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Rabbi Adam Jacobs Headshot

There's No Such Thing As Jewish Guilt

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We are all familiar with the archetypal Jewish mother -- an overprotective parental micro-manager -- clutching her pearls with one hand and biting on the other as she faces the wall and bleats out pained rebuke for her children's lack of fealty. This image (of a personality type that surely transcends cultures) has been etched into our collective unconscious -- aided and abetted by storytellers such as Philip Roth and Woody Allen, and while occasionally funny, is not particularly accurate. And even if it is, it has exactly nothing to do with Judaism.

Contrary to popular conception, Judaism rejects the mental state we call guilt and views it as a spiritual malady -- one that generally prevents people from making positive changes in their lives. As is obvious to most people, guilt is an especially counter-productive emotion. For instance, according to the American Academy of Clinical Psychiatrists, "Guilt appears to be a factor that may increase the severity of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and negatively impact treatment outcomes." The Swiss psychologist (and Warsaw Ghetto survivor) Alice Miller wrote, "Many people suffer all their lives from this oppressive feeling of guilt, the sense of not having lived up to their parents' expectations... no argument can overcome these guilt feelings."

Judaism is exceedingly pro-growth and, by its lights, the process of becoming truly spiritual must be predicated on and preceded by a) emotional harmony and b) rigorous moral development. The three are inextricably linked. In as much as the experience of guilt destabilizes emotional balance so badly, it is to be avoided and is therefore as un-Jewish as a Virginia Ham. The emotion that it will allow is regret. Here's how one of the classical ethical training works explains it "regret is the path to all good deeds. If you have done something to your friend, regret and go and appease him. And if your friend has done something to you and he regrets it, accept him." And there's the rub -- guilt perpetuates negativity and is ultimately debilitating while regret motivates us to tackle the problems caused by unresolved emotions. One promotes growth, the other kills it.

While we're at it, there are several other emotions that Judaism proscribes and that people are generally surprised by. In addition to not being allowed to feel guilt, we are also not permitted to be sad. The Mishna teaches that when the (happy) month of Adar comes we increase our joy and that when the (less happy) month of Av comes we decrease our joy. As should be clear, either way we have joy -- it's just a question of in what proportion. Similarly, there is an idea that a prophet cannot achieve prophecy in a state of sadness. The question is therefore asked as to how prophets like Jeremiah (who was tasked with recording the horrors envisioned in the Book of Lamentations) could possibly have written it in a state of prophecy. The answer is that despite the pain he experienced in being shown the harsh reality of what was to come, he was able to maintain a base level of joy -- believing, as we all should -- that ultimately everything happens for a reason -- and that it's all for our good. As with guilt vs. regret, the distinction here is between sorrow -- a debilitating and enervating emotional state vs. broken-heartedness -- which is a real experience of the pain of loss and difficulty, but one that allows us to make room for the equally real cognizance of the world as overflowing with light and goodness. The minds of great people can simultaneously encompass both.

Finally, we are not allowed to be afraid. As the Torah says in the Book of Deuteronomy as the soldiers prepare for battle "Hear, O Israel, today you are coming near to the battle against your enemies; let your heart not be faint; do not be afraid, do not panic, and do not be broken before them." In fact, those soldiers who were afraid were given dispensation to simply go home -- as success in battle was predicated on the ethical and spiritual level of the fighters and if they were scared it indicated that they had more work to do. Like guilt and sorrow, fear is almost always a hindrance to what we are most interested in accomplishing. It should be noted that this is not to suggest that we should be able to lie down across a busy street and rest easy knowing that our connection with God and spirituality will protect us. That's not called a lack of fear but rather idiocy. The goal is to be perfectly aware of the dangers and to proceed anyway knowing that what we are aiming to do is right and good. As such, the only type of fear that is permitted is the fear of being distant from the spiritual word and losing one's connection with it. This is the true meaning of the term "fear of heaven" and when we describe someone as "God Fearing" is does not mean that he quakes in his boots from some anticipated retaliatory action of a nasty and jealous uber-being. Rather, it means that he fears doing something that will separate him from the goodness of authentic spirituality. Other than that, there is nothing to fear - not death nor disease nor war nor financial calamity.

Imagine what life would be like if we reframed and embraced this way of looking at things -- guilt free.