It may come as a surprise to students of Judaism that Classical and Hassidic rabbis held a more nuanced and complex attitude towards sin than evinced in Biblical literature...

Contrarian Rabbinic and Hassidic Teachings on Sin

The Pentateuch and the Prophets as a whole seems to present sin in a straightforward manner and there is little overt complexity and nuance in the Biblical message. Sin led to the expulsion from Eden, the great deluge and the cursing of Canaan. Sin is something collective Israel and the individual Israelite are not to do and breaching this categorical admonishment will have dire consequences.  One need not look further for reinforcement of this perception than the 10 Commandments with its famous “Thou Shalt Not’s” or the numerous warnings of “Curses” in response to sin and violation of Covenant to get the point.

It will perhaps then come as a modest surprise to the student of Judaism that the Classical and Hassidic Rabbis held a more complex and nuanced view of sin that paints a less than black and white image and understanding of this religious category. To be clear, the Classical and Hassidic Rabbis as one would imagine did not promote sin; this notoriety would be left to the 17th century manic- depressive false messiah Shabtai Zvi who developed a pseudo-kabbalistic doctrine of “Redemption through Sin”. In this doctrine, certain sparks of holiness enveloped within evil, due to the primordial mythic shattering of the Divine Vessels, the antecedents of physical creation, could only be redeemed through sin. (see Redemption Through Sin in The Messianic Idea in Judaism by Professor Gershom Scholem) Nevertheless, the classical Rabbis did have some teachings that are sufficiently provocative that they deserve our attention and are required input if we are to understand what a broad Judaic view on the subject encompasses.

The first rabbinic concept we need to acquaint ourselves with is that of a, “Sin for the Sake of Heaven”. The meaning of this rabbinic terminology is — doing something that is clearly wrong (A Sin) but with good intention (For the Sake of Heaven).  The Babylonian Talmud in tractate Nazir 23b explores this concept and quotes Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak as stating that, ”Greater is a Sin done for the Sake of Heaven than a Mitzvah done not for the Sake of Heaven.” This teaching however brings to the surface a different rabbinic teaching, that of Rav who stated that, ”A person should always engage in the study of Torah and the performance of Mitzvot even when they are done not for the Sake of Heaven, for out of their being done not for the Sake of Heaven one will come to do them for the Sake of Heaven.” This counter teaching, which sees insincere Mitzvah observance and Torah study as having greater potential than a Sin for the Sake of Heaven, leads the rabbis of the Talmud to conclude that, ”A Sin for the Sake of Heaven is equal to a Mitzvah done not for the Sake of Heaven.”

In explanation, Sin for the Sake of Heaven has the virtue of pure intent and the liability of a sinful deed. Whereas a Mitzvah done not for the Sake of Heaven has the merit of a virtuous deed but the liability of a deficient intent, albeit one that can ultimately lead to a more sincere intent. It is worth noting that the upward spiritual mobility that the rabbis saw in a Mitzvah done not for the Sake of Heaven did not inspire them to value such an insincere Mitzvah as being of greater spiritual worth than a Sin committed for the Sake of Heaven.

One example that the classical Rabbis see as emblematic of Sinning for the Sake of Heaven is that of the Biblical heroine Yael. When Sisera, commander of the Canaanite army, was defeated in Battle he fled and hid in Yael’s tent. (Judges 4:17) Yael seduced Sisera and engaged in a quite heated evening of adultery. This for the purpose of weakening Sisera in what turned out to be in the Talmudic mind an exceptionally busy evening. (Nazir 23b) Then while Sisera naively slept in utter exhaustion, Yael killed him in her incarnation as a religious fem fatale. (Judges 4:22)

This rabbinic teaching on a Sin for the Sake of Heaven recognizes that sinning may at times be necessary and that if done with sincere intent it has legitimacy. True, it is not what Judaism is pointing to as an ideal, which would be sincere intent coupled with a clear cut virtuous deed, but Sin for the Sake of Heaven is as well not a priori rejected as an option. It is also worth noting that the methodology of studying Torah and doing Mitzvot insincerely with the assumption that they will lead to sincere religious life was not universally accepted and was specifically rejected by 19th century Polish Hassidic Masters such as Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha and Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk when it did not truly motivate the person to raise their level of intention. (see The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simcha Bunim by Rabbi Dr. Michael Rosen z’l pg. 155)

