Guilt is not a mitzvah

When we say 'I'm a bad Jew,' we lose the opportunity to reconnect to the goodness in ourselves
Illustrative. Guilt, shame, headache, depression. (via iStock)
Illustrative. Guilt, shame, headache, depression. (via iStock)

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 blame the “worsening of the times” since we are the ones that are guilty of using guilt as the intergenerational glue that keeps the kids showing up to passover seders and high holiday services. At a loss for ways of showcasing the intrinsic value of what we’re doing, we reach for the nearest, most potent potion to achieve the desired effect. Good Old Fashioned Guilt.

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 children.

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.

Conditioning ourselves to feel guilty habituates us to 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. “I’m such a bad person” or a “bad friend” or a “bad Jew” (as some tend to say) — we say these kinds of things irresponsibly — these are damning statements about ourselves. The irony is that while “guilt,” in principle, should imply a sense of responsibility, it has the opposite effect, making one feel helpless with no 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 supposedly released from their prison/torture sentence, sadly, however, without having found the wherewithal in themselves to actually change for the better.

The experience of guilt is so yucky and unpleasant (not to mention illogical), that many, in revolt, have gone to the totally opposite extreme, choosing to live life that is “guilt-free” by banishing all moralizing feelings of remorse altogether. While Jewish guilt was never really logical, at least it was once upon a time effective. A quick glance at contemporary Jewish demographic data demonstrates that this is no longer the case. Young people have wisely seen feelings of guilt as lead boots that drag one down, and have therefore trained themselves to kick the can of guilty feelings down the road indefinitely, telling themselves: keep moving forward and never look back.

Our tradition however offers a middle path that doesn’t employ guilt.

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 is the process of “returning” to be the person one most profoundly wants to be and is capable of being. By coming back to oneself, one can find the moral clarity that can carry them forward instead of being held back by the past.

A person must first identify with the depths of who they are as good.

The Torah teaches unabashedly that people are good in their essence. We make mistakes not because “we’re bad people,” but because we aren’t connected to the goodness in ourselves.

Only to the degree to which we identify ourselves as being good, can we look at the past, incredulously upon our mistakes, saying, “With the clarity I have now, I would never do such a thing.”* And once we do that, we can we look towards the future and commit to never making the mistake again.

Let’s call looking at the past from a renewed perspective “regret.” 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, you see your past self 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 about the present and the future. Even when it relates to the past in the form of focused regret, it is in order to propel us towards a brighter tomorrow — to continue our return to who we were born 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. May we use these days of Teshuva as individuals and a community to project us forward to our best year yet.

*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.
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