Religion, Guilt And The Jewish Condition

Through the years, I’ve grown reluctant to divulge my rabbinic identity to those whom I meet on vacation, or in a purely social context far away from work.

It’s not that I’m embarrassed. God forbid (as it were). It’s just that when non-Jews learn that I’m a rabbi, it tends to stilt the conversation. They often feel that they have to be unusually respectful, or careful, lest they say something inappropriate. I appreciate the thought, but it doesn’t make for a great conversation. I actually enjoy speaking with people who relate to me as I am, without the a priori assumptions that so often characterize how people imagine rabbis to be.

And then there are the Jewish reactions, falling most often into one of two categories. The first is what I would call the confessional mode. People whom I don’t really know well at all, maybe even have just met, feel constrained to confess to me their lapsed Jewish practice. “I’m embarrassed to say this, but I don’t attend synagogue as often as I should.” Or “I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m a three day a year Jew.” Honestly, it’s not really what I want to be talking about when I meet someone in a social context.

And then there’s the second mode, a kind of pre-emptive strike against what they assume will be my judgment of their practice. “I don’t go to synagogue very often, but that’s because the rabbi is boring, the cantor drones on, and it’s just not something that I enjoy doing.” The underlying implication is that somehow, as a rabbi, I am responsible for the quality of all rabbis and all synagogues, especially theirs. That, I can assure you, is also not a conversation I am at all inclined to be interested in having in a purely social context. In a business context, as a congregational rabbi and an officer of the Rabbinical Assembly, I have those conversations all the time. I have to. But in a social context I’m really much happier talking about other things…

The common thread in these two modes of interaction is guilt. The perceived failure to live up to an externally imposed “proper” standard of Jewish religious commitment generates a feeling of guilt over being less than what one feels, on some deeper level, one should be. That feeling is no doubt reinforced each and every time those people do set foot in a synagogue, and promptly are told by the rabbi that they are deficient. Hence the confession, and also the hostility. I get it. I really do.

Poor guilt; it gets a bad rap. Guilt qua guilt is not a bad thing. A person who feels no guilt is a sociopath, and being able to have a “guilty conscience” when the circumstances warrant it is an essential component of sound mental health. Nazis felt no guilt.

But religion, as I see it, is about so much more than guilt, and the proper practice of Judaism is no exception. Here’s the simple truth. Judaism is a wonderful vehicle for the celebration of life’s blessings, each and every day. The Torah and its commandments, as the rabbis understood them, are our great treasure- not our burden.

The primary obligation of the religious person is to be grateful. Grateful for what? For everything! Grateful for waking up, for our health, for the ample food we have to eat and the roof over our heads, for the (most often) predictable rules of nature, for our families, our communities, our teachers, our students, for having more than we need, and, of course, for our Torah… grateful for it all, and cognizant of the salient fact that all of these blessings are an expression of God’s love, and not to be taken for granted. All of our rituals — all of our mitzvot —are designed to enhance our sense of God’s loving closeness. We recite blessings- a hundred a day, according to the rabbinic ruling- not to satisfy God’s insatiable need for compliments, but rather to remind us constantly of the need to be grateful…

It’s that simple — and that profound.

I find it so unfortunate that the observance of mitzvot– the commandments on which Judaism is based- is too often used as a vehicle to induce guilt, or as a cudgel with which to make other Jews feel inadequate or wrong. For the believing Jew, the mitzvot are the ticket to a gratifying life. I know that there are powerful forces that try to frame observance as a ticket to both reward and punishment. The Torah itself does that, and much of our traditional liturgy does as well. But every generation needs to interpret those texts until we understand why God wants us to lead a life of Torah and mitzvot. It’s not about being good or bad, or meriting reward or punishment. It’s because God loves us, and wants us to live a gratifying and worthwhile life. Yes, we Jews are allowed to say that God loves us! Judaism is about celebrating the gift of life, and not wasting the blessings that we so take for granted…

To paraphrase an old joke, if Judaism hurts, you’re doing it wrong. If it’s all about obligation that is divorced from gratification — not just God’s gratification, but our own as well — it’s a very inadequate version of Judaism.

And if Judaism is all about confessing, or complaining, or feeling guilty and burdened … there’s no time like the present to realize that it can be so much more. God is waiting for you to celebrate your life!

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, and Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.