"Guilt is a wasted emotion," said my rabbi from his pulpit, "You can't sit and mull over everything you've done wrong and have it bring you into a state of inaction due to your debilitating depression. You need to your live your life 'right' going forward."
Live life right going forward.
That may have been the operative phrase, but it put no end to the harping of the many OCD minds in our congregation. Besides, so many of us listening to the sermon were unsure how to live life "right" -- although some of the Republicans smugly felt they had the answer.
Looking around the room, I could tell this was the most impactful speech the rabbi had delivered. Talking to my fellow shul-goers afterwards, we could all empathize with one another. My own induction to guilt occurred when I was six-years-old. I had convinced Adina Shapiro to hand over her sticker album in return for millions of stickers from around the world. I had no way to carry out this trade and to this day, I still feel bad about the sticker debacle and, oh, so much more.
"This is not the way," said the rabbi, "Teshuva, repentance, asking for forgiveness from those you hurt and moving forward, doing better today, and in the future. That is the way."
While the above may seem an obvious enough answer, Jewish guilt is everywhere. We read about it in books, hear Woody Allen kvetch in movies and we pay our psychiatrists $150 an hour or more to keep us from slitting our wrists. But Jewish guilt is actually not a Jewish concept (neither is slitting one's wrists).
Rabbi Yisrael Pinson of West Bloomfield, Michigan belongs to a network of Chabad.org rabbis devoted to helping and counseling recovering addicts whether the addiction be to alcohol and drugs or sexual in nature. He is well-versed in the 12 steps and the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous as are other "Recovery Rabbis," each one based in a different locale. Rabbi Pinson explains that Jews are not supposed to be brought into a state of inertia by paralyzing guilt and that we are not even supposed to be thinking these thoughts too often, rather guilt, in its most productive form, should be relegated to various moments designated for introspection.
"There are no 'right' or 'wrong' emotions," he says, "but all emotions need to be measured against the bottom line as far as action is concerned. Guilt brings you to inertia as opposed to Charatah, a regret that spurs you to action. In the Jewish prayers, the focus is on charatah, regret about the past but more importantly, good decisions for the future. Any emotion that brings about inaction needs to be dissipated as fast as possible but if an emotion can bring you to positive change, that's a good emotion to be stuck in."
To prevent falling into a debilitating shame, he explains, the Jewish way is actually not to allow these feelings of guilt to bog us down, rather to plan them in advance.
"In Judaism, there are specific times of reflection on our past behaviors and times of our day that we devote to these thoughts, such as before going to sleep at night in words preceding the prayer of Shema. A portion is devoted to praying for forgiveness."
Pinson also explains that in Kabbalistic circles, Thursday nights are a time of reflection as well as the evening of Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the month marked by the appearance of the new moon, when some Jews go as far as fasting for forgiveness.
"We reserve specific times to review past behaviors," says Rabbi Pinson, "because if thoughts about behavior come to you randomly, they will usually be a force of negativity in the middle of what you're doing and negative thoughts can suddenly interrupt a really good action."
So there you have it. For years we've been hearing about "Jewish guilt," and guilt is not even a Jewish concept!
If there was a Jewish Guide to Guilt, the word "guilt" would be crossed out and the bottom line?
Schedule time for your thoughts and regrets, figure out a plan and live your life.