Morality And Our Secret Sins: A Yom Kippur Musing

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Written by Elijah Blumov. Elijah is a DJ, actor, hip hop lyricist and singer living in Brooklyn, NY. Elijah hails from Austin, Texas. For more writing by Elijah, check out Double Mitzvah – Shemini.

Rated PG-13Philosophers posit that morality is the key mark of distinction between humans and animals. The concepts of virtue and sin have captivated humanity since our inception, and this neurosis, in its various forms, has been the foundation for all culture, religion, government – and civilization itself. The peculiar notions of justice, karma, mercy, and honor are direct progeny of this set of natural truths, which spellbind us to lead our lives the way we do.

Indeed, as Enlightenment scholars would be so eager to point out, we never would have attained full humanity had we never developed morals, but rather would have languished in a primal state of nature, no less a beast than the tiger or earthworm. As humans, we perpetuate the superiority complex of our species, and with plentiful evidence to support our hubris; we are above other animals because we have the capacity to make abstract decisions – decisions which rely on an esoteric code of judgment rather than pure instinct.

It is this human value of judgment, perceived as a universal constant and the prized ultimate truth, which has honed our notion of societal status quo throughout the ages, resulting in preconceived ideas of what is righteous and what is evil, what is virtuous and what is sinful. One could in fact argue that as a race we are so deeply obsessed with “right and wrong” that all the religions of the world are merely elaborate tools to guide us on a path of morality.

Though religions may differ on the minutiae of moral behavior, the overarching emphasis is the same, and Judaism, as one of the most ancient and historically influential faiths in the world, has been and is instrumental in paving the path of the righteous man, both for the Jews and as a precedent for younger religions and cultures.

It is for these reasons that Yom Kippur is the most revered, sacred and “important” holiday of the Jewish year. It is a litmus test of our people, the critical moment when all the teachings of scripture, faithful liturgy, and words of the rabbis are thrown into doubt… for if we have not lived “righteously”, isn’t it all for naught? When righteousness is not followed, is religion not useless?

Every year we go collectively through this existential crisis, and it is the burden of every Jew to be responsible for the preservation of meaning in our faith through the processes of forgiveness, redemption, and most importantly (and yet most forgotten), improvement.

Nowhere is this burden more evident or more crucial than in our relationships with one another. One of the reasons I am proudest to be a Jew is because Judaism is a faith of action, and while God may play a critical role in many peoples’ lives, the fact remains that many see God as an unrelatable figure, too abstract to connect with. Because of this, the greatest difference that can be made in terms of improving ourselves, the world, and affirming our righteousness is to make amends with and assist our fellow humans, a fact that Judaism recognizes. However, as I shall attempt to explain, it gets tricky.

One of the most interesting and amusing paradoxes of mankind is our bipolar relationship with the idea of “sin”, especially in a sexual context. Sin is synonymous with forbidden, and there is always a thrill in breaking the rules… yet it often seems that these “rules” were made to be broken as were it not for our supposedly chaste morals, sin wouldn’t be nearly as fun…. Sin is seen as a form of freedom. While from a modern standpoint most sexual “sin” (a term, thanks to Christian colorings, that is now more associated with deviance from purity than actual malice), is harmless (simple lust, promiscuity, trysts, kink, etc.), some is indeed quite harmful, and in some cases, selfish to the point of evil.

Personally, I feel like I have an interesting relationship with preconceived notions of sin… To me, sin is only truly sin if you’re willfully hurting someone, and that person will undoubtedly feel the ill effects generated by your maleficent appetite. For example, I have never cheated on a girlfriend… my honor prevents me from doing so, at least up to this point. However, quite hypocritically, I have in three separate situations persuaded girls who were currently in relationships to abandon their fealty in secrecy. Some would argue that this is inherently wrong, and I cannot disagree… Hypothetically I would retort that if the boyfriends didn’t know about it and never would, no harm was being done, and moreover that no one “owns” anyone – yet if I were in their position, I must say that I would find it intensely unsavory, and that, given omniscience, I would much rather the unfaithful companion in question tell me the truth rather than leave me blissfully ignorant.

Nevertheless, I feel no guilt. My rationale then and now was that the cuckolds in question either didn’t deserve their partners, or were not worthy of my respect. At the same time, however, I wished them no ill, and was determined to keep my “sins” in secrecy for the sake of their happiness.

