By Israel Drazin
Do religious confessions for sins magically erase bad behavior – steal and say words, commit adultery and admit it, and “puff” nothing was stolen and no marriage contract was violated! If not, why confess?
Eradicating sins is a significant part of most religions. But people don’t know the meaning of “sin” or how to purge it. Misled by overzealous and misguided clergy, they are burdened, at least subconsciously, by feelings of guilt.
Judaism has two “confessions” for “sins” that are recited over ten times during the Yom Kippur holiday services, one short and one long, as if constant repetition is more effective. The shorter is Ashamnu, “We have been guilty.” The longer is Al Chet, “For the chet.” Both list possible misdeeds that could have been committed, warning against these behaviors even if they were not done. Both are arranged alphabetically, as if the misdeeds are covered from the first aleph of the Hebrew twenty-two letters to its last letter tov.
Actually, while the Hebrew Bible discusses misdeeds and encouraged Israelites to bring offerings when they do wrongs, the word “sin” is not in the Hebrew Bible. Many people then and now see sacrifices as a pseudo-magical means of cleansing the stains of misdeeds; although post-biblical rationalists and some mystics argue that the sacrifices were meant to encourage people to recognize their mistakes and repair the wrongs: “You could suffer death as these animals unless you act properly!”
The Bible speaks of three categories of wrongs that are not synonyms. There is chet, the misstep, literally missing the mark, as if one were shooting an arrow and hitting the outer rims of the target and missing its center. The Bible mentions it 34 times. The second pesha, occurring 93 times, is a conscious rebellious act such as taking revenge, stealing, murder. The third avon, cited in 233 instances, is an error, an unintentional act that nevertheless has harmful consequences. Understood in this way, it should be clear that the misdeed is something that shouldn’t provoke passive feelings of guilt and recitations; individuals should recognize what they did wrong, think why they did it, and take actions that remedy the consequences and assure no repetition.
Significantly, the concept of teshuvah as “repentance” is post-biblical. Most people understand repentance and confessions, as they do sacrifices, as pseudo-magical recitations that remove misdeeds, as if words recited during a synagogue service could somehow change the past, erase the slap a husband gave his wife and restore a loving relationship. “I don’t understand why you’re still angry,” the husband wails, “I did teshuvah in the synagogue!” This isn’t the way life works.
So why say these two confessions. They are also post-biblical and different Jewish communities have different versions of it. Some communities don’t use an alphabetical acrostic. The confessions are not even mentioned in the Talmud of the fifth and sixth century. The rational response is, as stated, that the words are designed to prompt congregant to think what they did wrong, why, and how to correct the mistakes so that they don’t reoccur. One should leave services determined to repair the damage, not satisfied that guilt is erased.