Ask the Rabbis // Sin
Do Jews have a different sense of sin from other people?
Absolutely. We love sin. Without it we could not transform, improve or ennoble ourselves. “No days were as festive in Israel as the Day of Atonement,” the first-century Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel taught (Mishnah, Ta’anit 4:8). The opportunity to make mistakes gives us the opportunity to repair them, in the process of which we learn, grow and become more of who we are. Why do you think we were “set up” in the Garden of Eden? Let’s face it—it was pure entrapment, clearly designed to get us in trouble, to open up the possibility of sin. The love of the father for the child who is constantly struggling to come home to him is far greater than for the child who is already at home: “Says the Holy Blessed One, ‘If you are too ashamed to come back to Me, then I will take the first step and come back to you’” (Midrash Tana D’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah 31:5). Or, as one first-century rabbi put it: “In the place where stand those who turn from error, even the most perfect saints cannot stand” (Talmud Bav’li, Berachot 34b).
One major difference between Judaism and Christianity is that Judaism does not perceive the journey back to God as so arduous and steep that it requires the aid of a redemptive savior. The journey to Canaan may have taken us 40 years, but the journey back to God is as close “as is your ear to your mouth” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Berachot 13a).
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA
The simple answer Judaism teaches is that sins are linked to behavior—to a violation of God’s commandments—and not to a state of being. In contrast with other views, we are not born sinners, but by virtue of the human condition and our free will, we are bound to act sinfully from time to time. The corollary may be more important: that we have the capacity to fix our sins through repentance and atonement.
But not all Jews think alike about these matters. The “textbook” answer doesn’t work for the secular, cultural or humanistic Jews who comprise half the Jewish population. For us, there is no commanding deity who has issued a set of commandments for us to uphold or neglect. Rather, mitzvot are the commandments we place upon ourselves. Sins and transgressions—which we regard as God-connected notions—are not a standard part of our vocabulary. We talk instead about wrongdoings, the errors of our ways, the missteps and bad choices we make. We don’t turn to a God for forgiveness or atonement. We need to look inside for that. And most important, we need to consider how we can change our ways for the good, knowing full well that we will fall short over and over.
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY
A mechanism for atonement and forgiveness of sin is central to all religions. Universally, individuals feel renewed after being forgiven. The difference between particular religions is the emphasis placed on who offers the forgiveness. In Judaism, reconciliation for transgressions against another person is obtained directly from the aggrieved person, while some religions emphasize forgiveness from G-d.
The word “sin” has an ominous connotation. Like our Catholic friends who speak of venial and mortal sins, Judaism describes different kinds of sin: unintentional wrongdoings, iniquities arising from twisted attitudes and the worst kind of sin—intentional transgression against the environment or people. Rather than being forgiven by G-d once and forever, we constantly have to apologize and adjust our behaviors to obtain atonement (at-one-ment). In the movie Love Story, actor Ryan O’Neal says, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” It sounds funny, but in Judaism love means always having to say you’re sorry. The process we call teshuvah is an elegant spiritual technology for reconciliation within ourselves, with our community and with G-d.
Rabbi David Zaslow
Havurah Shir Hadash
Every culture’s definition of goodness differs, as does its sense of sin. For us sexuality is (within ethical bounds) profoundly holy, alcohol (within reason) is fine, and (friendly) competition is good; our Catholic, Muslim and Buddhist cousins respectively diverge. We’re actually not all that sin-obsessed. Ecclesiastes samples each of life’s pleasures and only bids moral uprightness at the end. The culturally Jewish, atheist musician Billy Joel, who’d “rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints (the sinners are much more fun),” overstates it, but not by much. In this way, rabbinic Judaism lies quite far from America’s dominant Calvinism.
Of course, a more stern Jewish approach, best known from the High Holy Days, does put sin front and center. We highlight our errors, beating our chests 68 times with each Ashamnu and Al Het, in our beautiful ongoing quest to become better, more moral, people. But here, too, Judaism has a soft spot: “Het” (sin) derives famously from the archery term “to miss the mark,” implying not damnation for falling short, just that we must try harder next time. And perhaps Yom Kippur’s chest-beating is less self-flagellation than invitation—a knock on our heart’s door, a gentle entreaty for self-improvement.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Remember that Looney Tunes episode when Daffy Duck is faced with yet another greedy decision? Up pops a mini-evil Daffy Duck on one shoulder and a mini-angelic Daffy Duck on the other, each one trying to encourage him in its direction. So too with Judaism. We each have within us the ability to choose between living a life guided by the yetzer tov, the inclination to do good, and the yetzer ra, the inclination to do “evil.” And yet that yetzer ra is not purely evil. It is the source of our creativity and passion. Thus, we want to embrace some of that yetzer ra, but not too much. It is our task to maintain a constant balancing act between the two.
