The myth goes that Jews are more guilt-driven than any other people on the planet. Supposedly this guilt is a conspiracy of Jewish mothers. All those Jewish doctors, lawyers and Nobel laureates—they were driven to succeed on the fuel of loving, Jewish motherly guilt. It’s also presented as something genetic, much like the Jewish nose.

But, as anthropologists have confirmed, the stereotypically purported Jewish nose is not particularly Jewish, and as sociologists have confirmed, neither is guilt. As early as 1964, a study in the American Midwest reported higher levels of guilt among Protestants and Catholics than among their Jewish cohorts.

I’ve also asked several therapists with many Jewish patients, and they all concur: Excessive, crippling guilt does not appear to be a particularly Jewish phenomenon.

Nevertheless, there is definitely a Jewish attitude towards guilt. You might call it the “this is between me and G‑d” attitude.

It’s a very liberating approach. Guilt becomes manageable,Guilt becomes manageable, because you are in the driver’s seat. because you are in the driver’s seat. Your life and self-esteem are up to you, and no one else. And if you do mess up, there’s nothing that can’t be repaired.

Most significantly, in the “between me and G‑d” attitude lies the discovery—or better, awakening—that there is me.

On the other hand, that really ups the ante. If your standards are based on other people’s perceptions of you, you can be pretty damned bad and still live guilt-free. You only need to be slightly better than the rest—or cover up for yourself.

But when you live by the absolute standards of an omniscient G‑d, you need to be the best you can possibly be. Which is perhaps how those Jewish mothers helped drive their children to greatness.

To explain that, let’s go back to the beginning:

Adam, the Tree and Jewish Guilt

Everything you ever need to know about guilt management can be found in two proto-narratives of the human condition in Genesis. Just read them objectively, free of preconceptions and exogenous dogma. You’ll see repetitive themes: the emergence of self, of personal responsibility and of forgiveness.

Adam and Eve—who are all of us—begin life as entirely innocent beings. It’s life’s temptations that bring them to lose that innocence, to “open their eyes,” and experience shame.

Of what are they ashamed? No, not of failure. Not of disobedience, either. Their first sense of shame is of their nakedness.

That’s deep. It means so many things. For one, it means they were now naked of dignity.

So, simple solution: Skirts of fig leaves.

No longer naked, shame still chases after them. They now feel the shame of disobedience.

Next simple solution: Hide.

Hiding also proves futile. G‑d asks Adam, “Where are you? Why are you hiding from Me?”

Adam still can’t handle the idea that he was irresponsible and disobedient. “I heard Your voice in the garden,” he replies. “And I was afraid, because I was naked. So I hid.”

The nakedness thing again.

Even when G‑d finally confronts Adam withEven when G‑d finally confronts Adam with the fact of his disobedience, Adam conveniently points the finger at his wife. the fact of his disobedience, Adam conveniently points the finger at his wife. “The woman You put here with me gave me something from that tree, so I ate it.”

Adam figured he was off the hook. G‑d had put this woman here to help him out—something of an advisor. So how is he to blame for listening to her? Rather, G‑d has to take the blame for providing a lousy consultant.

G‑d’s reprimand of Adam is most telling: “Because you listened to your wife, and you ate from the tree . . .”

Meaning, “Yes, the situation was confusing. Yes, there’s always an excuse. But I still would like to see better of you. I’d like to see you make your own decisions and take responsibility for them.”

Adam’s eventual sentence for his crime is more than a punishment. It’s his rehabilitation. Adam must now take responsibility for his own sustenance, and earn his food no longer by plucking fruits off trees, but “by the sweat of his brow.” He has to grow up.

Facing Natural Consequences

Here’s a beautiful midrash that captures the essence of this story:

The verse says, “The eyes of both of them were opened.” Were they then blind until now?

Rabbi Yudan explained in the name of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, and Rabbi Berechiah in the name of Rabbi Akiva, by way of a parable:

A villager walked by the shop of a glassblower in the big city. In his path lay a box filled with finely crafted goblets and glassware. As he passed, the villager carelessly struck them with his staff, and they shattered.

The glassblower stood up and grabbed the villager. He told him, “I know I won’t get restitution out of you. But just come, and I will show you what good things you have destroyed.”

G‑d is the glassblower in this story. That is how He made man: “He blew into his nostrils the breath of life.” He has invested Himself in every one of us.

