Sin and Guilt
Rabbi Israel Chait
A famous philosopher once stated, (although not in these exact words), that Jews discovered sin, but Christians discovered guilt. He observed that Jews could admit to sin and yet never seem guilt-ridden, while Christians live under a heavy burden of guilt. This noted philosopher knew little of Judaism, his observation, however, was pretty much on target.
St. Augustine, one of the four doctors of The Church and probably its most prominent thinker, relates to us in his famous "confessions" how he, as a small boy, joined other boys in stealing pears from a neighbor's tree. He stole these pears not because he was hungry or didn't have access to pears, as his parents had better pears at home. He stole them simply because it was evil to steal them and so he committed evil for its own sake. Throughout his life he was plagued by this sin. He beseeched God to forgive him:
Behold my heart, O God, behold my heart, which Thou hadst pity upon the bottom of the abyss. Now, behold, let my heart tell Thee, what it sought there, that I should be gratuitously wicked, having no temptation to that evil deed, but the evil deed itself. It was foul, and I loved it; I loved to perish, I loved mine own fault, but my fault itself I loved. Foul soul, falling from the firmament to expulsion from Thy presence; not seeking naught through the shame, but the shame itself!
He spends seven chapters on those pears.
No Jewish scholar has ever related any similar kind of experience, and for good reason. Such an experience is outside the realm of the possible for the Torah scholar since his religious ideas are completely other than the ones necessary for Augustine's experience. The difference between the position of Augustine and that of the Torah scholar revolves around two points: How we view 1) the instinctual life of man, and 2) what is perfection in man. The two are closely related. In Augustine's view man's instinctual desires are as a demon ready to overpower him and condemn him to Hades. His instinctual life is intrinsically evil, sexual intercourse being the epitome of this evil. Every desire for evil is itself evil and therefore deserves the strictest reprimand and sense of guilt. Perfection for man comes about when man has abandoned his instinctual life and immersed himself in the joys of the religious life. These joys do not seem as alluring as the ordinary joys of life. Thus Augustine prayed to God, "Give me chastity and continence, only not yet." Augustine led a life of lust and debauchery when young. In his own statement, "I defiled, therefore the spring of friendship with filth of concupiscence, and I beclouded its brightness with the heel of lustfulness." Later in life religion won the struggle and Augustine spent the rest of his life in celibacy.
How does the Torah scholar view the above tribulations and struggles? He views it as pure nonsense. According to Torah there is nothing wrong with the instinctual part of man. It was made by God. There is no benefit, per se, in abstaining from pleasures. The Jerusalem Talmud states that he that cannot enjoy life is not well mentally. It states further that for every pleasure man turns down in this world he will be held accountable by God. In other words God will ask him why he didn't partake of the pleasure since God created it for him. Does the Torah then endorse a life of pleasure seeking? Certainly not, but not because there is something intrinsically evil in the instinctual realm of human life, but because man can utilize his energies in a far higher way. What is this higher way? Engagement of the mind in God's Torah and wisdom. One cannot do this if one is engulfed in the life of lust and pleasure seeking. The energies of man cannot be expended simultaneously in both directions. Man must make an important choice in his life. Is he going to expend the major portion of his energies in gaining knowledge and studying Torah or is he going to spend his energies and life on the temporal joys.
The benefits that man reaps when he chooses a life of the enjoyment of knowledge are enormous. The man of Torah chooses a life that offers him a deeper satisfaction since his enjoyments are tied to an ever-increase in knowledge. The pleasure he obtains from his activities is closer to the essence of man, his mind, and thus gives him great satisfaction. The Torah personality does not renounce his instinctual life, but partakes of it in moderation reserving his main energies for Torah. Amazingly, the Torah scholar enjoys the physical pleasures of life to an even greater degree than the ordinary man. The ordinary man is obsessed with the physical life. He attempts to gain all of his satisfaction from his relationships, his fame or his wealth. But these things, not having much to do with man's essence, are not capable of yielding up the pleasure man is seeking. Thus man becomes frustrated, unhappy, disillusioned. The man of Torah, on the other hand, obtaining his essential satisfaction from the sphere of Torah knowledge, looks at other pleasures with perspective. He partakes of them for what they are, a means, and finds them enjoyable not frustrating. The Talmud expresses this idea in a play on the word "Tirosh," which means wine. It states, "if you drink properly it is good for your mind ('rosh' meaning head), if you abuse wine then it impoverishes you, i.e., makes you sway from the rational course and act imprudently with your finances, then you become 'rush' (poor)."
