The Sin of Sin

Richard Lederman
August 1, 2013
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Change, transformation, renewal, the overcoming of personal foibles and shortcomings—these are all good things, and they can all be viewed in strictly human terms.  But the idea of sin is an entirely separate category. A Jew cannot speak of sin without taking into account the place of Torah and covenant that constitute the Jew’s relationship with God. Unlike being overweight or chain smoking, sin is not a human foible; it’s an affront to God.

It’s precisely in this regard—this aspect of sin—that I’m afraid there’s a real glitch in the system. Who knows? Perhaps the glitch goes back to the pagan polytheism that emerged with the growth of urban civilizations at the end of the 4th millennium BCE. The gods, the anthropomorphized elemental forces of nature, are now ruled by a chief god, a divine monarch who creates cosmic order, as well as world order through his viceroy, the human monarch. Then came monotheism in the so-called Axial Age. Yet, is this transcending and transcendent deity significantly different from the pagan patriarchal divine monarchs that preceded?

Like the ancient kings with their vassals, this God makes a covenant, a pact with a people, the people Israel. Like those ancient kings and the divine monarchs who appoint them, this God is a jealous God, demanding absolute loyalty and proffering severe punishment upon those who displease or disobey. The people of Israel erred, they strayed, they worshipped other gods on every high hill and under every leafy tree. They must, therefore, incur severe punishment: defeat, destruction, exile. The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE could not have occurred because God abandoned God’s people; it could not be because God was defeated. No! It was our fault. We SINNED!!!

Despite all of our attempts to reframe sin in terms of human transformation and renewal, we are stuck with this model. Mipnei hatta’ein galinu me-artseinu. “Because of our sin we were exiled from our land,” we recite during Musaf on festivals. We recently spent three weeks of rebuke, reminding ourselves of what we did to deserve the unspeakable torture suffered by our people on Tisha Be’av when the Temple was destroyed. It was our fault. We SINNED!!!

We often speak of sin as thought or action that alienates us from the divine. We overcome sin through teshuvah, return, the reversal of that alienation. But I would suggest that the whole concept of sin is, in fact, alienating. It is part of an understanding of the divine/human relationship that is also somewhat flawed in that the covenant relationship is understood as a pact whereby God becomes a lawgiver, a metsavveh, a commander. Our tradition holds forth an understanding of our covenant with God as the diktat of some divine monarch, and that failure to conform to that diktat is construed as sin. Our human errors and shortcomings are seen as violations of some cosmic order, and God becomes a kind of cosmic cop. I would suggest that it is precisely this understanding of the divine/human relationship—the ruler and the ruled—that contributes to the alienation of the human from the divine. It is what I call the sin of sin.

I would like to replace this image of the divine monarch, the divine lawgiver, the divine commander with a different vision. I would affirm that our Torah and our mitsvot do not embody the diktat of a cosmic monarch. They are teachings, guidance, instruction for how we can place our lives within a cosmic framework. Where science is a teaching that allows us to observe the universe and to formulate general principles as to how it operates, religion is a teaching that allows us to be a meaningful and significant part of that universe, to participate in it, to bring its harmony, balance, beauty, mystery and sacredness into our lives and to enable our lives to resonate with that same harmony, balance, beauty, mystery and sacredness.

That’s what Jewish worshippers mean when, after declaring God’s holiness, we take three steps backward and recite, oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom, aleinu ve-al kol Yisrael ve-all kol yoshevei tevel,” May the One who brings peace and harmony to the cosmos, bring peace and harmony to the entire human community.” Failure to observe these teachings is not sin to be punished. The universe continues to operate; it remains in balance. Rather, it is a lost opportunity to bring just a bit more peace, a bit more harmony and balance, a bit more sacredness into our lives and into the world.

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Richard Lederman holds a BA in Religion from Miami University (Ohio) and a Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literature from the Annenberg Research Institute, now the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylania. After nearly 30 years as a Jewish communal professional, most recently as Director of Public Policy and Social Action for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Lederman now teaches courses in Bible, Religion and Comparative Mythology at Georgetown University and Montgomery College, Maryland, as well as online Bible courses for Gratz College in Philadelphia. He blogs at

1 Comment

  1. I love that reframing, and I agree the notion of sin is a sin. The idea do God as cop seems an over simplistic anthropomorphism, whereas that way you’ve reframed the idea, suggests to me a more amorphous notion of the Divine, that is more abstract and complex.

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