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Ask a Jew: What do modern religious Jews do about the issue of atonement for sins?

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What questions do you have about Judaism? Submit them online, or fill out the form below. 

What do modern religious Jews do about the issue of atonement for sins?

The destruction of the Second Temple by Roman forces in 70 AD ended the era of animal sacrifices in Judaism. This event thus paved the way for the development of teshuva, the modern Jewish practice of repentance. According to the Jewish Virtual Library (JVL), teshuva is a multi-step process: “The sinner must recognize his sin, feel sincere remorse, undo any damage he has done and pacify the victim of his offense, and resolve never to commit the sin again.” The late Rabbi Louis Jacobs wrote that the Hebrew word for sin, averah, refers to an act that goes against the will of God. Teshuva, in contrast, means turning from sin to God.

For non-religious Jews, the word “atonement” may bring to mind a particular holiday, and not much else. On Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, most religious Jews fast and spend the day at synagogue. An observant Jewish friend of mine explains the fast as a practice that helps us “live in our hearts for a day” as we atone to God. As much as the daylong hunger may feel like a punishment, that was never its intent.

Atonement is the watchword during Elul, the month that directly precedes Yom Kippur in Jewish tradition. Atonement during this period may expunge your sins against God, but it can’t reverse your sins against fellow humans. To settle those scores, you must right the specific wrongs you committed and ask forgiveness of the people you’ve wronged.

To clarify the point, JVL invokes Simon Wiesenthal’s book, “The Sunflower.” At one point during his time in a concentration camp, Wiesenthal sat at the bedside of a dying Nazi soldier who wanted a Jew’s forgiveness for the atrocities he had committed. Wiesenthal found himself unable to forgive the man.

Thirty years later, [Wiesenthal] sent his account of the incident to leading Jewish and Christian figures, and asked them: “Was I right in not forgiving this repentant Nazi?” With few exceptions, the Christian respondents said that he should have done so. As Gustave Heinemann, the former German minister of justice, put it: “Justice and Law, however essential they are, cannot exist without forgiveness. That is the quality that Jesus Christ added to justice.” Likewise, almost without exception, the Jewish respondents argued that he could not forgive the Nazi. The only ones empowered to grant forgiveness were the victims, which is why in this case forgiveness was literally a “dead issue.”

In Judaism, atonement for interpersonal sin must occur while both you and the other parties are still breathing. Hence Rabbi Eliezer’s famous mandate to “Repent one day before your death.” And when, exactly, will you die? Hard to say, so you’d better repent today, just in case.

This being Judaism, there’s yet another twist when it comes to atonement. JVL explains: “[I]f the offender sincerely requests forgiveness, the victim is required to grant it — certainly by the third request. Withholding forgiveness is considered cruel and is itself a sin.” Like much of Jewish law, this provision blends certainty (we must forgive the sincere penitent) with ambiguity (how can we know whose penitence is sincere?). In a way, this mixture encapsulates Judaism’s mystique: enough structure to provide great spiritual guidance, but enough flexibility to stay relevant in our kaleidoscopic new century.

Neal Schindler
Neal Schindler
A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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Eric Blauer
9 years ago

Great response, thanks for digging into it. I still find the issue confusing in light of the Torah’s connecting atonement with sacrifice, particularly blood sacrifice.

Leviticus 17:11 – For the life of the flesh [is] in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it [is] the blood [that] maketh an atonement for the soul.

Is that no longer binding or authoritative for the religious Jew?

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