For those of you who, like me, have been ignorant of this notion up until now, here is what it means: a shame before the Gentiles. Used in reference to an action by a Jew that is so unethical or gauche (ranging, one might imagine, from money-laundering to wearing socks with sandals – though I hear that’s coming back into fashion, I can’t wait!) that it embarrasses the entire Jewish people.
I found this reflection on the idea by Rabbi David Kaufman interesting:
It seems to be understood by Christians and Muslims that their radical nut cases are NOT REPRESENTATIVE of them, why do we feel that ours are? […]
That embarrassment, that guilt that we feel over actions of others in which we played no part, helps drive us to make the world better. That guilt makes us care about more than just ourselves. Perhaps, it is that which is the light we must shine unto the nations.
What if this is true of Jewish guilt more broadly – not just our tendency to feel guilty about the ill actions of other Jews, but our tendency to feel guilty about everything? Catholics may think they have cornered the market on guilt, but they’ve got nothing on us.
I certainly hope that guilty feelings are not, as Rabbi Kaufman wonders, in themselves the light which we must shine upon the nations. It seems plausible, though, that the light-shining mission – which I’ve reflected on earlier – comes with a sizeable side effect of guilt.