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Striving for 'Guilt-Free' Judaism

Monday, August 26, 2013
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BY: Rabbi Jeremy Gerber

We talk a lot about "good Jewish guilt," as if it's just a part of Jewish culture that we can't change. But guilt creates distance and keeps us separated from ourselves and the present moment. So amidst the fasting, repenting and self-introspection of the High Holidays, let us remove the guilt that keeps us apart from all the things and people we love. Let us strive toward a new form of Jewish living, toward "guilt-free Judaism."

I'm looking to change the conversation. I hear a lot of people say, "Rabbi, I should come to services more often," or, "Rabbi, I'm not a very good Jew." What is saying this doing for anybody? I don't feel better knowing you're racked with guilt, and it can't possibly be making you feel better about Judaism. So during this year's High Holidays, let's explore what our lives could look like if we removed this guilt.

To get the conversation started, let’s focus on one really big and really important question: What does it mean to be Jewish?

If we’re going to unpack the barriers and roadblocks that we either put up for ourselves, or that others put up to halt our progress, we need to first understand what it’s all about. And not just, "What does it mean to be Jewish in general?" but "What does it mean to be Jewish for me, in my life?"

Over the summer, I asked my congregation and all my Facebook friends a question: Can you summarize the basis of your Jewish identity in six words? For instance, I offered: ‘Questioning is in our blood. Why?’ and ‘We’ve got a holiday for that!’ I got some great responses, from "I wouldn’t be alive without it," to "Just like mom used to make." And of course, there's the classic, "We suffered, we survived, let’s eat!"

All valid, thought-provoking and conversation-starting answers. But these examples are other people's responses to this question. The point of this exercise is for each of us, individually, to think about how we choose to answer. So what’s yours?

Rabbi Jeremy Gerber presides over Congregation Ohev Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Wallingford.

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