Parashat Vayikra: Reclaiming Jewish Guilt

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, March 19, 2010.]

• Raise your hand if you’ve never felt guilt about anything.

• Raise your hand if you often feel guilty about something.

• Raise your hand if you feel guilty about something right now.

I ask these questions because this week’s parashah, Vayikra, the opening section of the Book of Leviticus, is, in the part we read in this year’s cycle, a bit of a self-help manual for people who experience guilt. The portion describes the sin offerings to be made by those who are guilty of an offense against God. The required offerings differ, depending on who you are. Leadership pays higher than rank and file. So the priest, who represents the people before God, pays more dearly than a tribal chief, who pays more than a peasant. It’s a kind of progressive guilt tax. In each instance, the resolution of the guilt comes through an animal sacrifice. The person who is guilty lays his hands on the head of the animal for a moment before the sacrifice happens, in an interestingly intimate and compassionate gesture. And unlike other types of sacrificial offerings, no one gets to benefit from the animal. Everything edible or usable in some way is burned. Through this ritual the sin is purged and the guilt-ridden person is released from his burden. 

If someone sins against another person, committing what we might term an ethical violation, he still does the sacrifice, but first makes good with the person who was wronged. In fact, he pays restitution plus a penalty; in other words he must restore things to a state better than he found them.

In the Torah, the obligation to engage in these rituals arises when a person is ashem – “guilty.” Interestingly, this is not guilt as decided by a judge or a court. Instead, the requirement is triggered when one becomes aware of one’s own guilt or when it’s pointed out. It presumes that you have a desire to do good, and when you err, you own it.

But “guilt” in English, in American, and particularly among Jews, has come to mean something very different. In some way, it has come to mean almost the opposite of how it is used in Torah. Not an error you are first to acknowledge, but one you are last to acknowledge, or don’t want to acknowledge, or that you claim you didn’t commit anyway.

I had a lot of conversations about guilt this week, starting with my Facebook page. I asked people their thoughts about guilt and accountability and the responses were remarkable. Almost no one had a kind word to say about guilt. The very word brought up anger and indignation and, often, specifics about relationships – especially relationships with mothers.

My friends described guilt not as an emotion or impulse generated by you, but as a state imposed on you by someone else. They experienced guilt as being punished for someone else’s projection. They talked about being “guilt-tripped.” In other words, manipulated through some clever, sneaky blow to the soft core of your good nature. Where conscience might be your internal moral compass, guilt was seen as useless hardware originating outside of you. One is elevated by conscience, but victimized by guilt.

So why do I care? Well, like everyone, I walk around feeling guilty and hate it. So this is not a purely academic topic.

I found myself this week wanting to reclaim guilt; to rehabilitate it somehow. If for no other reason than the fact that in my experience, anything universally despised is definitely worth a second look.

One thing I noticed right off was that people’s words and tone when describing guilt virtually throbbed with resentment of authority. We don’t mind being answerable to our own conscience. But we hate being answerable to someone else. Whether it is teacher, or boss, or God, or tradition, or Shabbat, or workload, or mother, we resent authority. And Mom, alas, was the figure who came up the most in the conversations. Why is this? Is resentment of authority an outgrowth of the parent-child relationship to begin with?

Our parents, often especially our mothers, are where we learn right and wrong; where we are scolded or corrected or schooled in some way when we hit or steal or lie (or, hypothetically, pour a full bottle of Bullwinkle bubble bath on the wall-to-wall carpeting). Our parents are also where we learn compassion and empathy. Where we are taught that our actions have consequences not only for ourselves but for others. In some ways, learning that we can hurt our mothers is the foundation upon which we build compassion and restraint and, perhaps, our susceptibility to guilt.

But in each person’s development comes the time that we separate from our parents. By our teen years we don’t want Mom and Dad or Mom and Mom or Dad and Dad telling us right from wrong. “Leave me alone! Let me decide!” We reject of our parents’ moral voice. This is a normal part of our growth. But sometimes, even when we’re grown, we don’t know how to shake the reflex to reject our parents’ moral authority out of hand.

The impulse to discredit Mom’s moral voice found a comfy home in the mid-20th Century American invention of the Jewish mother. This stereotype doesn’t really exist among Jews from other countries, nor did it exist in previous generations. One can speculate about how it arose. Perhaps Jewish Old World communalism was being replaced by the American mythos of rugged individualism – an individualism that, of course, was always only valued in men. And Jewish men, who were close to their mothers, and whose success was often commensurate with their mothers’ sacrifices, felt especially compelled to demonstrate to America their independence from the maternal through a whole genre of anti-Semitic jokes at their mothers’ expense. Guilt was a central theme.

A typical joke goes something like this: A Jewish mother bought her son two ties for Chanukah. He tried one on to show her. She said, “what’s the matter, you didn’t like the other one?”

This is a depiction of guilt as a form of entrapment. There is no justice here, no moral authority in her; no issue of right or wrong being raised – nonetheless the son is judged. The joke defines guilt as harsh judgment without any remotely legitimate grounds.

This is what I’d like to challenge. And I think we can reclaim our Jewish mothers as we reclaim guilt. Might it have been a plea for appreciation? Might it have been a request for chesed, for compassion, cloaked in words of gevurah, of judgment?

For sure I’ll admit that there are times that we experience something as guilt – or experience “being guilted” – when there isn’t a particularly strong moral claim involved.

