Guilt: Vanity’s Poison

by Payam Refaeilzadeh

The topic for this week is guilt and Judaism.  You may read the title and think to yourself: “what does vanity have to do with guilt?”  The answer is “everything.”  This realization has changed my whole outlook on life and I have been sitting here staring at a blank screen for a while trying to think how I can convey this idea in a way that it will stick, in a way that it will create that spark of realization that happened for me and also in a way that doesn’t offend my reader too badly (I don’t think anyone likes to be called vain).  In the end I have chosen not to sugar coat it and be very blunt.  This may challenge your conventional wisdom and push you out of your comfort zone and for that I apologize.

I must confess that the root of these ideas are not my own, but rather those of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, or at least my understanding of them.  I must further confess that I am by no means a master of chassidus, and perhaps not even a good student of it, and thus would love to hear from those better versed on the topic about the thoughts I lay out here.

Like many, growing up I saw a lot of guilt around Judaism.  Eating out?  You should feel guilty – it aint kosher.  Driving on shabbat?  You should feel guilty – you are breaking G-d’s commandment, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU!  Then I came into contact with a particular Orthodox group who had a different outlook.  I will not mention the name, because this is not supposed to be an endorsement of one particular group over another nor a declaration that one has a monopoly on the truth, but I am sure some of you already know who I am talking about.  These people were strange creatures.  They observed traditional Jewish law quite strictly yet they were very open to the least Jewish of the Jews among us.  There was no guilt, only acceptance.  You drive to shul on Shabbat? OK … welcome! (it is still not OK actually but let’s not talk about it – you are here now, so welcome)  This is the attitude I saw and it took me by surprise.  Later I learned the guy who started this movement had written a book, which he had titled (roughly translated) “A book for the rest of us”  Not a book for the perfect ones, nor the wicked ones, but a guide for the common Jew who is never going to achieve perfection no matter how hard he tries.  I started learning a little bit about the philosophy laid out in this book and it turned out it was centered around guilt and depression.

After that not-so-brief tangent which I felt compelled to include to give some background, I would now like to return my focus to the topic at hand: Guilt.  We face it everyday and it leads to depression.  Where does it come from?  You do something wrong or something you feel you shouldn’t have, you feel guilty.  Why can’t I do things right?  Am I a bad person?  Am I going to get punished for this in some other life?

OK this is the part where I make you feel uncomfortable.  ready? Here it comes:

STOP IT!  You vain little creature! (I actually told myself this when the spark of realization I talked about happened)  Everything is not supposed to be about you.  Stop focusing so much on who you are and what you are supposed to be and focus on what you ought to be doing.  Stop focusing so much on what you need (particularly on what YOU NEED to be getting out of your Judaism and spiritually) and focus a little more on what the world needs of you.  Just take yourself out of the picture and the rest will work itself out.

There is a story about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, one of the greatest Jewish sages who ever lived, that when he was on his death bed he broke out in tears.  When his students inquired about the reason he responded that he was refelecting on what was to come: either a world of eternal rewards or a not so good period of retribution and he realized he didn’t know which he was going to!  Are you serious?  This was one of greatest Jewish thinkers and he had not thought of this until this moment of death?  How is this possible?  Well if you think about it he had the right idea.  All his life he was focusing on what is the best thing to do not the guilt associated with not doing it.

Guilt IS NOT Jewish! Whoever told you it was, sold you a big sack of lies.  Stop feeling guilty and be Jewish already, would you please?


11 thoughts on “Guilt: Vanity’s Poison

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  1. Strong post… and I strongly disagree with parts of it, particularly “the uncomfortable” part. I agree that “Everything is not supposed to be about you”, but unless you focus on “who you are: as your first step, you aren’t going to learn how to stop making everything about you. How can you focus on what you should be doing, unless you have a sense of who you are? The way I see it, most people end up in two “charmed circles”. First charmed circle is a person gets stuck on himself or herself, and everything becomes about “I”. The second charmed circle is people don’t want to face who they are, prefer to run away from themselves (in this charmed circle people “on the run” can often make everything about others as means to avoid learning about themselves, but how healthy is that?) and basically spend their lives chasing after something they know not how to explain or describe.

    If we don’t know where we are going, than any direction we take will lead us there. We cannot have a meaningful journey through life, unless we have an awareness of who we are, what we stand for, what we are willing to fight for, what we need, who we need, and so on. And I think Judaism recognizes the importance of being an individual as much as it recognizes the importance of being part of a community. Why else would a Jew be prompted to question his or her Judaism? Isn’t it because there is a deeper understanding that we all are unique individuals? But how can I make my Judaism truly mine, unless I know who I am?

    I heard a different analysis on R. Zakkaie, which I relate to a bit more. He didn’t know which world he was going to because when he looked at his life as the whole he saw all the missed opportunities he could have completed, and since he already at the end of his life, he didn’t know if what he has already done was enough to insure him a place in Olam Haba. I take that as a positive message that we should always actively engage in improving ourselves. Yet, all of that starts off with knowing who you are.

    1. Alright! I am so happy! This was exactly the type of response I was hoping for when I wrote this.

      I said nothing about running away from self analysis and who you are or what you stand for. That is a very natural part of being human. When I say: “Stop it” I am fully aware that we are in fact in large incapable of simply stopping. The problem is that we often get too caught up in this endless, all-consuming, individualistic, self-centered analysis.

