Sin, Guilt, and Atonement in Judaism: Why Jesus is Not the (Jewish) Answer

Sin—and its ugly cousins, guilt and atonement—are not very popular topics. Christopher Hitchens called the atonement—that “ancient superstition”[1]—Christianity’s most immoral sin. He succinctly put his thoughts on atonement into clear words, probably reflecting the views of many modern people:

“Once again we have a father demonstrating love by subjecting a son to death by torture, but this time the father is not trying to impress god. He is god, and he is trying to impress humans. Ask yourself the question: how moral is the following? I am told of a human sacrifice that took place two thousand years ago, without my wishing it and in circumstances so ghastly that, had I been present and in possession of any influence, I would have been duty-bound to try and stop it. In consequence of this murder, my own manifold sins are forgiven me, and I may hope to enjoy everlasting life.”[2]

Hitchens is not alone in viewing the vicarious death of Jesus as morally repulsive. Many secular moderns feel very similar emotions. The atonement sounds like a bunch of hogwash. But why are the concepts of atonement, both within Judaism and Christianity, so morally repulsive? I believe this increase in disgust towards religious concepts of atonement is inevitably linked to modern man’s denial of the concept of sin. And the concept of sin is further denied because sin is impossible without God. A secular man who denies God is a secular man who denies sin; a secular man who denies sin is a secular man who denies any such thing as atonement. The Jewish theologian, Michael Wyschogrod, acutely aware of this problem, correctly writes that “sin is so difficult for modern, secular man to accept.”[3] Moreover, those concepts which are most closely related to sin—namely, guilt, punishment, and atonement—are rendered meaningless once sin itself is eliminated. Therefore, there is a “reluctance to speak of guilt and punishment, concepts that many today find psychologically unhealthy.”[4]

In light of the comments made above by Hitchens regarding the idea of atonement—predictably coming from a man who has zero training in theology and is an anti-theist—I believe that a more nuanced approach towards sin, guilt, and atonement must be taken. In what follows, I will look at these three concepts from a Jewish perspective, mostly engaging with Wyschogrod’s illuminating essay “Sin and Atonement in Judaism,” which, I hope, will further deepen our understanding of Christian understandings of these concepts (having sprouted out of Judaism anyhow).

Wyschogrod begins by observing that Judaism has long been on the defensive regarding sin, guilt, and atonement. He sees Jewish theology obsessively slaving away under the pressure of Christians and secular people. The Jewish theologians were too busy trying to make distinctions between that which was Jewish and that which was Christian; that which was Jewish and that which was secular. Instead of taking this approach, Wyschogrod takes a thoroughly Orthodox Jewish approach in which he mostly engages, first and foremost, with the biblical texts themselves. Wyschogrod is mostly trying to address the issues of atonement and sin from a thoroughly Bible-centered perspective.

Regarding sin, Wyschogrod writes that the Jewish theologians had to compose their theology reacting to Christianity’s stance. In Christianity, especially early Christianity, the idea that flourished was the sinfulness of humankind at the expense of God’s mercy. That is, the Christians were more prone to elaborating upon humankind’s absolute sinfulness before God than they were at speaking about God’s mercy and the beauty of God’s creation. In such a way, Judaism was seen to take a more positive view of the world; whereas Christianity took a more negative view towards the world. Where the Christians exalted celibacy, the Jews exalted marriage; where the Christians preached rejection of material goods and their (almost) inherent evil, the Jews saw everything material as being good because God said it was (Genesis 1:31). “[C]ondemnation of the material came to Christianity from Platonic and Gnostic sources which were and are in sharp conflict with the life-affirming realism of Judaism, for which celibacy is not only not a virtue but—if the word can be used—a sin.”[5] Wyschogrod sees Christianity as essentially deviating significantly from its Jewish roots. Moreover, the Jews, by recognizing that the Christians rejected this world (or, at least, that is what the Jews perceived Christians were doing) were rewriting their own theology—they began downplaying the sinfulness of humanity and the goodness of marriage and the material world. Wyschogrod argues that, still later, the Jews accepted secularism’s anti-sin stance hook, line, and sinker. “It is the secular spirit of our time that finds talk about sin objectionable.”[6] in modern times it is this culmination and combination of various factors which have led to modern, liberal Jews taking an anti-sin position—sin no longer is a popular or even a “gentleman’s” topic. Sin is something that our dumb ancestors came up with; it is high time to shed such superstitious beliefs.

