Guilt and Groundedness
Jay Michaelson

If tomorrow, you could completely free yourself from guilt -- if you'd never feel guilty again, no matter what you did -- would you do it?

Most contemporary discourse about guilt is conflicted. On one side, there are those who value guilt as an essential check on our selfish desires. No guilt, no shame, no morality, they say; this view is particularly prevalent among conservative religious and political circles. Others, in contrast, see guilt as, at best, a childish form of ethics. If you cultivate the right qualities, developing your conscience and becoming more sensitive to suffering, you don't need guilt to keep you behaving properly, like a schoolmarm or parent scolding you with her forefinger. At a certain point in moral development, most liberals say or imply, you get beyond guilt and into a place of moral maturity and responsibility.

What's more, many progressives say, guilt actually holds you back. Guilt is unreflective; it's something that we are taught as small children, and is thus tied to the specific norms of childhood. This learned aspect of guilt is particularly noticeable in religion. Someone raised to keep kosher, for example, may feel guilty for years -- even a lifetime -- when she eats a cheeseburger, even after she has long since given up on the practice of kashrut. The rational mind knows there is nothing wrong with eating a cheeseburger, and the attraction of a religious lifestyle may have long since evaporated -- but somewhere in the recesses of the heart there remains that pang of guilt. Eventually it lessens, or even disappears, depending on the "sin." But for some -- and I am thinking here primarily of homosexuality -- the emotive response of guilt remains long after the mind, heart, and spirit have all reconciled themselves to the reality of sexual expression, and of love.

In traditional Jewish discourse, shame and guilt are regarded as invaluable allies. The voice of guilt is really the voice of conscience, the spark of Divinity that endures even after the desiring self has rationalized its way into getting what it wants. Cultivated by proper fear ("awe" in more politically correct circles) of the Divine, the attitudes of obedience and guilt inspire right action. That little spark remains, traditional discourse says, even among the most recondite of sinners. And so no one is really lost.

In modern psychology, this "spark" is a vestige of neurosis that just has to be accommodated. It would be better to be healthy and guilt-free, self-accepting and at ease, when guilt is attached to a non-ethically-valenced action like a cheeseburger or sex. Guilt can help us avoid stealing and harming, but when it gets mucked up with ritual law and angry gods, it's best to just see it, accept it, and try to let it go.

I wonder how much of Jewish practice really depends on guilt. I'd guess: more than most people let on. I can explain the mitzvot with the best of 'em, I think. I can talk about trans-subjective morality, the value of the written law, the bonds of community, and the holy act of building a mishkan, a dwelling place for the Divine created by our acts and our bodies. I can tell stories about the beautiful spiritual moments brought on by observing a law which may, at other times, seem tedious. Or I can relate tales of shabbat rest that was only made possible because choices were made due to the boundaries set by halacha. Or, if you prefer, although it's not really my theology, I can speak of the sense of being commanded, of the covenant, and of cultivating a relationship with a Divine lawgiver.

But I wonder if that's all just intellectual window-dressing for guilt. Libraries have been written explaining the beauty of the Jewish religious path. Are they to convince others -- or the authors? Intelligent, rational men (mostly men) find themselves inexplicably attached to bizarre codes of diet, behavior, and dress -- and so they are at pains to offer an explanation. This effort is a mirror-image of the sinner's rationale: to provide reasons why it's good to do what we want. Whereas really we're doing these things because we were taught when either we were very young, or when we were at some impressionable period in our lives (e.g. yeshiva, post-trauma, etc.), that doing them is good, and not doing them is bad.

I don't mean to overstate the power of guilt. The cheeseburger-eater in the earlier example may feel a twinge of guilt, but she may easily recognize it as a leftover from her childhood -- and enjoy the burger. It's no big deal, or at least not enough of a deal to overcome simple desire and the powers of rationalization.

Some "sins," though, are a big deal. Religious gays and lesbians, if we are fortunate, know that "sexual orientation" is much more than the anatomy of same-sex activity. It creates identity, and brings us to love and to a place where, if anywhere, the Divine is more readily experienced. But getting to that place, and remaining religious, requires a revolution in thinking, because of the power of guilt. At first, one loves religion and thus hates oneself. Then, there is a choice among three alternatives. One may affirm the self and hate religion; here guilt is but a vestige of a past life that is essential to purge. Or one may continue to repress the self, and "love" religion; here, guilt is essential. Or, somehow, one may affirm the self and reconcile religion with the reality of love and sexual expression. And here, guilt is ambiguous.

I quote this story perhaps a bit too much, but the situation religious gays face is like that faced by Huck Finn in Mark Twain's novel. Huck has been taught that if he helps escaped slaves, he will go to hell. But he has befriended Jim, the runaway slave, and cannot turn him in. "Well, I guess I'll go to hell, then," Huck decides at a pivotal moment in the book. That moment, the 'Huck Finn moment,' is precisely the birth of mature conscience out of immature rules-and-religion. Huck's conscience evolves: he makes ethical decisions for himself, and is willing to "go to hell" in order to save his friend.

Gays and lesbians born into religious communities all must face the Huck Finn moment. Unlike heterosexuals, we have no choice but to develop an independent conscience -- to decide either to "go to hell, then," and live rich emotional/sexual lives; or turn in our inner Jim; or somehow try to have it both ways. This choice, perhaps unlike keeping kosher or observing the sabbath, is a big deal. For those who reject religion because it has taught them a lie, that the way they have been engineered to love is "wrong," it may often mean severing ties with family or renouncing a connection that was once beloved. For those who reject their independent desires and side with religion, it means a lifetime of repression, sublimation, and striving to do right in the eyes of an inexplicable God -- a God who has provided them a uniquely onerous burden. And for those who refuse to choose between religion and love, it means having to develop a new religious consciousness, which is no easy task, and face occasional contention with those who hold fast to the old.

Gay religious consciousness is thus necessarily different from straight religious consciousness. It is inherently distrustful, because it has seen -- and, more importantly, felt -- how rules, codes, and even the operation of conscience itself can actually be tools of oppression and self-repression. Of course, straight people can come to this realization also. But religious gay people have to.

Yet guilt remains, because it is a conditioned emotional response, not a rational, ethical one. Guilt is not a turn-on, and so few gay men openly admit to feeling guilty when they have sex. But how could we not? We -- at least those of us raised in homophobic cultures -- were told for ten, fifteen, perhaps forty or fifty years that this act is "wrong." Does the emotive pang of guilt simply disappear because the ethical mind has made peace? As time passes, the strength of the pang diminishes, and the strength of the conviction of love and the rightness of love grows. For me, guilt only arises now and then. But it still arises.

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Top Image: Lynne Marie, She Breaks Open
Lower Image: Lynne Marie, Incarnation

September 2005

Sephardic Literature: The Real Hidden Legacy
David Shasha
plus Jordan Elgrably on the Sephardic Intellectual

Guilt and Groundedness
Jay Michaelson

David: The Original Drama King
Dan Friedman

The Doctor
Sarah Schulman

After sepia photographs
Hila Ratzabi

A War in Postcards
Alon K. Raab

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From previous issues:

Abba Kovner: The Warrior in Old Age
James Russell

Why We Still Need Beethoven
Michael Shurkin

Three Jewish Books on Sadness
Jay Michaelson