What’s a Jewish holiday without a little pressure or guilt? Maybe it’s not a holiday at all.

NB: Like the matzoh the Jews prepared in ancient Egypt, this post was written in great haste.

A few weeks ago, I invited my friend Lizzie to our seder Friday night. I knew that Lizzie had some ambivalence about the seder, so I stressed in my invitation that she should only come if she wanted to. Her response gave me a big laugh: “Only if I want to? How is it a holiday if there isn’t a little guilt and pressure thrown in?”

Which got me thinking about the Passover story and guilt. I originally was going to write something much longer on this, but I’m so exhausted at this point—having been shopping and cooking for a few days, with 26 more hours to go—that I don’t know that I can do much here beyond listing some random thoughts with no attempt at order or coherence.

My first thought was that the holiday is, of course, about emancipation and freedom, and it seems not quite Kosher for Passover to be celebrating it in a spirit of guilt and duty and obligation.

But who am I kidding? Every year, part of me thinks I wish I didn’t have to do this, I’m exhausted, I just want a break. And part of what keeps me going is a sense of duty and obligation and the guilt I know I would feel if I didn’t do the seder. And having attended my share of celebrations out of a similar sense of guilt and obligation, I know that some people must be coming to mine with comparable feelings.

Besides, I thought to myself, the freedom we talk about at Passover isn’t freedom from guilt or duty. Insofar as it is emancipation from the material conditions of slavery we celebrate, perhaps it is not even a species of psychic freedom at all. What has all this mannered obsessions with social conventions to do with slavery?

Well, if you read your Nietzsche, a lot. I don’t think Nietzsche ever quite comes out and says in the Genealogy of Morals that guilt is the invention of the slave class—if I weren’t so tired, I’d fish out the text and read it through again—but one could stitch the pieces together. Like so.

Early in the text, in Book I, before he gets to the concept of guilt, Nietzsche claims that our basic conceptions of good and evil are the ideas of the slave class. The slaves, who are without much power, who feel aggrieved and resentful about their lack of power, invent the idea of good and evil, of doing right by ourselves and by others, of acting justly, which then gradually migrates from their fetid souls, so filled with ressentiment, and the souls of the priests into the more beautiful minds of the master class. The masters internalize these ideas of good and evil, and are gradually tamed by them. Good and evil, in other words, are the weapons of vengeful slaves hoping to tame if not topple their masters.

Nietzsche has not yet broached the question of guilt in Book I, but one can see it slowly taking shape in this notion of the master class internalizing certain moral norms of behavior, which arise from the most aggrieved classes, and which force the masters to act with some forbearance, to limit if not give up their power altogether.

In Book II, Nietzsche changes tack, directly asking what are the origins of guilt. His answer is that guilt is rooted in or arises from or has some kind of correspondence to (whenever it comes to origins and causes in Nietzsche, you have to tread carefully) the relationship between debtors and creditors. He reminds us that Schuld, the German word for guilt, arises from Schulden, the German word for debts. Though creditors can come from all social ranks, Nietzsche seems to fixate on the creditor from the lower ranks (perhaps he’s thinking of the Jews here?) What the creditor achieves over the debtor is a kind of power: if the debtor doesn’t repay his debt, the creditor gets to do with him what he will. Perhaps even take a part of the debtor’s body in lieu of what he is owed (think Shylock in The Merchant of Venice). The creditor gets to  partake of the rights of the master (I think Nietzsche uses almost that exact phrase). He gets to vent his spleen, his power, upon a social superior.

Gradually these norms of debt, of what we owe each other, are codified as morals and laws, and ultimately get internalized by the self. A bit later in the essay, Nietzsche makes what for me has always been one of his more luminous points about how previously the master—and humanity as a whole—was without depth. He, and they, were shallow beings. But it is with the creation of guilt, the invention of internal psychic space, that humanity, particularly the master, acquires psychic depth. He moves from contesting with his fellow masters on the battlefield to suppressing his desires for power and violence. That great external flat battlefield of his social existence gets introjected into the psychological existence of his mind. His mind is transformed into a vertical battlefield between reason and virtue and prudential restraint, on the one hand, and desire and aggression and violent amplitude on the other. As painful and cruel as it is—and Nietzsche spares no words in describing the cruelty we do to ourselves in the name of guilt—it is through that process that we become beings of depth, artists of the soul. (Freud has a line somewhere about how in our dreams, we are all artists of the soul. Or something like that.)

Again, I’d have to re-read the text to justify what I’m about to say, but I recall there being a correspondence between these two stories: in which morality is the tool of the slave class, and the guilt the tool of creditor class, which is often drawn from a lower class of social beings, and how both morality and guilt are used to tame if not dispossess the master class of all of its powers.

So perhaps the guilt that funds and fuels our celebration at Passover is not so surprising after all. We, the Jews, are a slave people, at least according to the text (I make no historical claims about the truth of the Exodus story here; it’s just the cultural narrative of who we are). We, the Jews, did not have an existence as a people before we were slaves; we were at best a family, Abraham’s family. Through our enslavement, and then our emancipation, we become a people. Perhaps that sense of guilt—not, obviously, the simple sense of social obligation that gets kicked in whenever we’re invited to a friend’s celebration, but the deeper sense of duty, of what we owe to each other and God, what we owe to our ancestors and to our children—was the necessary price we paid to become free.

Or at least to overpower our masters.

Happy Passover.


  1. foppejan2 April 22, 2016 at 5:49 am | #

    Might I suggest that you read Kaufmann’s Without Guilt and Justice? Splendid little book, though sadly mostly forgotten.

  2. Thomas L. Dumm April 22, 2016 at 11:07 am | #

    A valuable book (in my opinion) concerning the ontological problem of debt in the contemporary era, a book that touches on much of what you seem to be struggling with, is Mauizio Lazzarato’s The Making of the Indebted Man (Semiotext(e)), 2012.

  3. Roquentin April 22, 2016 at 11:16 am | #

    David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 years has some of these ideas in them, particularly the close relationship between guilt, debt, and the legal system. He never explicitly states it, but that idea comes straight out of Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Anti-Oedipus. Sure, as an anthropologist by training he backs it up with mountains of historical evidence, but the idea that debt/repayment precedes money was absolutely a key part of that text.

    And in turn, D&G (Deleuze in particular) were heavily influenced by Nietzsche as were most of the big-name French radical thinkers in the late 60s (Derrida and Foucault as well).

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