But what exactly is sin, and why is it something which “liberal” Jews and secular men find repulsive? Wyschogrod believes that sin is contingent upon God’s existence. Once we eliminate God out the picture (as Hitchens does) it is impossible to speak of sin. No such thing exists. He writes that sin is, simply, a “violation of the command of God.”[7] Moreover, Wyschogrod believes that secular folk commonly assume that sin is to be identified with wrongdoing and vice versa. However, sin is not wrongdoing per se. Sin is only possible when there is a violation of a command which came from a lawgiver. That is, sin is an attack on the personality of God; it is an attack on God’s authority. It is to say to God, “I know you personally, I know what you hate, and I choose to do that which you hate.” Sin is committed only against those who have personalities. On the contrary, the secular folk, who deny God’s existence, simply exchange sin with the word “wrongdoing.” For them, any kind of technical error is wrong and hence is a “wrongdoing.” But this makes “sin” (i.e., “wrongdoing”) analogous to committing an error when solving a mathematical equation. It is paramount to claiming that sin is nothing more than just a human error. Big deal? A man answered the question What is 2+2?with 5.The problem with secular conceptions of sin should now be obvious: the principles underlying such conceptions are inherently atheistic and presume the nonexistence of divine commands coming from a personality. Wyschogrod argues that the secular conception of sin can only lead to “regret” not (religious) guilt. How could a person solving an objective mathematical equation incorrectly feel guilty? Such a person feels mere regret. That’s it. “[S]uch a violation does not constitute sin.”[8]

In what ways does a Jewish conception of sin, which is inherently religious, differ from a secular conception of “wrongdoing”? We have already noted how Wyschogrod makes a distinction between religious sin/guilt and secular wrongdoing/regret. We have also already looked at the importance of God and personality. I will now attempt to synthesize a thoroughly Jewish and biblical perspective on sin—the gospel according to Wyschogrod.

Wyschogrod takes us back to the Garden of Eden. In the Garden, God gave Adam and Eve a divine command which was rooted in Him—rooted in His divine personality—“Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for on the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17 KJV). Wyschogrod succinctly summarizes this narrative theologically:

“The implication clearly is that eating of the forbidden tree will result in man obtaining knowledge of good and evil. Instead of simply obeying the divine lawgiver, he will then be in a position to know why the good is good and the evil, evil. It seems that God does not wish man to have this knowledge. He is to obey God in order to obey God and for no other reason. And when he disobeys God, he has not violated a law that has an autonomous claim on his conscience and which therefore puts him in the wrong in an objective sense, but he has rebelled against God, whose command he has broken. The violation is, then, directed at God. And because it is directed at God, it constitutes a break in a relationship between God and man and requires remediation.”[9]

Now that Wyschogrod had defined sin according to the Hebrew Bible, he has laid the foundation for us to what will now follow: the concepts of guilt and atonement.

Because sin is a transgression of (1) a divine command issued by (2) God who has (3) a personality, this means that sin inevitably leads to a broken relationship, which further results in (a) guilt and, later, (b) (possible) atonement.

In the Garden, “[m]an’s first sin is thus an act of disobedience whose aim is to obtain a knowledge that will make man God-like.”[10] Apart from this knowledge, prior to the eating of the fruit, humankind was entirely dependent upon God, both for morality and guilt. If God did not tell you to feel guilty, you couldn’t possibly feel guilty. Humankind had been given the choice to live according to God’s idea of right and wrong, and, ultimately, God’s idea of good and evil. However, humans had decided that God was acting capriciously when handing down commands. In this way, “[m]an not only disobeys God but signals his determination not to accept permanently the status of a creature of God dependent on God for instruction as to what is permitted and forbidden. He is determined to make his own judgment as to what is good or bad and thus become God-like.”[11]

Once Adam and Eve decide to make their own morality, not grounded in God but in their own (limited and sin-stained) reason, they discover that they are naked and feel ashamed (i.e., guilty). They start to think that there is something wrong with being naked. But how could they know? “God immediately recognizes that Adam and Eve are making independent moral judgments that are not derived from any divine command, and that can only mean that man has disobeyed God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit.”[12] Here is the decisive moment: Adam and Eve had discovered their own morality, grounded in nothing but capricious disobedience to God their Maker. Here they were at the epitome of reason!

