This isn’t about guilt

Repentance shouldn’t be about wallowing in guilt.  In his sermon last night, my rabbi spoke about this at length.  It’s something I’ve thought about before, and it really speaks to me.

These days I’m pretty much never at synagogue.  Back when I was at school (I’m currently taking a year off), I participated in the Chavurah minyan each week, which I loved.  But here, I find that praying congregation-style just doesn’t do it for me.  And last night I realized for the first time that one of my personal sources of guilt on Yom Kippur comes from actually being at synagogue, precisely because I’m so rarely there.  I feel guilt for not being more a part of the community.  Guilt for being so unfamiliar with the liturgy.  Guilt that my Hebrew is so bad.  Guilt for not truly feeling that the path to repentance involves asking for permission to repent.

So, like last year at Brown, I didn’t go to services today, albeit for slightly different reasons.  I’m at home, on my own.  Here I can observe Yom Kippur guilt-free, thinking about ways in which I can repent for me, myself, and I.  My lack of belief in G()d in the traditional sense of an entity or concept that has at least some manifest control of my life or the world leads me to understand that I repent for my own benefit, and for that of those around me.  Repenting helps me become a better person.  I take responsibility for my flaws, my problems, my errors, and I ask those around me to understand them, and join with me as I try to grow past them.  That growth might involve additional involvement with the community.  Or it might not.

This approach to observance is a source of conflict with my family, who feel strongly that going to shul is a family operation.  And while I respect the desire to observe the day together, I can’t subvert my feelings on what it means for me to be a Jew to the family’s feelings on what it means to be a Jewish family.  The same holds for a congregation.  Yom Kippur is too important for me to follow anyone’s patterns of observance but my own.  I’m sure that those patterns will continue to change, and as they do, I’ll do my best to understand and remain true to them.

22 Responses to “This isn’t about guilt”

  1. [...] Of guilt and repentance. [...]


    New Jewschool post | harpojaeger.com · September 18th, 2010 at 2:05 pm
  2. Wishing you a g’mar chatimah tovah.

    By the way — I put together a list of Y”K resources, intended in part for those who aren’t in shul but want to reflect on Y”K’s themes and liturgy anyway. It’s here: velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2010/09/more-yom-kippur-resources.html


    Rachel Barenblat · September 18th, 2010 at 4:32 pm
  3. here’s what I don’t get… if you don’t believe in a God that ‘controls’/interacts/responds to you… then why would you type “G()d”? seems a little silly to fear offending a God whom you claim has no manifest control over you…


    Justin · September 18th, 2010 at 11:23 pm
  4. Well it’s over for this year but a thought for next year…is it possible to attend part of the services with your family and part on your own? I know at our shul there are people who come and go throughout the day (especially with kids) and some spend part of the day in a quiet area or in the library; that’s usually my choice as well. I’m kind of a loner and community services are good in small doses but all day long wears me out!


    cmm · September 19th, 2010 at 12:14 pm
  5. @Justin, this is sort of a running trend on Jewschool. See TWJ’s comment on one of my posts a while back, and his post (from a few months before that) discussing it. I kind of like trying out different ways of writing or referring to G*d, and seeing what they look like/imply. Interested to hear what you think about it…
    @cmm, it’s entirely possible, but I’m more saying that the services at my synagogue just don’t do that much for me. If there was a more community-led havurah-style service I think I’d find it more engaging.


    renaissanceboy · September 20th, 2010 at 8:57 am
  6. You realize, of course, that Yom Kippur is the one day in the Jewish calendar when coming to shul is not necessary. The day itself atones. One simply needs to make sure they do not interfere with this process. Everyone thinks they have to be at shul on this one day, but the opposite is true. You need to be at shul every day except Yom Kippur, to elicit your daily portion, which is dependent on your daily supplication.

    As for guilt, it is a common misconception, probably derived from the wider christian culture. Teshuvah is not about guilt. In Rambam’s chilchos Teshuvah he writes the text of the essential confessional prayer: I implore You, G-d, I sinned, I transgressed, I committed iniquity before You by doing the following. [List sins] Behold, I regret and am embarrassed for my deeds. I promise never to repeat this act again.

