Phew – that’s over. You checked off the “Did Something Jewish” box by fasting, going to synagogue, or at least teleworking from home as an homage to the big day. You thought about your Jewish identity and maybe felt a little Jewy, and that made some parent or grandparent proud. You even added another piece of evidence to your defense that you’re not a bad Jew, that you haven’t abandoned your history and your people, and that you’re not giving Hitler a posthumous victory.
In short, you have assuaged your Jewish guilt.
But what if I told you that your Jewish guilt is the very thing that should give you the most Jewish guilt?
The only thing worse than a bunch of Jews disengaging because they find no meaning in Judaism is a bunch of Jews engaging despite finding no meaning in it. Jewish guilt defines the motivation for engaging Jewishly as completely extrinsic; it isn’t about you or for you. Those who claim that it’s better to engage for the wrong reasons than to disengage rarely consider how this seriously distorts the purpose of Judaism, which should move us toward becoming better, fuller, more self-actualized people.
Ironically, then, Jewish guilt might keep Jews connected, but it does so by stripping Judaism of all meaning and turning it into a pagan-esque religion obsessed with appeasing and placating someone else, whether that “someone” is God, a member of your family or some mythical ancestor. This isn’t just bad news for Judaism; it’s also a missed growth opportunity for Jewish 20s and 30s.
Some argue that doing something for the wrong reason can lead one to do it for the right reason. But I worry that Jewish guilt prevents us from discovering personal, intrinsic motivations for connecting to our Judaism by shutting down the question “Why be Jewish?” before we can ask it. As it says in Jeremiah 29:13 – “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” This is a quote about God, but it could just as easily be about meaning: to find it within Judaism, we need to actively seek it.
So now that Yom Kippur has ended, it’s time to let go of Jewish guilt. Not until High Holidays next year, but forever. Stop doing Jewish stuff only because you feel bad or because you want to please someone else. Do it because it adds value to your life. And if, without the tranquilizing drug of Jewish guilt, you realize that none of this adds value to your life, let’s grab coffee.
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