Vayikra: Guilt is good.

“Guilty pleasure” usually refers to enjoying a trivial action that is nominally harmful -- like eating a rich chocolate bon-bon (but only one!) rather than a piece of fruit.  But although this is indeed a trivial example, the principle of associating guilt with pleasure is not.  It’s destructive and contrary to Judaism.  

Guilt is not a Jewish invention (although Sigmund Freud chose Carl Jung to become the first president of the International Psychoanalytic Association because, except for Jung, all of Freud’s inner circle were Jews, and Freud did not want psychiatry dismissed as a “Jewish science.”)  R. Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Humor, 30.    

Even though guilt is not uniquely Jewish, it is – and must be – an important part of every Jew’s personality makeup.  I reject the popular secular notions that “sin” (or religion itself!) is really about cynical control by the powerful religious hierarchy; that “right and wrong” are culturally determined and thus only relative, and that personal autonomy should be our highest value.  

In my view, guilt is usually good.  We need more guilt, since guilt is the proper emotion resulting from improper action.  Guilt is a necessary precursor to sincere remorse, acceptance of responsibility, apology, restitution, and determination to act better in the future.  The purpose of psychiatry, in the context of guilt, it seems to me, is not to assuage people of their guilt. Rather, it is to help people who feel guilty for the wrong (or no) reason, and to help them address their guilt in an emotionally healthy way.  

Why am I speaking of guilt?  This week, we begin the third book of Torah, Vayikra, aka Leviticus.  In the first portion by the same name, we encounter many laws and rituals concerning sacrificial offerings, including “guilt offerings.”  Someone who transgressed (meaning "missed the mark") – including inadvertent transgressions – would bring the prescribed sacrifice to the Temple, and thus publicly acknowledge that guilt, be absolved of it, and, presumably, stop feeling guilty.

I think it’s unfortunate that we modern Jews have no formal substitute ritual for these guilt offerings.  We have no established custom of making a “sacrifice” when we incur guilt, whether via public admission/contrition, time (volunteerism), money (t’zedakah), or anything else.  

The lack of such a custom deprives us what would be a healthy habit of acknowledging responsibility in a “safe” environment and in a socially acceptable way.  The lack of an accepted ritual deprives others of what would be our example in doing so.  And the lack of a ritual deprives our tradition of the ability to influence Jews’ thoughts and behavior toward more holy behavior.  Atonement isn’t something to be contemplated, or accomplished, only on Yom Kippur or during the Ten “Days of Awe,” but that's sometimes how it seems.   

So, after learning to accept and even to welcome more guilt, what then? Perhaps a place to begin is for each of us to start a “personal ‘sacrifice’ ritual.”   This would be a great thing to teach our children and grandchildren. (Not coincidentally, it is traditional to begin a child’s study of Torah with the book of Leviticus rather than with Genesis or Exodus).  

Each time we realize that we have acted improperly, we can make a “personal sacrifice” by donating something (time, money, support) to a worthy cause.  Developing this habit could lead us and younger generations to become more accustomed to “owning up” to misdeeds and doing true t’shuvah (repentance).  

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to help heal the world?  

We could take legitimate pleasure, not from our guilty actions, but from correcting them.  

Shabbat shalom!

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If charity cost nothing, the world would be full of philanthropists.
Jewish Proverb