Before Madoff, or the Goyim, a Shande

On Language

By Philologos

Published August 19, 2009, issue of August 28, 2009.
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‘Bad for the Jews? Madoff, Dwek, and Getting Over Worrying So Much About Avoiding a Shandeh for the Goyim” was the title of a column by former Forward arts and culture editor Alana Newhouse in the July 31 issue of New York Magazine. Jews, Newhouse wrote, should come to terms with the fact that their sense of specialness sometimes works for the bad as well as for the good, not only driving them to higher levels of achievement than are attained by others, but also tempting them to think that what is impermissible for others is permissible for them.

The Yinglish expression “a shande for the goyim” is a curious case of mistranslation. It comes from the Yiddish a shande far di goyim, the German-derived shande meaning “scandal” — an English word to which, despite its similar sound, it is not related. (“Scandal” descends from Greek skandalon, “a snare or cause of moral stumbling,” whereas German Schande is from the Old German verb skanda, “to conceal or cover up.”) But far in this idiom does not mean (as it often does elsewhere) “for,” a mistake that creates the odd impression in English that the scandal in question either has been committed for the sake of non-Jews, as if deliberately to shock or amuse them, or is a scandal for them only, while for Jews there is nothing wrong with it. Rather, far means here a shande in front of, or before the eyes of, non-Jews, so that the phrase denotes a Jewish scandal that has leaked out of the Jewish domain and attracted the attention of gentiles, as well. It is dirty Jewish laundry glimpsed by everyone.

A shande far di goyim conveys an acute sense of Jewish embarrassment. On the other hand, conveying not so much embarrassment as indignation and condemnation is the quite different yet also similar Hebrew expression ḥillul ha-shem — literally, “the desecration of the [that is, God’s] name.” ḥillul ha-shem is one of a pair of opposed Hebrew terms, its antithetical partner being kiddush ha-shem, “sanctification of the name.” Generally, kiddush ha-shem has the meaning of martyrdom: that is, of laying down one’s life in public demonstration of one’s belief in the God of Israel and his Torah.

ḥillul ha-shem is the reverse of kiddush ha-shem: a public act committed by a Jew that insults and demeans God and his Law rather than exalting them. Thus, for example, in Leviticus 19 we have the verse, “And ye shall not swear by my name falsely and so desecrate the name of God.” Because a sacred oath is taken publicly, its violation is in a category different from that of a commandment disobeyed privately. It desecrates God’s name because it mocks God in front of everyone.

In principle, any commandment flouted in the presence of others or with their knowledge is ḥillul ha-shem. Yet as the term developed in rabbinic literature, it came increasingly to refer to a commandment flouted in the presence of gentiles and, more specifically, in regard to gentiles. The basis for this can be found in the Talmudic dictum, “He who steals from a gentile and dies [without having repented the sin] has no forgiveness [in the World To Come], because he has desecrated God’s name.” In the Middle Ages, such a sin came to be regarded as the very epitome of ḥillul ha-shem. In the explanatory words of the 13th-century pietist Yehuda he-Hasid:

“Cheating a gentile can lead to more severe consequences than can cheating a Jew — for example, it can cause the gentiles of that place to cheat another Jew [in retaliation]. In this manner, one such sinner can cause great harm to many Jews…. Even if a gentile makes an error [in his accounts], beware [of profiting from it], for he may discover it afterwards and God’s name will have been desecrated by you.”

Being cheated in return by gentiles was of course not the worst thing that the ḥillul ha-shem of financial chicanery could lead to. Jews in the Middle Ages were small and generally disliked minorities in both Christian and Muslim lands, and their fragile situation stood to become even more so if they acquired the reputation of swindlers. A Jew who did anything to contribute to such a reputation endangered his entire community, and this sort of ḥillul ha-shem was considered not only a desecration of God’s name, but also a source of danger to one’s fellow Jews for which no religious condemnation could be too great.

In Jewish terms, Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, or the alleged organ-trafficking, is not merely a shande far di goyim. It is ḥillul ha-shem at its most reprehensible. Alana Newhouse may think that Jews should not be too upset by such things, and she may even make a good case, but the case she makes is not a rabbinic one. As far as Jewish tradition is concerned, a mere shande far di goyim can be forgiven, ḥillul ha-shem cannot be.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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