      In fact what R. Schneur Zalman recommends is not to ignore it, but rather to push it aside and “make an appointment” to revisit it at a later point when your focus is not performing the action you were involved in.

      Lucky are those who have concluded the self-analysis and arrived a peaceful state of mind where selflessness reins supreme. Slightly less lucky are those who do this self-reflection but don’t allow it to interfere too much with their day to day lives. Not so lucky are those in your charmed circles.

  2. Disagree again… on several more points!

    I don’t think that “self analysis and who you are or what you stand for” is “a very natural part of being human”. In fact I think it is very unnatural for people to think who they are. What is more natural for people is to think about what they want. I remember a rav at Neve once saying that parenting is an opportunity for a person to learn how to put his or her wants aside for another human being. And in the same lecture he also talked about how babies show the true nature of a man. For what do babies do except demand, demand, and demand again?

    “Lucky are those who have concluded the self-analysis and arrived a peaceful state of mind where selflessness reins supreme.” WHAT??? Firstly I would be afraid to hear anyone to say that he or she concluded self-analysis of oneself. This is constant work that ought to continue on your entire life. How else can you improve yourself unless you are always checking in with yourself. To conclude self-analysis is to arrive at static point of becoming rigid, and no longer be capable of absorbing new changes that a meaningful life will have.

    And I still say that most people are running in two of the charmed circles I have written about previously.

    1. What I should have probably said instead was that I think a natural part of being human is feeling guilt and questioning yourself.

      As for the second point, again I will defer to the Tanya. The lucky ones who have arrived at a peaceful state of mind where selflessness reins supreme are the tzadikim. It is not realistic for the common person to aspire to become a tzadik. In fact the whole chasidic philosophy that I based my original post on is centered on the idea that a “Beinoni” (the common Jew) can live a good life without reaching a total state of selflessness.

      I aspire to live in a world where most people are in the second category. I live with the full realization that the are never more than a handful of individuals who fall in the first category in any given generation. I still contend that they are the most fortunate among us.

      And I agree with you completely that most poeple do run in the two charmed circles, but that doesn’t mean they must be stuck in them forever.

      1. I think we are taught to feel guilty and question ourselves, because unfortunately guilt tactics are means employed by society, communities, parents, and teachers to help us to become better people. Not trying to blame anyone here, it is merely a sad fact of recognizing that poor choices have been made over generations…

        Your take on aspirations is confusing to me. A person ought to aspire to be the best s/he can be, and bring as much good as possible. Aren’t you concern that if people start using your argument that because “it is not realistic for the common person to aspire to become a tzadik.”, therefore let just turn ourselves loose and do as little as possible.

        I think out of all philosophies/stories/examples/discourses on tzadikim, I like the one about Chofetz Chaim, who changed himself first, and the world changed with him.

  3. Jewess I think your confusion here is purely a matter of definitions. Of course everyone should aspire to be the best they can be and bring as much good as possible. That is not in question.

    Hindsight I should have given more background before diving into my main thesis, and I could have avoided some confusion. I can see now how a person might read this and think they way you suggested. A tzadik is not a person whose good deeds exceed a certain threshold, but rather someone who is incapable of considering sin. If I may I would like to refer you to this page for a more thorough discussion of who is a tzadik:

  4. Guilt is a myth and a learned part of human pyche after birth.

    Each culture and religion bring in their own sets of values regarding what is permissible and what is not.

    For example, it is Ok to be cannibal against another tribe, but not your own.

    The set precedence which evolved over time of “yes” and “no” has become, among others, a great power of confusion and leads to destruction.

    Wouldn’t you know? Or as they say in Yiddish”geih veis”.
    I hope for less “guilt” and more “do”.

    1. Hi Renia! So exciting to see your comment here! I do believe that some guilt is good, because it’s part of becoming a better person. The problem I think is when one dwells on the guilt. I think that if I do something not nice, I should feel bad about it – that is the guilt – and then take note in order to become a better person. Without the guilt, where would the starting point be of growing?

  5. OK, it’s taken me a while to get to this. I have read your whole argument. It’s quite interesting. I am not sure I have much to add (besides that I’m honored to be hosting it!).

    A question to Payam: You said that the Tanya was focused around guilt. In what way do you mean? That doesn’t sound like a good thing.

    Jewess, I feel uncomfortable with the second explanation of the story of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai. If he is such a holy person, wouldn’t he have faith in himself that he did all he could do? If he didn’t have that faith, to me that would seem like a lack of seeing himself for who he is and that doesn’t seem very tzadik-like. Hmmm, not sure I’m explaining myself well. I see humility as seeing oneself exactly as oneself is. That would mean, in part, that you don’t have to pretend that you suck if you don’t. IMO, Moshe wasn’t anav in the way people often make him out to be. He was totally aware of who he was, for better and for worse.

    I better like the idea that he was so busy living his life that he didn’t give much thought to the afterlife and so when he was on his death bed, he faced the fact, possibly for the first time, that his own death would really happen and he was coming to terms with that.

    Zehu. : )

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