Sometimes, being overwhelmed with guilt makes one unable to act. Other times, guilt manipulates and attempts to control. It might offer a sense of responsibility and concern. More often than not, guilt comes bundled in small doses of should-haves and could-haves.
For example, when you feel guilty for skipping exercise and instead lay in front of the television binge-watching your new favorite show. It’s not the end of the world, but you really should have gone and exercised. Or, when you feel bad for getting into a fight with a friend and saying something mean when you could have done otherwise. In general, I think there is such a thing as a healthy amount of guilt which spurs right actions, sincere apologies, forgiveness and knowledge of the good.
Jewish tradition generally agrees with me that a measured amount of guilt is often quite helpful. Guilt instructs us in right and wrong and guides us to be more responsible, more mature individuals. Indeed, it even clues us into a better understanding of G-d.
In the beginning, G-d makes Adam and Eve and commands them not to eat of the fruit of the tree in the center of Eden. However, they do. After eating the fruit, Adam and Eve panic on account of a new-found self-awareness that they are naked. They make clothes and then hide because they are ashamed to be naked. Then, once questioned, both of them fail to take responsibility for their actions. Eve blames the serpent, and Adam blames Eve.
Yet, G-d behaves like a parent, not an over-lord, not a king. Rather, G-d gets angry and punishes them, but their story doesn’t end there. In fact, right after the punishment, we read a change in G-d’s attitude toward the couple. G-d’s concerned. Clearly, the humans are still feeling ashamed of their nakedness and G-d senses that. So, G-d makes them clothes and dresses them. Surely, G-d loves them despite their actions.
In the next verse, G-d admits that their actions actually made them closer to being divine than they previously were. They understand right and wrong. Now, with the knowledge of good and evil, they’ll feel guilty when they do something wrong.
The next story about their children, Cain and Abel, illustrates exactly how that guilty feeling works. Cain is upset after G-d refuses an offering Cain made although it is unclear to him why G-d does so. Cain is also jealous of his brother because his offering was accepted by G-d. G-d notices Cain’s mood and tries to motivate him to do the right thing. However, Cain’s jealousy wins and he kills Abel. At first, Cain tries to hide his actions from G-d, but, of course, G-d knows exactly what’s happened.
Yet, Cain does something Adam and Eve didn’t do in the Garden. Cain expresses immense guilt over his actions and says he’s tormented by them (Genesis 4:13). According to the Rabbis, G-d is won over by Cain’s remorse and guilt, vows to protect Cain (until the 7th generation) and lessens his punishment to settlement in one land.
Like in the Adam and Eve story, G-d, the parent, gently and lovingly urges humans to act responsibly. When that fails, as it ultimately does because we are human after all, our Parent reprimands us because, as a parent, G-d knows we can do better. The funny thing is that our ability to punish ourselves and be racked with guilt and remorse is more times than not a stronger reaction than G-d’s. G-d is able to move on much more quickly than we are. G-d doesn’t hold a grudge. Rather, our Parent wants us to grow up. Be more mature. Take responsibility for ourselves.
Another thing G-d does well is communicate. In fact, the Torah is filled with stories just about talking and listening. And, it shows us just how important and god-like such communication skills are. Had Cain talked to his brother, listened to G-d’s advice and worked through his jealousy, he probably wouldn’t have killed Abel. Likewise, if Eve and Adam had discussed together whether eating the fruit was a good or bad idea, the two of them could have probably figured out that the serpent was trying to trick them and they should obey G-d instead. If we could foster environments of authentic communication, talk openly about the situations that trouble us and listen to each other, then we could come to the right course of action together. In other words, talking and listening are powerful. When we practice them, we are practicing holiness.
Finally, if these stories teach us anything about the divine, they illustrate that no matter what we do, G-d is always there. There is nothing we can do that would stop G-d’s love for us or end our connection to G-d. G-d is our loving parent, guiding us toward better behavior, but not resenting us when we fail.
Of course, we are human and not perfect. Sometimes, we act begrudgingly. Sometimes, we react before thinking. Sometimes, we refuse to talk or to listen. Sometimes, jealousy takes over. Sometimes, guilt swallows us whole.
Perhaps, we are more like Adam, Eve, and Cain than we’d like to admit. We still have a lot to learn. A healthy amount of guilt can help. So too can our Parent who is always there to pick up the pieces and put us back together again.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Feminist and Ecofeminist courses. She is a past Associate of Merrimack College‘s Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations and spent many years as an Adjunct Lecturer in their Religious and Theological Studies Department. She has taught at Boston College and Carroll University in Wisconsin. While her primary focus is Judaism and Roman Catholicism, her research interests range from the relationship between anti-modernism and anti-feminism in religious traditions and the rise of various fundamentalisms to queer theology and eco-feminism. Her publications include: “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents (2012). In addition to teaching and research, Ivy spends time learning Czech, painting, drawing, creating new kosher vegan delicacies and playing with her dog, Mini, and cat, Gabbi.