Guilt, or Shame? (Yom Kippur eve 5777 / 2016)

Note:  this is an unedited version of the sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur eve 2016 / 5777. I am so grateful to my friends and colleagues Rabbis Abby Sosland, Beth Naditch, and Andi Merow -- and the writings of Rabbis Shoshana Friedman and Jonathan Sacks -- for influencing this sermon.

One of my favorite stories about Yom Kippur is the story I heard from Rabbi David Woznica, who is now a rabbi in the Los Angeles area.  He is fond of telling the story of how, when he was a child, his parents -- mistakenly -- informed him that the tradition was to strike one’s heart during the Al Chet - the Yom Kippur confessional prayers - only for the sins that one had actually performed.  Throughout his childhood and adolescence, every Yom Kippur, he would read the list of sins in the Mahzor, the High Holy Day prayerbook, and make a judgment for each one whether he was guilty of it that year, or not.  “We have sinned against you by speaking recklessly” - yeah, I did that one. “We have sinned against you through bribery” - no, not that I can think of. “We have sinned against you through arrogance” - okay, a little.  “We have sinned against you through impure thoughts” -- yeah, I had a couple of those.

Until one year, when he went to a more traditional synagogue for Yom Kippur and during the Al Chet, as he was choosing judiciously when to strike his heart, he noticed that the guy next to him was striking himself for EVERY SINGLE LINE!  And he couldn’t believe it!  What a jerk! How could he possibly have had TIME to do all those things!?

But then, of course, he was shocked to notice the guy on the OTHER side of him was ALSO striking himself for every single line. And the person in front of him.  And behind him.
For God’s sake, what kind of clientele does this synagogue attract?!  And finally he came to the conclusion that perhaps his parents hadn’t accurately transmitted the tradition to him.....

So I counted. Someone who is present in synagogue for the entirety of Yom Kippur and participates in the Vidui - the confessional - every time it is recited, and strikes their heart every time that it is traditional to do so, will end up striking their heart 660 times.  That is a lot of heart-striking.  No wonder Jewish tradition gets the reputation for being really focused on guilt!

(Though I should note parenthetically: my sense is that you are much more likely to think that Judaism is all about guilt if you only come to synagogue on Yom Kippur.  Because yom kippur really DOES focus on guilt.  But if you came to synagogue only on Tu Bishvat, you would think that Judaism is all about environmental consciousness.  If you came to synagogue only on Purim you would think that Judaism is all about partying and drinking.  Each Jewish holiday has its own themes, and you get the full emotional spectrum and full experience of Jewish values only if you experience the entire holiday cycle.)

But the fact remains that Yom Kippur is focused on all these ways we have failed, all these mistakes we have made - this year, and throughout our lives.  Lists and lists of ways we have not measured up.  For those of us who make Yom Kippur a genuine introspective process, not just going through the motions, there is no way to go through this process and not emerge with a sense of our own brokenness, with a sense of the ways that we have failed. Which prompts the serious question: In our achievement-oriented world, in our world in which we strive for excellence and even perfection, where NO ONE wants to admit to mistakes, in our judgmental world where we are often quick to blame others, where we know that most of us are judging each other all the time - why would we go through this process?  What does Yom Kippur do to our sense of self-worth?  How could this possibly be a psychologically and spiritually healthy thing to do?

One of my guides for answering this question this year is Professor Brene Brown, a psychologist and social science researcher in Houston.  You may be familiar with her from her best-selling books and her lectures, including her TED Talk lecture that remains one of the five most popular TED talks ever, Viewed an incredible 26 million times.  Which is all the more amazing when you realize that what Professor Brown studies and talks about is something closely connected to the themes of Yom Kippur - though it’s the thing that no one is supposed to want to talk about - which is shame.  The feeling that ALMOST everyone has, at least from time to time, that they are unworthy - that they don’t measure up to what they are expected to be - that they don’t deserve at least some of the blessings in their lives.

Shame is such a difficult part of life to confront that Brown has spoken about how even though she had studied intensively about shame in other people for 6 years, she was still not able to truly confront her OWN sense of shame at her own failures and her own vulnerability.  In fact, shortly after recording her remarkably successful TED talk but before it was put on line, she felt bad about various mistakes she had made during that presentation and fantasized about breaking in to the TED offices to prevent the video from being uploaded.   And this ended up influencing the choice of the title for one of her books - which is I thought it was just me! - but it isn’t.

I am pretty sure Brene Brown is not Jewish- but she is quickly becoming one of the wise guides to what happens on Yom Kippur. And the first step to understanding Yom Kippur, through the lens of Professor Brown, is to understand the difference between guilt and shame.

Linguists and psychologists and theologians have pointed out that even though many people use the words guilt and shame interchangeably, there is a world of difference between them.  “Guilt” is the feeling we get when we know that something we have done does not measure up to what we feel we are supposed to do. And guilt can be uncomfortable. But ultimately guit is a productive feeling that often encourages us to do the right thing, to make reversals and changes in our behavior.

And you might have noticed a similarity between the word ‘guilt’ and the word ‘gelt.’  ‘Gelt,’ of course, does not only refer to chocolate coins for hanukkah but is the Yiddish word for money, and is also the Old English word for money.  When you owe someone some Gelt, that’s a problem you can resolve - if you have the Gelt to repay.  And similarly, when you feel guilty, that’s a problem you can resolve - by doing something to relieve the feelings of guilt.  Apologize.  Make restitution. Resolve to do better the next time.

But guilt is different from shame. Because shame is a feeling that something I have done makes me unworthy.   Or in Brene Brown’s formulation:   “Guilt leads you to say ‘I did something bad.’
shame leads you to say ‘I AM something bad.’ ” She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

MOre than 70 years ago, scholars started to describe some cultures as ‘guilt cultures’ and some as ‘shame cultures.’ [1]   Ancient Greece, for example, was a ‘shame’ culture. If you did something wrong in ancient Greece, you could be publicly shamed, deemed to be an unworthy person because of your unworthy deed, and there would be very little you could do to rehabilitate your image.  So what would you have to do? - First of all, you have to hide.  Try as hard as possible not to be found out.  And if you are found out - evade responsibility. Make it someone else’s fault. Don’t admit your mistake unless you have truly exhausted every other alternative.  If you have made a mistake, you are going to be disgraced for a very long time.  Though there does remain one recourse if you are shamed:  You can try to publicly shame everyone else so you don’t look quite as bad by comparison.  Homer’s Iliad includes various examples of great warriors being shamed by each other for their mistakes.  They tend to respond not by apologizing but by retaliating -- by shaming each other in return.  In a shame culture, the act of apologizing for something is regarded as deeply shameful.

So that’s what happens in a ‘shame culture.’  But what about a ‘guilt culture’?  We can joke all we want about how Jewish parents are masters at inducing guilt and about how Judaism is a culture of guilt -- but according to this understanding, Thank God for guilt!  Because that means that our misdeeds are not essential characteristics of us; rather, they are aspects of ourselves that can change.
Teshuvah, or repentance, relies on a guilt culture. Yom Kippur would be inconceivable in a shame culture.  And Yom Kippur is a necessity in this guilt culture that we call Judaism.

It appears that it took a while for Judaism to become a guilt culture.   It’s no surprise that in the Torah, the very first time people make a mistake, they have an instinct to run and hide. Adam and Eve start out thinking that the world is based on shame.  Shortly after being created, we read that ויהיו שניהם ערומים, האדם ואשתו; ולא, יתבוששו “Adam and Eve were both naked and they felt no shame.” (Genesis 2)  But then they eat from the tree of knowledge, and God calls out to them,  and they realize that they made a mistake.  Now they certainly feel shame.  Not guilt, but shame.  And so they hide.  And of course the hiding doesn’t work, and God finds them.  And Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent -- with no one taking responsibility for their actions - Just as you would expect in a shame culture.

And no wonder Adam and Eve run and hide and blame others to try to get out of their shame.   
An opinion raised in the Talmud suggests,  צערא דגופיה עדיף ליה טפי מבזיוניה: -- given the choice between shame and physical pain, many people - not everyone, but many people - would choose the physical pain -- because that is how bad shame feels, and how strong the yearning is to become free of shame.  (BT Sotah 8b)

But over time, Judaism changes into a culture focused not on shame but on guilt - a culture in which we are encouraged to feel bad about our misdeeds, not because those misdeeds make us bad, but because our misdeeds remind us that we are good -- and that we can do better.
(And by the way - this is also a reason why the ethics of speech is so important in Judaism, and why we are generally bidden not to circulate embarrassing stories about people, not to let their past misdeeds follow them throughout their entire lives.  Because if my mistakes are always going to adhere to me no matter how sincerely I have repented, then we’re no longer in a culture of guilt. We’re in a culture of shame.  You may have seen some recent writings that suggest that the Internet’s exceptional memory is pushing us towards a culture of shame rather than guilt.)

