Overcoming Religious Embarrassment By Just Being Wrong

May 7, 2019

A colleague recently heard someone pronounce a religious term differently from the way that she had always pronounced it. This made her concerned that perhaps she had always said it wrong. When such a thing happens, the ramification is that a person becomes retroactively self-conscious. “Have I been saying it wrong? For how long? Who have I pronounced it wrong in front of? What did they think of me?” (I assured her that both pronunciations are correct.) It was around then that another associate shared with me a term that she had picked up on the interwebs: Jewbarrassment.

My co-worker defined this word as the feeling one gets in the presence of someone more religious or more knowledgeable. This is common, for example, when people with less religious education attend the synagogue. They don’t know what to expect: “What page are we on? When do we stand? When do we sit? Why did everybody just bow?” It’s also common when a less observant person goes to a more observant person’s home for Shabbos: “I know I can’t turn the lights off and on but can I flush the toilet? Wait – I wasn’t supposed to start eating yet?”

But don’t kid yourself – religious embarrassment isn’t limited to people with less background. Even people with strong religious educations can feel it in the presence of others. A friend of mine experienced a memorable form of this when he was interviewing for a post-college yeshiva. The piece of gemara they asked him to read included the Hebrew abbreviation chaf-gimmel. This stands for “Kohein Gadol” (High Priest) and the context was that the High Priest does this and the High Priest does that. But chaf-gimmel is also the number 23 in Hebrew, and a regional court in Biblical and Talmudic times consisted of 23 judges. My friend therefore read the section “the 23 do this and the 23 do that.” When he was informed of his error, he was religiously embarrassed.

(I shared a friend’s religious embarrassment story not just because it’s an interesting and illustrative anecdote. I have a few of my own that I could have used just as easily but I chose not to because, you know, I’m religiously embarrassed to do so.)

Let’s take things one step further: one can experience this sense of religious embarrassment in the other direction. Imagine the only boy in his school to wear a yarmulke, or the only girl to wear skirts. Imagine the student who can’t participate in a track meet because it’s on a Friday night, or who skips prom for religious reasons. These kids are adhering to their religious ideals but not without consequence. They are often religiously embarrassed.

Finally, religious embarrassment can even occur when you’re the most observant in a group of religious people. What if you’re the only one in a group of friends who won’t eat at a certain restaurant because it’s not up to the kosher standards you observe, or who won’t go to certain movies that you deem inappropriate? What if you’re the one who’s always making everyone wait so you can daven or bentch? Your friends might accommodate you, and they may never say a word, but you still might feel self-conscious, assuming that they’re thinking, “There (s)he goes again!”

So, whether it’s non-religious to religious, religious to non-religious, or even religious to religious, the potential to be religiously embarrassed exists. (And it’s not limited to Jews! Do you think it’s easy for a Muslim girl to suddenly start wearing hijab? Or for a teen of any faith to be the only one in his peer group not to watch R-rated movies? I imagine this phenomenon is pretty universal.)

Here’s the good news: the vast majority of the time, nobody cares if you make a faux pas. If you’ve rarely been to shul, nobody expects you to know all the details. If you don’t keep Shabbos, nobody expects you to know all the rules. (If anything, we want you to ask!) My friend who mistook the Hebrew abbreviation for a number got into the yeshiva; embarrassed though he might have been, it wasn’t actually that big a deal! (And if he already knew everything, what would the school have to teach him?)

But still, even if there’s no consequence, we might still be embarrassed to be ignorant (if we’re the least religious person in the room) or to feel like we’re flaunting our religiosity (if we’re the most religious). So how can we overcome that feeling? The suggestion I’m about to share came to me from the most unlikely of places.

There’s a family-friendly comedy troupe I follow that recently started their own digital media channel called JK! Studios. One member of this troupe, James Perry, wrote a book called I Still Want to Be an Astronaut: Living Your Dream When You Dream Too Much. The book is hard to pigeonhole, containing aspects of humor and autobiography, but if I had to define it, it would be self-help. (The teen who didn’t watch R-rated movies wasn’t a hypothetical example; it’s an incident from Perry’s book.)

In his book, Mr. Perry describes what he calls “the Confidence Triangle.” In a perfect world, Perry says, confidence would entail being genuine, brave and humble. The problem with that is that trying to be genuine, brave and humble can already be pretty intimidating. This is where the Confidence Triangle really gets clever.

I have written elsewhere that character traits are neither inherently good nor inherently bad; any trait can be viewed in a positive or negative way. I’m thrifty; you’re cheap. My kids are energetic; yours are out of control. If I like cartoons, I’m childlike; if you like video games, you’re childish. The traits we can recontextualize as either assets or flaws are endless. This is what Perry does with the confidence triangle, replacing “genuine, brave and humble” with words that are “so usable that you can be confident even on your worst days.” Specifically, Perry reframes “genuine, brave and humble” as “weird, stupid and wrong.” To quote Perry:

Anyone would be proud to call themselves genuine, brave, and humble. But the reality of those qualities is they require you to be weird, stupid, and wrong, respectively. You can’t be genuine without being different, which the haters call weird. You can’t be brave unless you do something that your brain tells you is dangerous, which is stupid. You can’t be humble unless you embrace being wrong. Imagine how empowered you would be if you loved being weird, stupid, and wrong.

This may be useful in combatting our religious embarrassment. Did you mispronounce a word? Stand when you were supposed to sit? Eat before you were supposed to? That’s okay. Maybe you don’t feel it in yourself to be humble about it but it’s easy to be wrong. (I do it all the time!) Do you think you stick out like a sore thumb because you dress, eat or behave differently? That’s okay, too! Maybe you don’t feel like you can be genuine but being weird comes naturally.

As I said earlier, others really don’t think about our differences so much. If we make a mistake, it’s unlikely that anyone else even cares. If we need to do our own thing, our friends probably support us. The only one affected by me being different is me, and that’s all in my head. Perhaps we can overcome this religious embarrassment – Jewbarrassment or otherwise – by embracing the reality that each of us is occasionally weird, stupid and wrong. Right now, it just happens to be my turn.

Finally, remember I said that I could have shared a story of my own instead of one from a friend? Here goes. In my youth, I was calling the honors at a friend’s chuppah and I mixed up the forms m’chubad (so-and-so is honored) and mechabed (we honor so-and-so). That probably doesn’t seem like such a big deal to you but I was extremely Jewbarrassed at the time. Now? As Perry writes, “Yay! … What a lesson to learn! Happy to be called wrong.”

I embraced my wrongness and shared that incident. Guess what? Nothing bad happened! You can do it, too.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.