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The Elements of Jewish Living

The Guilt of Guilt

By TorahLab

It has been said that the function of religion is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Contrary to contemporary ethos, there is a value in discomfort. Discomfort forces one to face the inadequacy of one's deed and to aspire to further growth.

Given this premise, is guilt a good emotion or a bad one? Does it cripple a person from acting, or does it spur him on to change and improve? Western society has chosen to treat guilt like a disease. Since the birth of psychoanalysis, we have waged war on guilt as we have on polio and small pox. We have shifted the blame for wrongdoing away from the individual and attributed it to every other possible factor: upbringing, peer pressure, genetic predisposition. All in order that a person should not feel guilty, or for that matter be guilty for the crimes he commits. A few years ago, two children in Arkansas were convicted of murdering their teacher and several children at a schoolyard shoot-out. As they were escorted to Juvenile prison, a team of child psychologists accompanied them. The psychologists were there to ensure that the children would be able to cope with their possible pangs of guilt, and therefore be able to rehabilitate properly.

Our highest political leaders can do the most abhorrent deeds and not show a thread of guilt. Nor is anyone allowed to protest, for the only thing worse than feeling guilty is making someone else feel guilty. Many times, the words “Don't lay a guilt trip on me” have stopped a sincere rebuker in his tracks. Perhaps we have created a guilt-free society. Where do we go from here?

On the other hand, guilt can be the most debilitating of emotions. A person filled with guilt can barely live; he is burdened with a heavy load. In the place of heightened sensitivity toward the feelings of others, he may misinterpret every word that is said to him. Instead of exerting extra caution so as not to fall into wrongdoing again, they seem to repeat the very offense that they are feeling guilty about: the proverbial thief who returns to the scene of the crime. In addition, they project their guilt to those around them.

The story is told of the famous pietist, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, who on the eve of Yom Kippur, spotted a man walking down the street who seemed to be totally immersed in the mental act of repentance. He looked horrified by the fact that he had sinned in the past year and was dwelling intensely on his wrongdoings. Reb Yisroel asked the man for directions, but the man wouldn’t respond. He signaled as if to say that he was too involved in preparation for the upcoming holy day. Reb Yisroel walked away feeling rejected. “Because that man sinned, why do others have to suffer?” he later he told his students. He also pointed out to them that as a result of the man’s obsession with his sins, he had, in fact, violated one of the gravest sins-that of hurting another human being. He was so involved with himself he could not see the other person standing before him.

No emotion may be more associated with Judaism than guilt. It is the focus of countless “Jewish mother” jokes. And it was a Jew who first identified, defined and stigmatized this emotion at the beginning of the modern era. Yet, there is no word in the Hebrew language that exactly defines this feeling we all experience at times; there are words for regret, shame, but not guilt. Does it exist or doesn’t it? Is it beneficial or not? Judaism demands its adherents to travel on a path of growth and self-transformation. We can't grow away from something that we don’t identify as a part of ourselves. But as long as it is part of us we really can’t grow either.

Where is the line between guilt trips and constructive criticism? Is it more difficult to receive reproof willingly or offer reproof properly?

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