But what’s often so frustrating about the guilt someone gives us, including our mothers, is that it’s exactly on point. It is the message we don’t want to hear. As my mother said to me today, “you don’t get mileage from a guilt trip if there isn’t a grain of truth in it.”

And I think that’s true. If I turned to you right now and asked, “How dare you invade Poland,” you wouldn’t feel guilty. You’d just presume I’d taken leave of my senses. It wouldn’t have anything to do with you, and you wouldn’t be bothered. Which is why I think guilt can’t be solely about them. It has to be, in small or large part, about you.

So we could say that one difference between conscience and guilt is that in the case of conscience, you were the one to realize how you messed up. With guilt, someone else points it out first. And that can be infuriating.

I asked my mother what her thoughts were about guilt. She said, “I try not to do guilt anymore.” I asked her for an example. She said, “For instance, I don’t say, ‘You could call more often.’”

And there it was, the grain of truth, the right hook to my soft spot. A thing I feel guilty about, whether she actually says it to me or not. Why? Because I know I could do better. And hearing her tell me this, I felt sad that she’d internalized this pop idea of guilt so deeply that she felt unjustified asking me for something legitimate.

Which leads to another famous trope of the Jewish mother joke. How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb? “It's okay, I’ll sit in the dark.”

We all know the story. Guilt here takes the form of a test in which we are asked to figure out someone’s needs before they articulate them, and we fail. But the punchline of this joke presumes that we are not required to have compassion for our mothers. In other words, the joke is only funny if her expectation that her children might change the light bulb for her were laughably unjustified.

But we know that’s not so. What would Torah say if Torah were asked? Probably something like this:

If thy mother’s bulb burns out, and she sitteth in the dark, thou shalt not suffer her to climb the rickety stepladder with a flashlight, but verily thou shalt change the light bulb for her, yea, even without having to be asked.

Isn’t that what kabed et avicha v’et imecha – honor thy father and mother – would require of us? Isn’t that what simple compassion would require of us?

And empathy also has something important to say about this joke. To work, the joke requires us not to have any real empathy for our Jewish mother. If we did, we might wonder why she felt she couldn’t just ask? What experience did she have with her parents or with the world or with her children to feel so powerless to ask for this most minimal piece of assistance?

I’m sorry if I’ve ruined this joke for you. But not too sorry.

The truth is, the Jewish mother jokes, largely, are not about the failings of Jewish mothers. They are about the failings of her children – our failings – and our resistance to owning them. We feel guilty about Mom sitting in the dark, because we knew we should have changed the damn bulb and we didn’t.

So instead of looking at that guilt as a spiritual punishment, perhaps we might see it as something else. An incomplete act of compassion. A moment of empathy waiting to be born. Conscience thwarted, hopefully only temporarily. Guilt is an invitation. Not an invitation to feel bad. But an invitation to learn, to grow, to be a better person.

When we feel guilty, what would happen if we took that moment to ask, “what about this makes me so crazy? If I take away the fact of who said it to me and the tone of voice in which it was said, is there something left here that I need to know or already knew?”

In the Torah portion, someone who was guilty did not just say “sorry,” shrug and walk away. They engaged in a ritual act of transformation. They offered a sacrifice. They came out of it unburdened, un-guilty.

So how can we transform our guilt into un-guilt? How can we offer it up as a sacrifice, burn away the part that is painful or just plain aggravating, and unlike the guilt offering of Leviticus, keep and digest the part that is of value. How do we transform ourselves in the process? Is there a ritual act available to us too?

As we all know, the Temple sacrifices of antiquity are over. They were replaced in Judaism by prayer; prayer, in which we offer our words and lift our voices and move our bodies in a way designed to open our hearts. So I suggest we let our words, our voices, our bodies, be the vehicle for offering up and transforming guilt.

Let us offer up our guilt and transform it into conscience, empathy and compassion. When my mother told me she no longer tells me she wishes I’d call more, I was able to say, “I’m sorry. I know I need to call more.” And just that moment was transformative between us. Guilt was transformed into understanding and responsibility and concern. Two adults communicating forthrightly about their needs and desires. And the next step will be in the world of action, using my body, my speed-dial finger, to make the necessary course correction toward my being a better person.

And sure, we all feel bad about many things; we can’t respond to everyone’s needs. Some people might have desires of us that are not reasonable. But maybe giving clear and loving voice to our limitations, our boundaries, can help transform guilt into healthy, unsticky, untangled communication.

The Hebrew word ashem, “guilty,” could be re-vowelled as i-shem, “without a name,” a “non-name.” In our tradition, your name equates to your moral stature, your reputation, the faith others can place in you. Guilt, as my friends described it all week, compromised them, weakened them, undermined their moral standing.

May we instead, at the moment that we feel ashem, guilty, i-shem, losing our name, may we at that moment make an offering. May we find the kernel of deep truth in our wave of guilt, and may we use our words, our bodies and our generous hearts to transform it into wisdom, into a lesson, into guidance, into a map, a blueprint, an instruction for a next step. In the process, may we make things even better than they were when we began. May we all have a good name in our families and communities. Priests, chieftains, peasants, mothers of children and children of mothers, we are all wise enough - we are all bighearted enough - to do this.

Photo 1: Aaron and sons lay their hands on the head of the bullock for the guilt offering.

Photo 2: A Jewish Mother (mine)

Photo 3: A working light bulb.