Open Letter to My Students 27: More on Sin — Not Original But Primal

I am intrigued by the number of people who have commented on my use of the word “sin.” My friend and colleague, Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman is particularly eloquent, when she recalls:

“I, and I’m sure so many of our colleagues, have worked so hard over the years to explain to our people (and especially our kids) that for Jews, ‘sin’ is not an inherent state of being, but rather a ‘missing of the mark,’ what we do, not what we are. But as we all know, there have been individuals in human history who can only be characterized …by the most primitive impulses within them – raw, horrifying evil. I am viscerally uncomfortable even using that vocabulary, because it smacks of fundamentalist preachers, and hellfire and brimstone.”

Rabbi Goodman speaks for many; I too was taught that for Jews, sin is “missing the mark” — a claim that relies on such biblical passages as Judges 20:16, where we read about a Benjaminite army with 700 people who “could sling a stone at a hair and not miss the mark” (chata, the Hebrew for “miss the mark,” is related to chet, the word for “sin,” as well). 

To conclude, however, that Judaism (!) identifies sin merely as “missing the mark” is just plain wrong. To start with, the Bible has other terms for “sin” that don’t mean that at all. And as Marc Brettler points out (“Sin Sanction and Confession in the Bible,” in my book, We Have Sinned, Jewish Lights, p. 32) any given biblical word for “sin” may indeed have its own metaphorical resonance, “but once the words are formed, they take on their own meanings not necessarily related to their metaphoric origins.” It is a mistake – the etymological fallacy, as it is known – to think we know what a word means just because we know what some version of it meant originally. Finally, Jews today are by no means biblical anyway.

Why then, were so many of us taught that in Judaism, sin is “missing the mark.” 

In part, the answer is the generation of professors who set the Jewish academic agenda for the latter half of the 20th century. They had reached maturity in the 1930s and ‘40s when church-sponsored anti-Semitism was very real, and when the love of Jesus was regularly contrasted with the “Pharisaic legalism” of  the Jews. As late as the 1950s, my high-school introduction to Shakespeare was TheMerchant of Venice, and his punitive pound of flesh. Rabbinic-school teachers were quick to counter these insidious lessons of our culture by pointing out ways in which Christianity was harsher than Judaism. 

The sensitivities of these professors had been heightened by their experience in academia. Departments of Jewish Studies are ubiquitous today, but until the 1960s and ’70s, they were few and far between. University courses in Judaica were usually limited to the Hebrew and history of the “Old Testament.” These were embedded in departments of Near Eastern Studies, whose faculty saw Judaism through a Protestant lens religiously and an Arabist lens politically. 

In addition, until the post-war years, the great universities had acknowledged Jewish quotas. In 1939, when literary critic Lionel Trilling received tenure at Columbia, the department head announced, “We have room for only one Jew, and we have chosen Mr. Trilling.” The great Marshal Sklare, who founded American Jewish sociology, received his doctorate in 1953, but then worked for the American Jewish Committee because universities did not consider the sociological study of Jews a legitimate academic field. Our professors grew up in that era. It left its mark. 

It is wrong to imagine either Judaism or Christianity as preaching any single and unnuanced doctrine of sin, but still, overall, sin is far more central to Christianity than to Judaism, especially here in America, where strict Reformed theology was so formative. Think of Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) preaching sermons like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and hammering home the message of human beings born into “depravity,” our very “carnal nature” being “the foundation for the torments of hell.” Our teachers seized on that sort of Christianity as a far cry from whatever Jews have to say about sin. 

But more was involved as well: the American embrace of psychology in post-war America – not the Freudian kind that would have had no trouble recognizing evil as deeply embedded within the human psyche, but a more domesticated variety, like Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman’s Peace of Mind (1946) – a runaway New York Times best-seller that was read by everyone — and Abraham Maslow’s Humanist Psychology of the 1950s. Both Liebman and Maslow were Jewish, as were many others teaching liberal views of human nature at the time. It was a very simple step to combine the orthodox Freudian view of human nature (against which they were in revolt) with the Christian doctrine of depraved humanity; and to oppose both. 

On a TV program introducing the High Holy Days in the 1970s, a prominent psychiatrist of the time, with whom I was in dialogue, urged me to give up the word “sin” on the grounds that it smacked of religious fundamentalism. Our teachers were doing just that: effectively eliminating sin from our theological vocabulary by demoting it to a human error in judgement, an attempt to do better, but missing the mark. Here was a view that was compatible with humanistic psychology, while also a demonstration (contrary to Christian claims of the time) that the “Old Testament” Jewish understanding of sin was more enlightened than the “New Testament” Christian one

I told the psychiatrist then, and believe even more strongly today, that regardless of the psychological explanations for human evil, we still need a word to underscore the specially repugnant nature of at least the most hideous of those acts, and I think the time-honored word “sin” does just that.

I do think we need to differentiate Jewish and Christian views on the subject. Jews never accepted the classical Christian view of sin as “original,” a term derived from Augustine of Hippo, 354-430, but rooted in the teachings of Paul himself (Romans 5:12-21), who saw it going back to Adam and Eve. 

But even if sin is not “original” it can still be “primal”; not a permanent part of our DNA, that is, but a primal mode of behavior to which some people, some of the time, actually do sink. Putin’s brutal and wholesale murdering of civilians is no mere missing the mark; it is a sin.


2 responses to “Open Letter to My Students 27: More on Sin — Not Original But Primal

  1. I am finally learning a definition of sin which means something to me. I never liked “missing the mark”. I alway thought of our holiness code, Kedoshim, how we should behave and what we should not do, like putting a stumbling block before the blindness, as sinful. I also think of not helping your neighbor or giving to charity as sinful. My definition of Putin, along with Trump, Hitler and other evil individuals like them goes with sociopath, pychopath but that is not strong enough. They are so much more evil than people who do not care for others. I will switch sin and sinful to these deranged devils — maybe sinful devils.

    I am currently re-reading Rabbi Joshua Loath Liebman’s “Peace of Mind”. I started going through my bookshelf revisiting books – before I donate them to my Thrift Shop.

    Hugs from Joe and me – Eve >


  2. Very much appreciate your love of nuanced language and meaning, Rabbi. Interestingly, I’ve never before heard “sin” defined as “missing the mark,” and sin really only in context of high holidays. I remain confuzzeled by the difference between sin and evil. I have no trouble categorizing Putin as evil, so of course, I suppose, he is also sinning in ways far beyond the human propensity to err (which seems more like missing the mark).

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