Modern psychology has placed great emphasis on guilt as a negative emotion, something which should be eliminated lest it hinder a person’s creativity or cause a depressed mood. The implication is that people should not feel guilty, and this attitude has resulted in some psychologists criticizing the concept and practice of teshuvah in the days preceding and including Yom Kippur. They have referred to Yom Kippur as being a preoccupation with guilt, and to Judaism as being obsessed with guilt.
This attitude is based on ignorance of both psychology and Judaism. Guilt is an emotional pain which is as essential to lite and health as physical pain. It is physical pain that alerts a person to something that is injurious to one’s life and health. Without physical pain, there would be no warning signs that the appendix is about to rupture or that the blood flow to the heart muscle is not adequate, and no remedial action would be possible. People with syringomyelia, a disease of the spinal cord that destroys the nerve fibers that conduct pain sensation, may sustain huge burns to the body due to the fact that they are unable to feel the pain of a burn, which causes a healthy person to promptly withdraw from fire.
Guilt is to human behavior what physical pain is to the body: an uncomfortable sensation that causes a person to avoid improper behavior. Guilt is the primary deterrent from following powerful temptations, which we generally avoid because we do not wish to suffer the distress of guilt which would result from submission. Guilt is what makes us apologize to someone whom we have offended and stimulates us to make amends wherever possible. Guilt is what makes us analyze our behavior and eliminate those actions that have caused us this distress.
Guilt is an emotional pain which is as essential to lite and health as physical pain.
It is, of course, possible for guilt to be pathologic, if it occurs in the absence of any wrongdoing, and this type of guilt does indeed require psychological or psychiatric treatment. Pathologic guilt has its counter part in physical pain for which the source cannot be found. Just as in the latter case there is nothing the doctor can treat or excise, neither is there anything that the person who suffers from pathologic guilt can do to atone, since there is no wrongdoing to rectify, and this must be approached psychologically.
The period prior to and including Yom Kippur is designated to deal with normal, healthy guilt. As fallible beings, we do make mistakes and we do commit transgression. People must have laws and principles according to which they conduct their lives, and violation of these will give rise to guilt. The God-given concept of teshuvah is a precious method that can lift this oppressive guilt from our souls, so that we may fully utilize all our energies.
It may be true that, in these special days, Judaism is preoccupied with guilt, but it is with the alleviation, rather than its prolongation. Teshuvah is not a magic ritual, nor is Yom Kippur a talisman of forgiveness. Both are corrective in that they provide ways in which people can be released from oppression in a way that will lead toward the betterment of both themselves and society.
The Baal Shem Tov was told of a cantor who chanted the list of sins in the Al Chet confession with a cheerful melody. When asked the reason for this unusual practice, the cantor said, “If I were privileged to clean the palace to make it more pleasant and suitable for the king, should I not rejoice?”
It is no accident that the days of teshuvah are immediately followed by the joyous celebration of Sukkos. By making a sincere commitment to avoid the kinds of behavior that generate guilt, we make ourselves into a suitable dwelling place for the Divine spirit within us.
Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, the founder and Medical Director of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center, Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, is one of the country’s leading experts in alcoholic and drug rehabilitation. He has written and published many works including (in collaboration with cartoonist Charles M. Schulz) When Do The Good Things Start? and Waking Up Just In Time.