Some Ecumenical Thoughts on Sin

by David Steinberg

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1. What is sin?

Sin is regarded in Judaism and Christianity as the deliberate and purposeful violation of the will of God. Sin is real and important.

The concept of sin has been present in many cultures throughout history, where it was usually equated with an individual's failure to live up to external standards of conduct or with his violation of taboos, laws, or moral codes. In ancient Greek thought, sin was looked upon as, in essence, a failure on the part of a person to achieve his true self-expression and to preserve his due relation to the rest of the universe; it was attributed mainly to ignorance. In this, as in so many other things, we can see the hybrid Judeo-Christian/Helenic ancestry of Western Culture.

2. Hebrew Words for Sin

Pesha' - Moab rebellion. Political - God as king

'Avon - twist out of shape - crook

Chet - miss the mark

'averah - appropriate for religion of law. Lefnim me shurat hadin.

Shogeg, shagah - as opposed to zadon

3 the Prayers

Avinu Malkenu - original, rahamim vs hus eyen, slicha

viduim -

ashamnu - shorter acrostic form mainly or entirely exclude ritual.

Involves both God and man and between people

al het - longer (now) original form (Saadia 4, Yemanite 6 probably original) conceptional not laundry list. Sephardic and Ashkenazi double acrostic with different layout. Original 6 buried in huge laundry list. In a way more typical of Jewish approach.

4. Repentance

a. in Judaism

Rambam - vidui, regret, forsaking sin

Hirsh - admitting that you have sinned; repairing the sin either by a reckoning with oneself in the case of sins between man and God, or by requesting forgiveness in the case of sins between oneself and one's fellow man; regret for the past; resolving not to sin in future.

b. In Islam

Jews and Arabs by S D Goitein

p 35 "Islam has been characterized as a Judaism with universalistic tendencies. there is some truth to this definition. however, the difference between the two is due not to basically opposing tenents but to the absolutely different conditions of their origins .... as a saying attributed to Muhammad has it: "Islam received all the sweetness of religion, while its predecessors had to struggle for it bitterly"

p 59 "For if, as we have seen above, there is a very close connection between Muhammad's creation, the Koran, and the religion of Israel, there is an even more amazing affinity between the fully developed systems of the two religions .... all the main characteristic features of their systems are identical, or almost identical."

Repentance (Tobago cognate to teshuvah)

Truly, God loves those who repent, and He loves those who cleanse themselves.

Qur'an 2:222

Repentance breeds good deeds, whilst sinning (without repentance) can cause deprivation of obedience altogether. It has been said that committing sins regularly will darken and harden the heart. It may even lead a person to reject Allah completely (Allah forbid) or lead him to commit a bigger sin. There is no recourse for a sinner except to ask Allah for forgiveness and to feel great regret for his actions. (mitzvah goreret mitzvah, averah goreret averah)

The Islamic theologians explain atonement as a covering or veil (= kapparah). This explanation is near to the thought of the Hebrew Bible. It is a fact that personal works in Islam as in Judaism, play an important part in the matter of atonement for sins. The foremost of these works is prayer. As it is said, "Establish worship (pray) at the two ends of the day, and some time in the night. Lo! Good deeds

annul evil deeds." (Sura 11:114)

Steps of repentance from a fatwa (=teshuvah, responsum)

Step 1: To believe that what you have done is wrong

Step 2: To feel sincere regret & repentance over what you have done

Step 3: To ask Allah for forgiveness

Step 4: To remove yourself from the source of evil

Step 5: To never, ever do it again


in Islam, the holy month of fasting, the ninth month of the Muslim year, in which "the Qur'an was sent down as a guidance for the people" (Qur'an 2:185).

In its religious function, the month is similar to the Jewish Yom Kippur inasmuch as both constitute a period of atonement; Ramadan, however, is seen less as atonement and more as an obedient response to a command from God. Muslim ordinance prescribes abstention from food, drink, and sexual from dawn until dusk throughout the month.

c. Islam (Shiite)

The sin which makes you sad and repentant is liked better by the Lord than the good deed which turns you vain and conceited.

Nahjul Balagha, Saying 44

d. African Traditional Religions

Let us rid ourselves of evil doings.

