During the Yom Kippur service, we repeat many times the “Vidui” (confession) prayer. While reading the commentary in the Artscroll Machzor (AM below), I was struck by the gloss on the line
‘But we and our ancestors have sinned’ (אבל אנחנו ואבותינו חטאנו)
The gloss asks: why are the sins of ancestors mentioned, which we did not commit? And indeed, Leviticus 26:39-40 reads (KJV translation):
And also in the iniquities of their fathers shall they pine away. [But] if they shall confess the iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers…
Now does that mean that the people of Israel today are on the hook in perpetuity for, say, the sin of the Golden Calf? The implications of a “yes” answer for contemporary political reparations debates in the US speak for themselves: are present-day nonblack, non-aboriginal Americans on the hook for slavery abolished in 1865, or for the tragedy of the American Indians? (Actually, the “reparations” advocates go one step further and expand the “blood guilt” to people whose ancestors weren’t even in the US in those times!)
Closer to home: what does Lev. 26:39-40 imply for the responsibility of present-day Germans for the Shoah and other genocidal and democidal campaigns that happened before the defeat of National Socialism? That is, do people who were born or came of age after these crimes against humanity were committed bear some sort of blood guilt?
As pointed out in AM, the Talmud (TB Sanhedrin 27b) explains that we are punished for our ancestors’ sins only if we approve of their way of life, and especially if we adopt it.
The Moroccan Jewish Torah commentator Rabbi Chaim Ibn-Attar, in his commentary Or haChaim, notes ad loc. Lev. 26:40 that a proper understanding of our ancestors’ sins is often a prerequisite of repentance. Paraphrasing AM, sometimes we accept family or community traditions as a proper way of life because ‘it’s always been done this way and no-one was ever punished.’ Thus we are to ‘confess’ — i.e., acknowledge — such sins of the past.
If true teshuva is achieved (repentance, but literally: “return” [to G-d] or “backtracking” from the evil ways) then the guilt has been washed away. The Torah describes Amalek as what amounts to the first terrorist (Deut. 25:17-18): the Amalekites avoided combat with the Israelite warriors but lay in ambush and attacked the women, the children, and the elderly. Indeed, Amalek becomes a symbol, or a synecdoche if you like, for mortal enemies of the Jewish people that arise in every generation.
The villain in the book of Esther, Haman, is identified as a descendant of Amalek. But the sages also refer to Shimon and Levi has “having the seed of Amalek in them”, making it clear this is not a matter of biological descent.
And the Talmud (TB Gittin 57b) indeed gives a long list of descendants of evildoers who have now embraced the Torah, including “the descendants of Haman [and hence of Amalek] are now students of Torah in Bnei Brak” (see also TB Sanhedrin 96b). They have made full teshuvah, have fully rejected the poisonous doctrine and practices of Amalek, and hence are cleansed of his guilt.
Summing up: Judaism rejects the concept of intergenerational guilt in the narrow sense. In a broader sense, it does extend the guilt to descendants who continue walking in their ancestors’ ways, but once the descendants make a clean break with those behaviors and attitudes, they also make a clean break with the guilt.