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The Difference Between Jewish and Catholic Guilt

Which is scarier: an all-powerful deity or your mom?
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(Photo: fiedeldey/Flickr, j-o/Flickr, and Pacific Standard)

(Photo: fiedeldey/Flickr, j-o/Flickr, and Pacific Standard)

Despite the vast forests that have been felled to produce the bound volumes examining it, guilt isn't really that hard of a concept. Unless you're a sociopath—one in 25 North Americans can see themselves out—it's something we've all experienced. That gnawing itch in the back of your throat when you lie, that churning in your gut when you ram another car and don't leave a note.

There's no clear explanation for where this feeling comes from. There's the inside-out possibility, where we're creating these feelings on our own—the voice within, the conscience. That's the thing that distinguishes us from the rest of the animals. There's also the outside-in possibility, where our community (narrowly, our town, but more broadly, evolution and the “human community”) has produced guilt because it stabilizes a society. If people feel shamed for stealing, they'll do it less, and productivity will reign.

“Being right about to bite into my steak burrito, then realize it's a Friday during Lent. I eat the burrito, still, because I'm not crazy. But I don't enjoy it.”

But for a portion of us, there's another guilt entirely. The sense that every move you make is wrong, that you're letting everyone down, that you're going to burn in hell eternally. I'm speaking, of course, about Catholic and Jewish Guilt (definitely with capital Gs). But where do they come from? And what's the difference? To find out, I asked a whole bunch of Catholics and Jews I'm acquainted with and two men of the cloth.

Seeing as I have bonafides on the Catholic side—nine years of Catholic grade school, former altar boy, years as a eucharistic minister—let's start there, with the revelation that maybe it shouldn't even be defined as “guilt” at all.

“I understand 'guilt' to be the feeling of having done something wrong, versus 'shame,' which is the feeling that you are, as a person, intrinsically wrong or flawed somehow,” Ryan LaPlant says. “From the outset, [Catholics are] born with Original Sin, so you're wrong and flawed from the get-go.”

Can't get too far into a Catholic-oriented discussion without talking Original Sin. This is the idea that we're all born deep in the red, sinfully speaking, and no matter how many good deeds we perform on Earth, we're never getting back in the black. (Thanks a lot, Adam and Eve!) If you want to use the mindset of Alcoholics Anonymous—and there are massive methodological crossovers between Christianity and the “Friends of Bill W.” for good reason—it's that, even if you've gone decades without a drink, you're definitionally an alcoholic. Catholic-wise: Your nature is to sin, and the devil's waiting with his claws poised to exploit this, so you have to guard against it. With a foundation like this—of God looking down at us, wincing—it's tough not to feel automatically guilty.

“It's this vague feeling that somehow you're disappointing someone somewhere,” Marisa DeMeglio says.

That brings us to another possible origin of Catholic Guilt, the idea that there's a Higher Power watching our every move, listening to our every thought. (For non-believers, compare to: Santa, surveillance state.) Now, there's a fairness that comes with feeling shame over a bad action. If we steal someone's bike, we should pay the emotional penalty. But just thinking about stealing someone's bike?

The Ten Commandments, after all, are bookended by rules that can be broken simply by using our minds. There's something very Minority Report about that, leading Catholics to a life of thinking-on-eggshells, the penalty being a harsh self-admonishment every time one cracks. “It's frequent fear that what you did/said/thought could hurt someone,” says my sister, Meghan Paulas.

“It's that feeling that rolls around at 10:00 on a Sunday morning that you just try to sleep through or ignore,” Sarah Dowling says, “even if you haven't been to church in 20 years.”

Ah, yes. The breaking of ritual. If you haven't been to a Catholic mass yet, your first will be an hour of pure confusion as everyone (except your newbie self) stands, sits, kneels, or, out of nowhere, recites a prayer in perfect synchronicity with the rest of the congregation. That doesn't come from telepathy, but years of performing the same rituals, over and over and over again, every Sunday.

Ever work out for six days in a row and take a day off and feel weirdly terrible about it? Same thing happens to Catholics when they skip a service. That simple breaking-of-the-pattern leads to a sense that something isn't right, and as such, that you did something wrong. It can also have some real-world ramifications. “Being right about to bite into my steak burrito, then realize it's a Friday during Lent,” Stephen Litoborski says, citing the Catholic tradition of not eating meat on said Fridays. “I eat the burrito, still, because I'm not crazy. But I don't enjoy it.” Can you imagine all the sad burritos choked down every March because Catholics forgot to lay off carnitas?