Let every person ask pardon of the Great Light (Asis),

The molder of us all,

Who has given us this land to inhabit, and to multiply in.

Kipsigis Poem (Kenya)

e. Hinduism

By public confession, repentance, penance, repetition of holy mantras, and by gifts, the sinner gets released from guilt. In proportion as a man who has done wrong, himself confesses it, even so is he freed from guilt, as a snake from its slough. In proportion as his heart loathes his evil deed, even so far is his body freed from that guilt.

Laws of Manu 11.228-30

O dweller in the body, make reparation for whatever you have done!

Garuda Purana 2.35

He who has committed a sin and has repented, is freed from that sin, but he is purified only by resolving to cease: "I will do so no more."...

He who, having either unintentionally or intentionally committed a reprehensible deed, desires to be freed from it, must not commit it a second time.

If his mind be uneasy with respect to any deed, let him repeat the penances prescribed for it until they fully satisfy his conscience.

Laws of Manu 11.231-34

If a man commits sinful acts which he does not expiate in this life, he must pay the penalty in the next life; and great will be his suffering. Therefore, with a self-controlled mind, a man should expiate his sins here on earth.

Expiation and repentance, to a man who continues to commit sinful acts, knowing them to be harmful, are of no avail. Futile is it to bathe an elephant if he is straightway to roll again in the mud. All sinful thoughts and evil deeds are caused by ignorance. True expiation comes from illumination. As fire consumes all things, so does the fire of knowledge consume all evil and ignorance. Complete transformation of the inner life is necessary; and this is accomplished by control of the mind and the senses, by the practice of concentration, and by following and living the Truth.

The great secret of this complete transformation is the development of love for God. As when the sun rises the dewdrops vanish away, so when love grows all sin and ignorance disappear.

Srimad Bhagavatam 6.1

f. Zoroastrianism

As was the will of God, so I ought to have thought;

As was the will of God, so I ought to have spoken;

As was the will of God, so I ought to have acted.

If I have not so thought, so spoken, so acted,

Then do I repent for the sin,

Do I repent by my thought, word, and deed.

Do I repent with all my heart and conscience.

Patet 6

g. AA's 12 Steps

The first time I read the 12 Steps I was startled at how "Jewish" they sounded.

Even though AA was founded by two Gentiles, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith this should have come as no great surprise. After all, Christianity is a "daughter" religion of Judaism. Still, the connections are remarkable. For example, the steps that involve making amends and taking personal inventory (steps 5, 6, 8, 9) could almost have been taken from Maimonides' teachings on teshuvah "Making an inventory" is the essence both of steps 4 & 10 and the cheshbon hanefesh Jews are called to make before the High Holydays.

The "Higher Power" of steps 2,3,5,6,7 & 11 is of course our G-d of Mercy, Compassion and Love. We can even find Jewish mystical and hasidic doctrine in steps 2 and 3 which teach not only that G-d's Presence is necessary in life but that the most difficult struggle for any human soul is the struggle to overcome our lesser selves keeping the ego in its place and allowing G-d to enter (Bittul ha-yesh).

There are many more parallels to Jewish teaching in the 12 steps but rather than attempt to identify them all, which would take much more time than we have, I'd rather look at a couple of overall messages that are essentially the same in the 12 step programs and Judaism

First, it seems that the purpose of the 12 step program is, along a continuum: to enable us to live, cope, heal, flourish and grow. The purpose of the commandments in Judaism is, as the midrash puts it:

l'tzaref et ha-adam–to refine human beings.

Not much difference in destination there.

The other conviction they share, in contrast to so very many other messages, is that this takes a lifetime, and in order to do it we need serious help-- from one another, from a legitimate tradition of wisdom, and from G-d. Let no one underestimate the importance of this teaching.The reason so many people turn to alcohol or drugs is because they believe that in some way, using them is going to cover up pain or give them some kind of shortcut through pain, to healing, to enlightenment, wherever. We live in a culture that not only sells shortcuts and instant gratification it screams them...

Judaism and the twelve step programs hold in common the understanding that the human soul needs discipline, a course to follow, a program that will not only help us distinguish between nd reality but will keep our souls healthy and refine them as well.