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Jewish Guilt and the Deterioration of Jewry

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On a recent trip to California to visit my best friend, Andrew, whom I haven’t seen in 4 years, I found myself, as I often do, immersed in deep conversation with him. The topic? Human consciousness, the ego, our connection to Judaism, and our motivation to do or to not do Jewish things. Ya know, casual conversation.

I’ll privy you to the conclusion rather than keep you on pins and needles and then I’ll discuss how we arrived there. Simply, Guilt. With a capital G. My friend Andrew was explaining to me that even at the times in his life when he was most observant (he was not observant when we had this convo) that he was fueled by guilt. Where did this guilt come from? Well, he felt guilt from his parents, his community, and even from non-Jews.

This guilt led him to do Jewish things, whatever they may have been. He didn’t feel a deep and unending love for Torah or Hashem or Shabbat or kashrut or anything Jewish. But his connection to Judaism, the Jewish acts that he did, were done because he felt guilty not doing them.

Many of you may be nodding your head at this point because this is a very common feeling. Guilt is not exclusive to Judaism, nor is being moved to action due to guilt. Now, often guilt has its place. Guilt very likely is the catalyst for social change in the United States and the rest of the world. I would imagine that while there were clearly many individuals fueled by good intentions to end slavery in the 19th century or end segregation in the 20th, there were likely just as many if not more individuals who were pushed by guilt, guilt stemming from their own actions and the actions of the generations before them.

So what’s the problem? Guilt does good things, right? Well, the truth is that while guilt can do good things, guilt is unhealthy for the individual, unsustainable, and simply is not the proper motivation to facilitate change in oneself or in the world. Day school educated, an active leader in the conservative youth movement, and an employee of both the Jewish Agency for Israel and Birthright, I do not believe that World Jewry desires that its survival come from a place of self-loathing and resentment. Rather, Judaism is a faith and the Jews are a people that should be embraced through excitement, love, acceptance, tolerance, and growth. A Judaism populated with individuals filled with a love for heritage, Torah and Hashem is a Judaism that is rich, vibrant, and promising rather than a Judaism where we are paying lip-service to God, each other and ourselves because we are occupied with “What would bubbe or zeide say if I didn’t go to shul?”

So where does this guilt come from?

It is sustained by the Jews themselves. It is very common for one to hear the terms good Jew or bad Jew. These are empty, meaningless and modern ideas. Nowhere in Jewish text, Jewish tradition, or Jewish written and oral law are these terms uttered. But, in our modern world they are uttered by the Jews themselves.

A non-Jew may be speaking with his co-worker who hears that he/she is Jewish and say “Oh, you’re Jewish. So you only eat kosher?” A not uncommon response: “No, I’m a bad Jew.” This self-loathing, even in a joking manner, is a catalyst for the deterioration of one’s inner spiritual identity, and reflects the breakdown of the Jewish collective identity in the world. These terms are commonly tossed around in conversation, even amongst Jews, and even in a laughing way. But there is nothing to laugh about. These terms are a reflection of the serious and dangerous guilt that is deeply ingrained in generations of post-war Jews. These terms should be stricken from our vocabulary.

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3 Responses to “Jewish Guilt and the Deterioration of Jewry”

  1. Gil Gilman says:

    Guilt is an unhealthy motivator whether you are Jew or Gentile. Fear is guilt's step-sister. Religion could deal with these issues, if anyone had real confidence in the ceremonies designed for this. In my mind, the seasons and festivals are for this purpose, the fall festivals beginning with Elul, Tashlich on Rosh HaShana through Yom Kippur and Sukkot especially so, but only with faith in Hashem, and a recognition of His work, not mere ritual observance. The ritual observances are fine, but won't obliterate guilt on their own.

  2. Well said and well met.

  3. Unclear is how Jews are deteriorating; relatively speaking, there are no pogroms, no governments with openly discriminatory anti-Jewish policies where Jews actually live, & no force of any merit that would murder Jews. Assuredly, the guilt is less now than when Jews were supposed to say "I'm sorry for having killed Christ."

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