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Reputation Obsession: Taking Tov Shem M’Shemen Tov – A Good Name is Better Than Good Oil – to the Next Level

Third in a series of posts in reaction to the New Square situation. Part 1: Thoughts on Kiryas Joel: The Poorest City in America and Part 2: Attempted Murder in New Square: An Analysis.

There is a certain common sentiment amongst many minorities and ethnicities. It is commonly expressed as “bringing shame to the family”. Or sometimes it emerges as a threat “what will the neighbors think”. Once in a while you will hear something about the “family name”.

These are normal, and by normal I mean occuring fairly regularly, among minorities. These stereotypes are played on incessantly in Hollywood movies and television programs and they make for good entertainment sometimes (eg Bend it Like Beckham).

In Judaism there is a concept of a Shem Tov, a good name. The verse in Ecclesiastes says: “Tov shem m’shemen tov”, a good name is better than good oil. Earning a good reputation and keeping it has a place in the Jewish thought.

Based on my readings, anecdotal evidence and observations I think it is safe to say that orthodox Jews are very concerned with reputation. It is the currency of our social environment. I remember when I was in high school I would hear about girls who would talk to boys, but not in public because they “didn’t want to ruin their name”. Schools are careful who they accept into their school because with each new student comes their reputation. Families hide dark secrets so as not to ruin the family name. Matchmaking runs almost entirely on the “good name stock market”.

In particular, based on the aforementioned sources, I think it safe to say that enclosed chasidic enclaves take reputations to the next level. There is a communal concern about not only personal reputations and family reputations but there is a general community reputation that exists and is cared for.

The way a good reputation is supposed to work is as follows: A person carries their self well, speaks nicely, follows the law, cares for others and slowly but surely, people notice. A reputation is formed.  However, one small act can destroy even the most pristine reputation. And it can be nearly impossible to recover that good name. I am fond of quoting Ray Donovan. Donovan was a high ranking federal government official during the Reagan administration. He was indicted on charges of fraud among other crimes. Eventually he was acquitted. After his acquittal he famously remarked: “Which office do I go to get my reputation back?”

Indeed a shem tov can take years to create and be destroyed in an instant.

A good name arises organically. It is a natural result of good deeds and good will. A reputation cannot be fabricated. It cannot be crafted. It cannot be orchestrated. If it is, the reputation is a fraud.

On DovBear’s blog I posted a note from a fellow living in New Square (see: The Insider Reaction to New Square Violence). The writer is reacting to the arson / attempted murder of a fellow community by a fellow community member. He focuses very little on the actual incident. Near the end he prays to God. What does he pray?

Why did God allow Skver to take such a public hit and for the entire community to be embarrassed? I am not in heaven, so this makes no sense to me, why we have received such a punishment?

Even in New Square’s darkest moment, the obsession with embarrassment, reputation and good name is apparent.

But the line speaks to a complete misunderstanding of reputation. A reputation is not crafted. It is earned. And it can be lost rather easily. You can’t keep a good name when your community has committed horrible acts. Sorry.

Yet, there is a concerted effort by communities like New Square to maintain the pristine image they have crafted while sacrificing or simply ousting those who tarnish it. They don’t address the problems because the problems are not the issue. The issue is the reputation.

In Unchosen and Hush the parents of children with severe issues, whether it was abuse or simply the child’s concerns about whether they should be religious, were met with a primary concern over reputation and a secondary (if any at all) concern about addressing the issue.

It has been no different in New Square. The Rebbe’s comments thus far have been his message to try and repair or resurrect his community’s good name. But of course, the reputation and good name is not the issue at all. The issue is the broken system in his community. The issue is an attempt on a man and his family’s life.

The lesson is clear. A good name is earned. It is not manufactured in a spin factory. If you behave contrary to your reputation you lose it. More importantly, if your reputation is harmed because of bad deeds, the first step to fixing your reputation is by fixing the bad deeds. The reputation will return the same way it was earned (hopefully). It doesn’t magically return when you reiterate positive acts that may have contributed to earning the good name.

Not surprisingly, in a backwards town, they got it all backwards.


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