When we further explore classical Rabbinic teachings on sin we also find a vein of both limited accommodation to sin and as well a policy of damage control. The Babylonian Talmud in tractate Kiddushin 40a begins with a teaching of Rabbi Chanina that, ”It is preferable for a person to commit a sin in private and not desecrate the name of Heaven in public.” The Talmud then quotes a teaching of Rabbi Elai the Elder, ”If a person sees that their inclination is overcoming them they should go to a place where they are not known and wear and cover themselves with black clothes and do what their heart desires and not desecrate the name of Heaven in public.“ The Talmud soon clarifies that this teaching is speaking about an individual that is truly unable to contain themselves and thus it is better that the reverberations of the sin be minimal. Here we have a rabbinic teaching that while not condoning sin seeks to work with human frailty in a way that we do not see reflected in Biblical literature. Many classic rabbinic authorities (Rabbeinu Channanel, Ritva, Meiri) presumably astonished by this tolerance for overwhelming impulsivity seek to read this teaching in a way that takes a step back from the accommodation to human eros it represents, but others (Tosafot Toch and Tosafot HaRosh) acknowledge that this indeed is what these rabbis espoused. (see Steinsaltz Iyunim on Kiddushin 40a ad. loc)

We also find a classical rabbinic teaching that sanctions the performing of a minor sin by a more educated and committed Jew (Chaver) so as to avoid a major sin by a less educated and devout fellow (Am Ha’aretz). Some rabbinic authorities define a “Minor Sin” as a violation of Rabbinic Law (Mishne La’Melekh on Hilkhot Terumot 3:17) whereas others see it as permitting even a Biblical violation of lesser stature and weight (Gittin 30b and Tosafot Yevamot 93b s.v. Ela). The source for this teaching is in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Eruvin 32b which records the halakhic view of Rabbi Judah the Prince, ”It is in the interest of a Chaver to commit a minor sin so that an Am Ha’aretz does not commit a major sin.” This view despite the prominence of its author as the compiler of the Mishna does not go unchallenged by no less than his father Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel. He opines that, “It would be in the interest of a Chaver for an Am Ha’aretz to do a major sin and he not commit even a minor sin.” We have here a profound debate as to what extent if any can a person compromise their own spiritual integrity to serve another’s spiritual integrity.

Lest our imagination run wild, the case in which this principle of Rabbi Judah the Prince emerges is dealing with Biblically mandated tithes where he holds that a Chaver could tithe in a less than appropriate fashion i.e. not in the location of the crop (Minor Sin) in order to prevent the Am Ha’aretz from eating produce (that he provided the Am Ha’aretz) that would go without being tithed at all (Major Sin).  This view of Rabbi Judah the Prince does find itself being utilized in the halakhic responsa literature as a viable halakhic principle well beyond the issue of tithes. (see Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef’s Yabia Omer Part 4 Even Ha’Ezer Siman 4 for one contemporary example within the Ultra-Orthodox Sefardic community)

In this classical rabbinic teaching of Rabbi Judah the Prince we see that our responsibility for our fellow Jew and Jewess may under certain circumstances potentially call those of greater education and devotion to be willing to diminish their own potential conformity to the Halakha in its purist expression in order to mitigate against a greater damage to the religious life of a fellow Jew and Jewess. This could be called by analogy the path of a Halakhic Bhodisattva.

The classical rabbis also recognize what we would define as a lesser of two evils approach in relation to sin where the rabbis would prefer people to sin in ignorance rather than inform them of the wrongdoing and have them transgress willfully — assuming of course this is the probable result. The latter, willful transgression, is seen as the greater wrong and is to be avoided. In rabbinic terminology, ”It is better that they be unintentional sinners and not intentional ones.” (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 148b)

There is as well a willingness on the part of the classical rabbis at times to permit something that ordinarily would be forbidden, or look the other way in order to prevent an individual from transgressing in that matter in its forbidden state! In rabbinic terminology, ”It is better that Israel eat meat from an animal that is on its way to death that is slaughtered [in the halakhic procedure] and they not eat meat from an animal that has already died.”(Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 21b) In explanation, Halakha forbids the consumption of an animal that would die from mortal wounds or specific illnesses even if the animal had been properly slaughtered by a ritual slaughterer. Halakha also forbids eating a Kosher species of animal that died naturally absent ritual slaughter. (Mishne Torah Hilkhot Ma’acholot Assurot 4:1, 4:7-9) What this teaching is informing us is that the classical rabbis felt that eating the meat of an animal that died on its own is a more severe sin than eating the meat of an animal that would die but nevertheless was slaughtered.

