Dr. H. David Burstein February 2007.
“There is nothing as destructive to an individual or society as confessing to sins that one has not committed.” Jewish author Ahad Haam
When people start talking about Jewish comedy, the discussion of guilt, especially from our mothers is usually a topic. For example “How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb? None, its all right, Ill sit in the dark.”Our tradition understands that with the human condition, everything is balanced. Emotions can be used as motivators for good and improvement, or can be manipulated and used destructively.
Guilt and forgiveness are important because they are the primary emotional sources of our moral consciousness. The nuanced interplay between the two is with us all the time. Whether it relates to our self image, interpersonal relationships, or society at large, they are part of what actually separates human existence from that of animals. (Now you know why there are so many Jewish psychiatrists and lawyers!)
There are two kinds of guilt: necessary and gratuitous. Necessary guilt should be our response when we have behaved unethically or made a mistake. It is a sign of maturity and recognition of our all being flawed. Gratuitous guilt is taking responsibility for events over which we have no control. It is a waste of time and energy.
On an interpersonal level, saying sorry is very tough for a lot of us.
Conversely, it is unethical for trying to make others feel guilty for our own shortcomings.
On a personal level, many people forgive themselves too easily. While others have made self flagellation an art form.
In the public domain, the ability to admit guilt is often more difficult. We run the risk of being shamed or humiliated, and subject to physical harm.
Many years ago I read an article in the Atlantic monthly that contrasted the German versus the Japanese responses of their respective countries aggression during the Second World War. Germany, which is located in what was then “Christian” Europe had a guilt based response. Japans was a shame based reaction . While this is a generalization, it is an observation that deserves some consideration.
This difference between the development of a guilt based society versus and shamed based one actually has its roots in understanding the Biblical narrative. One of the greatest lessons in the Bible is that God wants us to be free. But if we are going to be free, we are not to abuse the power of our free will. Especially when you are in a position of power over another person. If you are to judge others, do not abuse the power. Use the power to pursue justice. When people admit guilt, they are “lowering” themselves in asking forgiveness from the person who is judging them. If they think that the person who is judging them is fair, the admission of guilt can be used at a vehicle for justice and growth.
However, if you think the people who are judging you may abuse the power, and you live in a society of “face savers”, chances are you will not even admit that you did anything wrong. Not being able to take responsibility for our own actions is juvenile.
How does all of this apply to understanding the moral confusion of our time? And how is it that so much of the world has chosen to blame the US, Israel and Jews for much of the problems in the world?
Part of it also stems from how one answers the following two questions: What is your view of human nature? With whom is the biggest battle in your life?
In the Western world, a conservative answer is that human nature is neutral and the biggest battles are with ourselves. A liberal answer is that each of us is inherently good, and that the biggest battle is with the people who have economic power. A person who thinks they are inherently good will trust their emotions as a barometer of truth. If something makes them feel a certain way, then it must be true.
The world is terribly flawed. We in the West have a guilt based mentality. So it must be our fault. But if I am a good person, the problems must be caused by someone else in our society. It must be the fault of George W. Bush and his ilk.
Contrast this to the shame based societies of the Muslim/Arab world, where factions believe in fanatical Islam. They are afraid to admit any shortcomings, and are led to blame others.
You mix the sanctimonious haters within the West, coupled with a juvenile fanatic mentality of parts of the Muslim world, and to it add superficial emotion driven media. To easily package and explain the worlds problems they look at the outpost for Western civilization that is in their midst and conclude that it is Israel and its supporters fault.
Over the last two years much of my focus has been on our son Charlie. I pray for him to be a healthy, happy, and confident mensch. I also want him to be a responsible Jew.
His identity has to be based on a positive. From my understanding of our relationship with God, to our ethics, to the contribution of our people in world that is way out of proportion to our numbers, to the rebirth of Israel, and its development as an imperfect democracy that actually has chosen to defend itself against its adversaries, there is just so much for which he should be proud.
However, we are living in a morally distorted world that is trying to make Jews guilty for being Jewish. We are so guilty that we should not even be allowed to exist.
As a recent Jerusalem Post Editorial said:
Israel, like other democracies, does not have a perfect human rights record. But the Orwellian attempt to lump Israel among odious regimes, while ignoring real abusers, employs a double standard so blatant as to fit international definitions of anti-Semitism. Such libelous campaigns are themselves an abuse of the lofty cause of human rights and, in the context of calls to “wipe Israel off the map,” contribute to the ultimate human rights abuse, incitement to genocide.
There is no need to apologize for being and living as Jews.
The 1980 American film “Ordinary People” involved the grief of an affluent family after the older of two sons drowns in a boating accident when out with his brother. The younger son attempted suicide because he feels he could have saved brother. His cold pretentious mother tried to make the younger son feel guilty, as the son who drowned was her favorite.
The main breakthrough in the healing of the surviving son occurred when it was pointed out that after the boat tipped over, he did nothing wrong. He did not let go of the boat.
As Jews and lovers of Israel, no matter what the world tries to do or say, we can never let ourselves to feel guilty for sins we have not committed.
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