The Necessity of Sin

Rabbi Amitai Adler
August 5, 2013
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Sin is often perceived as a troubling notion in Modern Judaism– especially in American Judaism. In no small part, this has to do with the pervasiveness of American sociopolitical philosophy: Americans are taught to perceive themselves individualistically, with potentially unlimited inherent personal rights that are only to be sacrificed for such minimal legislated limitations as make civil society possible. What is more, because of the influence of strong Protestant Christianity in American social thought, our society has come to embrace the notion that judgment is negative: that to judge others is somehow contemptuous or oppressive, and to be judged is to be disgraced or diminished.

Yet these attitudes are profoundly different from traditional Jewish thought. Judaism is constructed with a presumption of communitarianism, wherein people have mutual obligations with other Jews and with God, and to a lesser extent with non-Jews and with the universe in general; only after which do they have individual freedoms and rights. And we do not necessarily see judgment as negative, in and of itself, but as an integral part of a complex moral and ethical system. After all, how can one measure one’s fulfillment of the laws, or one’s moral progress, without judging oneself, without being judged by others. And how can we have obligations to one another or to God if no one judges our fulfillment of them.

Any society must have both boundaries and rules, if it is not to devolve quickly into amorphous chaos. And part of the essential nature of both boundaries and rules is that they must have consequences– even if those consequences are reduced to little more than knowing that one has done wrong, and having to admit, “I have transgressed,” and then doing what one can to rectify the situation, and commit oneself to being better. But when there are no consequences, individuals can and will do whatever they please; and when we adopt a philosophical distaste for judgment and a presumption of strong individualism– even if subtle to the point of subconsciousness– people will not only do whatever they please, but will be indignant and offended when it is suggested to them that their choices may be harmful to themselves or to their community or to their individual and communal relationship with God.

Our tradition encompasses a great many words for transgression, and a great many variations in classifying sins– a word which, despite its frightening, hellfire-ish connotations in Christianity, for us simply reflects the reality that our laws are not only a social contract amongst ourselves, but also reflect our covenant with God, and thus transgression of a law may not only be civilly or criminally offensive but may also be spiritually harmful as well.

Sin and judgment, in our worldview, are not there to make one feel bad, or to make one realize one is a bad person. All people sin, sooner or later, in some way. That’s because nobody is perfect. And so for us, sin is not a congenital condition, but an inherently temporary status: when one is a sinner, that status lasts from the moment of transgression to the moment of completing teshuvah (formal repentance). All transgressions, whether they are done from ignorance or mistake (shgagah), intentionally and knowingly (b’mezid), or intentionally and rebelliously for the delight of doing something forbidden (l’hach’is) can be atoned for, can be resolved through the process of teshuvah. There is nothing unforgivable to God, nothing that cannot be resolved, spiritually, morally, and socially, by doing teshuvah. And one does not need anyone else as an intermediary: every person has total power to accomplish their own teshuvah: it lies in their hands, and theirs alone.

On the whole– especially for a people with so many laws and so rich a vocabulary for sin– we are not actually a people obsessed with our own sinfulness. In part, this is because we understand human imperfection, and the need for laws and boundaries, and we have an exceptionally empowering process of teshuvah. And in part, it’s because we choose, rather than spreading a focus on our own sins and the judgment thereof throughout the year, we compress nearly all that focus into a single Season of Repentance, nominally beginning on 1 Elul, reaching a critical juncture on 1 Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah), then ascending rapidly through remainder of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah (the Ten Days of Repentance beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur), the ultimate climax of which is Yom Kippur on 10 Elul.

Though the liturgies of this season are dense with the language of judgment and sin, and much regret and literal breast-beating over our own transgressions, the point of the whole exercise is not that we are awful and God is going to get us: that is not what either sin or judgment mean to us. The point is summed up in the famous conclusion to the u’Netaneh Tokef prayer: teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a ha-gezerah. “Teshuvah, prayer, and giving tzedakah remove the evilness of the decree (i.e., what is to be our lot in life over the coming year). In other words, we alone have the power to improve ourselves by doing teshuvah and committing ourselves to self-improvement both internally– by prayer and other mitzvot that constitute spiritual discipline and awareness-building– and externally– by giving tzedakah and doing other mitzvot that foster social justice and compassion. We have no control over what happens to us in terms of the larger functioning of the universe, in terms of our own entropy, in terms of the events of random chance. What we do have control over is our own moral and ethical lives and our own spirituality, which together are the foundations for our own contentment and happiness, as well as our own effectiveness in aiding others and being productive and responsible members of our communities.

And if we take responsibility for our actions, acknowledging that some things are wrong, or at least impermissible and harmful, and that we need to correct ourselves and improve our behavior; if we rededicate ourselves to spiritual focus, social justice, and developing compassion for others; then no matter what the coming year brings to us, it will not be an evil experience, because we will be doing the best we can, for ourselves, for our fellow Jews and other fellow human beings, and for God.

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Rabbi Amitai Adler is a Conservative rabbi. He is a teacher and writer, and serves as the Rabbi of Temple B'nai Israel in Aurora, Illinois. Rabbi Adler lives in Deerfield, Illinois, with his wife, Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler and their son and daughter.

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