Guilt and Shame

  • Rav Chaim Navon
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit

Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rav Chaim Navon


Guilt and shame are fundamental components of our emotional and spiritual world. They make their first appearance in Parashat Bereishit in the wake of Adam's sin involving the Tree of Knowledge:

And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and they felt no shame... And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves loincloths. And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the breeze of the day; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. And the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, Where are You? And he said, I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself. And He said, Who told you that you were naked; have you eaten of the tree, of which I commanded you that you should not eat? )Bereishit 2:25-3:11)

This passage describes two emotions that man experiences for the very first time. First, there is shame. Following their sin, Adam and his wife are ashamed of their nakedness; according to the plain sense of the text, each of them felt shame in the presence of the other, even before God appeared to them. In addition to the shame, there is a second emotion: a sense of guilt that has arisen in them as a consequence of the sin. When the man hides from God and God calls to him, he tries to pretend that he was hiding out of shame, rather than guilt. God, however, sees right through him: shame is also an emotion that was born out of the man's sin - "Who told you that you were naked?" It is important to note that shame has become such an essential element in Adam's world that he can no longer remember a time that he was free of shame, and he fails to understand that his feeling of shame has exposed him.

The source of the man's feeling of guilt is clear: he feels bad on account of his sin. He feels guilty, he feels that he has conducted himself improperly. But what is the source of the shame? Why has the man become ashamed of his nakedness as a result of his sin? The two emotions may be directly related: in the man's eyes his nakedness is connected to his sin. But it may also be that the connection is more indirect: nakedness may not be connected to the specific sin of which the man was guilty, but to the evil inclination, which he has suddenly become aware of. As long as the man had ruled over his desires, he felt no shame in his nakedness. When he lost control, his nakedness began to symbolize his shame, his inability to control himself.

Ramban proposes a similar idea:

The proper interpretation appears to me to be that man's original nature was such that he did whatever was proper for him to do naturally, just as the heavens and all their hosts do, "faithful workers whose work is truth, and who do not change from their prescribed course," and in whose deeds there is no love or hatred. Now it was the fruit of this tree that gave rise to will and desire, that those who ate it should choose a thing or its opposite, for good or for evil. This is why it was called the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, for 'knowledge' in our language is used to express will...

Now at that time sexual intercourse between Adam and his wife was not a matter of desire; instead, at the time of begetting offspring they came together and propagated. Therefore, all the limbs were, in their eyes, as the face and hands, and they were not ashamed of them. But after he ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, he possessed the power of choice; he could now willingly do evil or good to himself or to others. This, on the one hand, is a godlike attribute; but as far as man is concerned, it is bad because through it, he has a will and desire. (Ramban, Commentary to Bereishit 2:9)

Ramban argues that it was only after he sinned that the man was given free will; along with the capacity to sin came also the feeling of shame. In the previous lecture, we dealt with the various understandings of the sin involving the Tree of Knowledge. No matter how we understand the Tree of Knowledge, we can still adopt Ramban's approach to the origins of the feelings of guilt and shame. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has a different understanding of the sin and its consequences, but he too emphasizes the emergence of shame:

For as long as man and women were both one body, having the same spirit, serving the One God, as long as with body and soul they come up to the ideal of Man being in the likeness of God, for so long was their body pure and holy like their soul, spiritual and sensual, body and soul, both given by God for the fulfillment of their human mission... The pure human soul, the moral life of the senses, are no whit less holy than the soul, the spiritual life... But as soon as man hands over the reins to his sensuousness, does not exercise moral energy to raise his sensual life up into the realm of godliness, but on the contrary, by his sensuality his godliness itself gets dragged down into the unfree state of the senses, then at once he has to be ashamed of his nakedness. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Commentary to Bereishit 2:25)[1]

Before concluding this section, we shall cite another passage from Rabbi Hirsch, in which he distinguishes between the role of guilt and conscience and the role of the Torah:

The Voice of God breathed into him - his conscience, whose messenger we have recognized shame to be - only warns Man in general to be good and avoid evil, but what is good and what is evil he has to hear from the Mouth of God. (ibid., Bereishit 3:1)


In the modern period, there arose various different attitudes towards guilt. One of the prevailing attitudes today is highly critical of the feeling of guilt. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that the feeling of guilt is merely the turning inward of man's aggressive feelings:

Those frightening fortifications with which the organization of the state protected itself against the old instincts for freedom - punishment belongs above all to these fortifications - made all those instincts of the wild, free, roaming man turn backwards, against man himself. Enmity, cruelty, joy in pursuit, in attack, in change, in destruction - all those turned themselves against the possessors of such instincts. That is the origin of "bad conscience." The man who lacked external enemies and opposition and was forced into an oppressive narrowness and regularity of custom, impatiently tore himself apart, persecuted himself, gnawed away at himself, grew upset, and did himself damage. (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, essay 3, sec. 16)

Nietzsche argued that once human society put restrictions on aggressive behavior, people began to turn their aggressive inclinations inward rather than outward. This is human conscience, through which man gnaws away at himself.

Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, developed a similar direction of thought, arguing that the feeling of guilt is not inborn in man's personality, but rather a result of social pressure that is nurtured by the individual in order to allow for the perpetuation of an orderly society. The growing child internalizes the prohibitions taught by his environment, creating within himself his super-ego, that is, his conscience, which torments him because of his evil impulses:[3]

It is in keeping with the course of human development that external coercion gradually becomes internalized; for a special mental agency, man's super-ego, takes it over and includes it among its commandments. Every child presents this process of transformation to us; only by that means does it become a moral and social being. Such a strengthening of the super-ego is a most precious cultural asset in the psychological field. Those in whom it has taken place are turned from being opponents of civilization into being its vehicles. The greater their number is in a cultural unit the more secure is its culture and the more it can dispense with external measures of coercion. Now the degree of this internalization differs greatly between the various instinctual prohibitions... There are countless civilized people who would shrink from murder or incest but who do not deny themselves the satisfaction of their avarice, their aggressive urges or their sexual lusts, and who do not hesitate to injure other people by lies, fraud and calumny, so long as they can remain unpunished for it. (Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, chap. 2)

Thus we know of two origins of the sense of guilt: one arising from fear of an authority, and the other, later on, arising from fear of the super-ego. The first insists upon a renunciation of instinctual satisfactions; the second, as well as doing this, presses for punishment, since the continuance of the forbidden wishes cannot be concealed from the super-ego. (Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, VII)

Freud argued that the super-ego is a critical necessity for the survival of society. Without an internalization of social norms, society would be nothing but a collection of egotistical murderers, who would stop at nothing to achieve their desired ends. On the other hand, Freud also maintained that when the super-ego becomes too strong or demanding, it results in neurosis, that is, extreme emotional tension that expresses itself in distorted behavior.

In our research into, and therapy of, a neurosis, we are led to make two reproaches against the super-ego of the individual. In the severity of its commands and prohibitions it troubles itself too little about the happiness of the ego, in that it takes insufficient account of the resistances against obeying them - of the instinctual strength of the id [in the first place], and of the difficulties presented by the real external environment [in the second]. Consequently we are very often obliged, for therapeutic purposes, to oppose the super-ego, and we endeavor to lower its demands. (Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, VIII)

In other words, Freud recognized the necessity of the super-ego and conscience for the establishment of human society, but argued that man's conscience can be too rigid, so that it must often be tempered with the help of psychological treatment. Admonitions regarding the destructiveness that is sometimes latent in the feeling of guilt are also found in Jewish thought. This is what we find in an early Chassidic work attributed to the Ba'al Shem Tov:

The evil inclination sometimes misleads a person, convincing him that he has committed a grave transgression, even though the sin was merely a stringency, or not a sin at all. [The evil inclination] wishes that a person be filled with sadness, so that in his sadness he will neglect the service of the Creator, blessed be He. A person must understand this deception, and say to the evil inclination, "I no not heed the stringency of which you speak, for your intention is that I should neglect His service; you speak lies. Even if it really is a little sinful, it will be more pleasing to my Creator if I do not heed the stringency of which you speak so as to cause me sadness in His service. On the contrary, I shall serve Him with joy, for my intention in [His] service is not for myself, but to do what is pleasing before God, blessed be He. Therefore, even if I do not heed the stringency of which you speak, the Creator will not be angry with me, for the whole reason that I do not heed it is so that I should not neglect His service. For how can I neglect His service for even a moment?" This is a great principle in the service of the Creator, blessed be He, that a person should watch out for sadness to the best of his ability. (Ethical Will of Rivash)

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook wrote in a similar vein:

The pangs of conscience of great spiritual people who wish to rid themselves of all spiritual dross and filth can sometimes grow excessively in strength, for nothing can stand in the way of man's spirit. This can sometimes lead to a loathing of the world, life, and everything done under the sun. (Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Ein Ayah, Berakhot 2, p. 326)

As a rule, however, Judaism attaches great value to the feeling of guilt, the conscience. Guilt feelings can at times impair the emotional health of an individual, but generally speaking, in normal situations, guilt feelings are beneficial and necessary. We believe that the feeling of guilt is not an internalization of the prohibitions imposed upon the individual by society, but rather a fundamental feeling that God gave man, allowing him to feel his sin and make amends. Guilt is not a destructive force, but rather a beneficial one.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik emphasizes this point:

As far back as Aristotle it was established that it is pain and suffering which inform man that he is ill. If sin is an illness, then it too must be felt, i.e., be expressed in suffering. Every organic illness or abnormality reaches the awareness of a human being through his nervous system. The language of sickness, its a-b-c, is suffering. Every pathological phenomenon is generally connected with pain and suffering. The organism informs the human being by means of suffering that he is ill. Suffering, according to Aristotle, is a great blessing conferred by the Creator on His creatures; it serves as a warning of what to expect. Indeed, we all know how many tragedies are liable to occur because pains are discerned when it is too late.

Sin is also a disease - and it, too, reaches human consciousness through the language of suffering, through deep and piercing pain, through spiritual agony which can be sharper and more unbearable than any bodily suffering. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, On Repentance, p. 194)

An Abigail watches over every sinner... The sinner doesn't always give Abigail a chance to tell him the bitter truth about himself. It often happens that during the night of revelry, while the drunken party is still in full swing, Nabal is incapable of understanding what she is saying... However, if Abigail knows how to recognize the right moment "when the wine has gone out of Nabal" then she may say her painful words concerning "these things," and she knows how to say them, for then, as it is written, "his heart died within him." Suddenly the sinner feels Abigail clasping his hand, and, following upon his heels, she cries out from his own heart, grips his being, giving him no peace. For her message is a terrible one. (Ibid., p. 62)

Judaism, being a moral religion that demands a certain lifestyle, as well as obedience to God's commandments, does not perceive the conscience as a destructive force that ruins the emotional health of an individual. On the contrary, it is man's conscience that makes it possible for a person to achieve spiritual health and emotional wholeness.

Martin Buber added that not only is the conscience not an internalization of society's moral norms, but just the opposite.[4] Conscience is the ideal image of man which an individual sets before his eyes and towards which he aspires. towards. Not only is the conscience vital for the survival of the moral individual, but it leads him to his essence, his very self. This stands in absolute contradistinction to the approach of Freud.

Let us conclude with the impressive words of Prof. Shalom Rosenberg on the issue, on the importance of the conscience and guilt feelings in our spiritual world:

During the period of the recitation of the Selichot prayers and the High Holidays, we are witnesses to an astonishing phenomenon. Jews sing to melodious tunes "We have sinned against You," "We are guilty, we have acted treacherously," The abyss between the content [of the words] and the atmosphere [in which they are sung] cries out. In my opinion, this phenomenon is not coincidental; it gives expression to a paradoxical fact of which we must be aware.

We are sometimes defined by a term borrowed from the gentiles. We are defined as "Orthodox" - a word whose literal meaning is "those of correct belief (doxa)." The term is not particularly meaningful, and many detest using it. In Hebrew we can define ourselves with the classic designation: "observers of Torah and mitzvot." This is undoubtedly a noble and excellent definition, though perhaps the prohibitions define us better than do the mitzvot. It seems to me that to be "Orthodox" means, paradoxically, "to be a sinner." Cynically and tragically, it may be argued that only an Orthodox Jew can be a sinner. The non-believer can make mistakes, he can be responsible for failures, he can cause disasters; but he cannot sin. On the other hand, a Jew who arbitrarily sets his own path - his transgressions are not transgressions, his sins are not sins. Someone who can declare an unclean creature clean without supplying a hundred and fifty arguments - he too cannot be a sinner.

This is what we say to God: "Woe to us, for we have sinned"; but fortunate are we that we are guilty. Fortunate are we that we are capable of feeling guilty. "We and our fathers have sinned," and with our feeling of guilt we follow in the footsteps of our fathers.

Guilt is the key to repentance. It seems that now I can hear the most desperate cry of repentance. Repentance speaks to us from its deepest level, perhaps from its last line. There are things, it tells us, that even though they may not be done, we shall not cease doing them. There are obligations that we shall never fulfill, there are failures for which we shall be responsible. Guilt demands that we not add a new "treachery" to our "guilt," that we not justify our actions, that we not contrive for ourselves allowances. Let us not turn weakness into an ideology. It may be that we cannot change our actions, but let us not justify or excuse them. Whatever may be, let us not explain our actions, let us not put to sleep the remnant of self-criticism that has remained with us. Let us recognize the conscience, let us show respect to guilt, let us say, "We are guilty." Let us beat our hearts, and at least grieve the fact that we have not reached the level that we should have reached, that we are not as pure as had been expected of us. Let us preserve the guilt and the grief over the guilt. For this sorrow, we shall receive reward.

Now we can understand the meaning of the "tashlikh" ceremony, the act of casting away sin. We pray to God: "And You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea" (Micha 7:19). The sins will disappear, not if we concentrate them in a sewer of evil, but only if we dilute them in a sea of good deeds. If we fill that sea, God will dilute our sins in His infinite and absolute sea of lovingkindness. (Shalom Rosenberg, "Matzpun ve-Oshma be-Hagut ha-Yehudit," in Teshuva u-Pesikhologiya, pp. 46-47).


[1] See Radak's picturesque description in his commentary to Bereishit 3:7.

[2] This section is heavily based on Prof. Shalom Rosenberg's article in "Teshuva u-Pesikhologiya" (Tevunot).

[3] On this point, Freud's description is very different from that found in the book of Bereishit, where guilt and shame appear spontaneously without any social pressure whatsoever.

[4] See Martin Buber, Penei Adam, pp. 296-297.

(Translated by David Strauss)