Ask the Rabbis: What is the Greatest Sin for Which the Jewish Community Should Atone?
American Jewry has the usual range of good deeds and sins—committed by groups, organizations and local communities—for which it must self-analyze and correct. There are also millions of individuals with their own sins for which Yom Kippur demands repentance. However, I do not believe that there is some great sin of which the community as a whole is guilty.
Some left-leaning or universalist Jews charge that the community is selfish: It is not doing enough for the rest of humanity. The community could do more. (Who or what could not?) Still, I believe that the community is legitimately focused on its own needs. At the same time, it is concerned for the rest of the world, probably at a higher level than most of the groups in America. This is expressed in philanthropy, in lobbying Washington and state governments and in volunteering. The best proof that the charges are exaggerated is that many of the people making the charge are themselves doing great things for the rest of the world.
Some right-leaning or particularist Jews charge that the community is not investing enough in education, is not looking out enough for its own self-interest and is hell-bent on assimilation. I too would like to see a greater investment, but I reject the claim that the leadership of Jewry wants acceptance and integration über alles. This was true decades ago. It is no longer the situation.
Charging the community with an overall great sin may be the closest approach to a great sin these days. It constitutes lashon hara, speaking maliciously—about the Jewish community.
Rabbi Irving Greenberg
New York, NY
The greatest sin for which the Jewish community must seek atonement is the sin of idolatry. Yes, idolatry! We are prone to two pernicious and damaging forms of contemporary idol worship. The first, and most obvious, is the obsession with money, luxury, prestige and achievement. The second form of idolatry, however, is more subtle and easier to overlook. It is our idolatrous self-worship—the belief that we are innately deserving of God’s grace, of the Land of Israel or of the world’s admiration; the belief that we are superior to other nations and have a stronger claim of entitlement than they do simply on account of our being Jews and not gentiles. This notion is theologically repugnant and unspeakably wrong. Being God’s chosen people means that we are chosen for a lofty mission in this world and that we are judged in His eyes based on our success or failure in accomplishing that mission. If anything, as God’s spiritual ambassadors to humanity, we should feel an even keener sense of responsibility to earn the blessings that we receive through our devotion to the wisdom, moral principles and ethical dictates of the Torah.
Rabbi Joshua Maroof
Magen David Sephardic Congregation
The biggest sin for which the world Jewish community must atone is its failure to spread its values and bring healing to the world. Long ago, G-d chose the Jews to teach the world what’s important: fidelity and family over adultery and cheap sex, an honest day’s work over theft, honoring one’s parents over the eternal pursuit of youth, and the sanctity of the Sabbath over the never-ending lust for cash. But for various reasons we turned insular, allowing instead for the daughter agencies of other faiths to spread the word for us. Long ago Paul of Tarsus determined that the truths inherent in Judaism were so profound as to be universally palatable. With tweaks and adjustments, he gave it all a new name and made Jewish ideas the most successful in the world. The Jews, thereafter, were seen as superfluous, having midwifed the ideas into a world that no longer needed their direct input.
Fast-forward 2,000 years, and America, the world’s most influential nation, is suffering a terrible crisis of values as materialism crashes our economy and families drift ever farther apart. In response, many of our Christian brothers fixate on abortion and gay marriage to the exclusion of all other values. The world once again requires the infusion of universal Jewish values to ennoble an increasingly vulgar culture. We dare not perpetuate the sin of Jewish insularity or exclusivity.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach