Reduced-Guilt Judaism

D’var Torah
Rabbi David Fainsilber
Kol Nidrei 5778
Keeping Jewish guilt in its place and moving towards a more conscious Judaism

On this eve of Yom Kippur,
as we gather together in self-reflection
to ask ourselves how we have missed the mark
and could have done better this past year,
I’m going to give a counter-intuitive sermon tonight
and tell you to watch out for having too much guilt.

In the words of Rabbi Art Green: (Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas)
“Too much concern about sin puts you in mortal danger.
The greatest trick of the evil forces,
(the founder of Hasidism) the Baal Shem Tov taught,
is to make you worry about some small transgression you committed.
That worry occupies your mind, takes you away from joy,
and leaves you unable to see
the beauty and wonder that always surrounds you…
(Instead) repent of your sin quickly, decide you will not repeat it,
and go back to serving (and living)
with as much wholeness and joy as you can muster.”

What a notion to contemplate on this Yom Kippur!
The wrongs most of us are making amends for — the small transgressions —
should only take up small amounts of our energy to heal.
We should acknowledge our regret
of wrongdoing or inaction on our part,
quickly do teshuvah to mend the situation,
resolve to not repeat it,
and move on to what we are meant to live for:
wholeness, gratitude and joy.
Guilt can motivate us to do better next time.
If it is a power for positive change, then use it.
But teshuvah – returning to G-d – here means
working on the issue and then moving forward
without carrying the guilt with you.

This is why Yom Kippur is one day.
One very important day, but only one day.
We need to be ready to move forward to live life to its fullest.

Yet, guilt, particularly Jewish guilt,
has a way of reaching the many corners of our lives,
extending well beyond this one day of Yom Kippur.

Without fail, once a week or so,
someone comes up to me and apologizes.
“Rabbi, I’m sorry I haven’t come to shul more often.”
Or “I can barely read Hebrew, Rabbi,”
Or, “You know, I’m 65 years old, and I have never been to Israel,”
These statements often come with a tone that somehow implies shame.
Here, folks are often judging their own Jewish identity
by one action or inaction.

Then there are those who approach me
and identify themselves as a lesser Jew.
I often hear: “I’m not really that Jewish”
Or “You know, Rabbi, I’m only 1/2 Jewish.”
Or folks say they are only Jew-ish.

There are also the comparisons, like
“I’m not as committed a Jew as some of my friends…”
Some liberal Jews have a particular guilt
about not doing things “the right way.”
Folks often say to me: “I’m not a religious Jew”
even when it’s clear they have a deeply spiritual life.
Immersed in the modern world,
often we liberal Jews feel
that Judaism is not fully ours.

The guilt hardly stops at how we see ourselves as Jews,
but how we see our whole lives.
And it can leave us with the message that we are not good enough.
In the words of the writer Miriam Levi,
“Guilt is…anger turned inward…
(It) locks us in. If we’re trying to change,
but everytime we catch ourselves at some wrongdoing
we begin to attack ourselves,
we’re going to soon be feeling pretty hopeless about our ability to change.”
For many of us, that guilt comes from a place of seeking perfection.
“Yet nowhere in the Torah
do we find any such requirement for perfection.”
This kind of guilt can eat away at us,
leaving us frustrated or disappointed with ourselves,
or at its extreme and most dangerous, it can leave us with self-hatred.

If we take the Baal Shem Tov’s words to heart,
to work to repair what needs fixing and then to move forward,
then we are not meant to linger in self-remorse.

Yet, it may be Yom Kippur that has, in part,
left us with the greatest sense of Jewish guilt.
Other than fasting, the rabbis believed that one of the most important things
that we are meant to do on Yom Kippur is to say the Vidui prayers.
Recurring a number of times over the course of Yom Kippur,
these are a collection of prayers where we confess or reveal
those ways we have missed the mark
against ourselves, other people, and G-d.
These prayers themselves can leave us feeling guilt-ridden.