While writing this, I received a Skype call from my dearest friend, and I read aloud to him all that you have read thus far… after some brief musing about how I was bringing up some “deep shit” but that I was “all over the place” (I apologize for this, by the way—I didn’t start out with a thesis, but I knew I would have a lot to say) we both concluded somewhat in jest that the gist of morality is that you just “can’t be an asshole in public”… which, while crude and general, is sadly somewhat true. And THAT I believe (in a brilliant segue!) is partially what Yom Kippur, and the idea of God in particular, attempts to remedy.

Secret sin. The sin you talk yourself into. The sin you justify. Just as people will engage in Lashon Hara behind others’ backs, so too will they give in to the darkness in other ways when they know that society will not judge them for it. Or when they know that the poison of others’ suffering will either not result from their misdeeds, or worse, that those suffering simply will not be able to trace the cause. How are we to atone for these secret sins without turning over a hornet’s nest of unnecessary misery when the truth is unearthed from our blackened souls?

Therein lies the God device, a way of creating a monologue both internal and external, spiritual and celestial. When we talk to God, we talk to ourselves, and reveal things to our consciousness we would never have the opportunity to discover and explore within the confines of societal expectations.

Yet ultimately, Yom Kippur is less about bringing oneself inner peace, and more about making changes. Atonement is pointless if you do not change your ways in the future. It takes introspection to forgive yourself, but a much rarer courage to ask forgiveness of others. With every sin we carry, we must weigh the consequences of not only the act itself, but of our behavior surrounding it. In some cases, such as the one I described, so long after the fact, were I to go to these gentlemen and confess my wrongs, asking for forgiveness, it would likely only be salt in a previously unnoticed wound, not a gesture of grace.

Instead, I would leave this matter to myself, and ask God to judge me how He sees fit, and through the power of my virtue, and my faith, resolve to be a better man in the coming year, despite my current indifference. If however I had deeply hurt someone, or made an enemy, which to me would be a sin, it would then be my duty as a human and as a Jew to confront this person, apologize, and resolve myself to not only change, but to atone for my damage to the best of my ability.

I believe that every human is much more evil than they say they are, yet simultaneously, much more good than they’re given credit for. The dual portraits of Hobbes’s humanity, Darwinian and instinctual to the extreme, and Locke’s humanity, driven by the idea that morality is no construct, but that we are all inherently good, need not be mutually exclusive, nor entirely correct. Everyone has seeds of goodness in them, which resolve to remedy the continual influence of the seeds of vice which are also inherent in us. This cycle reaches its pinnacle at Yom Kippur, and it is through this cycle, not just of morality but the lack thereof, that we may consider ourselves truly human.

Elijah is a college-bound student who has worn the masks of actor, singer, writer, Hip Hop lyricist, and DJ. Elijah is a passionate believer in the fulfillment of one's potential self, and strives for excellence in all aspects of life, from the lecherous to the sublime.
  • Ayo Oppenheimer

    First, thank you for sharing this musing with us. Yom Kippur and the God device, as you call it, are powerful tools and frameworks for reflection and self-improvement, and I’m glad that you call them out as such.

    Second, it is interesting and perhaps even admirable that you so stand by your actions and decisions that you’d be willing to share them in a public forum – even when they go against societal expectations and conventionally accepted morals. But I wouldn’t expect anything different from you. Your confidence of conviction is clear.

    Third, “The gist of morality is that you just ‘can’t be an asshole in public'”. “I believe that every human is much more evil than they say they are.” “The cuckolds in question either didn’t deserve their partners, or were not worthy of my respect.” Oy. I am undoubtedly more idealistic and naive than you, but these ideas paint a sad picture for humanity and the consideration and care that we have for one another, particularly the third quote. What would have made the partners “worthy of your respect”, or deserving of their own girlfriends? Doesn’t it seem more like a post-facto justification than a moral stand?

    Lastly, “To me, sin is only truly sin if you’re willfully hurting someone, and that person will undoubtedly feel the ill effects generated by your maleficent appetite.” This, too, leads to an interesting question. If you rob a bank but have no specific malice against the bank owner, is that not true sin in your mind? Aren’t we responsible not only for our immediate actions, but the consequences that they yield as well?

    I’m interested in your thoughts. Keep on tearin’ up, Brooklyn, Mr. Blumov.

  • Bella

    The idea of sin as willfully hurting someone is really interesting–it’s a fresh take on what truly constitutes right and wrong. Nicely done!