Feeling guilty, they say, is bad for us. It lowers self esteem. Who does it any more? We have finally reached the age Shelley dreamed of in his poem Prometheus Unbound. We are “free from guilt or pain.”
All of which makes it difficult to understand – except as some relic of the past – what Jews throughout the world are now doing, getting ready for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement, what we call “the Days of Awe.” Yom Kippur could almost be defined as a festival of guilt. We repent and confess our sins repeatedly in long alphabetical lists. “We have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have spoken slander.” “For the sin we committed through hardness of heart, for the sin we committed through utterance of the lips,” and so on throughout the day.
Yom Kippur itself is the culmination of a process that begins forty days before with the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn, our moral early warning system. Then come Selichot, the special penitential prayers said for a week before the New Year, then the New Year itself with its symbolism of the world as a courtroom in session, with our lives on trial. It’s hard to think of anything less in keeping with the zeitgeist, the mood of now.
I think, though, that Judaism gets it right and the zeitgeistgets it spectacularly, dangerously wrong. Consider: guilt enters the world hand in hand with the spirit of forgiveness. G-d forgives: that is the message emblazoned all over Yom Kippur. G-d doesn’t expect us to get it right all the time. The greatest of the great, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, David, had their faults and failings, defeats and doubts. There is only one person in the Hebrew Bible who is said to have committed no sin: Job. And look what happened to him.
So, because G-d forgives, we can be honest with Him and therefore with ourselves. Unlike a shame culture, a guilt culture separates agent from act, the person from the deed. What I did may be wrong, but I am still intact, still loved by G-d, still His child. In a guilt culture, acknowledging our mistakes is doable, and that makes all the difference.
Today’s secular environment is a shame culture. It involves trial by the media, or public opinion, or the courts, or economic necessity, all of which are unforgiving. When shame is involved, it’s us, not just our actions, that are found wanting. That’s why in a shame culture you don’t hear people saying, “I was wrong. It was my fault. I’m sorry. Forgive me.” Instead, people try to brazen it out. The only way to survive in a shame culture is to be shameless. Some people manage this quite well, but deep down we know that there’s something rotten in a system where no one is willing to accept responsibility.
Ultimately, guilt cultures produce strong individuals precisely because they force us to accept responsibility. When things go wrong we don’t waste time blaming others. We don’t luxuriate in the most addictive, destructive drug known to humankind, namely victimhood. We say, honestly and seriously, “I’m sorry. Forgive me. Now let me do what I can to put it right.” That way we and the people we offend can move on. Through our mistakes we discover the strength to heal, learn and grow.
Shame cultures produce people who conform. Guilt cultures produces people with the courage to be free. The Talmud says that the Day of Atonement was one of the happiest days of the year. That’s an odd thing to say about a day of fasting and confession. But the rabbis were right.
In place of a low dishonest culture where everyone blames someone else and no one admits responsibility, Yom Kippur offers a world of honesty and responsibility where guilt melts in the flames of G-d’s forgiveness and we are made new in the fire of His unconditional love.