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

By | Nov 16, 2011


Imbalance. The collective atonement we most need is to recalibrate and re-center ourselves, as people and as a people. Hillel taught a balanced perspective when he asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me; but if I am only for myself, what am I?” Maimonides told us to strive for the shvil ha’zahav or golden mean, always avoiding extremes. But today it seems we’ve lost our way.

Imbibing the western Kool-Aid of individualism, we’ve lost Judaism’s traditional emphasis on taking care of each other. Or perhaps we’ve retreated into our narrow selves. Either way, something holy is lost. Mainstream Jewish voices are too often insular and shrill, deaf to viewpoints and narratives other than our own, “only for ourselves”; other Jews ride the pendulum to the far “not for ourselves” extreme, forsaking ahavat Yisrael (Jewish love, connection and responsibility) altogether. Neither approach can be sustained.

In searching for balance in 5772 and beyond, I nominate “sustainability” as the new Jewish buzzword. The Earth’s precarious situation demands ecological sustainability; our communal “continuity” agenda commends Jewish sustainability; yawning gaps between haves and have-nots dictate social sustainability; our own frazzled lives cry out for personal sustainability. All need teshuvah, turning, to become sustainable. Let us rebalance, re-center and recommit to being in it for the long haul, together.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Bethesda, MD



Heated and hateful arguments over the selection of films for a Jewish film festival. Baseless accusations about loyalty to Israel or lack thereof. Throwing stones at fellow Jews because they choose to observe and practice commandments in different, yet still legitimate, ways. Sadly, our community is plagued by disrespect and even hatred of fellow Jews who interpret and practice Judaism in diverse ways. While very troubling, this is not a new dynamic.

Nearly 2,000 years ago, as recorded in the Talmud, the rabbis asked, “Why was the Second Temple destroyed? Because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred, of one Jew for another.” According to this interpretation, such hatred transformed the face of our community forever.

Our community is still undergoing transformation. Each day, Jews find new ways to bring to life their Jewish values and practice in new and old, traditional and innovative ways. Rather than responding with judgment, hatred and disrespect that will continue to tear our people apart, let’s respond with ahavat chinam, Jews learning to love their fellow Jews.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Union for Reform Judaism
Fresno, CA



In Deuteronomy 22:3 we are told lo tuchal le-hitalem—“Do not remain indifferent” or “Do not act as if you were blind.” While the passage was originally about the mitzvah of returning lost property, in the 21st century I advocate applying this verse to lost values and forgotten commitments. It was through the study of Torah that we survived a 2,000-year Diaspora. But studying Torah is no longer a priority for many Jews. Our day schools are fragile, our afternoon schools are broken and the bar/bat mitzvah has become an end rather than a path to continued engagement. We can resolve major problems in our communities if we recommit ourselves to Jewish learning across age boundaries. More Jews would actively support the State of Israel if they had an excellent Jewish education. They would have learned the deep connection between the Jewish people, the land of Israel and the Jewish state. Similarly, if Jewish education were a higher priority, more Jews would give tzedakah to Jewish causes, because they would have learned why it is important to support the Jewish community. Ultimately, a community that provides quality Jewish education for children and adults will be equipped to meet the challenges of the future. Remaining indifferent about Jewish education is not a sustainable option for the Jewish people.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA

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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