Now that doesn’t mean that shame is all bad.  There are people in the world who truly have no capacity to feel shame. And these tend to be people who have no capacity for empathy, who have no particular desire to adhere to social conventions. We call them ‘sociopaths.’  (My sense is that you are probably not such a person.  Because if you are, Yom Kippur is not for you - because what’s to atone for?)  So having SOME sense of shame is essential.

But having too much shame - that’s the problem that faces far more of us. Brown goes on to describe some of the real life consequences of guilt and of shame.  “Shame,” she says, “is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders.”  And --  even more importantly -- for all that we like to make fun of guilt -- “Guilt is inversely correlated with those things.”

Imagine what it means when someone says the words ‘you should be ashamed of yourself.”  Those are words you might have heard repeatedly this year.  (Maybe this week!)  If you define ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’ the way we have today, then saying “you should be ashamed of yourself” is something that should be reserved for the most weighty of deeds that no amount of expiation can heal.  No one, or at least almost no one, should be actually ashamed of themSELVES.  Hopefully we all feel guilty for what we have done.  And hopefully we know how to apologize and make restitution and move on. But being ashamed of your SELF? My HOPE is that most of those who use language like this are just not sensitive to differences between the word ‘guilt’ and the word ‘shame’ - and what they really MEAN to say is “you should feel GUILTY about what you have done.”   My FEAR, though, is that some of those who say things like “You should be ashamed of yourself” really don’t understand that we’re all better off if we live in a culture of guilt, and not of shame.

The difference between guilt and shame could also be described as a difference between focusing on verbs and on nouns. In the language of the Vidui, never do we refer to ourselves as ‘sinners’  - rather, we say ‘anachnu chatanu’ - we have sinned.’  It’s a thing we did, rather than our essential nature.  

There is actually a way in Hebrew to refer to a quality that is part of someone’s essential nature. Which is-- stick a final Nun at the end of a word.  For example, a gozel גוזל is someone who has stolen something, but a gazlan גזלן is a habitual thief. A meshaker משקר is someone who tells a lie, but a shakran שקרן is a habitual liar. And it is interesting that these final-nun words don’t make it into the core parts of the Yom Kippur liturgy. [2]  But when it comes to describing God - we call God mochel ve-soleiach  מוחל וסולח - the one who forgives and pardons - but we also call God solchan u-mocholan  סלחן ומחלן -  the one for whom forgiving and pardoning are part of God’s essential nature.

But no matter how hard we try to cultivate a culture of guilt, clearly we all continue to contend with the corrosive effects of shame.

Pirkei Avot tells us - לא הביישן למד  lo ha-bayshan lamed - a person experiencing shame cannot learn.  Now usually that line is understood as meaning that learners need to be willing to make mistakes, to take risks, and to risk the embarrassment of getting things wrong. And those who insist on being perfect all the time and never showing their vulnerability will not learn as much.
But maybe this line has a more weighty, even tragic meaning:  when we feel shame,  our tendency is to hide.  And every social problem, and every personal problem, is likely to get worse when it is covered up and treated as something shameful and secret.  It is likely to get worse when we hide.   And thus one who is prone to shame will get stuck and will not be as able to learn the life skills necessary to get unstuck.  Which means that the first step of getting free from almost ANY other problem that we face -- is getting free from shame. [3]  (Clearly this applies when we experience shame for things we have done, that we have chosen -- and just as much when we experience shame for things that have happened to us and are not at all connected to choice.)

And here’s where I should note that there is interesting literature about how men and women respond differently to shame.  Lately Brene Brown has especially been studying shame in women and has been directing her message to everyone but especially to women.  Which is why I want to take some time to quote someone who teaches about shame and vulnerability in MEN and directs his message to everyone but especially to men.  And you all know who that is.  Bruce Springsteen.