At the High Holy Days we are asked to reflect on that balancing act. Each Yom Kippur, we wipe the slate clean, refreshed and renewed to begin the work again. Unlike the Christian concept of original sin, we believe that we are born absent of sin. In exercising free will and making decisions, we set the direction for our lives.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Like many important ideas, the Jewish understanding of sin has changed over time. In the Book of Genesis we read that “The devisings of man’s mind are evil from youth” (Genesis 8:21). The rabbis, in effect, reinterpreted this notion by positing that human beings are born into this world neither carrying the burden of sin committed by our ancestors nor tainted by it. Rather, sin, het, is the result of being human. People are born with a potential, a yetzer. Our challenge in life is to channel our yetzer so that we make good choices and do good.
The Hebrew word for sin, het, literally means something that goes astray. It is a term used in archery to indicate that the arrow has missed the mark. This concept of sin suggests a straying from the correct way, from what is good and straight. To be human, according to Jewish tradition, is to stray from the right path. The High Holy Days are an opportunity for each of us to adjust our behavior, take responsibility for repentance and return to a good path.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
“Sin, het, is the result of being human. People are born with a potential, a yetzer. Our challenge in life is to channel our yetzer so that we make good choices and do good.”
How would I know? I have never sinned as a non-Jew. However, I have sinned as a Jew. This is what my tradition taught me about sinning: Sin is a fact of life. No one is perfect. “There is no righteous person on earth who only does good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). Therefore, you have to be on guard and work hard to avoid doing wrong. When you do sin, you should admit what you have done—to God and to yourself.
The truly righteous person, then, is not someone who never sins. (Such people are truly rare. More likely, the one who claims to be totally free of sin is only fooling himself or others.) The truly righteous acknowledge when they have sinned, then take steps to correct their actions. Self-criticism and a free, open system where people can tell the truth and criticize wrongdoing are essential in creating a good person and a good society.
Yom Kippur and the ten days of repentance that precede it help us focus on our errors and wrong behaviors. We are encouraged to confess them to God, to ourselves, to the ones whom we have wronged. In interpersonal sins, we have to correct the wrong and make the victim whole. Then we are forgiven.
Yom Kippur brings us good news. We are judged on our wrong actions, but by a loving, forgiving judge, i.e., God. We should practice the same attitude with ourselves and with others who have sinned. Chastened and more aware of our limitations, we should go back into life, renewed by love and forgiveness, and do more good than ever. That is why the Talmud says that a person who repents can reach a higher level than a person who has never sinned.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
Jews certainly have a different sense of sin from some other people. First, some faiths teach that everything man does is in a sense G-d-oriented, that man’s role is to praise and to glorify G-d, and so people subconsciously infer that sin is a crime against G-d—lèse-majesté on a divine scale. Jews are less likely to do that, because the Jewish notion of the absolute oneness of G-d doesn’t leave room for it. G-d doesn’t need our service, nor is he ultimately injured by our misdeeds. This makes Jews conscious of the fact that all sins—things we’re not supposed to do—and mitzvot—things we are supposed to do—ultimately affect man and man alone.
Second, because we are a legal tradition, which most other faiths are not, the scope of sin is enlarged. There are faiths in which sin means really, really bad stuff that does great harm to other people or represents great moral failure. That’s not true in Judaism. Every moment of life in Judaism is an opportunity to make decisions that are either productive or not. If every moment in life is an opportunity to draw closer to or become more distant from G-d, there are a lot of things that can be sinful. This can produce Jewish neurosis and Woody Allen movies, or just a heck of a long list of Al Hets (“for the sin that we have committed…”) on Yom Kippur. Kidding aside, the classic Jewish notion of sin is not about a stern G-d micromanaging your life and calling out, “Gotcha!” at frequent intervals, but rather an exhilarating opportunity to turn every neutral activity into a mitzvah of eternal worth by keeping focused on G-d’s mission for us.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Loyola Law School
Los Angeles, CA
All human beings have not just one sense, but rather multiple senses of sin in multiple flavors. As our sense of taste allows us entry to the culinary world and our sense of hearing to the world of music, so our sense of sin provides us a relationship with a G-dly world—the world as its Creator understands it. We step beyond what could be and enter into what should be—what the Source of Being desires from existence. If the universe is a work of art, our sense of sin provides us a sense of its meaning; if it is a drama, it allows us to participate in the storyline.
What if we fail? Then we must write our own script to resolve the dissonance we have created. Done right, the music becomes yet more beautiful. “Return out of love,” says Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, “and your sins become merits.” Everything must be with love.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman