What Is Jewish Guilt?

I grew up a Christian and I notice a ton more guilt in my Christian friends than in my Jewish friends.

For my Orthodox Jewish friends, most of them believe that God is pretty happy with them. I do not know of a Christian who believes that God is happy with him.

Judaism is primarily a set of precise instructions on how to live. You do it and you feel good. Even when you feel bad for not living up to the law, you feel good knowing that you can do better. There’s no guilt inducing over motives in Jewish life. Rabbis never preach about sin and how humans are sunk in original sin and how sin is what we are, not just what we do. This is what Christian clergy preach about.

The reason that “Jewish guilt” is so enshrined in popular culture is that Jewish life and Judaism make many demands, more behavioral demands than any other group or religion. There are high standards in Judaism and it is easy to notice when you’re not living up to them.

Link: Jewish guilt is a myth regarding the general nature of Jewish life and culture. The myth appears in a number of different forms, among them the Jewish mother who is adept at creating guilt in her children. Jewish guilt is also sometimes presented as the neurotic businessperson that struggles with the application of religious principles to business ethics. In general, the idea of a guilty Jew can be related to any situation where the individual appears to engage in activities that are self indulgent.

While Jewish guilt has provided fodder for comedic routines and characters in television shows and movies for many years, the phenomenon is generally considered to be more of an urban legend than truth. There is nothing in the tenets of Judaism that ingrain guilt to a higher degree than found in most religions. This means Judaism is not any more subject to neuroticism than any other major world faith or ideology.

The idea of Jewish guilt is sometimes linked to the Jewish concept of repentance or Teshuva. Essentially, this type of remorse is considered the first step toward repentance from taking a wrong action. From this perspective, Teshuva is considered to be a form of positive guilt, as the individual recognizes the error of the action and is therefore ready to make atonement for the wrongful act.

However, most of the popular stereotypes tend to present Jewish guilt as an excuse for actions rather than repentance for wrong actions. The myth of Jewish guilt is exemplified by a Jewish person who must shop in certain stores or has a predilection to shame others into doing what he or she wants by making them feel guilty. While there are certainly adherents of Judaism that engage in these and similar activities, there is no evidence that there is anything uniquely Jewish about the ability to create and cultivate guilt in self or in others.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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