Roundtable: Thinking about Sin

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September 1, 2008
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Sh’ma asked a number of rabbis to consider how they teach about sin, and what role it plays in the spiritual lives of their students and congregants. We explored whether sin is a useful category, or if it simply engenders guilt; the relationship of belief — that is, knowing God as HaMetzaveh — to sinning; sinning and repentance; and the impact of Christian thought on Jewish attitudes toward sin.

Susan Berrin: Aveirah and cheyt are two Hebrew words for sin. What happens when we translate them into English?

Marc Margolius: Like others, I’ve often considered the word cheyt in terms of archery — missing the mark — while for me aveirah connotes crossing a boundary or transgressing a line. Both metaphors are useful in thinking about categories of impropriety.

Richard Hirsh: I used to find that a comforting derivation — cheyt and archery. But I no longer find the metaphor “life as a darts game” credible. It’s a modern, Jewish, liberal dodge to think that if we just try a little bit harder next year we’ll get closer to the circle. And it underestimates the propensity for corruption in human life and the tendency toward wrongdoing. Our lives are measured not only by what we do, but also who we are.

Ruth Langer: The essence of the question about sin is tied up in the larger question of understanding ourselves as metzuvim (commanded), of our relationship with God — and our understanding of commandment. Not relating to God as the source of commandment and direction on how to live, challenges how we understand the categories of sin, of what we’re transgressing.

Nehemia Polen: Sin, though certainly important, is a second stroke. The first stroke is cultivating, maintaining, and augmenting one’s relationship with God. The biblical assumption is that the connection is basically healthy and intact, but like any good relationship it needs attention to flower even more. A sin puts that connection in danger; it can even rupture it. I would broaden the terminology to include avon and pesha, which are central biblical concepts about sacrifice, about making the correctives in our relationship with God. The Hasidic masters read mitzvah against the grain — not as commandment but as tzavtah, a mode of connection with the divine.

Jan Uhrbach: I want to defend the philological analysis — we have so many different words for sin. This reflects a subtlety in understanding the varied ways in which the relationship with God can go awry, the wide spectrum of ways that we can understand mitzvah, the broadest sense of a divine call that is addressed to the Jewish people as a whole, and to each of us as individuals. Cheyt, being off the mark, then, isn’t simply a way of avoiding a liberal discomfort with traditional notions of sin, but of expanding it in a very powerful way.

Langer: But being off the mark acknowledges the attempt to be on the mark.

Hirsh: Is the trajectory between teshuvah and sin linear or cyclical? Are you trying to get to a place you’ve never been, or are you trying to restore a state that you know you once had? The discussion in Yoma, in the Talmud, explores how teshuvah changes the idea of sin: is it seen, then, as inadvertent or as if it never happened? From a contemporary psychotherapeutic perspective, one can never pretend something didn’t happen, though it can be reframed; deliberate sin becomes inadvertent sin. But from God’s point of view, in the theological realm, you’re off the hook. God has moved on as if the sin never happened. From a Reconstructionist perspective, though, this is not what God said but what Jews have said about God. In that sense it’s both important, and yet not binding in its particulars. It becomes a conversation about what other people thought was sinful — ritual and moral transgressions — and then we must ask, to whom are we accountable? Where accountability rests is a very large problem for non-fundamentalist versions of any religion, certainly Judaism.

I’ve started thinking about the importance of leaving room for what Marcia Falk refers to in her Book of Blessings as white space. We read the al cheyt so fast — one line and then the next, and then the next. If we left a minute of silence at the end of each verse, people might have a chance to think about whether that transgression applies: did I do that this year?

Margolius: Yes — and ideally, the kahal, the community, could be a place that felt safe enough to tolerate a deeper level of honesty, in which Jews might actually share their failures of the previous year. Candid acknowledgment of sin is the starting point for teshuvah, the process by which we can actually grow ethically and spiritually. If we can honestly acknowledge our capacity for making mistakes, rupturing relationships, creating cracks in the world — rather than averting our eyes, as we usually do both individually and collectively — we discover amazing opportunities to heal those cracks and strengthen our connection with God.

Langer: The liturgy of the Yamim Noraim is framed in the plural. It’s the community standing before God, especially by the time one gets to Yom Kippur. Individual work happens outside of that communal framework. In popular understanding in the Christian world, God forgives me no matter what I do, which undercuts the relationship between sin and repentance.

Uhrbach: The question of what is sinful is related to whether or not we believe in eternal truths, values, and ideals that exist, whether or not we can know them. Even if we can’t know exactly what God considers sinful because our categories are only human attempts at discernment, through the process of erring and repenting we arrive at a deeper understanding of what sin is. So, do we confess in subsequent years for sins that we did teshuvah for in previous years? When I go back to past behaviors, for which I’ve gone through the process of teshuvah, I understand differently the depth of pain I caused, the nature of my error or sin. We can do this both on the personal level and the deeper theological level — coming ever closer to an understanding of the true nature of sin and its impact on our relationship with God.

Langer: One of the problems in our world is that people don’t know how to be constructively self-critical. The traditional categories of sin help us make this move. One of the things that distinguishes and makes Judaism beautiful is that we have an ideal to strive toward, but we’re also not punished for falling short of it. What we are expected to do is keep reaching toward it, and to do that requires the ability to look at oneself and enter an honest process of self-evaluation. To label one’s shortcomings as “sin” is thus a necessary and positive part of a process of growing.

Margolius: I agree that sin and guilt are essential categories. For those who may be overly perfectionistic, though, these words activate an unhealthy degree of shame; they imagine that if they’ve not reached an imaginary ideal, they’re worthless as human beings. Judaism teaches us to strive for perfection, while understanding that it’s unattainable and that we’re forgiven for falling short.

Uhrbach: The category of “sin” is essential, provided that when we teach about sin or confront the liturgy in the High Holy Days, we do it both with balance and in context, and very much with love. We have to make explicit in our teaching what these categories mean and don’t mean, rather than getting rid of them.

Margolius: The imagery of God shifting from the kiseh shel din (the Throne of Judgment) on Rosh Hashanah to the kiseh shel rachamim (the Throne of Compassion) on Yom Kippur is often lost. People often miss the nuances of the process during these holidays in which we move with God from the strict judgment of din to the compassion and acceptance of rachamim — a process that ultimately leads to rebirth, our climbing (figuratively) out of our own casket at the end of Yom Kippur, at Nei’lah.

Uhrbach: The structure of the Torah reading, having two people standing on each side of the reader to correct errors, is a way of saying there is no expectation of perfection; there’s an expectation of error and correction that will be done with love — l’shem shamayim.

Hirsh: Sin is an inevitable and authentic category and it’s disingenuous to evade or avoid it. We have a therapeutic model of sin and atonement and resolution, and a religious model; where do they overlap and where are they different? Many Jews go to therapists; they don’t go to rabbis. We’re missing an opportunity because Judaism has something to say about Israel, and politics, and also about one’s personal quest to transcend what sabotages life. Richard Rubenstein teaches that one of the differences between priests and prophets is that the prophets are unforgiving, uncompromising, what we do is never good enough for them. And the priests are forgiving, knowing we’ll be back next year. If my neighbor’s house goes up for sale, who do I want to move in: Amos or Aaron? I’d much rather Aaron, because he’ll understand that I’m going to screw up sometimes. On Yom Kippur morning, everyone wants to talk about the haftorah because it’s uplifting and the Torah reading is about animal sacrifice — primitive. But the real story going on is in the Torah.

Langer: Sin and repentance are not only for the High Holidays; they’re a daily, if subtle, motif in Jewish life.

Margolius: The majority of American Jews consider being a good person a crucial aspect of being a good Jew, which creates an opening to teach ways in which Judaism offers a daily practice of reflection, of moral stocktaking, of cheshbon hanefesh. It provides a set of spiritual tools by which to continually improve oneself as a human being and deepen one’s connection with God. We may highlight these tools at this time of year, but they’re meant to be part of a daily practice, both individually and in community.

Langer: If individuals have work to do they can do that on their own time. But when a community comes together for this conversation, it’s much more complex.

Hirsh: Is there an analogy between Yom Kippur and the Last Rites in the Catholic tradition? If you’re a practicing Catholic communicant engaged in an ongoing cycle of taking communion, and accepting the absolution of sin and salvation, why are last rites important?

