Why Are Jews So Attached to Guilt?

Interesting that guilt may be one of the remaining relics of religious identity even for those Jews who are not observant.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz / Jewish World blogger
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Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz / Jewish World blogger

How many Jewish Mothers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Most readers will likely chime in with the famous punch line “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be OK in the dark”, preferably said in a heavy Brooklyn accent heavy with emotional undertones. Yes, guilt is one of the things we Jews do best. Where else but in a Jewish country would one be compelled to feel guilty for enjoying a sunny December day? "What do you mean it is a beautiful day, we need rain!"

Interesting that guilt may be one of the remaining relics of religious identity even for those Jews who are not observant. The roots in fundamentalist observance become clearer when we consider the other stereotypical culture of shame, Catholicism. Alan Cohen defined guilt as “punishing yourself before God doesn’t”. It is the place where we are hardest on ourselves, our inner voice cast in the role of a perfect God, a parent figure eternally disappointed that we are not living up to our potential.

A woman and two children seek cover from the rain in Haifa.Credit: Haggai Freid

“The most primitive experiences of shame are connected with sight and being seen, but it has been interestingly suggested that guilt is rooted in hearing, the sound in oneself of the voice of judgment,” said Bernard Williams. This is our inner voice echoing God in the Garden when asking the apple eating Adam “Ayekah”, where you, but the tone is usually a rhetorical and diminishing one of accusation and low regard.

The 19th century Hasidic master, Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin, instructed his Hasidim that there are times when one is helpless to overcome the urge to transgress, and that at times we are possessed by a force larger than we can handle, leading us to fall. He then explained that we are unable to be the judge of ourselves in this, and that no one but God knows whether we could or could not overcome a particular challenge. In an ingenious dichotomy we are given a perspective that can have no practical application in our lives, for “only God can know”, but can be a significant way to mediate guilt, for maybe there is no way I could have overcome my weakness. This can restore our image of ourselves as simply good people who have things to fix.

This level of self-acceptance can be useful in avoiding a pathological gap in self-image and confidence. Nonetheless I can’t help but feel that there is a reason us Jews are so attached to our guilt. It is the same reason so many proverbial Jewish mothers hope for the son the doctor, the lawyer. It is a heritage of expecting the best from ourselves, and it is intimately intertwined with a closely held belief in a shared destiny between us and the universe, creating meaning in the world and for the world. Our nation was born with a belief that we are a “God-chosen people”, and as complicated as that idea may be, it brings with it a cultural heritage of high expectations. This heritage has brought us far, and I for one would feel quite bad about myself if I were to leave it behind.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of HaOhel Institutions in Jerusalem, now launching a new venture, Threshold, fostering Jewish educational entrepreneurship.