    This is the gold standard of verbal confession and articulation of sins before G-d, which is a positive command.

    Guilt and remorse are very different concepts. Guilt is selfish, “I feel bad because x”. The focus is on “I”, on me. If “I” didn’t feel bad, there would be no problem. Remorse is the opposite, it’s not about “me”, it’s about understanding the negative impact my actions had. Even if “I” don’t feel particularly bad about something, I can become more sensitive to the damage my actions caused and seek a way of rectifying that damage.

    Teshuvah is not about imposing something alien on ourselves, beating ourselves up for the theater of doing so. It is a return to our essence, to our spiritual core and mission, which persist regardless of the actions we take. Teshuvah is not about guilt, it is about repair and release, a coming home.


    Victor · September 20th, 2010 at 12:41 pm
  7. “You realize, of course, that Yom Kippur is the one day in the Jewish calendar when coming to shul is not necessary. The day itself atones.”

    Midrash Halacha and other halachic literature is clear that while the day itself has atoning power one must do teshuva in order for it to work. I think this can be done while not in shul but not simply because the day passes on the calendar.


    uzi · September 20th, 2010 at 4:54 pm
  8. That’s correct, but it gets progressively more complicated the more you learn. There are four tools in the arsenal of atonement. Teshuvah, Yom Kippur, Suffering and Death.

    For violating a positive commandment not punishable for karet (spiritual excision – only circumcision and paschal lamb sacrifice are positive commandments whose non-performance is punishable by karet), Teshuvah atones.

    For violating a negative commandment not punishable by karet or execution, Teshuvah has a tentative effect and Yom Kippur atones.

    For violating a negative commandment punishable by kares or execution, Teshuvah and Yom Kippur have a tentative effect and Suffering atones. Suffering at the hand of heaven can be mitigated by self-inflicted suffering, both physical (i.e. fasting) and financial (tzedakah).

    For desecrating G-d’s name, however, despite Teshuvah, Yom Kippur and Suffering, which have a tentative effect, only death atones.

    What brings final atonement is dependent on the efforts that precede it. So, Yom Kippur only atones if Teshuvah is performed beforehand. Is that to say that it has no power to atone if Teshuvah is not done, of if its done under certain conditions? Complexity piles on.

    It’s like saying, “All Israel have a share in the World to Come”. Yes, that’s true. Now here’s a nice thick book about all the cases where that’s not true, while still being true, unless the following happens, but in the end it’s true, except for the exceptions, but even then it turns out to be true.

    So, on Yom Kippur the day itself atones, except when it doesn’t, but it still will.

    None of this is to dilute the importance of communal prayer and supplication, especially on Yom Kippur, but even more vitally every other day of the year. For on Yom Kippur, a single tear or thought of repentance is sufficient for the day to atone, while throughout the rest of the year, atonement requires greater efforts.

    A community can elicit in an instant what for an individual may take a lifetime. The spiritual power of a Jewish community to elicit divine favor is limitless. As Chofetz Chaim writes, when Jews are good to one another, seeking peace amongst one another and pursuing it (particularly through the faculty of speech), no matter their behavior in other matters, the Accuser is silenced. Let it be so.


    Victor · September 20th, 2010 at 5:49 pm
  9. @rb-
    since you asked… the practice of not writing God is ridiculously stupid. The practice of not typing God is even stupider. The origin of the practice stems from the prohibition against destroying God’s name. According to the Rabbis there are 7 names which cannot be destroyed, they are: YHVH, Elohim, El, Adonai, Ehiyeh asher Ehiyeh, Tz’vaot and Shaddai. Those names, IN HEBREW, cannot be destroyed. As a measure to assure these names are never destroyed it was ruled to not write them down at all unless one takes precautionary measures such as adding a ‘-’ between the first and second letter (as recommended per Rambam). Others have opted to change a letter, hence “Kelohim” or “Kadonai” What is REALLY REALLY REALLY stupid is when people SAY “Kelohim” or “Kadonai” since the prohibition against speaking God’s name refers ONLY to YHVH, which we don’t know how to pronounce anyways…

    The practice of not writing God in any language stems from the 20th century and is 100% completely baseless. It is nothing but false piety. So, for a person of such enlightened refinement as a boy of the renaissance, who is so convinced that God has no effect on their day to day existence… why partake in this ridiculous practice is beyond me.


