Teshuva: Shame or Guilt?

Teshuva: Shame or Guilt?

A teacher of mine who came to Lubavitch late in life tells a story. A friend of his came for the first time to spend Rosh Hashana in 770, the Rebbe’s synagogue, and was surprised by the scene. Hundreds of Jews prayed, relatively quietly, caught up in their own thoughts. He was more used to the wailing, beseeching, dramatic services of his youth, in which the congregation would beseech G-d to forgive their transgressions on the Day of Judgement. An older chassid caught the newcomer staring and asked him, “Is everything alright?”

“Everything is fine. I’m just used to more crying,” admitted the newcomer.

“In Lubavitch,” replied the chassid, “we don’t cry and we don’t sin.”

In other words, the chassid implied that while others may in fact sin and then feel guilty about it on Rosh Hashana, the approach in Lubavitch is to not sin and therefore not feel guilty about it. What are we to make of this? What happens, then, to sinners in Lubavitch?

We could explain the Chabad approach to Teshuva (i.e. repentance or return to G-d) in terms of crying and sinning, or guilt and transgression, in light of a distinction drawn by Ruth Benedict and other anthropologists between the shame society and the guilt society.

In short, the shame society imposes its moral will through social pressure. Right and wrong are enforced as public matters. The guilt society, on the other hand, imposes moral will through the agency of the individuals themselves; when someone does something wrong, they are compelled back to right action by their own regret. Guilt culture relies on a personal conscience, whereas shame culture relies on honor and “face.” In a shame culture, the transgressor has no place in society, as taken to its extreme by the Japanese practice of ritual suicide. In the guilt culture, the transgressor is not defined by their transgression; a disgrace can be forgiven by society and eventually find redemption and pride in living a moral life.

The guilt society, it has been argued, is more morally developed than the shame society, and historically proceeded from it in Ancient Greece, for example. Generally speaking, the West, through the influence of Christianity (whose ideas on the matter are probably related to the Jewish conception of the soul), has largely become a guilt culture. Some have noted, however, that the pendulum in America has recently swung toward a more shame-based system. One of the themes of the current cultural and political insanity in the US is the nascent tribalism, which in turn engenders illiberalism (since the freedom to be a “bad person,” that is, of the other tribe, is not legitimate), which finds coherence in a shame dynamic.

It should come as no surprise that if one seeks to castigate outsiders while solidifying group identity, shame is easier than guilt. A conscience is something everyone has from their birth; it seems, conceptually at least, to exist to some extent beyond the society at all. Honor, however (and, for us moderns, celebrity and acceptance) is regulated by perception and need not be grounded in any personal sense of morality; do what you want at home, but don’t you dare come into the public sphere and speak words of hatred and the like.

Some protestors (and lawmakers!) have even taken, as if they were the folk of King’s Landing, to shouting “Shame!” at those they dislike. You cannot shout “Guilt!” at those you dislike. “Guilt!” is a request; it is the public asking someone to align themselves with their own conscience, to regret their own actions. You cannot force someone to feel regret. Shame, on the other hand, is externally imposed, and thus a tempting motivation for those who seek power over others.

This is not to say that guilt is a perfect system either. While guilt does acknowledge the role of the individual in their own ethical behavior rather than merely imposing the will of the collective, guilt is also vulnerable to the manipulation of the individual. Just as power-seekers can manipulate a shame society, so, too, can the criminal and transgressor find rationalizations and self-defense in the guilt society. Where the shaming method can compel actual morality by public standards, the guilt method maintains that the individual is in some sense always the final arbiter of their own moral state (with societal punishment acting as an amoral safeguard).

For example, in the shame society, the man who steals to feed his family has violated the community’s trust and betrayed the trust of his family, who expect a provider. He is dishonored, and must pay the price if he is caught; he himself totally agrees he must pay the price. In the guilt society, the man retains a personal sense of moral rectitude, of being forced into the situation, and though the society may punish him, they have no power to make him view himself as evil.

In short, the shame society defines evil in such a way that its presence can be ascertained without the evil individual’s consent, but in this sacrifices the actual rehabilitation of that individual. The guilt society, on the other hand, defines evil in a deeply personal way that allows for repentance and change, but in so doing forfeits morality and a shared, objective, public experience.

The fact that societies progress from shame to guilt reflects not just changes over time but qualitative differences as well. That is, shame relies on lower functions within the human being than guilt. Whereas every action is a function of a human agent, no human being is defined solely by their actions, possessing, as all functioning human beings do, thoughts, speech, and an inner emotional and intellectual life. Shame culture defines human beings by their actions and thereby eliminates all higher human functions from the discussion of morality. Guilt culture takes a more holistic approach, acknowledging that people exist beyond their actions and, in their deeper functions, abstract away from the world entirely. However, guilt culture also shifts the assessment and enforcement of morality from the objective and easily assessed realm of action to the murky chambers of the human heart.

