Thursday, March 14, 2013

Of Guilt and Grace

In many ways it is much easier to be a Christian than to be a Jew. It's not only the practical side of the matter, that our faith places so many more expectations upon us to observe a discipline and a lifestyle. Even in theology Judaism seems a much harder faith to live with. For Christians there is a seminal concept virtually absent in Judaism. They believe in Grace. What is Grace? Well as best as I can understand it, Grace is the idea that even though we may be flawed in some fundemental ways and mired in sin G-d gives us a pass...a free ticket as it were. Through Divine Grace, they believe, in the eyes of G-d we are o'kay with our defeciencies and failings. For us as Jews there are no free passes. When we do wrong we are held accountable. We are always said to choose and held liable for our choices.

In truth so much of the allure Christianity holds for Jews who sadly and tragically leave our faith and embrace theirs is the relief they seek from the guilt that haunts them. I have seen over and over the young Jewish person, who is indeed soulful yet feels him/herself lacking, be enticed by Christianity for its invitation to Grace and liberation from guilt. The appeal of Christianity is not to our brothers and sisters who have no interest in G-d. On the contrary, those attracted are very much seeking a spiritual connection. Their problem with Judaism is that they feel it never lets them feel good enough about themselves. With all the expectations of Jewish life and tradition they feel doomed to Divine rejection. Recently I had a conversation with someone I regularly study with. He is a businessman. He is successful. He could choose to pursue any lifestyle he desired. Yet he keeps Shabbat. He davens each day. He commits to a set time for learning daily. He gives considerable tzedaka. In short, despite the opportunity to sin, he is faithful to the a Torah way of life. Yet my friend expresses concern over whether he is "good enough" and entitled to the "world-to-come". He is not sure if G-d will find him worthy. How can that lacking, so evident in the hearts of so many of us, not cause us a sense of sadness and angst even when we adhere to our faith and tradition?

When I open the book of Vayikra and read the seemingly endless portions that speak of sin and atonement I am reminded of the heaviness of our faith. Sin and sacrifice, atonement and punsihment, Judaism never seems to let up with admonishment. Do we ever get a break?
Is it any wonder that "Jewish guilt" is entrenched in our psyche?

So having painted the dark side of this canvas of our faith what is the bright side? How do we understand the lack of Grace in our tradition? Do we need to endlessly beat ourselves up?

On reflection I think there is indeed another side to the story. Do you remember many years ago there was a self-help, psychology book written titled "I'm Okay, You're Okay". It was very popular in its day. The author pointed out that all our patterns of communication reflect a sense of where we see ourselves vis a vis the other. Sometimes we speak to others out of a perspective that we are okay and they are not. Parents often speak that way to their children, but even adults to adults often take that superior position.
Then at time we communicate from the vantage point that "I am not okay but you are okay". Children often see themselves in that position relative to their parents. Yet even as adults we can feel ourselves as children and not okay relative to others who we give power to. In marriages women often feel that imbalance relative to their husbands. There are also times when we are in relationship with another where we feel neither of us is okay. All the above scenarios in the view of the author are mentally unhealthy. To be healthy and happy we need to live out of a framework where "I am okay and you are okay".

But what if we are not okay? What if we have sinned and are compromised as persons? In this model we need to be free of that which makes us not okay. Sin is a stain that makes us not okay and no being ok compromises our wellbeing.

Indeed for a Christian sin is not okay. If one sins, for Catholics, one goes to a private confession. Sin cannot be made public. Moreover one cannot take communion until one has confessed and been absolved of sin. One is essentially rendered unacceptable through sin, cast out from the community of faith. If one's sins are pervasive one needs Grace. Without Grace the person is doomed and forever without a place in the community of the G-dly. Indeed with that perspective, where sin cannot be mentioned and to sin is to be unacceptable of course Grace is vital and necessary. We need to be Okay and can never be Okay with the stain of sin.

Our faith is oh so different. True the Torah goes into great detail describing atonement and the consequences of sin. But sin for us is no shame. We bring sin offerings as a public event. The 'chahat', animal offerring for sin is brought to the Temple and publically sacrificed. Thousands bring the offering each day. It is not an exception to the norm. It is the norm. The Torah normalizes it in procedure and process. Everyone sins! Confession? sure we confess. But it's not private. On Yom Kippur we all confess our sins, and we do it in unison and in voice. And even as those bearing sin we are not cast out. We need no Grace to belong to the community of faith.
We enter the Temple as sinners. We are never cast out!

If there is a model that fits the Jewish concept of being okay it is "I am not Okay, You're not Okay, but that's Okay!"
Judaism does not whitewash sin or give us a free pass. It does need to pretend we have not sinned with a cheap grace.
Judaism indeed holds us accountable. We are liable for our misdeeds. But even with them we are acceptable. Not because we have no sin, but because sin is part of our being human. Our work is to strive to get better. But we will always have sin. Even the best of us!
Judiasm teaches us that while I need strive to excellence I am ok being flawed. In fact if I was not flawed there would be no purpose to my place in the world. In my flawedness all the good I do becomes that much more impressive and meaningful. Only because I am flawed does my life have meaning for both others and self.

G-d does not need to pretend we are better than we are to love us. G-d loves us and welcomes us into an intimacy with Him with our limitations. We do not need to be perfect to be acceptable to Him.
Our real challenge is to imitate G-d's ways and love and accept ourselves as we are.

Shabbat Shalom

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