Machzor Blog: To Sin or Not to Sin

Sep 23, 2013 by

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The editors of Mishkan HaNefesh, the new CCAR Machzor, have thought long and hard about the Hebrew word chet — often rendered as “sin” in English translations of the Machzor.  During the piloting process, some respondents have wondered if the editors’ intention is to eliminate from the Machzor the word ‘sin.’ We have chosen to take a more nuanced approach.

First, it is important to note that the word ‘sin’ does in fact appear multiple times in Mishkan HaNefesh. For example:

In the Erev Yom Kippur service, it appears on p.41b, several times on p.46b, (“it transforms one’s deliberate sins into merits”; “the years of sin are transformed…”; “propel the sinner toward God. Sin is not to be forgotten…” etc.); several times on p.48b (“We sin against You…”; “Who shall say…I have not sinned?”; “Our sins are an alphabet of woe”), p.55a (“Forgive my sin, no matter how great”) and p.65b (“the day when God helps us and forgives our sins”).

In the Yom Kippur morning service, it appears on p.5 (“cleansed of their sins”), p.15 (“Be your sins like crimson…”), p.22 (“must specify the sin”). p.23 (“have tasted sin”), p.25 (“humans inevitably fail or sin”), p.156 [the Viddui – “You have fallen because of your sin”), p.157 (“I admit my sin”), p.160 (“claiming to be free of sin”), p.161 (“a willingness to recognize one’s own sins”; “the isolation of sin”; “the sins are listed alphabetically”; “Everyone confesses all the sins”); p.169 (“For the sin we  committed against You…”); and “p.170 (“we stand together…to confess our sins”).

In the Yom Kippur Mincha service, it appears on p.7 (“to make atonement for the Israelites for all their sins”); p.16b (“You will hurl all our sins…”); p.36a (“the sinner”; “sin, remorse, retribution”; “desisting from sin”, etc.); p.36b (“sinfulness,” “the sin of another”); and p.51b (“We sin against You…”; “Who shall say…I have not sinned?”; “Our sins are an alphabet of woe”).

We haven’t yet completed the draft services for Avodah, Eleh Ezkerah and Neilah, but it is likely that the word “sin” will continue to appear as our work goes forward.

The more important question, from our perspective, is whether the word “sin” is always appropriate to describe the various misdeeds enumerated in the Machzor. For example, look at the Al Chet in Erev Yom Kippur (p.47a), and ask yourself if all (or any) of the acts listed there are, in fact, sins. They include “insincere promises,” “speaking foolishness,” “empty talk,” “acts committed through our routine conversations,” “insincere apologies,” and “thoughtlessness.” Or look at p.50a in the Yom Kippur Mincha service, where acts listed in the Al Chet include: “a selfish or petty spirit,” “stubbornness,” “cynicism,” “unworthy thoughts and ruminations,” “offensive speech,” “taking advantage of others,” “through eating and drinking, ” and “losing self-control.”

The dictionary defines “sin” as “deliberate disobedience of God’s will; transgression of a religious or moral law; something regarded as shameful, highly reprehensible or utterly wrong.”  We would characterize certain acts as sinful, such as murder, rape, child abuse, betrayal, deliberate cruelty, and, under some circumstances, adultery and theft, but others, it seems to us, are better described by other English words. We are fortunate, as English speakers, to have at our disposal a language far richer in vocabulary and semantic variation than the Hebrew of the prayer book.

Mishkan HaNefesh attempts to capture many shades of meaning in a nuanced way by using a large variety of words to translate the three primary Hebrew words for wrongdoing (chet, pesha, avon). We do not believe, as some have suggested, that we are minimizing the severity of wrongdoing or portraying all wrongdoing in a therapeutic light. Note that the words we use to capture these different shades of meaning include “evil,” “wickedness,” “depravity,” “crimes,” “brute power,” “malevolence,” “guilt,” “shame,” “failings,” “offense,” “brokenness,” “immorality,” “destructiveness,” “malice,” “wrongs,” “treachery,” “transgressions,” “mistakes,” “cruelty,” “missed the mark,” “stumbled,” “fallen,” “failure,” “harm,” “misdeeds,” “errors,” “defiant acts,” “inner darkness,” and, of course, “sin.”

In all our work on the Machzor, we remember the tremendous variety of people who will be in our congregations, and the misdeeds they will be remembering. Those engaged in viddui and teshuvah may include sexual compulsives who have betrayed their spouses thousands of times, wife beaters, serial rapists, soldiers who have engaged in torture, embezzlers, addicts and child abusers – but also 13 year olds who have been rude to their parents, teased another child on the playground, made snide remarks behind a teacher’s back or cheated on a test, as well as adults who have inflated their resumes, been inattentive to an elderly aunt, received multiple speeding tickets, pilfered office supplies, neglected a friend with cancer, been ill-tempered with their spouse, failed to get to the gym often enough or paid less than their fair share of temple dues. These are certainly not admirable acts, but we hope you would agree that to describe the full range of human misdeeds by the word “sin” simply empties the word of its meaning.

We hope, in fact, to restore some sense of power to the simple English word “wrong.”  There is a difference between right and wrong, and the Machzor wants us to remember that. So do we.

Rabbi Janet Marder is Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, CA.  Rabbi Shelly Marder is the Rabbi at the Jewish Home in San Francisco, CA.   They are both editors of Mishkan HaNefesh, the new CCAR machzor.  

3 Comments

  1. Rabbi Cathy Nemiroff

    I found the gentle therapeutic (intended or not) language not to invoke the power of the traditional liturgy. Why be in synagogue for Yom Kippur if you’re not going to be challenged to the depths of your kishkes? I can think of daily wrongs any time and should have been prior to Yom Kippur. I sat as a congregant for Kol Nidre with Mishkan Tefillah and left unmoved, unstretched, just tired from the ambling recitations lacking the familiar order or tone. Interestingly, my 26 year old companion who is not rabinically or liturgically savy also felt it unsatisfying and had a hard time not sleeping. Great editors, but a result that was too creative and not stirring enough for me.

  2. Daniel Fink

    “We are fortunate, as English speakers, to have at our disposal a language far richer in vocabulary and semantic variation than the Hebrew of the prayer book.”

    Yes, but. . .

    Almost all of those English words carry with them associations that are not Jewish. For me, the problem with “sin” and all the other words is that they mean something very specific in Christianity, and like it or not, religious language in English is basically Christian in its overtones, given the dominant culture.

    So I’d prefer a way to avoid using them altogether, to use the Hebrew terms and make the part of our discourse. These days, we talk more about teshuvah than repentance. Couldn’t we try to get to the point where we do the same with chayt and avon and averah rather than “sin”?

    Also: I don’t think the fact that more of us are dealing with things like neglecting a friend with cancer than, say, murder or armed robbery, means that our ordinary failures are not very serious business to us. “Misdeeds” and “errors” seem too light for the task. The season has a kind of gravitas that should, I think, be accounted for in the language that we use.

  3. David Levin

    Sin as described also has a contextual component. The potential sinner in their respective time and place may find themselves as a “sinner” because of their age or circumstances. Although a “wrong” is usually always wrong, the opportunity to engage in a wrongful act may only present itself because we are in a particular place or time in our lives. (I leave the issue of a sin/wrong not always being wrong for another discussion).

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