    Justin · September 20th, 2010 at 11:44 pm
  10. I forgot to clarify why not typing God is even stupider than not writing God…

    Even in the frummy world of frumkeit it was ruled that typesetting is not the same as writing, therefore a printer, from woodblock unto laser jet, has no consciousness and therefore has no intention therefore is not really writing and the precautionary prohibition is against WRITING not printing. And in the modern world of frumkeit it was ruled that computer screens are just pixels, it is even further removed from writing than a printer is… Since that is the case one could even type יהוה and delete it!


    Justin · September 20th, 2010 at 11:48 pm
  11. But what is REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY stupid is writing “Hash-m”.


    BZ · September 20th, 2010 at 11:48 pm
  12. @Victor: “Yom Kippur atones” doesn’t mean that the existence of the day atones, anymore than “death atones” means that the fact that people die does – it’s the going through the process, which in Judaism means (at least in part) coming together as a community to repent as a community. Our prayers are written in plural, because it’s the power of coming together and repenting for what we do as a group which atones for us.
    This strikes me as an idea which renaissanceboy might be able to dig, since it’s about taking responsibility for things which we’ve allowed to go on, as well as things we’ve done ourselves (I could be wrong of course, but it strikes me as something that doesn’t depend on belief in God).
    Of course, it could be sort of like musaf, which if there is a community coming together and one prays at the same time as that musaf service, God counts it as if one were part of that community, but relying on that strikes me as kind of sleazy, like pretending to work at the office, while everyone else is busy actually working.


    KRG · September 21st, 2010 at 1:12 pm
  13. Justin- not quite true. I know that Kitzur Shulchan Aruch prohibits writing “God” in any language (actually going so far to banning ‘Adieu’). i can find the source if you like. KSA pulls from 3 sources and takes majority, so I would imagine there are at least some sources that say you shouldn’t write ‘God’. Now, typing is (I guess) another matter entirely. And in terms of saying ‘eilokeinu’, I don’t know where you’re getting your theory on YHVH and pronunciation. Also, even if it’s not required to change things on a screen, if you think it’s a bad idea when written on paper, you might think it’s a bad idea to do it on screen, if as policy if not halachah. Note that I think RB has thought about any of this.


    Josh · September 21st, 2010 at 3:17 pm
  14. *not, not note


    Josh · September 21st, 2010 at 3:17 pm
  15. @Josh
    forgive me, so the tradition stems from the 19th century. either way, it’s not real halakhah. it’s a humrah on a humrah on a humrah which is assur to psak. my “theory” comes from our glorious legal tradition. the practice of saying elokeinu stems from the practice of writing it. it’s a conflation of two separate prohibitions.


    Justin · September 21st, 2010 at 3:52 pm
  16. Hi Justin,
    I think you see halachah as something that is either definitely one way or the other. KSA is part of that legal tradition- i certainly don’t use it as halachah l’maaseh (though he does have a wonderful tradition of having the husband get the shabbos candles set up and ready for his wife), but i wouldn’t say it’s irrelevant to those who care about the halachic process. KSA, like the SA before it, generally takes a majority view of three authorities. To quote wikipedia- “To determine a ruling, Ganzfried (author of KSA) based his decisions on three halakhic authorities: Rabbi Yaakov Lorberbaum; Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first rebbe of Chabad Lubavitch, author of the Shulchan Aruch HaRav; and Rabbi Abraham Danzig, author of Chayei Adam and Chochmat Adam. In cases of disagreement he adopted the majority view. (Karo had used a similar method in composing his Shulchan Aruch where his references were to Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, Maimonides and Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel.)” When you say ‘our glorious legal tradition’, to what are you referring exactly?