On the one hand the seculars have their Platonic doctrine of “sin.” That is, humanity is essentially seen as comprised of knowing beings who act according to what they know. Moreover, they generally tend to do that which they know to be good. In Plato’s conception of reality, sin is merely a person doing that which they do in ignorance or ignorantly, again, confuse the good with the bad. In Plato’s conception of sin, those who commit it are not necessarily “evil,” they are merely “ignorant.” If ignorant, one may not necessarily be punished; rather, one is to be pitied. Clearly, Plato’s conception of sin is not what the Bible has in mind. The Bible does have things to say about sins committed in ignorance (Num. 15:22-24), however, the Bible sees sin as ultimately disobedience to God. God alone is Good and Just; he is the one who ultimately knows what is good for you, for He has made you. Wyschogrod argues that, contrary to Plato’s idea of sin, the Bible’s approach is very different. “The focus of attention is not on the particular nature of the act, its inherent wrongness or immorality. The focus is on the giver of the command and the damage that the sin has done to man’s relationship with the being who is behind the command.”[13] On the flip side, “obeying his command is to honor God, to recognize his authority, and to proclaim oneself dependent on him and subject to his will.”[14]

Now we must ask the simple question which many are probably dying to hear: is God in charge of reality or does man have free will? Wyschogrod makes a brief comment here that tends to give us a sense of what the Bible seems to be saying holistically. “[I]t is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Bile understands that, by and large, people do what they do because they want to do it and that they could have done other than what they in fact ended up doing.”[15] Given this underlying presupposition, it is easy to see why the Bible could place so much punishment upon humankind for their sins. This retributive justice, inevitably, brings to mind feeling of guilt, shame, and remorse. Only a man facing his own very real sin can claim to feel repentant and, ultimately, guilty. In this way, Christianity brings guilt upon humankind in full force and with unabated fury. While Wyschogrod agrees with the Christians that humans are sinful and should feel guilty, he believes that this sort of approach is extreme. He also is weary of the Jewish counter-reaction which resulted in sin being downplayed, along with guilt and shame. Summarizing his views of Christianity, he writes:

“Since the fall, man is naturally depraved and headed for damnation, from which only faith in Jesus as the messiah can save him. The net effect, at least to the Jewish observer, has been that Christianity seems to have emphasized the sinfulness of man far more than does Judaism.”[16]

In this way, “Christianity tends, far more than Judaism, to generate feelings of guilt and worthlessness.”[17] In such a way, the Jews believe that Christians have a “rather unhealthy view of human sexuality.”[18] Because the Jews wanted to present their faith as being different from Christianity, they made sin virtually nonexistent in Judaism (unfairly, according to Wyschogrod). “[S]in in Judaism plays a much less central role than it does in Christianity…”[19] Wyschogrod argues that Judaism’s response was not fair to biblical theology, especially prophetic conceptions of justice, sin, and atonement. “The dreadful possibilities of sin and the catastrophic consequences of sin are integral and fundamental parts of Judaism, both biblical and rabbinic.”[20] Despite Wyschogrod’s comments about the centrality of sin in the Bible, he believes that Jews are, nonetheless, much more optimistic when it comes to thinking about human nature. “The terror of total damnation, of total rejection by God is thus absent, and it is perhaps this, more than anything else, which enables Jewish optimism to coexist with profound understanding of the sinfulness of man and the reality of punishment.”[21]

But is Wyschogrod fair to Christians? After all, as a Christian, I can interpret the Hebrew Bible along the exact lines Wyschogrod does. I can further add that humans are worth so much in God’s eyes that God had sent His only Son to save them. Isn’t that more optimistic than Wyschogrod’s claim that only the Jewish conception can be so “guilt-free” and “optimistic”? Personally, while I agree with Wyschogrod, I do not think his observations regarding Christianity are entirely fair and correct. While he may be right about some (or even many) Christians, his statement is certainly not the last: the Christians can have certainly just as much optimism (if not more) than the Jews. For the Christian has the same Hebrew Bible as Wyschogrod…and then some.

