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A guide to sin and forgiveness in Judaism for non-Jews

Since last week, I and other Jews across the world have begun celebrating the High Holy Days, a period of serious moral reflection for ourselves and our community. We assess our behavior in the last year in hopes of doing better this year by contemplating topics like forgiveness, redemption, freedom, joy, more through prayer and celebration. The most important period during this time is the High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The former, celebrated last week, marked the Jewish New Year and the 10 Days of Repentance when we seek forgiveness from others for our wrongdoings in the last year. Only those who forego sin are inscribed in the Book of Life, the metaphorical concept meant to encourage Jews to become better people in the new year. 

The repentance period culminates on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which concluded yesterday evening. Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish Calendar, where it is believed that heaven and earth are closest and we are on the level of angels temporarily. Like the angels, we don’t eat or drink on Yom Kippur because our sustenance comes from G-d. The day is spent on intense engagement with repentance, human frailty and humility before G-d. We participate in communal repentance for sins as the Book of Life is sealed.

My earliest memories of Yom Kippur included feelings of starvation and weariness from day-long worship services, not necessarily the holiday’s theological significance. Ironically, it wasn’t until I began Catholic school that I seriously reflected on my own religion’s conception of sin and forgiveness. I was never truly confronted with another approach to these issues until my friends had to explain why I shouldn’t go with them to confession. After 11 years in Catholic education, I wouldn’t claim to know everything about the University’s religious tradition. But I do recognize the rich theological discussions and spiritual development I’ve had from learning about Catholicism and Christianity. Seeking to understand other faiths has greatly benefited my own faith life, strengthening my spirituality while developing an appreciation for other religions. Along this sentiment, I’d like to share some reflections on my tradition’s approach to sin, forgiveness and repentance in the hope that it’ll enrich readers’ spiritual journey, like engaging with Christianity did for me. At the very least, maybe my explanation will help you review the Hebrew Bible for Foundations of Theology. 

Likely the most startling difference between Judaism and Christianity on this subject is that Jews don’t believe in original sin. Judaism does attest that Adam and Eve’s sin had cosmic ramifications and created a chasm between humanity and G-d, like Christianity. However, our traditions differ on the legacy of that sin. Jews believe that humans are born into the world free of sin, not in a state of sin like Saint Augustine wrote. There are some rabbis throughout history who believe that death was punishment for the first humans’ sin, but not that we’re born with sin. 

Rather than be inherently sinful, humans have the same capacity to commit sins or mitzvot, the 613 commandments in Judaism. In Genesis 8:21, we find that the “devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth.” From here, the rabbis teach of the yetzer, or inclinations. For Jews, life is a constant attempt to resist the evil inclinations and act on the good inclinations. But the evil inclination isn’t actually evil or some demonic influence; instead, it’s the allure of satisfying one’s pleasures, which if left unregulated, can lead one away from G-d. Judaism also teaches that the inclinations are born separately. A child begins life with the evil inclination and doesn’t develop the good inclination until age 13. At this point, sinful acts are countered with moral rebuke that teaches the child the difference between right and wrong. From then on, there’s a battle between the inclinations for supremacy. 

Judaism’s understanding of sin coincides with the image of a merciful, loving G-d. This concept is best captured by the central biblical verse of the Yom Kippur liturgy: “And the Lord said, ‘I pardon, as you have asked’” (Numbers 14:20). G-d’s consistent forgiveness of the Israelites despite repetitive sin demonstrates that G-d’s essence is enveloped by mercy alongside His absolute Being and absolute freedom. This act of forgiveness is repeated throughout Yom Kippur through various prayers and exercises asking for G-d’s forgiveness. One component is Kol Nidrei, asking G-d to absolve us of any vows made in His name. The reasoning is simple: How can an imperfect human ever expect to uphold a bargain with G-d? The Viddui is another important prayer, as Jews gather in a community to seek forgiveness for communal sins. Although one may not have committed the sins listed, the members of the community are intertwined on that day, making everyone responsible for each other. Along with other prayers, Jews exit Yom Kippur forgiven of our sins and resolve to be less sinful in the coming year, drawing closer to G-d’s will. 

Engaging other religions is an opportunity to enrich one’s understanding of other faiths while strengthening one’s own spirituality. As an elite university that still emphasizes faith, we have a rare chance to have these conversations in meaningful, informed ways for the benefit of all. 

Blake Ziegler is a senior at Notre Dame studying political science, philosophy and constitutional studies. He enjoys writing about Judaism, the good life, pressing political issues and more. Outside of The Observer, Blake serves as president of the Jewish Club and a teaching assistant for God and the Good Life. He can be reached at @NewsWithZig on Twitter or bziegler@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.