The man of Torah never feels guilty about his instincts or desires. These instincts and desires are good, they are given by God. It would be absurd to say that God hates or despises these very instincts He created. Every instinctual desire has an objective, part of the divine plan. Our enjoyment of our instinctual life is also part of this plan. If, however, we believe that human life is essentially instinctual, that our pleasures in life are to be mainly from the sphere of the libidinous or egoistic, then we are distorting the image of man and misrepresenting his nature. Man's essential gratification must stem from the world of the mind the joys of knowledge and truth. If he is overpowered by the instinctual he distorts his life. Thus the rabbis say if one senses that he is being overpowered by the instinctual let him drag himself into the Bais Hamedrash, house of learning. Here we see the Torah ideal as opposed to the Christian ideal presented by Augustine. In the Torah philosophy there is no room for brooding in guilt over some past sin or desire. This is totally wasteful. There is nothing evil about the desire itself. It is only evil insofar as it takes man away from Torah. Therefore, what one should do if he is sinning is simply bring himself into the house of Torah, i.e., learn with others, set up learning sessions, go to Torah classes, use the energy in the proper manner and don't waste even more time through nonsensical brooding and guilt trips.
When one views the instinctual as an adversary one begins to hate the faculties of the instinctual that God created. In The Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, "If thy right eye offends thee pluck it out...(Matthew 5:29)." For the Torah scholar such advice is not only lunacy, but also sacrilege. The eye is one of the most marvelous of God's creations, it miraculously transforms light waves into images through an intricate system we cannot fathom even today. To take this faculty and destroy it is not only a lack of appreciation of God's wonders, but also a lack of appreciation of the creator's kindness to man. If man misuses God's gift he should not vent his anger on the gift. This is misguided anger and displaced blame. He should recognize the true source of the misuse, which lies in the self, and correct it. The Torah advice would be, if your right eye offends you use it to learn Torah.
Let us at this point give a full account of how the Torah deals with sin. When one sins in a specific way, steals something for instance, then one should follow the Torah's prescription found in Leviticus 5:25, "And he shall return the stolen object which he stole...." He must then repent. Repentance has a specific formula. The person must realize his error and accept upon himself never to perform the deed again.
There are thus two forms of sin, one specific, the other generic. The specific is when a person violates a structural command of the Torah, such as stealing or eating a forbidden food. The generic is where a person has lost his way in life by permitting himself to lapse into over-indulgence in the instinctual. Two types of sacrifice found in Leviticus reflect these two types of sin. A "Chatus" is for a specific sin, while an "Oleh" is for sins that stem from man's general weakness of character and his submission to the world of the instinctual as an end in itself and not merely as a means. In either case the Torah formula is clear. If the sin is specific one must abandon that specific activity and repent. If the sin is generic one must devise ways to involve one's self in the study of Torah.
The Torah has never endowed sin with any mystical qualities of evil. Sin simply represents lost time, time that could have been used studying Torah and performing commandments that improve one's character. The word in Hebrew for sin, Chate, means to miss one's mark as when a marksman overshoots or undershoots his target.
The difference between the two concepts of sin is inextricably tied to the opposite of sin, i.e., perfection. All religion wishes to prevent man from lapsing into the animalistic life. Torah does this by directing our energies to the pursuit of knowledge, while Christianity attempts to accomplish this through the renunciation of the instincts. In the latter approach the instincts become viewed as "evil". When this happens they are endowed with a kind of mystical quality, alluring and lusty. Strangely enough, the more one tries to renounce the instincts directly, the more they gain in strength. The imagination of man is a powerful tool. Thus, Augustine came to desire evil for no other reason than that it was evil. Through his imagination evil became alluring. Paul had a similar experience (Romans 7:7-10).
In the eyes of Torah it is impossible to fight the instinctual directly. Moreover there is no reason to do so since there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the instinctual. The way for man to avoid the animalistic life is through channeling his main energies into the higher sphere of pursuit of Torah knowledge. We, B'nai Torah and B'nai Noach, have at our disposal a science of Torah known as Talmud. In it we use the most abstract form of human thinking. Our methods and techniques of analysis are not inferior to the most advanced forms of scientific reasoning. The problem with Augustine was he had no "Torah." He had nothing of a religious nature that he could involve himself in on any real intellectual level. He was forced to the conclusion that in order to avoid living as an animal one must spend one's life renouncing the instincts.
We who have the Torah know this is shallow and false. If we wish to truly raise ourselves to a higher level we must spend considerable time in the study of Torah through the method of Talmudic analysis which gives us access to the beautiful ideas behind the structure of God's law. Then we will be able to say as King David says in Psalms 119, "And I delight myself in Thy commandments which I love." The man of perfection according to Torah is the man of Torah knowledge, the man who has channeled his energies away from the instinctual into the higher sphere of Torah thought. He is not the man who has spent his life in the futile battle against the inner world of the instinctual. Such a life leads to nothing more than frustration, a deep sense of guilt and thoughts of some imaginary compensation (usually of an idolatrous nature). The Torah ideal of life takes man away from the world of instinctual conflict into the beautiful world of Torah thought and ideas. Man's personality is illuminated by the light of Torah and he is transformed into a creature of the most noble nature. As the Psalmist says: "And Thou hast made him little lower than the angles and Thou hast crowned him with glory and honor (Psalms 8:6)." The institution of Torah knowledge gives man his highest activity, it permeates his character and transforms him from an instinctual creature to a personality which reflects the divine image of the Creator.