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Guilt isn’t the problem

R DuschinskyFilmed at Limmud Conference 2016

Guilt is feeling bad for something we have done. Shame is feeling bad for the kind of person we are. Which is the characteristic Jewish emotion? Rabbi Sacks proposes that it is guilt, that each Jew stands with awareness of divine judgement looming, feeling bad for what they have done or not done. I argue that this is an idealisation. In fact our community as a whole is functionally atheist in moral terms, even if many individuals have faith. Instead, the community talks about Jewish pride, but runs in practice on shame and fear of shame. And we laugh off the associated ugly feelings as guilt. But when attention is paid to the role of shame, the possibility arises of weighing the unsettling truths associated with these feelings of shame, as well as potential misapprehensions.

Robbie Duschinsky is a boger of RSY-Netzer. He lives in Cambridge with his wife Sophie. He holds a Lectureship in Social Sciences at Cambridge University, serving as Head of the Applied Social Science Group within the Primary Care Unit. He is the author of around fifty articles, mostly addressing issues around children, the family and theories of human behaviour. He has also edited six books or journal issues. His most recent book is ‘Sustaining Social Work: Between Power and Powerlessness’, published earlier this year.


Jewish guilt, you know how the joke goes. So here’s one I heard recently: My friend Shlomi he was called for jury service but after only a few hours he was sent home, why? He couldn’t concentrate on the case. He kept saying that he was so guilty so therefore he couldn’t concentrate on what was going on. Now the issue of what was going on here is crucial. The late Rabbi Lionel Blue said that within jokes there can be very deep messages and in the joke we just heard our friend Shlomi is focussing on guilt when actually other things can be going on that he misses the legal case. This desire to feel guilty instead of the alternatives is an interesting one and it relates to a big thing in the research that I have been doing.

My research focuses on a number of issues one of which is children of families where their child’s experiencing mental health issues. And let me take you into this topic by giving you an example of an interview that I’ve conducted. So Karen is a parent that I’ve interviewed and her son has anxiety and depression and behavioural issues and she feels like she has let him down terribly and she feels like the badness inside herself was not something she could protect him from and though she parented with everything in her, with all of her love and with all of her caring, even then it wasn’t enough because he’s suffering and it must be her fault. And in the interview she talked about how on most days she thinks back and she tries to think of the thing she did wrong, the moment when everything went. And she tries to pin down and she thinks “was it this moment? Was it that moment? Where did it all go wrong?” With some sense that if she could find the particular moment where things went wrong there would be some relief from this sense of being a bad parent.

Now, it’s really hard to tease out negative emotions. Ugly feelings they bleed into one another, it makes it complicated to analyse. There’s certainly some guilt here but over the course of doing these many interviews it became apparent to myself and my collaborators that guilt isn’t really the issue here. It’s shame. And contrast can be drawn between guilt and shame. With guilt you feel bad for something you’ve done and with shame you feel bad for the kind of person you are.

In being asked to give this presentation I’ve been asked to speak from what I know which is this area of research to the wider sense of understanding the Jewish community. In doing so, I work from the premise that emotions are not just something that happen inside an individual they operate at a level of community too. Rabbi Sacks asks, “What is the characteristic Jewish emotion?” Guilt, he says, the characteristic Jewish emotion is guilt, because the Jew faces two entities producing this emotion. The first is the mitzvot and the second is god. And the Jew cannot fulfil the mitzvot with adequate capacity and so therefore feels bad to god for not having done the mitzvot as well as they should, and that is the position of the Jew according to Rabbi Sacks. As a sociologist, I don’t agree. I think that is an idealised picture of the Jewish community. I think it is an idealised picture that the Jewish community cares about mitzvot and feels bad to god. It’s not that it’s false, and this is part of the complexity here but I would say that it’s rather a half truth. It’s not that we don’t feel guilty, but perhaps there is something else going on here too at a deeper level and I would argue that this is shame. Because looking at the community, looking at our shuls, Jewish schools, community organisations, the Jewish community talks about pride but it runs on shame and fear of shame in my view and I think this is quite a difficult thing to engage with, a difficult thing to acknowledge. Jewish guilt we can laugh about. Jewish shame? The connotations of that, not least the Holocaust, make it quite an unbearable thing to think about. But if we examine Jewish pride closely in practice it looks something quite different to the theory. So in theory Jewish pride is you’ve got an identity and you feel confident in your identity. I just don’t think that’s how our community works in practice.

In practice I think Jewish pride operates very often through unspoken mechanisms of shaming, which divide between those people who deserve happiness and those who do not and the assumptions we make about one another and where happiness should reside. It also specifies and limits this shame culture. What kinds of happiness can be shown and in what way? So let me take two examples. First is our prayer life. Anglo-Jewry in prayer shows little joy. We act abashed, strong positive feelings, sincerity it scrapes against a sense of shame and this integrally organises our culture. If someone were to say that the British Jewish community has taken on an extra commandment that no adult may show absolute sincerity or strong positive emotions in public I wouldn’t be surprised. And this organises how we view Americans, how we daven, how we deal with people in our community that don’t conform.

My view is that we have all kinds of ways of thinking about who has and who doesn’t have money within our community. I think we have certain ways of thinking about reasons for living in our community. But there is also a distribution within our synagogues and between our synagogues in the extent to which they are shaming environments. And I think we have antennae for this but I think it is pretty rarely discussed. A second example is in relation to the way that we talk to young people about their identity, so for example, when we talk to young people about who they should marry I think shame plays a really big role here. When we talk to young people about having families, when we engage with issues of fertility, I think shame plays a huge role. Shame and love and pride, the things we put into our synagogues, the things we put into our families, they don’t exclude one another they’re integrally bound together. Shame and love and pride are profoundly related to one another, as we all know if we think honestly about our families. Like Karen, who I introduced to you earlier, feelings of shame isolate us from one another. Make us think that there is no way forward, they pin us to the floor. With Karen the strong negative feelings she had about herself as a parent in turn undermined her capacity to parent. They made it more difficult to be the parent that she wanted to be. Likewise, I wonder whether some of the under-recognised, difficult feelings in this community also undermine our capacity to be a community. My challenge then would be merely just to notice this. In the next 24 hours just have one ear out for people acting out of fear of shame and I think you will be genuinely horrified. Every emotion has its place and its insight. Fear, anger, grief, guilt, shame, they show somethings in the world clearly by their light and other things they block or make more difficult to see. And I think each one of us has our own particular difficult feeling that we have with us and that we sometimes have more or less but we see the world through this light sometimes. Shame in some ways is a really wonderful feeling; it tells us a truth, a really important truth. It tells us that we’re small and that each of us is alone and the need to evaluate the worth of people like us. And that’s a truth. Those things are true. But they’re not all that’s true about us. There are so many other things that are true about us. And with a different lens and with a different feeling we’d have a different view which would also have its truth to tell us. My suggestion would be that if we own up to the role of shaming within our community and within ourselves we’d get a chance to take stock and ask whether this is the lens we want. And that offers two things. One, if it’s true and we have reason to be ashamed of what we, or of what people who we consider like us, to be doing then we get a chance to do something about it. And if it’s not true and shame is not the right thing to be feeling given how acting, how people like us are acting, then we get the chance to say, “no actually this isn’t the thing that we should be feeling.” And no longer act in the world by the light of our fears. Thank you.


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