Whereas I know Springsteen’s most popular hits, I confess that I’m not a fan to the level of a lot of people in this room - this being New Jersey and all.  But so many people who I admire and respect deeply are quite fanatical Springsteen fans.  And it appears that what makes him truly not just good but one of the greatest Is a particular mixture of fine musicianship, boundless energy,
And a profound openness to emotion and vulnerability.  And Springsteen gave a particular gift to the world when he wrote his memoir this year and was so open about his struggle with depression for which he has sought psychiatric treatment for the last 30 years.  Reminding the world --in case there was any doubt - that this is what a real man looks like - or can look like -
White t shirt, jeans, bandanna, motorcycles, fast cars, and psychiatric treatment for depression.

And even the metaphors that he uses in interviews and in his book to describe depression are Springsteen-esque.  He says:  “...whoever you’ve been and wherever you’ve been, it never leaves you.I always picture it as a car. All your selves are in it. And a new self can get in, but the old selves can’t ever get out. The important thing is, who’s got their hands on the wheel at any given moment?”  Springsteen understands his vulnerability and is a better person for it.  And what a gift he gives by sharing this fact with the world and removing some of the stigma and shame associated with mental illness.

And what’s true of mental illness is true also about addiction. Financial difficulty. Professional difficulty. Health problems. Abuse. Relationship issues.  Whatever it is, shame is going to make it worse.

Professor Brene Brown has some wise things to say about how we ought to choose judiciously with whom we should share those details of our lives about which we feel the most shame.  Not everyone has the right to hear your shame story.  But someone should, because sunlight is a surprisingly good disinfectant for shame.

One of the messages of Yom Kippur though is that you can look at each and every person here today and know that they are going through some intensely difficult struggle that you know nothing about, no matter what the veneer of confidence and control you see on the outside.
And the Yom KIppur prayers encourage us to see all our misdeeds as verbs rather than as nouns -
As what we have done rather than who we are.

One of the great pleasures I have in serving this community is spending a lot of time with preschoolers. And we teach the preschoolers about the Vidui, believe it or not, even though they don’t really have a lot to atone for yet. We tell them:  What the adults do on Yom Kippur is they are knocking on the door of their hearts.  Saying ‘wake up, heart! Open up, heart! Remember to say ‘I”m sorry,’ heart!”  That might not be the traditional explanation, but it is clearly the explanation that resonates today more clearly than interpretations about imposing harsh punishment on ourselves.

Four-year-olds having limited attention spans, that’s where we stop.  But if their attention spans were longer -- I think this is what I would say:

“When we say the vidui, and people strike their hearts - This is God knocking on your heart. (Or if you don’t like that, it could be you knocking on your own heart.)
God is saying - I know you’re in there - open up!  
I came to visit you. I didn’t come to see your perfect life.
I didn’t come to see your resume. I didn’t come to see your perfect veneer of control.  
All those things are not YOU.  and I came to see YOU. because YOU are the one I love.
About those mistakes you made this year? - Yes, you made them. And you can do better, and I can help you do better.  But that won’t happen until you let go of any shame you are feeling.
Because those mistakes are NOT part of your essential nature.
And you know why?
Because -- God continues -- I am סלחן ומחלן solchan u-mocholan - forgiveness is part of my essential nature.
I am ארך אפיים ורב חסד erech apayim ve-rav chesed --  I am full of generosity and lovingkindness.
Sure, feel guilty for the things you have done.  But NEVER feel ashamed of your SELF. Because that self of yours is made in the Divine image.

I am knocking on your heart this Yom Kippur.
Will you open up for me?
Will you let me come in?


[1]  [Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the work of Ruth Benedict,

[2] See the discussion in Seligmann Baer, Seder Avodat Yisrael, p. 412. There is one significant exception - the word avaryan עבריין, as used in the introduction to Kol Nidrei - but it is in a line that was added to the Yom Kippur liturgy in the 13th century, after much of the rest of the Yom Kippur liturgy was in place.

[3] My colleague and friend Rabbi Abby Sosland discusses this idea at length in her wonderful ELI Talk (kind of a Jewish version of the TED Talks), making an analogy with the Talmudic concept of tovel ve-sheretz be-yado טובל ושרץ בידו  - one who immerses in a mikveh while holding something that is ritually unclean.


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