    Josh · September 21st, 2010 at 4:38 pm
  17. @KRG

    “Yom Kippur atones” doesn’t mean that the existence of the day atones

    That’s actually what it means. Yes, individual teshuvah is a prerequisite, to whatever extent, as touched on above, but yes, the passing of the day itself atones, literally.

    anymore than “death atones” means that the fact that people die does

    That’s what death is, an atonement for the body. Death was instituted to create a mechanism by which the body, which had physically accumulated sin, could decompose and “undo” those sins. As an example, how else do you “undo” having eaten non-kosher food, which is physically integrated into the body? This is why many believe that the bodies of tzadikim – for those who believe in the concept and reality of such people – do not decompose.

    Our prayers are written in plural, because it’s the power of coming together and repenting for what we do as a group which atones for us.

    Yes, that’s my understanding as well, although I would phrase it differently – communal teshuvah is about recognizing that no one’s individual teshuvah is complete without all our individual teshuvahs being complete, reestablishing the perfect unity among the souls of Israel. However, eliciting divine favor as a community is a tool the Jewish community can employ at any time, not just on Yom Kippur. If ten Jews play ping pong together, the divine presence rests among them. The special character of this day, and not another, takes teshuvah to another level.


    Victor · September 21st, 2010 at 6:55 pm
  18. i was referring to the plethora of texts starting with the gemara and ending with the SA. And in terms of your surmising on Karo’s sources, those were the sources for the Tur, not the SA. The SA is an abbreviation of the Beit Yosef, his excursus on the Tur. The KSA is a very very particular strand of Litvak halakhah, which, like I said, has many humros which are put upon humros. that is asur d’rabbanan. the practice of putting fences around fences around fences is ridiculous and, as i said, nothing but false piety. if you like the practice or find meaning in it, fine, but don’t delude yourself into thinking it’s halakhah. it’s a minhag, and mingah shtus at that.


    Justin · September 22nd, 2010 at 12:54 am
  19. Justin-
    I don’t think that halachah ends with SA. See: Mishnah berurah, Aruch hashulchan, yalkut Yosef, igros moshe… And the list goes on…


    Josh · September 22nd, 2010 at 1:14 am
  20. i’m not saying it ends with it, but everything after it is just an interpretation of it. yalkut yosef and igrot moshe are great examples of incredible halakhic anthologies that reinterpret halakhic norms but not much new halakhah is made. the KSA is not in the same vein. the M”B is sort of an in between of the two styles and ar”ha’sh is alright, but again, not much NEW stuff is ruled there. KSA is just not the same. but whatever, i’m done with this conversation. sorry.


    Justin · September 22nd, 2010 at 1:20 am
  21. Justin,
    Hardly. MB and AH disagree with SA not at all infrequently (really, we’re talking about SA + Rema, but whatever). they are also decidedly in the same “vein”, much as I can understand that you would want to separate them. I think you confuse being in the same organization as the SA as the same as being completely subservient to the SA, but that’s silly. Also, by your definition, Acharonim have nothing to add to halachah (if you include SA as a Rishon). No wonder orthodoxy looks stagnant to you. i agree that KSA is more a formulation than creating something new (that’s the point of KSA after all), but that doesn’t mean it never creates nothing new.

    I feel like one of the reasons non-orthodoxy doesn’t see how orthodox ppl do halacha is because they fundamentally don’t understand how we see it as working. this is very much in evidence in your comments: how the heck is “reinterpretting halachic norms” not the same thing as making new halachah? you miss the point- the entire conversation is about halachic norms, and it always has been. how do you think SA made his decisions? he decided what the norm was (generally, but this is all general).


    Josh · September 22nd, 2010 at 2:24 pm
  22. it’s about process. KSA and igros moshe/yalkut yosef have inherently difference processes.

    you can’t so easily chalk it up to “the non-orthodox just don’t get us” nor did I ever state orthodoxy was stagnant. this is an issue of minhagim v. halakhot. contemporary orthodoxy loves to conflate the two


    Justin · September 22nd, 2010 at 4:12 pm

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik