With two years to go before the Reform Movement’s new High Holy Day machzur is published, Rabbi Edwin Goldberg already knows the prayer book is bound to rouse some controversy.
Some of that controversy, he expects, will be generated by the translation of the liturgy related to confession of sins.
In fact, some rabbis have made it clear to Goldberg, the coordinating editor for the machzur project, that they will not even use the book if the word “sin” appears in it.
Goldberg understands how certain words and translations in Jewish liturgy can generate debate — particularly the word sin.
“We, the editors, truly believe in a faithful translation, which is not the same as a literal translation,” Goldberg said. “Just as the Eskimos have many words for snow, we have many words for sin … and they all have different nuances.”
One metaphor for sin the editors are using, which already has stirred some pushback, is “brokenness,” which means, according to Goldberg, “we haven’t lived up to our expectations.”
Such issues aren’t new to Judaism. In every generation, going back thousands of years, rabbis have wrestled with the concepts of sin and atonement, and how to convey them to the Jewish world in a meaningful, comforting and hopeful way.
Goldberg appreciates why the word sin is so emotionally charged for many Jews. He said the word doesn’t really fit traditional Jewish beliefs.
“When a word like sin is used [in English] it’s so different from the words we translate as sin,” he said, “so our job is to tell people what it really means rather than relying on a literal translation, which misses the point completely.
“Christian theology talks about [how] we’re born in sin, and there’s nothing we can do about that,” he added. “It’s just not a Jewish point of view; the Jewish point of view is when we just don’t live up to expectations.”
That would explain why the word sin has assumed so many different metaphors throughout Jewish history.
“Because of our culture, Jews distrust the word sin; it reeks of a medieval distrust of human potential or of evangelical preachers thundering about a vengeful Jewish God in whom Jews do not believe,” said Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at New York’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who is editing a series of books on High Holy Day liturgy, including his latest, “We Have Sinned” (Jewish Lights Publishing). “Hence the need to find metaphors that work.
“We use different metaphors for sin rather than definitions because sin is the kind of thing that needs a metaphor to wrap one’s head around,” he said.
For instance, “the Bible refers to sin as a ‘burden.’ This heavy burden weighs you down and God lifts it off your shoulders, thereby allowing you to start fresh and walk through life again.”
By the rabbinic period, sin was referred to as a “debt” that you owe — “God removes it, allowing you to start with a fresh balance sheet,” Hoffman said. “The rabbis thought that debt relief sometimes arrives by means of punishment, a belief that most of us no longer hold. But it is interesting to see that the word for punishment in Hebrew is puranut, which actually means to pay off a debt.”
Not all ancient metaphors resonate as they once did, Hoffman explained, “but we all do know the experience of going further and further into debt or being burdened by past actions that we wish we could redo. Yom Kippur is the promise that the burden is lifted, the debt paid off — we can start afresh.”
For some Jews, the word sin holds no meaning at all.
“It really doesn’t,” said Rabbi Miriam Jerris of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, which represents a young stream of the faith that believes in Judaism without God. “We talk about wrongdoing, inappropriate behavior or behavior we regret — the things we regret not done.”
Sin, she noted, usually refers to something that was done.
“The language [we use] is modern psychological language that does not have a reference of someone doing something against [someone] or doing something against the universe,” Jerris said. “It’s really human behavior that we deal with.”
Even if Humanist Jews downplay sin, forgiveness is a different matter.
“We use language about becoming as one with ourselves being at peace with our behavior,” she continued. “Asking forgiveness and the admission of wrongdoing is a big piece with us. It really starts with introspection, looking inward, self-evaluation, taking stock as to where we stand on the things we did, and if there are things we’ve done that we regret, then we ask forgiveness for those people that we think we have wronged.”
But forgiveness — they don’t use the word atonement — is practiced on an earthly level, not a heavenly one, just as traditional Judaism teaches that for sins against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until one has sought forgiveness from the other.
“People ask me, ‘how do you do Yom Kippur?’ Jerris said. “I say, ‘the way everybody does; we just bring it down to earth.’ ”
Whatever the metaphor, or the view of sin and atonement, Goldberg said the ultimate message of Yom Kippur is not that we are sinners but that we can find our way back to the path we were meant to travel.
“There should always be hope and as we go on through the day, hope should increase. This is the Judaism created 2000 years ago; we’re not creating anything new. We believe in a warm and loving God that wants us to turn back.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)