Yet He has nothing to gain by punishing Adam. All He wants from him is that he should recognize that his actions have consequences, invaluable consequences, and learn to take responsibility for them.

Jewish Guilt and Murdering Your Brother

Next comes Cain, first son of Adam. Even before Cain has done anything wrong, G‑d is counseling him concerning shame and guilt.

Cain is full of resentment and anger. He had brought an offering to G‑d. His brother Abel only copied him. Yet Abel’s offering was accepted, and Cain’s was not.

G‑d says to Cain, “Why are you upset? Why the sad face?”

And then, some very enigmatic words (translation according to the classic commentaries of Rashi and Targum Onkelos):

“If you improve your deeds, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve, sin will be crouching in wait for you to the grave. It yearns to trip you up, but you can rule over it.”

This is astounding. Cain hasn’t done a thing wrong yet, and G‑d is already telling him that if he does mess up, he can always repent. Along with this, G‑d primes him on the notion of personal responsibility: It’s all up to you.

And yet another lesson, one most liberating: There’s something inside you yearning to trip you up. It’s not you. You can rule over it.

In essence, G‑d is telling Cain—and thereby all of humankind: YouYou don’t have to feel guilty that you feel like murdering your brother. That’s a natural emotion. don’t have to feel guilty that you feel like murdering your brother. That’s a natural emotion. You’re human, and humans are infected with this puerile little brat inside them that yearns to wreck the life of its host organism, often by destroying the lives of others along with it. Jealousy, temptation, anger, spite . . . I created them all within you.

There’s nothing shameful about having such feelings—as long as you don’t grant them safe passage. Meaning, as long as you control yourself, put those thoughts aside and don’t carry those emotions into actuality.

Then Cain goes ahead and actually does it. He kills his brother.

“Where is your brother?” G‑d asks.

So overwhelming is Cain’s sense of guilt, he attempts the absurd—complete denial before G‑d: “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?”

But of course G‑d knows. “Cain! What have you done? The blood of your brother cries out to Me from the earth!”

And eventually Cain repents: “My sin is too great to bear!”

Which did some good. For at first G‑d’s punishment was that Cain should be forever wandering in foreign lands. But now he is only banished to a foreign land, but not as a wanderer.

Guilt and Compromise

Once again, the rabbis provide clear insight into this story in the form of a midrash:

Rabbi Chama said in the name of Rabbi Chanina, son of Rabbi Yitzchak:

Cain left happily. . . . He came across his father, Adam, who asked him, “So, how did your judgment go?”

Cain answered, “I repented, and we reached a compromise.”

Adam began slapping himself on his face. He exclaimed, “This is the power of repentance, and I had no clue!”

Then he stood up and he sang, “A song for the day of Shabbat! It is good to admit to G‑d!”

We read the story of Cain as a catastrophe. The rabbis read it as a victory of the human spirit. It took a tragedy, but humanity finally began to grow up.

Guilt, Shame and Growing Up

Religion in general, and monotheism in particular, gets a bad rap for the demagogues who abuse it to manipulate the masses with guilt and shame. But that’s something like blaming steel for war, or atoms for Hiroshima. The truth is, the attitude of “it’s between me and G‑d” is meant to be liberating and empowering.

Guilt, shame, embarrassment, humiliation—all these are natural human instincts. They are key elements in how we form groups, cultures and established norms that allow us to live together, work together and build together.

Indeed, there are no human emotions that don’t have a place and a vital purpose. In a famous letter attributed to Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, nothing G‑d created is inherently ugly or bad, and that includes all human instincts.

The problem is not the emotion; the problem is when we fail to allow that emotion to mature as we mature. We are born with a capacity for shame, and in the first six or seven years of life we learn what to be ashamed of, how to deal with that shame and how to react to others when we are shamed.

After that, neuroscience tells us, the limbic system of your brain that is responsible for your initial emotional reactions is basically shaped and cooked. From this point on, any changes will take serious learning and hard work.

Quirky as it Quirky as it may sound, we are by nature emotional six-year-olds.may sound, we are by nature emotional six-year-olds. Until we do something about it.

The rabbis of the Talmud already noted this phenomenon when they described a battle between two forces within a person, a foolish old king and a wise young child. The foolish king is considered old, they taught, because he establishes his rule first, and he always gets the first say.

Adam’s shame, then, is the sort of natural, puerile shame of one who has yet to mature. He’s experiencing himself in relation to how others might see him—which is why he clothes himself and hides. But he fails to see how he can repair that which is causing him shame. He fails to take personal responsibility for the cause of shame.