The two main prayers are the al chet and ashamnu prayers.
Each one is an acrostic,
working its way through the alephbet
in order to highlight the litany of sins and wrongdoings from the year:
עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּאנֶס וּבְרָצון:
For the sin we have sinned before You unwillingly and willingly.
אָשַׁמְנוּ בָּגַדְנוּ גָּזַלְנוּ דִּבַּרְנוּ דּפִי
We abuse, we betray, we are cruel, we destroy…

While on the surface of these prayers,
they appear to be severely guilt-inducing,
we can look at the nature of the guilt more closely:
For the sin we have sinned before You…
We abuse, we betray, we are cruel, we destroy…
These are all action words,
identifying actions or inactions on our part.
Importantly, these foundational prayers of Vidui
are not about the nature of who we are.
They are about how we behave.
There is nothing here about our nature as good or bad.
At this season, on this day,
we are meant to consider what needs mending
in our hearts, in our families, in our world-at-large.
But let us focus on what we have done, not who we are.

In this way, Miriam Levi distinguishes
between destructive guilt and teshuvah:

Destructive guilt is:
“I did something wrong.”
“What a terrible thing I did!”
“I’m a terrible person!!!”

Teshuva is:
“I did something wrong.”
“I’m sorry I did it.”
“I’ll try to do better next time.”

Paradoxically, in order to change who we are,
we must take responsibilities for our behaviour,
yet, we are not meant to see our actions as part of our nature.
Only by distancing these behaviours from our sense of identity,
our sense of who we are,
while still taking responsibility for what we have done,
are we able to truly atone and repent.

Whether it is a sense of guilt from only feeling Jew-ish,
or feelings of not being a good enough parent or friend or co-worker,
we must stay mindful to focus on our actions,
and distance our own sense of guilt from our identities.

But which actions are we meant to focus on?
As we look closer at the Vidui prayers,
it is clear that they are not focused on our ritual lives.
Rather, we are meant to primarily focus on our moral behaviour.
As we will read in tomorrow’s Haftarah in Isaiah,
“58:6 This is the fast I desire…
to let the oppressed go free;
to break off every yoke.
7 It is to share your bread with the hungry,
and to take the wretched poor into your home;
when you see the naked, to clothe them…”

2700 years ago, the prophet Isaiah left us a polemic
against gathering on Yom Kippur for the wrong reasons.
He claims that when we come together for this holiday,
our purpose must be hyper-focused on our moral responsibilities,
reflecting on how we can do good towards those in need.
Fasting and prayer must help us open our hearts and hands to others
or they are void of meaning.

This 2017, there is much harm that we as a people
and we in North America and beyond are responsible for.
As we consider how we might change ourselves and the world,
we ask G-d to help us feel the guilt of our moral responsibilities.
The weight of the world ought to be on our shoulders.
But then, still, let us not dwell too long on that guilt,
letting it become part of our identities.
Let us instead act to do what is right and good,
and let us create the space to lead joyful, fulfilling lives.

Guilt doesn’t just appear out of nowhere.
We Jews can be good at guilting ourselves and others.
Now, it is time for us as a people — as a community —
to practice a “reduced-guilt Judaism”,
an empowered Judaism that moves beyond what makes us feel guilty
to more mindful connections to Judaism and our way of life,
to make conscious choices as individuals and as a community
to act in positive Jewish ways,
and thus to live more fully and with more joy.

It is no matter of guilt how often you have come to shul this year,
or how much Hebrew you know.
You can go home, eat some bread tonight,
heck, if you stop for a bacon cheeseburger
before you even get home tonight, who is anyone to judge you?
Whatever your choices, they are yours to choose consciously.
Each of us gets to decide how and when we act
and when we don’t act, in a Jewish context and beyond.
“Judaism teaches us to approach the change of our ways
with joy and good spirit….” (Rav Yechiel Schlessinger z”l)
Whatever our choices,
let us choose them from a place of empowerment and joyous connection.

Gmar Chatima Tova,
may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.
And may this new year bring us closer to a reduced-guilt Judaism,
as we move forward with good works and joy in conscious community.