“As far as I'm concerned, that's the stuff of slapstick comedy,” counters Father Kieren Healy, pastor at Saint Mary Magdalen Dominican in Berkeley, California; when I ask him about the origins of Catholic Guilt, Healy stone-cold disagrees with the premise. “Real guilt comes from misbehavior,” he says. Which isn't to say Healy's a stick in the mud when it comes to all portrayals of religious-based guilt. “George Carlin would do some good things with it, and so did Woody Allen,” Healy says. “And it was absolutely hilarious with the Blues Brothers, when you have Sister Superior at the head of the stairs giving them hell.”


Of course, while the era of wrist-smacking nuns is over, Catholic classrooms still spend a lot of time on memorization. There's a mathematical element to the religion. Recite this prayer (x) times, memorize (y) commandments, walk (z) stages of the Cross. Jewish school, on the other hand, focuses on instructions for how to live as a Good Jewish Person.

“The main things [taught in school] were, don't bring embarrassment to my people, don't marry outside the faith, support Israel, know your history,” explains Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah Congregation in Los Angeles. “If you did those four things, and were a good person, you kind of met the spiritual requirement.”

“The Jewish side is, 'You could do better,' and the Catholic side is, 'You're a lost cause.' I just always feel like I'm fucking up absolutely everything.”

These four basic instructions, then, are where we must go to find the basis for Jewish Guilt. According to Finley, that educational quad emerged from attempts to continue the Jewish people, a goal that was cultivated over a period of centuries when economically based anti-Semitic practices made it impossible for Jews to own land. “Jews wanted to have their wealth in something they could carry, or a skill,” Finley says. As a constantly moving population without land, culture was the link that bound. With culture came community. With community came expectations.

“[Jewish] guilt is insufficiency,” Finley says. “The guilt is they haven't lived up to the standards and expectations of their people.” Which leads to the stereotypical manifestation of the guilt: The Jewish Mother. “Why don't you see me more often? Why aren't you a better son?” Finley says, going through the litany. “Why aren't you as good as your bother Sheldon? Look at your cousin, look how great it is.”

“Why aren't you coming home for Passover?” Karen Pogoda says, echoing Finley. “Why haven't you sent that thank you card yet?”

“How many times you forgot to call your mother, or why haven't you given her grandkids, or why you choose to not find your soulmate,” Sarah Goldberg says. “Or if you do, why isn't he Jewish?”

That prospect of outer-marriage—that is, marrying someone who's not a member of the Jewish faith—is a big component of Jewish Guilt. “The pressure to intermarry is both overt and subtle,” Jared Goodman says. “In my experience there tends to be reasons for said pressure. The Holocaust and the destruction of World Jewry, thus guilting descendants into minting their Jewish faith and identity.” Once again: community building. As a Jew, participating in community is way more important than religious worship.

“A Jew doesn't go to synagogue because God wants him to,” Finley says. “They go to be with their people and go to the synagogue to hear a good sermon. If you said that [it was] because God wants them to, they would raise their eyebrows.”

And that is, perhaps, the crucial divide between the two. The Catholic version of guilt is coming from a more ethereal “on-high” place: a judgmental and all-seeing Higher Power. The penalty for not following the instructions of this being? Only eternal damnation. That's high-pressure stuff, but also shouldn't imply that Jewish Guilt is somehow weaker. That comes from a more tangible place, from your friends and family, from your community. The penalty for not following those instructions? Being ostracized.

The weight of both are tremendous. The unanswerable question—unanswerable, seeing as Jews can't pretend to be Catholics, and vice versa—is which is more threatening: an all-powerful deity or your mom? How about if you happen to be one of those lucky few who get to experience that sweet, sweet Guilt from both?

“The Jewish side is, 'You could do better,' and the Catholic side is, 'You're a lost cause,'” says Katherine Spiers, who is ethnically Jewish but was raised Catholic. “I just always feel like I'm fucking up absolutely everything.”

The Sociological Imagination is a regular Pacific Standard column exploring the bizarre side of the everyday encounters and behaviors that society rarely questions.