Americans and the Problem of Sin: Yom Kippur Reflections

by Rabbi Eric Yoffie
Originally posted on
The Huffington Post

eric-yoffie-head.jpgWe Americans have trouble with the idea of sin. It makes us uncomfortable. It runs contrary to our innate optimism.

In addition, the culture of American society discourages thoughtful contemplation of the meaning of sin. Popular literature and the psycho-babble of our talk shows explain everything in terms of impersonal social and economic forces that release us from individual responsibility.

Religious people are not better than anyone else at confronting the reality of sin. This is as true for conservative religious people as it is for liberal ones. Many conservative places of worship have thrived by emphasizing therapeutic religion, feel-good worship, and a God who wants us all to be happy and nice to each other. In this religious worldview, sin is a very minor player.

Liberal places of worship have the same problem, of course. In addition, our deep commitment to promote justice in the world sometimes blinds us to evil intentions; we are so focused on seeking the good that we avert our eyes from sin.

Jews are like everyone else. While we do not believe in original sin, the reality of sin is a major theme in our tradition. The most common Hebrew word for sin is cheyt, and it appears in the Hebrew Bible almost 500 times. Nonetheless, for most of the year, the topic of sin is rarely touched upon. But Yom Kippur is different.

On Yom Kippur, our Torah readings and liturgy focus on sin with a bluntness of language and an intensity of purpose that shake us out of our lethargy and redirect our thinking in radical ways.

On Yom Kippur morning, Jews throughout the world will read from the book of Isaiah, including the following passage: “God says: Cry aloud, do not hold back, let your voice resound like a Shofar: declare to My people their transgression, and to the house of Jacob their sin” (58:1).

There is no ambiguity here. Our sins are manifest, our wickedness undeniable. The passage proceeds to condemn false piety and to demand justice for the poor and oppressed, but stresses that only individual action — sacrificing time and possessions on behalf of others — can cure our sinful ways.

The message of the Yom Kippur liturgy is starker still. Throughout the day we strike our chest with our fist and ask God to forgive us for a multiplicity of sins, which we name one by one. And the sins that we list are the stuff of everyday life. The rabbis knew that it made no sense to talk about sin unless one concentrated on the specific vices to which we are all so prone — deception, slander, corrupt business practices, disrespect for parents and teachers.

What are the lessons here for religious liberals — and indeed for all Americans?

Sin is part of the human condition. We cannot banish it from the world or from our vocabularies. We are not entitled to quote soaring prophetic prose about promoting justice without acknowledging what those same prophets have to say about the reality of sin.

Furthermore, our struggles for economic and political justice are crucial but not sufficient. We must also demand individual righteousness. Sinful people and sinful actions can undermine just societies, or can prevent them from coming into being.

For too long, the left has focused on building systems of government that are just and fair while ignoring individual sin; the right has focused on individual sin and personal redemption while saying little about just societies. Religion at its best always deals with both.

None of this is simple. We will not easily agree on what constitutes sin. But if we cede the realm of sin and personal values to the extremists on the right, we will never capture the hearts of religious America.

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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

About Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. He speaks and writes frequently about Israel, religious life, social justice, and other topics of interest to the Jewish community. Read his full bio and writings on the URJ website.

5 Responses to “Americans and the Problem of Sin: Yom Kippur Reflections”

  1. avatar

    I have always liked the translation of sin as “missing the mark”. It speaks to the idea of sin as “the stuff of everyday life”. Not only does the tradition speak blunty about sin, but it also keeps a very down to earth tone about it. The confessional in Gates of Repentance lists such things as narrow-mindedness, gossip, arrogance, hypocrisy – all such common ways that we as human beings miss the mark.

  2. avatar

    This is an excellent reminder. We see everywhere our efforts (often well-intentioned, but also often self-serving) to downplay the idea sin in our language and our lives. That doesn’t make sin go away, of course–it only deprives us of the vocabulary with which to recognize and respond to it.
    I was introduced to Rabbi Yoffie through his recent piece endorsing the Park51 community center in Manhattan. I can see now that I’m mining a rich vein.

  3. avatar

    Personally, I feel most sinful when I walk into Best Buy and immediately feel “This laden-to-the-rafters warehouse of non-essentials is the plunder of the U.S.’s pillaging of the third world.” Also when I hear (every day, again and again) about “the struggle against global terrorism,” when I figure terrorism probably isn’t going to stop until there’s more equity and justice in the world, and as of now, we Americans are the ones lounging in the sun on top and bitching about the guys making trouble under us. I can’t figure out what I can do about this feeling of sinfulness (in terms of t’shuva and Yom Kippur) besides participating in a peaceful demonstration now and then, canvassing for progressive candidates, donating to Mazon, HRW, PIH and the like, and just expressing my views to friends and colleagues when the opportunity presents itself and isn’t offensive. That FEELS like I’m doing next to nothing, and I wish I had more ideas of what I could DO. Anybody have any thoughts or suggestions about this? I’m serious–I’d like to know…

  4. Larry Kaufman

    I think JW is being too hard upon herself and upon American society in equating our relative affluence with sin and in implying that she herself is guilty of sinfulness because her own efforts to make things better are not enough.
    Meanwhile KJ oversimplifies and over-indicts in suggesting that missing the mark and sin are synonymous. (Sin-onymous?) To try one’s best and yet not succeed is hardly sinful, although not to try at all may be.
    Rabbi Yoffie seems to be saying that we Reform Jews are on the right track in pursuing the just society, but that a lack of individual righteousness may derail us. Our Yom Kippur roster puts the focus on what we have done wrong; but does stopping doing wrong translate directly into doing right? I hope Rabbi Yoffie will continue to spell out for us both what we as individuals must do as well as what we must not do.

  5. avatar

    Hineni says “I think JW is being too hard upon herself and upon American society in equating our relative affluence with sin.” But our “relative affluence” doesn’t just drop from the sky. We can buy our computers, TVs, ipods, clothes, and other chazzerei for less and less money–and why? Because the countries in which they’re manufactured are so incredibly poor that we can and do pay people there more or less slave wages to make our goodies for us. And rarely if ever do those wages add up to bootstraps by which those workers can “lift themselves out of poverty.” Then there’s the fact that our prices are also kept low by the scandalously low wages we pay our service workers here at home (remember all those immigrants?).
    Western European countries maintain democracy, and even capitalism, yet manage to provide their citizens much more social welfare and security than we do. That’s why it feels to me that our economic system is–yes–sinful. And don’t we Jews believe that quietly acquiescing to a sinful system is also a sin, even though its victims may be mostly out of our line of vision?

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