Langer: Technically, they aren’t anymore. There’s a gulf between popular theology, which continues the old way of thinking, and the official post-Vatican II teachings. Today, the sacrament of anointing the sick is for all serious illness and repeatable. The viaticum, the Eucharist given to the dying, is understood to help erase the temporal effects of sin, that which remains even when sins are forgiven through the Eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation. But it isn’t crucially important if it isn’t received. Trying to die with one’s mortal sins forgiven so that one can be reconciled with God in Heaven is what’s going on behind these efforts. The aggregate, and especially the sacrament, of reconciliation are more analogous to Yom Kippur.

Uhrbach: Many Jews, in addition to being uncomfortable with the idea of sin because it’s associated primarily with Christianity, are also unaware of our own deathbed confession.

Hirsh: Most of us don’t recite the Vidui, the deathbed confession, consciously, but what we say at the end of Nei’lah is the ikar, the essence, of what’s in the Vidui. Marc’s analogy of emerging from the coffin or emerging from death is so apt — we say the Vidui at the end of Yom Kippur because it is simultaneously like death and rebirth. On Yom Kippur there is a collective act that creates a magical undercurrent, a sense that on one day of the year you really get to start over.

Langer: Teshuvah is necessary but not sufficient. There is a need for ritual, to feel cleansed, to feel a genuine expression of humility because we need to rely on something beyond ourselves, beyond our own control to achieve the goal of renewal. There’s something very magical about our need for ritual. This is the great tension between the Torah reading and the haftorah on Yom Kippur. On the one hand the Torah speaks to the role of ritual — of kaparah, which if we do it exactly right (even though it’s completely incomprehensible to us, and it actually has no implication in terms of repairing whatever wrongs we’ve done), on the ritual level it works. But that’s not enough. The haftorah tells us that we also have to look at and repair our own behavior.

Uhrbach: Paradoxically we’re a culture of self-sufficiency and it’s counter-cultural to think we need God’s help. And at the same time we live within a culture that denies personal responsibility, that sees behavior as a function of environment and the chemical composition of the brain. The will is probably the most underrated aspect of humanity in our time. So our notion of sin challenges both of these assumptions. On the one hand, we are responsible, we have choices, and we have a will so we’re therefore accountable; and on the other hand, neither are we self-sufficient.

Margolius: At the heart of this discussion is a paradox: on the one hand, we have the capacity to control our destinies, to make correct moral decisions; on the other hand, we’re often floating down rivers not of our own making and subject to forces and behavioral patterns of which we’re often completely unaware. Still, we’re responsible to be as conscious of our condition as we can, and to stick our oars in the water and try to steer.

Hirsh: There’s a redundancy in the liturgy that is so perplexing for people who sit through a traditional service. By the time they get to Nei’lah, it’s like, again? Again? Again? But those 25 or 26 hours are a capsule version of life, and so every time we come up to the al cheyt, for example, we’re in a different place.

Uhrbach: I like to connect the five confessions on Yom Kippur with the five levels of the soul, which takes the congregation to ever deeper levels from Ma’ariv through Nei’lah. We say the same words but we intend them differently, from a deeper level of understanding or a different place in our being.

Polen: I recently read a Hasidic story of a rabbi who was chosen as the hazan and a number of the Hasidim were a bit surprised, maybe he didn’t have the best voice. So they asked why this particular hazan was chosen for Yom Kippur, and the rabbi said because he sings the “Vidui ” with a joyous melody.

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Richard Hirsh, a Sh'ma Advisory Board member, is the executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and teaches at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. From 1996-2006 he was the editor of The Reconstructionist journal.

Ruth Langer is associate professor in the Boston College Theology Department and associate director of its Center for Christian-Jewish Learning.

Marc Margolius is the director of the Hevraya Resource Bank and National Hevraya Retreats at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. He also directs the Legacy Heritage Innovation Project, an initiative of the Legacy Heritage Fund.

Nehemia Polen is professor of Jewish thought at Hebrew College and director of the Hasidic Text Institute. He is the author of The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto and translator of The Rebbe's Daughter by Malke Shapiro.

Jan R. Uhrbach is the rabbi of the East 55th Street Conservative Synagogue in New York, and the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons in Sag Harbor. She is also an adjunct lecturer of professional and pastoral skills at the Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical school and a member of the Wexner Heritage Foundation faculty.

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