Most likely, if you are Jewish, you have experienced, joked about, or handed out a bit of Jewish guilt. We laugh at the exaggerated stereotype, typically attributed to Jewish mothers - “Are you eating enough? You look thin.” “Why didn’t you call me?” “Are you sure you can’t make it home for the holidays?” – but guilt can motivate us to make better choices and take proper assessment of our actions.
Guilt, according to the dictionary on my computer, is “a feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation”.
Guilt may be self-inflicted or externally imposed, and either mode can have a significant impact on the individual ingesting the guilt. We often take guilt as a sign of failure, of not having lived up to our own or other’s expectations.
As a mother of four children under eight, I can see how guilt can swarm in and consume you. “Am I spending too much time on tasks that have to get done and not enough time with my children?” “Did I make the right decision regarding what school to send my children to?” “Are we raising our children in a manner that will encourage them to embrace Judaism?” “Am I doing too much?” “Am I doing too little?”
Guilt can be incessant and confidence shattering. Yet, used appropriately, guilt is a strong motivator, especially within the Jewish faith. Whether it be staying connected to extended family with weekly phone calls, keeping up with deadlines at work so as not to cause others to fall behind in their work or taking additional steps in your Jewish observance, guilt can nudge us forward.
When guilt is used as a “spanking”, it does nothing more than makes us feel badly about ourselves and keeps us locked in the past where poor choices were made. When guilt is used as a force that causes us to examine our actions and assess our values, we are able to focus on the future and moving forward.
Life is filled with paradox, and the concept of guilt is no exception. On the one hand, its definition is tied to wrongdoing or even crime. But taken a step further, guilt is connected with responsibility, regret over errors we’ve made, and remorse or repentance.
Now look where we’ve ended up. I am reminded of Yom Kippur where we are given the opportunity to repent for our sins, our wrongdoings. G-d asks us to take responsibility for our actions and own up to them. G-d knows we are not perfect and that we will make mistakes, and He* merely asks us to recognize those mistakes and ask forgiveness for them.
Jewish guilt carries the essence of Yom Kippur throughout the entire year. It is up to us to master the negative feelings and use that energy to make positive change. It is also essential that we do not allow guilt to lead us into thinking that we can control everything and that we have all the answers. Sometimes, we just need to relinquish the need to control and make the best choices we can with the best information we can collect and with the greatest intention we can muster. And – quite often – that’s good enough!
*The use of He does not denote that G-d has a gender. It is used for simplicity’s sake.