If one were to explain the shame and guilt cultures as relationships with the Creator, in which G-d was the enforcer of morality rather than society, one might say that shame reflects G-dly immanence whereas guilt reflects G-dly transcendence. After all, if G-d is to judge me purely on my actions and their effects, this relegates the Creator to a relatively pragmatic position. Divine law would not seek to rule over the inner world of the individual, but merely to regulate their external action, and a G-d concerned primarily with external action is one caught up and invested in the goings-on of the world. If G-d, however, not only judges action but also intention, if He is not bound by the details of what has been done and to Whom but can find room to forgo the rules to choose the individual, if, to put it simply, He can forgive, then He truly exists beyond the limitations of the world. Only He who is timeless and limitless may let go of past violation and from His inscrutable essence forge a relationship anew. A transcendent G-d has the ability not to care, and it’s the ability not to care that makes room for the individual, their conscience, and their self-motivated change in the guilt culture.

Judaism contains both aspects. On the one hand, there are certain transgressions whose punishments are merely consequences, where no amount of forgiveness can “undo” the inherently negative action that has been taken. On the other hand, generally speaking, nothing stands in the way of repentance, and especially in the time of year that’s auspicious for Teshuva, Elul and the Days of Awe, we can forge our relationship with G-d anew, for that is His desire. He truly transcends even His own commands, and from that place of infinite mercy, he calls to the soul within each of us to return to its natural holiness. The only thing standing between me and forgiveness is myself, and that is guilt culture.

What, however, are we to make of the problems with the guilt culture we mentioned above in terms of its religious application? Teshuva “solves” the problem of G-d’s commandments, but introduces new issues. The commandments taken alone say that the relationship with G-d is based purely on objective action with no room for “resetting the game board” or going “back to square one,” and therefore Teshuva is also part of Judaism, reflecting a relationship to the Commander Himself beyond the commandments. However, the act of Teshuva, of returning to G-d, can be seen as a subjective dodge of objective morality; the rules exist only to be transcended; we know a Guy. One is not permitted to sin with the intention of later doing Teshuva (we are taught the Teshuva will not avail him) but how are we to look at the commandments from within a Guilt Culture, which places the individual and his relationships at the unmoving center of the wheel around which all else revolves?

Perhaps just as the Commandments alone, as a pure shame relationship with the creator, are not all of Judaism, so, too, adding Teshuva, to introduce the subjective latitude of guilt, is also not sufficient. Perhaps for a complete picture, there is some third way, a synthesis of the strong points of both.

It is just such a synthesis that Chassidus seeks. The shame approach recognizes that the rules, the will of G-d, is ultimately binding, and looks at Him as a being imminent in His commands. The guilt approach recognizes that there’s more to us than rule-following and more to G-d than his mere desires for this world. The shame/guilt synthesis in the Chassidic Teshuva seeks to find the place in man and in G-d where the rules and in the individual, the objective and subjective, the shared and the private, are one. 

The truth is that man is more than his actions, but he’s also more than merely a relationship with a transcendent Creator. The way of guilt implies that man is a partner in the relationship with G-d and that he exists apart from G-d’s commandments. But if we were to subvert this and say that man does not exist apart from the law of G-d, then have we not merely reverted back to the way of shame?

The answer lies in the Chassidic twist, the existential reversal so common the mystical way of thinking. Our assumption is that the human being exists independently, is made to bow to external rules in the shame culture, and then transcends those rules in the guilt culture. This is the perspective of the human being, who sees himself first and foremost as an independent existence. But in truth, and from G-d’s perspective, it is not man who comes first and then suffers shame under the externally imposed rules. On the contrary, the rules come first; they are not only the reason for creation but in fact the very essence of the human existence; man is formed in the shape of G-d’s mitzvos, rather than the mitzvos applied to man. We are, at our very essence, united with G-d’s will, and created to follow it. Even the guilt-being, the one that transcends law to touch the Lawmaker, is created in the image of G-d’s will, and for the purpose of fulfilling it. Man, as such, does not truly exist apart from the will of G-d; our independence, which leads to the sense that morality is imposed upon us rather than our very essence, is merely the first illusion. Transcending that imposition does not break the illusion but merely seeks limited relief from it. Only the higher Teshuva, which seeks to negate man before not merely G-d’s laws but G-d Himself, reverses the illusion, allowing a human being to see themselves for what they are — a being created in the image of G-d’s mitzvos.

Shame, which says a man must be moral or risk being cut off from the community or G-d, does not acknowledge the possibility of repentance and only imposes morally externally. Guilt, which says a man must be moral because of his personal conscience and responsibility, acknowledges repentance but loses sight of the sacred nature of that rules-based morality. The Chassidic shame/guilt synthesis says man must be moral because morality is closer to man than anything else is, including his sense of personal transcendence. Therefore he is neither bound by the external imposition of G-d or society nor cut off from repentance, which is the process of returning to his true moral self.

And therefore when it comes to Teshuva “we don’t cry and we don’t sin.” “We don’t cry,” that is, we are not caught up in our own personal sense of Teshuva, in the guilt culture, in the assessment of our own transgressions and our ability to transcend them and reconnect to G-d. Rather, “we don’t sin;” we are trying to find that place within us where we remember what we are, the shoresh of Tikkun, the space beyond understanding where we are made in the image of G-d’s mitzvos, where sin is not only shamed, not only a reason for feeling guilty, but simply inimical to our very being.

In escaping even our own guilt, we leave behind the higher human functions and turn, instead, toward the Creator, who, with great trust, gave us a soul and then hid Himself away. He hoped that we would not be distracted by the muttering of others nor even our own spiritual pursuits. He hoped that we would not suffice with merely the Law, nor even with the Law Giver, but that we would keep striving for that True and clear place where we and He are one.

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