Is Schadenfreude a Jewish Value?

My one-week vacation in the United States was a breath of fresh air. A whole week of conversations with family, friends, and strangers, and election-talk clocked in at about two percent.

In Western Canada, where I live, the figure is more like 25 percent. Regardless of topic, venue, or company, conversation veers into the American presidential campaign. “Look at the character of the candidates! Look how supporters sling mud at the character of the candidates! Look at the character of the American people! They’re so crazy! Fortunately, our country is different.”

Our preoccupation is perfectly rational, of course. The U.S. spans our southern border; it is our closest military ally, and our most frequent trading partner. American political events affect us.

Our preoccupation is also perfectly emotional. Last year, our own dynamic federal election deposed the Conservative party and installed the Liberal party. We did not threaten violence, peer into candidates’ marriages, or watch insult-slinging on TV. And we are really relieved. Grateful, too, to one another and to a Higher Power. So, obsessively, we say, “Look at what’s happening in the U.S. – it didn’t happen to us!”

At least, that’s the most compassionate spin – inspired by Rabbi Harold Kushner – that I can put on schadenfreude. Schadenfreude, a word borrowed from German, refers to feeling joy at the disgrace of others. In western Canada, we know that the U.S. election is a cultural, political, and economic referendum. But mostly we enjoy talking about the debasement of campaign discourse. And mostly about the debasement of the party we dislike.

My Jewish ethics gut tells me this is not “kosher” behavior. But research is often more accurate than my gut, so I conducted some. Beginning with the Hebrew Bible, of course, the original sourcebook for Jewish thought.

The Book of Psalms, a poetic catalogue of prayers of the human heart, recognizes schadenfreude. In Psalm 109, King David confesses to God, “They curse me, but You bless me. When my enemies are disgraced, I, Your servant, shall be glad” (109:28). But the Book of Proverbs, a rational guide to pro-social behavior, cautions against public expression of such gladness. “When your enemies fall, do not rejoice, lest the LORD see it, and repent of wrath against them” (Proverbs 24:17-18).

Psalms teaches: Be aware of the feeling, and the judgments it generates. Reflect on them during your spiritual and psychological practice. But Proverbs teaches: don’t bring it into the public sphere. Don’t gloat, don’t boast, don’t build your brand upon another person’s failure. Because fortune can easily change. You may fall, and need to climb your way back to success. If you are known only as a critic, your ladder will have few positive rungs for you to walk.

So what should we do when schadenfreude overwhelms us? “Hold it quietly” (Proverbs 29:11). Accept it as a feeling. Observe it and increase our wisdom about patterns of the human heart. But don’t trust it as a guide to speech or action. Instead, trust only positive principles, acting out of integrity rather than comparison.

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