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Acknowledging Our Gravest Sin

A series of writers answer the question: Do we still know how to atone?

Hardly anyone takes sin and atonement seriously anymore. Are we guilty of mistakes, errors, weaknesses and foibles? Sure. But sins? Hardly.

We have come a long way from the world, which took a distinctly negative view of human nature — not necessarily “original sin” (as in Christianity), but sin as primal to human nature, which is virtually the same thing. That morose view sunk in no later than the first century. It dominated the Middle Ages, was attacked by modernity and is widely condemned today.

What transfixed Enlightenment thinking was the human capacity for nobility, not for sin. By the 19th century, faith in human progress was everywhere — in science first and foremost. World fairs in London, Paris and Chicago trumpeted human achievement around the globe. To be sure, the 20th century brought cruelty beyond imagination, especially withthe Shoah. But by and large, modernity has had its way: Most of us have not given up on the human capability to better our lot and to be a lot better.

We persist, nonetheless, in showing up annually at synagogue to recite the ashamnu and the al chet, the twin confessions that have been part of our liturgy since the ninth century, reflections of the medieval preoccupation with debilitating sin. Why is that? It is certainly not the specific sins listed in the prayers — they are items drawn at random so as to comprise acrostics, one sin (in some versions, two) for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

We come, I think, because deep inside we know that we are guilty of more than mere mistakes and slipups; there is something cleansing about admitting genuine wrongs. The Bible describes it as having the burden of guilt removed from our shoulders, a metaphor that retains its appeal. Who hasn’t felt burdened by things we wish we hadn’t said or done?

So much for personal guilt, but communally, too, we should feel appropriately sinful: for falling short of the very thing we are most proud of, our capacity for nobility. Nobility is in short supply in America, in Israel, in the current political campaigns, in business and practically everywhere we look.

Our gravest sin over the long run may turn out to be our failure to remember that human beings can still strive to be noble. We ought to atone for giving up on the human march toward higher moral ground, and recommit ourselves to demanding that we (and our leaders) emulate the human condition at its finest.

Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy at the Hebrew Union College in New York, and editor of “We Have Sinned — Sin and Confession in Judaism: Ashamnu and Al Chet” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2012).

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