We now come to the subject of atonement. Why is atonement theology in so much disgrace amongst the secular people, liberal Jews, and liberal Christians? The answer, according to Wyschogrod, is relatively straight-forward: we have succumbed to a thoroughly rational ethical system—we love Kant a whole lot. “[B]ecause the moral law is not a person, it cannot forgive anything, just as mathematics cannot pardon those who add incorrectly or drop an integer in a subtraction.”[22] With an objective moral framework, sin simply is impossible. Humans are seen as rational beings who merely make mistakes vis-a-vis the moral law. “The past can be learned from and the repetition of the mistake can be avoided, but the past mistake cannot be erased.” Because this is the case, “there is no place for a doctrine of atonement in autonomous human ethics.”[23] Once a human makes a mistake within a strictly Kantian moral framework, one is simply aware of how wrong one was; one is not obligated to feel guilty or shameful. One merely says, “Oh well, I committed adultery and I do not wish this act to become a universal categorical imperative. Next time I will not commit such an act.” In such an ethical system, there is no need for atonement. In fact, atonement would be impossible where sin does not exist. But with God all ethical systems change. The rules change. The game changes.

With a personal God who has a personality, wrongs committed against Him in disobedience to His divine commands constitute sin. And God, if He so chooses, can, as a personality that has relations to His creatures, forgive. “God tells sinning man that, in a sense, the past can be changed.”[24] According to rational ethics which do not have a personal God with a personality, sin is impossible and hence forgiveness is not really an option. However, in a religious framework, sin occurs and so does forgiveness. But how is one forgiven? How does one atone for one’s sins?

In Judaism, after the destruction of the Temple in the year seventy, the Jews were faced with a dilemma: they could no longer offer sacrifices to God. What were they to do? Wyschogrod shows us that the Jews went back to the Hebrew Bible and found texts which emphasized the point of sacrifices. The point was not the mere external act of offering God a sacrifice; the crux of the matter lie in the issue of whether such sacrifices were offered in a state of repentance. That is, a good sacrifice was good in so far as the heart offering the sacrifice was repentant before God. The Christians, on the other hand, responded by pointing out the contingency of Judaism—being useful only with a standing Temple and endless sacrifices. They thought that Judaism surely would collapse. After all, the Jews no longer had a way to become “at one” with God; without the sacrifices and the Temple, they were always in the wrong with God. The Jews responded to this: “Not so fast,” they said. They began “to stress the power of repentance.”[25] They turned to the “prophetic texts that spoke with very little admiration of sacrifices unaccompanied by the turning of the heart.”[26] In such a way, repentance was sufficient for atonement of sins. God accepted a repentant heart. In this way, the Jews were able to maintain their faith, its distinctions, and were able to refrain from falling prey to the clutches of the Christian Messiah, Jesus Christ. Who needs the atonement of Jesus when one has (sufficient) repentance?

This is the gospel according to Wyschogrod; in short, these are his reasons for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah—Jesus is not necessary for salvation. However, contrary to the opinions of the secular folk, he maintains the existence of sin, guilt, and atonement (by means of repentance). In a very memorable sentence, concluding his article, Wyschogrod writes:

“By pronouncing ‘It was very good,’ God takes responsibility for the totality of his creation in which sin, as well redemption, becomes possible.”[27]

Wyschogrod is content with Judaism, so long as it is grounded in the Hebrew Bible in an authentic way. He believes that dialogue with Christians is possible—and should continue. Likewise, dialogue with those secular folk should continue as well. While he may not convince me regarding the so-called “pessimism” of Christianity, he does partially persuade me that Jesus may not be, by necessity, the answer for Torah-observant Jews.[28]

All in all, Wyschogrod attempts to think both critically, sincerely, and robustly regarding sin, guilt, and atonement both in Judaism and Christianity. He tries to formulate a theology that is relatively fair (with some objections) both to Christians and Jews. In this sense, perhaps, his article is of utmost importance. He engages Christianity, he seems to understand good portions of it, and still stays faithful to his own Jewish convictions. His article is illuminating to Christian readers, those who may find it difficult to understand why a Jew rejects Jesus. Moreover, his clear presentation of the nonexistence of sin and guilt in modern ethics is very brilliantly and succinctly written. For this I do commend him. I have yet to read a better rejection of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah than this.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Bibliography

Hitchens, Christopher. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2009.

