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The destructive aspects of “sin”
The idea of “sin” is seemingly found in Leviticus 25:18 and elsewhere. In Leviticus God promises prosperity to people who obey the divine commands: they and only they will “dwell securely on the land.” This verse is generally misunderstood.
There are two ways to view sin. One is emotional and the other rational. The difference between the two is monumental and the impact that each makes upon people is enormous and long lasting. The emotional approach carries a burden of unresolved guilt and some degree of internal discomfort. It diminishes individuals, rather than making them better. It destroys people’s future. The rational view helps people better themselves and society. The first notion is unfortunately the one held by most people.
Although the psychologist Sigmund Freud prided himself on understanding religion in a rational manner, his approach to “sin” reflected the common emotional belief. Freud discusses the feelings of guilt and sin, treating them as synonyms, in the final two chapters of his Civilization and its Discontents, first published in 1930. He contends that the feeling of sin/guilt is the reaction that people sometimes feels for an act they committed or are thinking of committing when they fear that the act will result in a loss of love.
For Freud, this need for love is basic, and the loss of love, or even the fear of loss, is detrimental, perhaps even catastrophic. The problem starts, he insists, just after birth. Children recognize that they are protected by their father. Watching how their father reacts to them, they realize that they need to satisfy their father to get his love. They see that when they do something contrary to father’s wishes, they lose his love. They decide to comply with father’s desires, and begin to fear that they may make a mistake and act contrary to what father wants. When they perform an alienating act and sense an estrangement from father, they feel a loss of the love that they need. This experience of alienation from love is, for Freud, the origin of what we call sin and guilt. “At the beginning… what is bad is whatever causes one to be threatened with loss of love… one must avoid it. This, too, is the reason why it makes little difference whether one has already done the bad thing or one only intends to do it.”
When children grow older, they don’t lose the need for fatherly love. They may no longer be conscious of the need, but it is residing in their sub-conscious. Since they are now older and have greater desires, Freud argues they now require a larger and more powerful father, and God fills this role in their life. Knowing, as they did from childhood, that they must appease their father to attain his love and assistance, they make all kind of appeasing gestures to God, the substitute father. When they fail to act as they believe God expects or when they plan such an act, they experience a feeling of loss of love. Paradoxically, as Thomas D. Bernard wrote, “our sense of sin is in proportion to our nearness to God,” the closer one is to God and the more one relies on divine love, the greater the sense of sin and guilt. Freud wrote that sin: “can best be identified as fear of loss of love. If he loses the love of another person upon whom he is dependent, he also ceases to be protected from a variety of dangers. Above all, he is exposed to the danger that this stronger person will show his superiority in the form of punishment.”
According to Freud, the people of Israel considered themselves children of the heavenly Father, God. When fate rained down misfortune upon them, the people’s belief in their Father was not shaken. They saw the misfortune as divine displeasure at their misdeeds, at their failure to act as the Father demanded. Their fear of the loss of divine love was their feeling of sin.
Some people tried to avoid this negative psychological experience by appeasing acts, including ceremonies performed by priests. But frequently people are left with a fear that they may not have done enough. As a result, the fear continues despite the act of appeasement. This is not a healthy situation. Other people attempted to avoid even the possibility of this feeling by isolating themselves from society and living the life of a hermit, believing that they were thereby forestalling any behavior that would estrange their Father. This is an ineffectual way of resolving the problem.
In short, the Freudian psychological view is a quasi-sophisticated way of understanding sin. It describes what the religious common person believes, and the adverse impact that this notion has upon the believer. Both Freud and the average person see sin as a “feeling,” not an outward act; both understand that feeling as “guilt,” inadequacy, and enduring internal disabling unhappiness. Both portray people as childish and powerless, relying on a need for love of a father figure. Both see fearful people reacting with ceremonies. Neither recognizes a human obligation to do something to improve themselves and society. Instead the guilt-ridden believer is shackled in an amorphous psychologically incapacitating bind that restricts him from useful and constructive behavior.
“Sin,” wrote Walter L. Carson, “is twisting and distorting out of its proper shape a human personality which God designed to be a thing of beauty and a joy forever.” “The worst effect of sin is within,” wrote Edwin Hubbell Chapin, “the disowned faculties…the low ideal, the brutalized and enslaved spirit.”
The rational approach
The rational approach to sin avoids the obsessional destructive sense of guilt, its tormenting uneasiness and its unconscious desire for punishment. Instead it shows people a positive attitude and a sense of direction toward a constructive future.
Surprising as it may sound, the concept of “sin” is not in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew word chet, which is in the Bible and currently used for “sin,” actually means “to miss the mark.” When people commit a chet, they are attempting to reach a goal and fail to attain it. It is like a person shooting an arrow at a target and sees that the arrow missed the mark.
What do people do who have an objective but “miss the mark”? They do not sheepishly sulk and abandon the tournament, psychologically devastated, with a feeling of guilt. They don’t create a series of ceremonies to “atone” for their unsuccessful shot. Instead, they think why they had the poor result and what they can do to hit the target with their next shot. They then take bow and arrow in hand, aim in a better manner and shoots again.
This rational concept of chet is practical. It recognizes that individuals make mistakes. It doesn’t burden people with guilt feelings. It doesn’t tell people that once they do wrong, they should feel shattered and psychologically ruined. The focus is on how people should act to improve themselves and benefit themselves and society.
 This is a version of a chapter in my book “A Rational Approach to Judaism and Bible Commentary” published by Urim Press.