on the crucible of moral advancement.

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