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Pirke Avot chapter four, verse five: shame and reputation

R. Johanan b. Baroka said: he that profanes the name of Heaven in secret shall be requited openly: in profaning the Name it is all one whether it be done unwittingly or wantonly.

Profanation of the Name (by the way, this is the translation of Herbert Danby, D.D.) is the act of bringing the Name into disrepute, not taking it in vain. One strand of commentary focuses on the extra responsibility that a man of great learning and scholarship has to avoid profanation of the Name. Should such a man speak rudely to a shopkeeper (say the sages, more or less), people would say that’s what comes of so much Torah study, is it? and so the Name of the Divine would be profaned.

This brings up the question of how the Name can be profaned in secret at all? The answer usually is that secret things have a way of becoming public, and certainly the public punishment seems to imply that the profanation has become public, by the punishment itself, if not before. But surely not everything that is done in private becomes public. I mean, to take an example, let’s say I were to eat a forkful of pulled pork and rice right now. It is not kosher, not at all, but let’s just suggest I were to have a nice big bite right now. OK? Wait for a minute to read the rest while I heat it up in the microwave, actually.

Mmmm, Babe.

All right, now I’m going to go back and delete the last three paragraphs—heck, I’ll delete the whole document and begin a new one. So you won’t know, Gentle Reader, that I engaged in such a defiant violation of the dietary restrictions. Nobody is near my desk right now, and if somebody had come by at just that moment, she wouldn’t be able to tell that I had eaten something at all, my desk being set back a ways from the circulation counter, and if she did spot the fork to the mouth, she would not know that I was Jewish, likely enough, and would not know that it was a pork product I had just eaten and not some of that special beef brisket I had sent to me from my friend in Yefe Nof.

Note to GRs: I do not, so far as I know, have a friend in Yefe Nof, which is evidently a suburb of Haifa. I was just looking for a place with a funny name. My buddy in Bat Shlomo. My acquaintance in Ashqelon. My pal in Peta Tikvah. You know. Actually, this is leftover pulled pork from dinner a couple of nights ago, and was itself leftover from before Passover when my Best Reader slow-cooked three and a half pigs and froze the remaining tastiness. Now that Passover is over, out comes the oiker bits, and some newly made and especially tasty sweet barbecue sauce. She got the recipe from a friend of hers in Yefe Nof.

The point is that it is perfectly plausible that I could do something that would be a profanation of the Name if it were found out, and that never would be found out. But then, in what sense would it be a profanation of the Name? The whole point of the profanation of the Name is that it is about the reputation of the Divine (an excellent concept, and one worth going into at more length, I suppose—in our Scripture, the Divine seems very concerned about the Divine reputation, but is that because of the reputation itself, or because of the some effect that reputation has on us?), and so to speak of profaning the Name in secret doesn’t actually make sense.

In fact, this brings up the whole issue of shame and reputation, and the centrality of a Good Name in much of the teachings and Scripture. And when you have an ethics that trades overmuch on the idea of a Good Name, either your own name personally or the name of The Jews, or even the Good Name of the Divine, you do eventually run into difficulty with the idea that not every shortcoming nor yet every achievement is public or publicized, or even necessarily publicizable. And yet.

This is why I find R. Johanan b. Baroka to be giving a threat that is mostly empty, particularly because it is very easy to believe that this shortcoming, this forkful of pork and rice, this nosepicking, this infidelity, this laziness, this theft will be the one that goes un-noticed, because of course there are always a few. This is very different from the earlier and (to YHB) more powerful verse quoting Judah the Prince about the all-seeing eye and all-seeing ear and the record of all thine actions; the idea may be the same (not a sparrow falls without the Divine attention) but the emphasis R. Johanan puts on shame and reputation is very different from the emphasis Judah puts on the dangers of trusting your own judgment.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,