A Thought About Guilt

Contrary to popular belief, guilt is not a mitzvah.

Somehow, this dark, heavy emotion has become the hallmark of many Jews’ relationship to Judaism.

We shouldn’t be so quick to point fingers and place blame on the “worsening of the times” as we are the ones that are guilty of using the emotion of guilt as the intergenerational glue that keeps “the kids” showing up to seders and high holiday services.  At a loss for a draw that showcases the intrinsic value of what we’re doing, we reach for the nearest, most potent potion to achieve the desired effect.

Ostensibly, guilt works wonderfully.  With it we can ensure that the tradition of the “religious experience” as the “guilty experience” is passed on to the next generation so that they in turn can pass on its burden to their kids.

Guilt doesn’t have to be explicit.  It is actually most effective when unspoken.  You can let your victim stew in their own juices without as much as a raised eyebrow.  A flashing frown.  A gentle grimace.  Perhaps the ever-so-subtle clearing of the throat.  Or worst of all — for those with a more sadistic bent — the silence that pretends that “it’s not a problem at all” (maybe throw in a “do whatever you feel is right” line, just to make it go down smooth).

Interestingly, although these methods sound all-too-familiar to us, they are actually not quintessentially Jewish at all.  Nor is their result.

Strongly associating guilty feelings with religious observance and moral decision-making unfortunately turns guilt into our “go-to” response after doing something we regret.  More often than not, this response is counter-productive.

Feeling guilty ironically make us feel like victims.  A vigorous guilt session brings us right back to reliving our mistakes as if we had been doomed to have fallen into their trap, and now doomed to forever feel bad about them.  And so, while “guilt,” in principle, should imply a sense of responsibility, it has the opposite effect, making one feel helpless without a way out.

Some religious traditions in the world have suggested a solution by making “guilt” synonyms with “repentance.”  Indeed, the etymology of “repentance” is from “penitence” since it is the pain of guilt that serves as the punishment and expiation for the penitent until they’ve “paid their dues,” at which point they can stop feeling guilty.  Once they’ve been deemed to have suffered enough, they are released from their prison/torture sentence.

This experience is so unpleasant, as well as illogical, that many, in revolt, have gone to the totally opposite extreme, choosing to live life “without regrets,” avoiding any religious overtones and all feelings of remorse altogether.  Seeing as feeling guilty only serves to drag one into the past, they have wisely committed to training themselves to just never feel guilty — keep moving forward and never look back.

Our tradition offers a middle path.

In Jewish consciousness, repentance does not center around penitence, guilt and feelings of inadequacy.  Quite the opposite.  Repentance is called “teshuva,” which means “return.”  Teshuva looks to the future — it is the process of “returning” to be the person one most profoundly wants to be and is capable of being.

Beginning with feelings of guilt invariably leads us to feel identified with the mistake itself, hence the heart-rending pain of guilt.  On the one hand, we feel: how could I have done something so terrible?!?  And on the other, we have no reason to believe that we won’t mess up the next time around, hence, the vicious cycle, and pangs of despair.

Teshuva begins from the opposite end of the spectrum.  A person must first identify with the depths of who they are as good.  Good.  Good!

The Torah teaches unabashedly that people are good in their essence, but we make mistakes when we aren’t connected to ourselves.

To the degree to which we identify ourselves as being good, we can look towards the future and commit to never making the mistake again.  With heart and mind straightened out, then, and only then, we can look at the past, incredulously upon our mistakes, saying, “With the clarity I have now, I would never do such a thing.”*

While “guilt” is like a black hole that sucks one into the past, “regret” is a very precise psychological incision that surgically disassociates a person from their mistake.  Think about something you did as a teenager that you would never ever do again.  Because you’ve grown many years since then, on this point, you see yourself as a different person.  You can look with full detachment from that dumb decision you made as a kid.

The feeling of regret thus serves as the foothold from which we can push forward with confidence.  Our sincere regret is evidence that we have morally matured and will not do it again.  Having tasted failure, we have renewed vigor to succeed and not end up there again.

Teshuva is primarily about the future.  Even when it relates to the past, it is in order to propel us towards a brighter tomorrow — to continue our return to who we were meant to be.

Similarly, while we could bemoan that most young Jews today view Judaism as Guiltism, and hope that our sadness will atone for our shortcomings in presenting Judaism as a forward-looking way of life — we are so much better off keeping our heads up and doing something about it.

*See the Rambam, Laws of Teshuva, ch. 2 halacha 2, and Yirmiyahu 31:18 כי אחרי שובי ניחמתי “After I returned, I regretted.”

About the Author
Rabbi Jack Cohen is the Director of Education of the Jewish Enrichment Center in West Village of New York City, working to create interactive educational programs that grant access to Torah that is deep and relevant to 20-somethings who are thirsty for it. Rabbi Jack served as a campus rabbi for Meor at the University of Pennsylvania and an Israel programs educator before that. He is currently coauthoring a book on the subject of individuality and self-esteem through the eyes of the Sages, called "Born to Be." He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem after his BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy, and earned his Masters in Education at Harvard last year.
Related Topics
Related Posts