Most importantly, Adam seems to have no real sense of self, in terms of “I’ve done this.” Everything he’s done is because of someone else, and his shame is only due to what G‑d might think of him.

What the “between me and G‑d” relationship does is to sublimate shame. To take it from a social instinct and transform it into a personal quest for integrity. It then becomes something you can always grow with, as you build a more reasonable estimation of your capabilities, of what is right and what is wrong, and of what sort of person you really want to be.

G‑d and Guilt

Think of it this way: If myIf my entire persona is molded around avoiding social embarrassment and reaping admiration, then I’m stuck with “I am because they are.” entire persona is molded around avoiding social embarrassment and reaping admiration, then I’m stuck with “I am because they are.” Which means there really is no me.

When it’s between me and G‑d, the game plays out on a whole new level. Doing right or wrong is not just a social ethic, it’s an absolute truth, whether you’re caught or not.

And that transforms it into a personal matter: Am I being the person my Maker meant me to be? Suddenly there’s an “I” outside of my relationship to society.

Suddenly there’s no reason to fear the judgment of human beings. All that counts is whether I am doing that which my Maker expects of me.

“Be fierce as a leopard,” says Rabbi Yehudah, “to serve your Creator.” And Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher explains, “Do what you know is right, and don’t allow yourself to be embarrassed by those who mock you.”

Those words are so central to the Jewish psyche that they became ensconced in the opening lines of the Code of Jewish Law, along with their crucial support, “Be aware of the presence of G‑d at all times.” When you see yourself as G‑d sees you, all fear of human judgment dissolves into the air.

Rabbi Bachya ibn Paquda, in his classic Duties of the Heart, tells of a man who would travel through the wilderness alone. People asked him, “Have you no fear of the lions and other wild beasts that prey in that wilderness?”

He answered, “I am ashamed before G‑d lest He see that I fear anything other than Him.”

We say something similar each day in our prayers: “Unite our hearts to love and be in awe of Your name, and we will never be ashamed, embarrassed or stumble.”

Jewish Guilt and Getting Past It

Then there’s the issue of putting things behind you.

People have memories. Memories can be molded, reframed and distorted, but current neuroscience tells us that memories can’t be erased.

Which means that it just takes one instance of some outlier behavior, something that says, “I’m different. I’m not really part of this tribe/​culture/​society/​in-crowd”—and it will forever remain on your record in some form or other.

The same with an offense to any human being. Someone was hurt, insulted or disgusted. The hurt can be healed, perhaps, but the scar will always remain.

What about when you mess with G‑d? What about sin?

As rotten as you may have been, you can’t hurt G‑d. It’s just that you haven’t been the person He asks you to be. Mend that, resolve to be different from now on, and do good things—everything is good.

The mending may be hard, but as soon as the remorse is there, forgiveness is there. There was never any scar to begin with, so now there is only good.

Once you have that attitude with G‑d, people’s opinion of you is no longer so significant. Yes, everyone needs friends. We thrive on admiration and respect. But if some fools can’t let go of their past impressions of you, what does it matter? Between you and G‑d, you know everything is okay.

Indeed, it’s that “between me and G‑d” relationship that fosters the discovery of the self as an autonomous being.

Guilt and the Capacity for Change

When your actions are judged by society, instinctually there’s really only one question that matters to people: “Are you one of us, or other than us?” When it’s an individual, the question could be slightly different: “Are you for me, or against me?”

Both of those questions are easy to slip around without taking personal responsibility. “It wasn’t my fault. Someone else or something in the universe made me do it.” Voilà, you’re one of us again, and you’re not the enemy.

But whenWhen it’s between you and G‑d, excuses are meaningless. it’s between you and G‑d, excuses are meaningless. He knows what you are capable of because He formed you. The circumstances—He put them there. All He wants is to bring out your inner strength and resolve. And when you say, “I messed up. It’s no one else’s fault but my own”—that’s all He needs to hear.

That’s very empowering, because only once I accept that responsibility do I have the power to change. Multiple studies have indeed shown that those who don’t believe they have free will have great difficulty overcoming addictions and bad habits.

Interestingly, in Western society today, we respect those who take personal responsibility for their actions. We actually admire the culprit who says, “It was no one’s fault but my own.”

My take is that this is a heritage of our monotheistic history. If you have evidence otherwise, please let me know.