Ask the Rabbis: What is the Greatest Sin for Which the Jewish Community Should Atone?

By | Nov 16, 2011


As a community, we are responsible for actions of our own and of the Jewish state. One sin that stands out for me is our ever-continuing campaigns in Israel of displacing Bedouins, destroying their homes and mosques, forcing many of them into urban cultures where they slowly deteriorate and replacing their traditional living and grazing spaces with new developments and infrastructures. The Bedouins are loyal to the State of Israel, and some even serve in the Israeli army, but they continue to be treated unfairly, in opposition to the most basic values of Judaism: “When a stranger [non-Jew] lives amongst you, you shall not mistreat him; like one of the natives of your own people shall he be to you, the stranger who dwells in your midst, and you shall love him like yourself” (Leviticus 19:33-34); “one law shall there be, equally for you and for the stranger who dwells amongst you” (Exodus 12:49, 22:20 and 23:9; Deuteronomy 24:22). We were long ago instructed to make sure that the stranger who dwells amongst us has a piece of land to live on and prosper from, as it is written in Ezekiel: “And you shall divide up this land amongst all of you…and also to the strangers [the non-Jews] who sojourn amongst you and who have borne children amongst you, and they shall be to you like native citizens amid the Children of Israel…and it shall be that within whichever [Jewish] tribal land that the stranger is living, it is therein that you should give to him his portion, says God.”

Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA



When we promote an anxiety-driven formula that worries relentlessly about our survival as a people and the ever-present threat of our dissolution, whether by assimilation, intermarriage, waning allegiance to Israel, or moving on past Holocaust remembrance, we commit a wrongdoing.

When we erect barriers that shut out our own family, whether the young, singles, gays and lesbians, intermarried families, those who are at odds with Israel’s policies, or those who subscribe to beliefs and practices that are different from our own, we commit a wrongdoing.

And finally, when we focus on sins and not strengths, when we tear down rather than build up, when we chastise and condemn rather than comfort and show compassion, then we commit a wrongdoing. And in all of these things we could do much better.

Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY



Who can say what our greatest sin is? I am reminded of two core teachings:

First: Ayn kol chadash tachat hashemesh— there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9) Next: The Sages declare in Talmud Tractate Yoma 9b that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, or as some translate it: hating the cheyn, or grace, the divinely given particularity of another.

Perhaps the world’s ills can be traced to sinat chinam that is displayed by all humans, not just Jews. After all, being incarnate with bodies that can be harmed, hearts that can be broken and souls that can be undernourished is scary, hurtful and overwhelming. Almost all of us have experienced serious wounding. Without the resources to heal, we turn our fear and pain into judgment, anger and attack. We imagine that we are separate from one another and that we can therefore ignore, exploit, deny, degrade, harm or even kill another without harming ourselves.

Only when individuals and governments alike see the cheyn in every human, acting to heal, treasure and cultivate divinely graced potential, can we realize teshuvah—both repentance and return—to a world in right relationship with all created beings, with the planet herself and with HaMakom, God the omnipresent.

Rabbi Debra Kolodny
P’nai Or Congregation
Portland, OR

4 thoughts on “Ask the Rabbis: What is the Greatest Sin for Which the Jewish Community Should Atone?

  1. henry Gottlieb says:

    one word … ZENOPHOBIA

  2. richard rothschild says:

    The deplorable and outrageous fact that a well-known, world-wide Jewish sect’s self-defining bible, Tanya teaches that Jews are the superior race, race in the strong sense as being the consequence of a stable and unalterable substance sexually transmitted among Jews throughout generations from Abraham and Isaac on. The substance is the Jew’s divine soul; Jews alone have souls containing a literal part of God; a Jew is a Jewish soul in a human body. No non-Jew has it so good. Therefore, necessarily, any ‘good’ they do is actually a sin. You can read this disgrace for yourself, starting in Chapter 1, Book 1 of Tanya at

  3. richard rothschild says:

    “The biggest sin for which the world Jewish community must atone is its failure to spread its values…”, opens Chabad’s response. “Other faiths spread the word for us.” Effectively, for “Jewish ideas [became] the most successful in the world.” So the “sin” is not in the failure of the values from spreading but in the failure of Jews to do the spreading. Now, the Jewish values for non-Jews are summarized in the Noahide Laws. “In General, in modern times, [there is] no obligation [on Jews] to impose the Noahide Laws, or to punish non-Jews for violation… A notable and forceful exception is the opinion of the late M. M. Schneerson, the last leader of Chabad,” tells us.

    Schneerson’s response– which definitely does not speak for “the world Jewish community”–must be read in context of my comment just above. So must Rabbi Boteach’s Reply.

  4. Linda Abraham says:

    The greatest sin, with the longest consequences: Not ensuring that every Jewish child receives a Jewish education, especially up to Bar Mitvah age.

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