A dear friend asked me to write about “Jewish Guilt.” I was not sure that I had much to say on the issue…and then I felt guilty! Something was requested of me. How could I not try to be helpful? Jewish guilt. We Jews all have it!
On a number of occasions, this concept has come up in discussion with friends and we shared our experiences. Everyone has a theory as to its source .
The core seems to go back to the Torah and the Shulchan Aruch. Being a people who come with a strict set of instructions as to how to lead our lives, with six hundred and thirteen commandments to follow, is an ominous heritage. There are so many rules to follow that no one we know can begin to remember them all.
If I were a Rabbi, I would probably say that the initial guilt came from Adam and Eve. Torah teaches that they did not obey God’s instructions, and hence humanity for eternity was doomed to have a conscience. It is this unique essence which shows how fundamental the concept of “guilt” actually is. We come from a culture which has, from time in memorial, had such high expectations of each of us, that when we veer away from our ultimate potential, somewhere in our psyche we feel shame.
There is another tentacle of “Jewish Guilt” which is related to the history of anti-Semitism around the world. The subliminal question exists, that if in fact, the world historically hated the Jews, then perhaps we may have done something to bring on this disfavor. If this could be true, then we must somehow be held liable. If we are held to be somehow at fault, then surely we must repair whatever was in us that made those around us, hate us and blame us for the ills of their society. When the victim accepts the responsibility of the blame instead of placing it squarely on the oppressor, new issues arise that need addressing. Perhaps the entire “Tikkun Olam”movement which speaks to so many Jews is an outgrowth of the need to repair their own guilt for sins implied by others and accepted without understanding the ramifications of doing so.
When a friend suggested that “Jewish Guilt” is built into our DNA, I thought it foolish. The more I think about it, the more of a possibility it becomes. If DNA is information which evolves over the millennia and is passed on from generation to generation through our cells, perhaps it is in fact, possible that we inherit a “guilt gene” from our ancestors. How much of it is biological – and how much is simply psychological programming, needs further investigation.
We Jews are all products of many variations of Jewish observance. Most of us, if we go back a few generations, will find our ancestors were religious people. Being observant in years gone by was for some a total commitment to the faith, but for others it was a result of being ostracized from other societies. It was not always a matter of individual choice. The options did not exist as they do today. Jewish customs by definition separated our ancestors from their larger societies and brought curiosity and distrust upon us as our traditions detached us from our neighbors and made us into “the Other. “ Civilizations blamed the Jews for not succumbing to Christianity, and punished them accordingly. After Inquisitions, Pogroms and the Shoah, for some, there seems to a lurking question; Could such horrors have come upon the Jews without some reason? Volumes have been written on the subject . We Jews were “different” and unwilling to succumb to outside religious pressures of the times. Becoming political victims of those wishing to distract their populations from local political and economic woes resulted in the murder of millions of our ancestors. Even those of us who did not lose a family member in those horrific events, live with the knowledge that it was an accident of fate that we and our families were not in Eastern Europe during the Shoah. Even that admission creates a sense of guilt in most of us. By what right did we survive when others perished? Families of survivors know this syndrome intimately. The rest of us do not escape its implications either.
When the time came to create the new Jewish State of Israel, a conscious effort was made to walk away from the old image of the downtrodden victim of the past. The “halutzim” were new fighters on behalf of the Jewish people. They shed their garb, their language, their religiosity and in the process, they shed their pain from their recent experiences. The new land was to be built on optimism, strength and hope for a different future for the Jewish people.
My husband, born in the lower “east end: of London prior to World War II, said frequently that there was only one kind of Judaism in his neighborhood. There was only Orthodoxy. No one in his environs was so extreme that he separated himself from others in his family. Those who observed less were understood. It seemed to him that no one disparaged their neighbor for different degrees of observance. Perhaps it was because they were all so poor that their focus was on survival rather than judging one another. One did what he needed to in those days. They worked when work was available. They did whatever was required to feed their children and keep a roof above their heads. Life was simple because it was about endurance.
Today Jewish life is very different. Later generations found a way to educate their children so that they would not have the harsh and insecure lives of their parents and grandparents.. Those who followed, generally improved their lot. In the process, we became much more judgmental toward one another.
In the process “guilt” developed. Guilt works in two directions. We feel guilty when we do not meet up to the expectations others have implanted into our hearts and minds. But many also feel that those around them should accept the “guilt” for not having helped the less privileged along the way. Our communal memory of being an oppressed and misunderstood people, resulted in a conscience par excellence. Perhaps it is this essence which brought Jews to align themselves with the political parties that they felt cared for the poor, the minorities and hence “the underdog.” Jews therefore worked tirelessly in the movement to bring Black equality to the United States. This subconscious “Jewish Guilt” may well be at the core of those Jews who today identify more with Arab causes, than with the survival of their own people.
At the end of the day, most of us try to be the best human beings we can be. Being Jews, we bare self-expectations from the three thousand years of standards which have preceded us. If today, we can say that we have done the best we could, we need not feel guilty. When we know that we could have done better… the “guilt” creeps in.
So we return “full-circle” to the expectations of our religious upbringings. If one chooses to walk away from his/her heritage. It brings with it a sense of guilt which most people push deep into their psyches. It manifests itself sometimes in anger at those who chose to observe that which one may have rejected. If you remember the transactional analysis book “I’m Okay…You’re Okay,” (written by Thomas Anthony Harris in 1967) you might recall its conclusions. Many individuals look at those around them and judge them harshly, as if to say: we both cannot be “okay.” One of us must be right and one must be wrong. If I cannot live with the guilt of being a different kind of Jew than you…then you must be the one at fault. So much depends on our ability to accept responsibility for our human limitations and hence for our ultimate choices in life.
If we can look at ourselves with any kind of objectivity, we will forgive ourselves for our human frailty. “Jewish guilt” is the finest form of deprecation. A degree of guilt, is good for the soul. Letting it rule our lives results in isolation from our very essence. . Only people who expect outstanding kindness and excellence of themselves can feel such pain at their imperfections. This kind of “guilt” we can wear with pride!