What is Jewish Guilt?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

Jewish guilt is a myth regarding the general nature of Jewish life and culture. The myth appears in a number of different forms, among them the Jewish mother who is adept at creating guilt in her children. The idea is also sometimes presented as the neurotic businessperson who struggles with the application of religious principles to business ethics. In general, the idea of a guilty Jew can be related to any situation where the individual appears to engage in activities that are self indulgent.

Jewish guilt is a stereotype depicting the idea that Jewish people have unique capabilities of making others and themselves feel guilty.
Jewish guilt is a stereotype depicting the idea that Jewish people have unique capabilities of making others and themselves feel guilty.

While Jewish guilt has provided fodder for comedic routines and characters in television shows and movies for many years, the phenomenon is generally considered to be more of an urban legend than truth. There is nothing in the tenets of Judaism that ingrain guilt to a higher degree than found in most religions. This means Judaism is not any more subject to neuroticism than any other major world faith or ideology.

Morning prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Morning prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The idea is sometimes linked to the Jewish concept of repentance or Teshuva. Essentially, this type of remorse is considered the first step toward repentance from taking a wrong action. From this perspective, Teshuva is considered to be a form of positive guilt, as the individual recognizes the error of the action and is therefore ready to make atonement for the wrongful act.

The Star of David is a symbol often associated with Judaism.
The Star of David is a symbol often associated with Judaism.

Most of the popular stereotypes tend to present Jewish guilt as an excuse for actions rather than repentance for wrong actions, however. The myth is exemplified by a Jewish person who must shop in certain stores or has a predilection to shame others into doing what he or she wants by making them feel guilty. While there are certainly adherents of Judaism that engage in these and similar activities, there is no evidence that there is anything uniquely Jewish about the ability to create and cultivate guilt in self or in others.

When viewed as nothing more than a cultural stereotype that is useful for entertainment purposes only, the idea of Jewish guilt is relatively innocuous. Some people assume that there is a great deal of truth in these stereotypes, however, which can often lead to many misconceptions about Judaism and Jewish people in general that are simply not indicative of the religion or the culture.

Terms such as "Jewish guilt" may lead to misperceptions about Jews as well as Judaism as a whole.
Terms such as "Jewish guilt" may lead to misperceptions about Jews as well as Judaism as a whole.
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


Catholics have guilt too, but they lease it in bulk from the Jews.


There's also Catholic guilt. Is that an evolution of Jewish guilt. If so, the guilt should rightfully be more well known as Jewish guilt rather than Catholic guilt.


Jewish guilt a myth? Where have you been? Try researching the question "why be Jewish?" and I guarantee, all you will get is guilt.

Whenever anyone wonders why they should bother to keep Jewish law, someone will quickly respond with some variation of, "Your ancestors suffered to give you the gift of Judaism, and you want to just throw it away!" Even those few spokespersons who try to portray Judaism as something positive dip into the well of guilt from time to time.

After all, it works, and it is so much easier than building a positive case for Judaism.


Wow -- such opinions.

Okay, to the poster who said Christ was murdered: murder does not involve a court of law condemning them to death. Even Jesus said while on the cross "Forgive them Father for they know not what they do". Are you greater than God the Father?

To the poster who said it was a myth, even among pedigreed non-Christian historians: you Christian-mythologists are very few and only exist due to popular denialism books. You need to get your facts straight.

And to all you posters who think "Jewish guilt" is all about Jesus Christ, you're wrong. It may have to do with the rest of the world saying so, but even then perhaps not.

Jews are the most self-determined people ever, and so it's reasonable that they're defensive about how two-thirds of the United Nations voted for Israel to be given to them (the Holocaust is even mentioned as justification within their Declaration of Independence). Never mind that they defeated the ensuing war with the Arabs, and that indeed they took it by might as well as right.

They are a proud and self-determining people whose defensiveness is sometimes thought to be a manifestation of some self-imposed guilt, whether it be a genetic disposition or a reflection of what's said around them, it is unknown. But to call it a myth is about as valid as calling "social conscience" a myth.

Whether or not guilt is greater among Jews, or whether it is a tool used more readily among Jewish mothers, compared to general populace is irrelevant to the fact that the concept of such exists and is thus exists at least in the philosophical sense.

Neither has the original author here provided any proof that it does not exist.


While I don't believe Christ's crucifixion to be a myth, I also don't believe that the Jewish people murdered Him! It was more martyrdom, and it was only a select few corrupt religious bigots, anyway. It was God's plan, and Jesus went willingly as a sacrifice. I don't see why Jewish people should feel guilty over the crucifixion any more than White people should all feel guilty about what "our people" did to Native Americans and African Americans. Again, not *every* Caucasian is to blame! To blame an entire nation of people for an act done by certain individuals is ridiculous.


"Murder" of JC? I thought it was a martyrdom myth, nothing to do with "Jews" as there were no other so-called "Christians". Get your facts sorted!


Interesting. "Catholic" guilt just is, while Jewish guilt "is a myth". A lot of people seem to be affected by a "myth". Strangely enough, no mention of the guilt some Jews might feel over the role Jews played in the murder of Jesus Christ.

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