What is Sin?

A modern interpretation of sin and repentance.

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From Moments of Transcendence: Inspirational Readings for Rosh Hashanah, edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins  © 1992 Jason Aronson Inc.

I have often wondered whether the trouble some of us have with our religious observance, attending worship services and understanding our prayer book might perhaps be helped if we translated certain key words from their old-fashioned language to more current idiom.

For example, words like sin, repentance, and salvation: To all too many of us they carry little meaning, strike no significant chord in us. Not because they represent no realities, but because these words themselves belong to a bygone age when people actually said of some act, "That’s a sin."

Today, we would put it differently. We would say of the same behavior: "It's boorish, antisocial, indecent, neurotic."

What is sin? It is sickness of soul, unhappiness with what we are doing with our lives, to ourselves and to others who share our life: the unhappy misapplication of our talents and energies in directions that bring us no sense of fulfillment, no feeling of achievement or joy in living.

We have no sinners today. Of course not! Only millions of delinquents, of alienated, frustrated, hung-up, drug-addicted, sex-obsessed, anxiety- and guilt- ridden neurotics. That's all; but certainly no sinners--perish forbid!

And translated into everyday language, what is repentance? What, indeed, but the need and the longing to change, the effort to heal ourselves, the quest for a cure for our sickness of soul.

What does a skillful psychiatrist accomplish when he is successful? He turns his patient around. He redirects the sick way the patient thinks and feels and behaves, helps him change his pathologically unhappy mode of operation for another way, a way that will make him regard himself with esteem rather than with contempt. To change, to turn from a bad to a better way, is precisely the meaning of teshuvah, the etymological denotation of the Hebrew word for repentance: teshuvah.

Or, take the word salvation. It is just an old word, which means being saved, rescued from some danger or trouble or disease. Translated into current language, it means being healthy: having a wholesome sense of well-being at peace with oneself and the world.

Sin, then, is just sickness of the soul. Repentance is the prescription for its cure. Salvation is health; the cure itself.

Rabbi Dr. Albert S Goldstein (2006) graduated from the University of Cincinnati and was ordained in 1932 at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. In 1959, he received a doctorate from the Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. He was a pulpit rabbi in Cedar Rapids, IA, Tremont Temple in New York City, Temple Shalom in Chelmsford, MA and Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline MA, where he became Rabbi Emeritus in 1976. Dr. Goldstein also taught theology at Boston College and Tufts University. He died in 2006, at the age of 98.