Three or four times this year I inadvertently hurt my wife’s feelings. I apologized quickly the same day, because we never go to bed angry with each other. Also, I once yelled at my dog when she didn’t deserve it, and that especially saddens me because she recently passed away. That’s pretty much my sin list for this year.
The Hebrew month of Ellul began this week. Until recently, this was a rich and meaningful time for me, an opportunity to luxuriate in self-exploration while I did an annual performance review of my soul (heshbon hanefesh). I had come to think of the High Holidays not as a ten-day celebration, but, rather, as a forty-day process, growing in religious intensity until it climaxed on Yom Kippur. Nowadays, though, as I begin my 80th revolution around the sun, I wonder whether this still makes sense for me—and also whether it really did me much good when I was younger.
The focus of this annual accounting is our inadequacies, the ways in which we have fallen short: our sins. Jewish sins come in two categories; first, an avera is a violation of a commandment (mitzvah) or one of its associated regulations, like writing three letters in a notebook on Shabbat; second, a chait is the sin of not being a mensch, a human being, the best kind of person you could be.
Sometimes an avera is serious. Murder, adultery, theft, perjury. But sometimes it is just another of the 100s of arcane rules promulgated in the Talmud, like assuring that during Passover no woman should wear wheat-based body makeup, unless she has not yet experienced her onset of menstruation. (I am not making this up.)
The chait is more problematic, though. It does not entail breaking a rule so much as not being a good enough person. For example, the Al Chait confession asks forgiveness for improper thoughts, for haughtiness and charging interest (!). Modern prayerbooks also reinterpret some of these traditional sins with annoying psychobabble, like the sin of “using sex exploitatively.”
Several of the infractions listed have to do with lying and misrepresentation. And this shows the naivete in the prayer. Social, political, and commercial life depend on lying. Nearly all conversations demand insincere praise; nearly every sales proposal disguises its rationale with a rationalization; nearly every journalistic report shapes its data to conform with the perspective of the reporter. The reason that scientists in “double-blind” studies are not told who is in the treatment group is that we know they cannot help themselves from bending the data.
While tractate Ketubim enjoins us from spreading rumors about a bride, it also obliges us to flatter the bride, no matter how she looks. Both prescriptions might entail the kind of “white lies” associated with the important Jewish principle of sh’lom bayit, placing social cohesion above the demand for complete truthfulness.
If you read Lyle Rue’s By Grace of Guile or David Nyberg’s The Varnished Truth, you see quickly that frank, unmoderated, “unvarnished” truth telling is socially immature, the kind of behavior we associate with children or with certain forms of autism. There is even a Hollywood comedy called “Liar, Liar” in which a young attorney cannot help but tell the truth, with predictable effects on his career.
My point is, simply, that a review of the numerous “sins” in the Al Chait, reveals that there are just too many for anyone to take the concept seriously. No one need apologize for ordinary human behavior. There’s hardly anything wrong with puffing up the copy on your dating site profile, just as there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having amorous daydreams about someone you are not married to; there’s nothing inherently wrong in withholding forgiveness from someone who has wronged you; and there isn’t even anything really wrong in wishing for the death of a public figure when you honestly believe that his death would save lives or improve the world.
As for our relationships with other people, the Al Chait view of romantic/sexual life seems shallow and, again, naïve to me, as though the richest experiences in life were kindness and prudence. I am much more attuned to the view of life expressed in a monologue written by Patrick Shenley for the movie Moonstruck. The character Ronny says:
Love don’t make things nice, it ruins everything, it breaks your heart, it makes everything a mess. We’re not here to make things perfect. Snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and break our hearts and love the wrong people and die!
The whole process of overstating our shortcomings and groveling for forgiveness, especially in the hope that it will buy us another year of life, now seems pointless to me. Moreover, it illustrates Einstein’s complaint about the use of fear as a religious motivator and demonstrates Spinoza’s observation that religions are far less interested in truth than in obedience.
Further, at my age it would be relatively difficult to sin, even if I wanted to. For this old man, as Hamlet put it, the “heyday in the blood is tamed”; real sin is a young person’s game and I barely have the strength for it.
So, I’m pretty much finished with confession and repentance, except, perhaps…
For the sin of speaking glibly about the Al Chait prayer…