Americans and the Problem of Sin: Yom Kippur Reflections

We 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.

On this Yom Kippur, Jews will flock to their congregations in huge numbers. Even those who avoid the synagogue all year will come to recite the ancient prayers in which they confess their sins before God, ask for forgiveness, and begin the work of doing repentance. Many try to explain this but the reason is simple: the message of Yom Kippur resonates with us. We know our urge to sin is powerful, we find comfort in proclaiming our errors, and we find hope in asking for forgiveness and trying to change our ways. When religion denies or ignores sin, it is irrelevant. When it acknowledges and confronts sin, it speaks to our hearts.