Wyschogrod, Michael. Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations. Radical Traditions: Theology in a Postcritical Key. ed. by R. Kendall Soulen.Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2009), 209.

[2] Ibid. Italics original.

[3] Michael Wyschogrod, “Sin and Atonement in Judaism,” in Abrahams Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, Radical Traditions: Theology in a Postcritical Key, ed. R. Kendall Soulen (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 55.

[4] Ibid., 60.

[5] Ibid., 54.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 55.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 56.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 57.

[13] Ibid., 59.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 63.

[16] Ibid., 67.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. Italics mine.

[21] Ibid., 68.

[22] Ibid., 69.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 70.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 74.

[28] See his article “”Paul, Jews, and Gentiles” in Abrahams Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, Radical Traditions: Theology in a Postcritical Key, ed. R. Kendall Soulen (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 188-201.

5 thoughts on “Sin, Guilt, and Atonement in Judaism: Why Jesus is Not the (Jewish) Answer

  1. Wow, very good and eye opening. I’ve always wondered about how the Jews consider atonement, so the paragraph about God wanting a repentant heart more than the sacrifice (as in Micah 6) the Jews seems different from when Paul about the Law of the Jews in his epistles. See Romans 2 which ends with verse 29 “But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”
    One thing that I don’t see being taken care of by the Jews is the consequence of sin. In Genesis, God told Adam and Eve not to eat of the fruit or “in that day they would surely die” Jesus took the consequence upon himself, and broke the power of death. This actually seems to be quite prevalent in the NT. “wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life”

    I still don’t get how they miss all those prophecies!

    • I can’t speak for the Jews (I think Wyschogrod is competent and can do that for me). About your comment regarding the “prophecies.” A critical response would be that the Gospels created the events after the fact (that is, they forged events to “fit” the prophecies). One can see this most easily in the Gospel of Matthew, where in order to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 in Matthew 21:7, Matthew has Jesus ride in on two animals — clearly a misunderstanding of Hebrew parallelism in poetry. Many other such things occur in Matthew’s Gospel in particular. This, therefore, makes it hard to believe that Jesus “fulfilled” the prophecies when they do, to an extent, present problems. Especially, when we consider the fact that, at the very least, some of these prophecies were certainly made up (with good intentions, of course). For example, Matthew, let us suppose, forgot how Jesus rode into Jerusalem. Starting with the a priori faith-position that Jesus WAS the Messiah, he could have looked at the OT, found the prophecy in Zechariah and then written the event with a clear conscience, being “guided by the Holy Spirit.” (I mean, come on, if I forgot the event, and Scripture foretold it, surely that’s precisely what happened, right?).

      • Luke’s gospel should provide a stronger case, still doesn’t take care of the overarching theme. That was kind of just an end comment, what about Jesus conquering death?

      • About Jesus’ conquering death, I’m not sure we could really reach any dogmatic position–that is, if you are looking for a black-and-white answer, at this point in time in my own thinking (be it right or wrong), I don’t know that such an answer exists. On the one hand, you have Jesus’ own positive statements in Matthew’s Gospel that not one iota of the law will pass away (5:18). If this is to be taken literally, which Wyschogrod would certainly argue, then Jesus is upholding the legitimacy of the Law (i.e., the Torah). If so, then one is bound to it–and all of its commands! On the other hand, there is a possibility of interpreting the overarching themes of the Gospels in accordance with an anti-Law approach (of course, this sort of anti-Jewish approach is validated by the Bible, no doubt about that). Both approaches rely on the Gospels (in order to interpret Jesus’ life and death, and the meanings therein) and both try to be faithful to the message of the Bible as a whole. I think it’s probably easier to see the NT as, generally speaking, being “not-so-friendly” towards the Law of Moses, but at the same time I would like to point out that Jesus most likely didn’t see himself as being anti-OT/Law either. While one may think of passages such as Mark 10, we are still left with perplexing texts that offer us no consistent answer. If consistency is what we are after, you won’t find it in the Bible–look elsewhere. To conclude this short response, I’d say that I’m not sure I have an “answer.” I wrestle with these texts as much as anybody else.

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