Sin and Post-modern Relativism

Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler
August 19, 2013
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Years ago, when I was a student rabbi traveling twice monthly to my internship/pulpit, I had the opportunity to meet Sin, face to face. She had brown eyes, gentle and kind, and her gaze seemed to plead for forgiveness even before she’d uttered a word.  It was my first time playing the role of Clergy (or, The One Who Can Grant Forgiveness) and so she made a profound impression on me when she told me her story.

Her husband had been living out what doctors informed her were his final days with dementia for more than five years.  Each day, she spent hours by his side, suffering the effects of his distance and trying to do well by him, honoring her promise of “for better and for worse, in sickness and in health”.  At the nursing care facility she’d met a man whose wife, too, suffered the same debilitating diagnosis and prognosis as her husband’s.  They’d found comfort in each other’s presence, friendship, companionship, and then, after a time, intimacy.

The words began tumbling from her mouth, then: adultery… pain…God… loyalty… sin.

Without pausing to reflect on the theological or philosophical implications thereof, I knew in my bones that what she described was not a sin.  And so, I thought, began my slide into relativism.

But is there anything anymore that we can universally, without exception, agree is wrong?  How do we make those distinctions?

Even more: isn’t there anything in between absolute, universal morality and complete moral relativism? In a complex world that’s growing more nuanced every day, how do we judge ourselves, how do we judge the actions of others, and how shall future generations judge us?

If “right” and “wrong” are potentially relative concepts, how do we retain the structures and boundaries that any society needs in order to hold itself together?

In the messy, human world we inhabit, ‘sin’ seems archaic and anachronistic.  For us American Jews, especially, this is a difficult concept with which to engage: we live in a vehemently post-modern society, and individualism is the altar at which we worship. “Sin” requires objective, externalized conceptions of “right” and “wrong:” it requires being willing to admit that we may sometimes do wrong– actions that not only let ourselves down, but let others down, and may let God down.

We usually don’t like the imagery of God as Judge. The belief that a Judge is Observing, Recording, and Ruling based on our actions doesn’t seem to jive with how the world works, how our lives work. If there are imposed consequences to our actions in this world, why do we so seldom see them?

Recently I asked three friends, my contemporaries, to tell me their thoughts on sin.  Each initially dismissed the idea of sin as irrelevant to their lives, especially if the imagined sin was committed in relation to God– or anything external to their own internal sense of right and wrong.  Sin seems only to be a meaningful concept as a method of identifying acts committed against one’s own subjective self-interest. But are there other ways to understand it?

I think it helps us to remember that the English word “sin” carries a lot of resonance, and most of that resonance doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to Christianity. A foundational belief in Christianity is that sin is an inherent state– that people are born in sin, they are sinners by nature, that sin is something from which it is beyond human power to escape.  Jewish tradition, in contrast, has always presumed that human beings are imperfect by nature, and that’s okay, because it’s how God created us.  Sin, in Jewish tradition, is not an inherent state; for Jews, sin is an action: the act of transgressing a behavioral norm. Sin lasts precisely for the duration between committing the transgression and doing teshuvah– our process of formal repentance. Yom Kippur, traditionally, is the end point of a long process of introspection and the doing of any teshuvah that may be needed. And once the process of teshuvah is complete, the sin is gone. So for our tradition, sin isn’t a fearful state leading to inevitable punishment unless salvation is granted by God: it’s simply the consequential state of transgressions requiring resolution– resolution it is entirely in our power to achieve, since we hold that God always accepts sincere teshuvah.

It’s also helpful to remember that despite the deeply individualistic worldview of American society and political philosophy, that’s not how Judaism has traditionally understood things. Jewish society has traditionally been communitarian in outlook: rather than starting with people having unlimited rights and privileges and no obligations outside themselves, Judaism starts with people having responsibilities to one another, to Jewish society as a whole, to God, and to the world around us. Those responsibilities and obligations are given primacy to individual rights and privileges.

Our tradition is holistic. It teaches us that everything is deeply interconnected, often in ways not readily apparent. When we accept that we have obligations and responsibilities outside ourselves, and that failing in those obligations and responsibilities carries consequences, it helps us. It helps us by reminding us that we are human, and not perfect. It helps us by reminding us that having responsibilities to others draws our attention outward: it helps prevent us from falling into selfishness and egotism, and it helps us humanize others, and build our compassion for our fellow people.

So, upon further reflection, perhaps my slide into relativism wasn’t absolute.  I did look into brown eyes, gentle and kind, on that day when an aching heart approached me, searching my face for forgiveness as I enacted my role as Clergy for the first time.  But it wasn’t the face of Sin.  It was the face of humanity. Her life – her complex, imperfect, and nuanced life (like all of our lives) – needed the High Holidays.  She needed an opportunity to sit with the reality of her own suffering, the suffering of her husband, and to look afresh at the newfound intimacy she’d found with another suffering soul with compassionate eyes.  She needed to sit in a congregation beside and among other imperfect, aching, loving human beings who also had made difficult choices and suffered great losses in the past year.  She needed to hear the harmonies of the High Holiday liturgy as voices from generations past, yearning for an opportunity to sing, to weep, to laugh, and to express gratitude as a community.

I pray that each of us will take the opportunity to review our own lives, actions, and relationships with a new perspective.  May we remember that those who sit beside us have encountered challenges and blessings in the past year beyond comprehension.  May the new year of 5774 provide each of us with an entryway into reflection, renewal, and return.

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Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler works at the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She also serves as the Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism. She received master’s degrees from the University of Judaism and from Harvard Graduate School of Education and was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in 2006, where she found deep meaning writing and researching her Rabbinic Thesis on the Book of Job: "Talk to Me: (Or, When More Bad Things Happen to Good People)." She is married to Rabbi Amitai Adler (also an S Blog contributor) and this year became Michael Zachary Joel Adler's mother.

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