Yesterday’s Torah study session, and some things that happened today, really opened my eyes to some fundamental differences between Judaism and the other religions I was raised in and tried – Catholicism, fundamentalist Protestantism, Unitarian Universalism, and paganism. (Atheism is not a religion.) Mainly I’m going to focus on the Christian religions because those are the ones that really caused me problems; UUism and paganism, on the other hand, simply didn’t fulfill my needs.
Let’s start with the differences in the view of G-d – and, by extension, the view of sin. In all the G-d centered religions that I’ve been part of (Catholicism and Protestantism), G-d is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. This means that he knows everything you do, think, and say. And if he doesn’t like it, he can zot you with a Great Big Divine Lightning Bolt (or the figurative equivalent). You have no privacy in these religions. Your thoughts can be sins – and are often considered such. Catholicism has a whole category of sins called “impure thoughts.” Basically, you have to be perfect in thought, word, and deed. And do you have any right to any boundary between you and G-d? Heck, no.
In Judaism, G-d isn’t concerned with what we think. He’s concerned with what we do and say. He’s not going to zot us for thinking bad things, unless we put them into action. As the rabbi said last night, the whole point of Moses going back and forth between G-d and the Hebrews at Sinai was that G-d was saying “Yes, I could read your minds, but I’m not that big of a jerk. You get your privacy inside your head.” This may take me a while to wrap my mind around, but it’s just another wrestling match, right?
And then there’s the whole sin thing. In Judaism, sin is what you do (when you shouldn’t do it) or don’t do (when you should do it). It’s also about what you do to others as much, if not more, than what you do to G-d. And if you hurt others through your sin, you have to go to those others and ask for forgiveness. Which brings us to…
Forgiveness. It isn’t just a single act in Judaism. In Catholicism, you recite your list of sins to the priest, who gives you a few prayers to say as penance, and you’re done. That’s what forgiveness looks like – almost like a transaction. In Protestantism you just go right to G-d and you’re done. Poof, presto, no more sin.
But Judaism demands more of us when it comes to apologizing. First, the apologies have to be made to the person harmed – not to a third party or to G-d, unless G-d is the one we harmed by our actions – and we have a special day for that (Yom Kippur). Then, once we are forgiven (and it is a mitzvah to forgive when you get a sincere apology), we have to follow through on our apology by not doing that action again. This isn’t like Catholicism where, even if you do it again, you can just go to the priest and get a theological shower in the confessional to wash it away, or Protestantism, where you just say “I’m sorry, G-d,” and you’re back in the clear again.
In the movie Ladyhawke, Matthew Broderick (who plays Phillipe, a thief) promises not to cut purse any more. Later in the movie, you see him cutting someone’s pouch off his belt as the guy sits half-asleep on a dock, and Phillipe whispers, “I know I promised, L-rd, never again. But I also know that you know what a weak-willed person I am.”
It’s funny as a movie scene, but the truth is that many Christians do this. I think of this as the Christian Cop-Out. Judaism doesn’t allow for that. If Phillipe were a Jew, he would have to go to the guy he stole the pouch from, apologize, and make amends.
Forgiveness also demands more of us. In Judaism, you are supposed to forgive someone if they ask you sincerely for forgiveness by the third time asked. In fact, it’s a religious requirement. And again, it’s not a one-off thing. You can’t just say “OK, you’re forgiven.” You have to actively work on continuing to forgive that person every time the anger comes up.
This is hard for me as well. I’m not good at forgiving. I’m actually very good at holding grudges. But a situation has come up where I need to forgive someone for a harm they did me and then apologized for over a year ago, and I’m struggling with it because, well, I don’t wanna. Forgiving them feels like saying that what they did to me wasn’t that big of a deal (and to me, it was) and letting them hurt me again, because I also have to ask for forgiveness for distancing myself from them since the apology. It’s a big mess, to me.
But I’m not going to wait around for Yom Kippur to extend my apology. I’m going to treat this as an object lesson: am I ready to be a Jew? Am I ready to follow through on what I’ve been saying, or is this all an intellectual exercise?
So tonight I’m going to contact this person and say, “I want to apologize for avoiding you. I also want to know if you still think that I’m [what they said I was] last year, and if so, if there’s anything I can do to remedy that.”
And whatever happens after, I will apologize and forgive like the Jew-ish person that I am and the Jew I hope to one day be. Anything less would be immoral.
No, it’s not easy. But it’s what I have to do.