Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Guilt versus Shame: Why I Love Yom Kippur

When I tell people that Yom Kippur is my favorite holiday on the Jewish calendar, I get the strangest looks. Between the fasting for twenty-five hours, being in synagogue all day, thumping your chest repeatedly, and the Jewish guilt, it comes off more as the ultimate form of Jewish masochism than anything else.

And if that were not weird enough, I tell people that I actually like the guilt. I can hear you screaming "Masochist!" from the top of your lungs.  However, after reading an article from Sir Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, he made a very important distinction between guilt and shame, something which has bearing on why this holiday actually means "like Purim," the most festive day on the Jewish calendar.

First, Sacks' comments on guilt:

"Guilt enters the world hand in hand with the spirit of forgiveness. G-d forgives: that is the message emblazoned all over Yom Kippur........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."

He then contrasts the notion with a shame culture:

"Today's environment is a shame culture.....When shame is involved, it's us, not just our actions, that are found wanting.....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."

That is why I like the Jewish notion of "repentance." The word teshuva comes from the word "return." To what are we returning? Our essence, which is goodness. Unlike in Christianity, when we screw up, it's not because of "Original Sin." When we sin, the Bible calls it a "chet," a mistake.  It is analogous to an archer missing the mark. He might have not hit the bulls eye, but he always has another opportunity to be spot on.

Let's face it: none of us are perfect. Ecclesiastes 7:20 makes that crystal clear. If we view our sentiment as guilt, as opposed to shame, we can take responsibility for the fact that we can and have erred. It makes us stronger. It helps us grow and progress. That is the reason for the fasting. It is not that fasting is necessarily good unto itself. It is because I can take a day where I don't have to focus on the physical. I can focus on self-improvement. I can focus on growth. In short, I can actualize the potential that G-d has instilled within me.

No comments:

Post a Comment