Jews And Guilt

Is it true that Jews have a special relationship with guilt? The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who certainly was Jewish in ethnicity, thought and deed, was fond of quoting the following saying: ‘We are all responsible for everything and guilty in front of everyone, but I am that more than all others.’ This certainly sounds convincing, except that the quotation is derived from Dostoevsky, who was not the frummest Jew ever known. There is of course a resonance with Animal Farm: ‘all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.’ All of us are guilty, but some of us are always guilty, and even when we’re not, we think we might be; and if not now, then when? That is, if we escape guilt for our actions for now, it will catch up with us in the end.

Freud had some good things to say about guilt. What is especially effective about the superego, his term for the element of the mind that judges us, is that it deals with thoughts as well as behaviours. On the whole, society operates through laws that judge guilt and innocence according to what a person does; we are not – on the whole, again – punished for our thoughts.  The superego, or in its more expressive German the Über-Ich, the ‘Over-I’, however, punishes us for our wishes, irrespective of whether we have enacted them. ‘You haven’t actually killed your father and slept with your mother? Never mind, you might have wished it, unconsciously, so feel guilty as if you have.’ There is actually some evidence that Freud himself felt shame more readily than he felt guilt, in that he hated to be looked at (which is why he sat behind the couch on which the patient was lying). Shame is a visual phenomenon, one of exposure; guilt is a matter of judgement (‘you are found guilty’) or inner emotion (‘I feel guilty, for no reason’ – but there is always a reason), not so much one of looking. So maybe Freud was primed to feel guilty by his Jewishness, whereas if he had been a non-Jew, like Jung, he would have been less guilty and more prone to shame. There is certainly very little evidence that Jung felt guilt, though there’s a hint of shame in his eventual acknowledgment of his mistreatment of Sabina Spielrein.

Perhaps the invisibility of the Jewish God makes a difference here. According to Freud, what marks out the intellectual superiority of Jewish monotheism over most other religions is its insistence on a God who cannot be seen, who has no image or representable likeness. For Maimonides, this is an absolutely paramount issue: God cannot even be described, and can only really be known through negation – the various things that he is not. Christianity, by contrast, has incarnation and representation aplenty, all those icons and pictures looking down on one if one ventures into a cathedral. If God is invisible and abstract, unrepresentable and unmeetable in any concrete form, then of course he can be anywhere; like a field of force or a radio signal, he passes right through us, picking up messages as he goes. So any slight twinge of misbelief, any falling away from what we think we should be, any failure to accomplish what we have promised ourselves we would do; any impulse not to be good – these are all potentially known, however hidden they might be to us. Which is to say, we might as well give up before we begin: we have failed, we have done wrong, we have sinned, we have trespassed. And if we haven’t actually done any of those things in reality, well we are bound to have done them in some hidden corner of our mind. So guilt? Tell me about it. My Over-I is over me and will not let me be.

Stephen Frosh is Pro-Vice-Master and Professor in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. His most recent book is “Hauntings: Psychoanalysis and Ghostly Transmissions” (Palgrave, 2012).

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