Some years ago, at an informal lunch shared by a number of us who worked for the same Jewish agency, a staffer indicated she had no need to attend Yom Kippur services. Predictably provoked, we asked why. Yom Kippur was all about sin, she replied, and since she never sinned, she had nothing for which to atone.
Despite our best efforts to nail her with at least one sin from the long acrostic confession of the Yom Kipper liturgy (al het she’hatanu, “For the sin we have sinned by …”), she was adamant. “Look,” she finally said, “if I don’t believe in a God who sets the rules, judges whether I’ve broken them, and holds me accountable, how can there be any sin?”
Since Reconstructionist Judaism affirms a conception of God as a force, power or process — but not as a supernatural Being who can be addressed and can respond — is it a necessary corollary to convert the concept of sin to something either minimal or meaningless? Can a Reconstructionist sin?
The founder of Reconstructionism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, addressed this issue in 1937 (in The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion): “The term sin is a word that for most people has been emptied of meaning … If sin has no meaning, there is no need for repentance, and the whole observance of the Day of Atonement becomes much ado about nothing … The fact, however, that a word loses favor does not necessarily signify that it is without meaning.”
Kaplan tried to redefine the meaning of sin so that it retained its power: “Sin can no longer mean the provocation of God’s wrath through disobedience to His [sic] revealed law, nor can atonement mean the restoration to His grace by a pledge of future obedience, however sincere.” Identifying God with “that aspect of reality which confers meaning and value on life and elicits from us those ideals that determine the course of human progress,” Kaplan asserted that “the failure to live up to the best that is in us means that our souls are not attuned to the divine, that we have betrayed God.”
If we substitute “we have sinned” for “we have betrayed God,” we get a rather gentle reinterpretation — something like “sin lite,” which, for all of its intellectual compatibility with Reconstructionist theology, seems rather weak and not particularly challenging.
Kaplan is hardly alone in reducing the severity of sin. Open almost any “Introduction to Judaism” book, or consult almost any commentary to the High Holiday mahzor, and one inevitably finds the explanation that the Hebrew word het (sin) means something like “missing the mark” — as if life were no more than a game of darts. Our moral and relational failures receive a soothing bromide of reassurance: We need only try harder next time, with hope that we’ll hit the target more often. The operative concept is that we need to be reassured, rather than reassessed.
But without first engaging seriously in a deep moral inventory, how can we honestly move forward in life? Without the courage to descend into the depths of our failures, how can we presume to ascend in pursuit of our better self? As the Reconstructionist mahzor states, “reducing sin to the status of an almost inadvertent error hardly seems tenable in the light of our awareness of the horrors of which humans, individually as well as collectively, have proved capable.” The concept of sin, in fact, seems more, rather than less, important as we move into the 21st century — not for what it tells us about God, but for what it suggests to us about ourselves.
It is worth noting that many modern interpreters of humanistic psychology have retained the idea of sin, and especially of its correlative categories such as shame. Erik Erikson, for example, includes as one of his eight stages of human development the encounter of “autonomy versus shame and doubt” (Childhood and Society). Shame, he suggests, “supposes that one is completely exposed and conscious of being looked at: in a word, self-conscious.” Surely, the humbling experience of reciting the Yom Kippur confessional can yield a similar sense of exposure.
Erikson further notes that resolving the tension between autonomy and shame/doubt becomes decisive for “the ratio … [of] freedom of self-expression and its suppression.” So many of the sins enumerated in our liturgy are between us and other people; so many derive from an inability to balance our desire to have what we want, to do what we want when we want, to be what we want, without regard for our impact on others — without taking responsibility for suppressing our selfexpression for the sake of living responsibly, respectfully and righteously with others.
The idea that one should take responsibility for one’s actions has been supplanted by the assumption that one should find someone else to blame (and often to sue) when something we do turns out wrong. A contemporary prayer might well sound like, “For all these sins we have committed, You made us do it, they made us do it, anyone but us made us do it… . You’ll be hearing from our lawyer.”
The departure point of the religion of ancient Israel, and of later Judaism, was quite distinct from an evasion of responsibility. It was the concept of covenant — the idea that there could be a binding agreement between two parties to which they committed with hesed, dependable and reliable loyalty, fidelity, honesty and responsibility. Everything is not allowed, and what is especially sinful are those acts that violate the covenantal relationships that we need and that we build.
In our age of autonomy and individualism, perhaps the inverse of “sin” needs to be “covenant.” When we fail to be dependable, when we are unreliable, when we deceive, and when we fail to live up to obligations into which we have entered, we sin. When we lose sight of the difference between what we want and what we need; when we forget the priority between what we want and what others want of us; when we act in the moment with no regard for what came before . and what will come after, we sin.
Can we still give the concept of sin the gravity, seriousness and sense of consequence that our ancestors understood when they gathered on Yom Kippur to confess “for all these [sins], God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement”? Atonement is a far cry from encouragement. Speaking for many traditional believers, Dostoyevsky wrote, “Without God … everything is allowed” (The Brothers Karamazov). Is everything, in fact, “allowed” in a universe of moral relativism?
Reconstructionists cannot turn to an allegedly objective universal standard of moral comportment established and sanctioned by a supernatural God. We recognize the moral imperatives of Jewish tradition as humanly-constructed efforts to live a faithful, righteous and responsible life characterized by justice and compassion. Our ethical advances from generation to generation are gradual; our awareness of changing patterns of morality cautions us about asserting absolutes. Like all human projects, ours is tentative and fallible, not perfect and authoritative. But this makes it more, not less, important that we take on the responsibility for judgment, atonement, apology and repentance.
Sin is like a contaminant — it adheres unless it is eradicated; it increases if it is ignored. Sin is found in the dark corners of our lives: in our ability to corrupt what is decent; to destroy in one thoughtless moment of irresponsibility what can take a lifetime to build; to deceive others and ourselves; in our compromises, excuses, disingenuousness and secrets; and in our inability to hold ourselves — and, perhaps more difficult, to hold each other —accountable, instead of excusable.
Can a Reconstructionist sin? Like all human beings, we not only can but will — not only in the simple sense of “missing the mark,” but by forgetting what it is we are aiming for in the first place. The soaring melody of the Ashamnu, and the congregational chanting of the Al Het, are moving, and the solidarity we experience standing with our communities is reassuring. But beyond this emotional and aesthetic experience, we should not forget the meaning of the words. In order to find the courage and the humility to confess sin, we must first be able to confront sin.