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Woody's Non-Jewish Legacy

April 22, 2010 | by Emuna Braverman

Guilt and complaining are not Jewish ideas.

Philip Roth and Woody Allen (among others) have bequeathed two legacies to the Jewish world: the idea of complaining (particularly as it applies to Jewish wives and mothers) and the idea of guilt (particularly as it applies to Mr. Allen’s personal neuroses!).

I would like to set the record straight. Neither complaining nor guilt are Jewish ideas. In fact, they are both completely antithetical to the teachings of our heritage.

Besides their unique failings, they have a common element. They are both substitutes for action. They may even make the subject feel as if they have dealt with the issue -- through their kvetching or obsessing -- thereby absolving them of the need to do something.

If you don’t like a situation, work to change it or accept it.

This is diametrically opposed to the Jewish way of thinking. If you don’t like a situation, you have two basic options -- either work to change it or accept it.

If your child has a teacher you are not happy with, you can work with the administration to improve her teaching skills or find a replacement. Or you can accept it and teach your child some life lessons about dealing with different types of personalities and authority figures. Complaining is not a legitimate option. It accomplishes nothing and drags you and everyone around you down.

Likewise if you said something hurtful to a friend, you can replay the conversation over and over again in your mind, imagining different dialogues and different results. You can allow yourself to get discouraged, even depressed. But who will that help? Your friend will still be in pain; your social skills will still need improvement. Much better to apologize and work on ways of preventing such behavior in the future.

We have all bought into the stereotypes. We rationalize that we are behaving very jewishly when we torment ourselves with guilt and give loud and vocal vent to our dissatisfaction.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The real Jewish way is to recognize that the situation we are in is exactly the one we’re meant to be in; it’s tailor-made for us and is our ideal opportunity for self-improvement and character change.

Instead of kvetching, we should working on growth. We should see where we can make valuable contributions to ameliorate negative situations and where we need to learn some important internal lessons about just sitting still, about trust and acceptance.

And with respect to guilt, the authentic Jewish path is teshuva, repentance. We don’t wallow in the guilt (well we do but we shouldn’t!). We examine ourselves to see what character flaw led to the undesirable action. We make a plan and search out tools that will help us eradicate that trait or redirect it in a more positive direction. And we work hard at righting the wrongs with the injured party, whether it be financial or emotional compensation.

It’s time to lay these canards to rest. Complaining and guilt are not Jewish ideas. Action and change are.

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