The rabbis derive this principle of preferential sin from the Torah’s granting of an Israelite soldier permission in time of war to take even a married Gentile woman captive and essentially convert her and marry her — I will spare you the debate regarding when he is permitted to have sexual relations with her. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14 and Steinsaltz Iyunim of Kiddushin 21A) We will need to bracket the issue at present of the rather belated Geneva Conventions and their relation to Biblical morality and laws pertaining to war. Thus we see that the classical rabbis did not at all times and under all circumstances see the Torah as a zero sum game where either one lives in an ideal manner or not at all and they were even willing in limited circumstances to allow Halakha to be turned into somewhat of a pretzel to help Israel avoid sin. This Talmudic principle and analogous ones like it, for instance, ”It is better that they eat the gravy [of the forbidden fat] and not the forbidden fat itself” were adopted by later rabbinic authorities in concert with other halakhic considerations for leniency to as well permit the otherwise forbidden. (see Responsa of the Rambam Pear Ha’Dor Siman 132 for a case regarding Conversion)

The Babylonian Talmud in tractate Menachot 44a tells a rather wild story that while overtly seems to stress the reward in this world for the Mitzvah of Tzitzit (and Mitzvot in general), on a more subtle level tells us as well something about how the classical rabbis viewed sin in some circumstances. The story goes that there was a wealthy man who was very fastidious about observing the commandment of Tzitzit. Nonetheless, he was highly vulnerable to his libidinal urges and developed an active interest in illicit relations with prostitutes. The man hears of a highly expensive Gentile prostitute in a rather far away locale within the Roman empire and sends her fee of 400 Gold Dinars in advance, perhaps hoping that you get what you pay for. He arrives and is led to an erotic set up of seven beds one on top of the other –the first six of silver and the last of gold, all with fine linens with the prostitute laying naked on the top bed. He disrobes and begins his ascent and the Tzitzit begin to pelt him in the face. It is not clear whether this is meant literally as a magical episode or metaphorically as meaning that they aroused his conscience. He comes down from the ladders connecting the beds and sits down and the woman as well comes down and sits besides him. She is astonished and expresses a desire to know what he found wrong with her. He poignantly shares with her that she is the most beautiful woman he has even seen (apparently this was not his first such visit), it’s just that in this instance his Tzitzit reminded him of his accountability in this world and the next and simply deflated his ardor. The woman demands his name, the name of his city, rabbi and house of study and she bids him goodbye. She then proceeds to divide her possessions and treks to her failed paramour’s hometown and seeks an appointment with his rabbi. She asks to convert and explains the story of what inspired her and her request is granted. The rabbi in his parting words encouraged her to marry the lustful but conscience ridden student and the rabbis observe, ”Those fine linens that she prepared for him illicitly she may now prepare for him with halakhic sanction.”

This is quite a strange story even on a surface level as it is employed to demonstrate the “reward” for the Mitzvot, in this case Tzitzit. The lustful man is rewarded with the ability to now marry and have a permanent, sanctified and more cost-effective relationship with the most beautiful woman he has ever beheld.   For our purposes the relevance of the story points to a rabbinic view that sees the outcome of the intention to sin, and for that matter a lifestyle of sin itself, as having at times a rebound effect where a greater good can result from the trajectory of sin embarked on. In the words of Dr. Claudio Naranjo, a Fourth Way Psychologist quoting a popular wisdom teaching, ”The Devil knows not for whom he works.” (Character and Neurosis: An Integrative View-Introduction) Many people on the spiritual path can relate to the notion that if they had not gone through certain blind alleys, dead ends and misguided life choices they may never have arrived at a place of greater spiritual maturation.  It is sometimes out of our greatest personal darkness that we eventually reveal and experience our greatest light.

Let us now turn our attention to select Hassidic masters within the 19th century Polish school of Hasidism.

The Babylonian Talmud in tractate Gittin 43a debates the issue of whether a half-freed slave-woman can be betrothed. The sage Rabah is initially inclined to say no and after hearing the reasoning of his colleague Rav Chisdah reverses his opinion and considers himself in error in his original position. He then after quoting a verse in scripture where the Torah is referred to as a stumbling block (Isaiah 3:6) states, ”A man does not establish himself in Torah unless he stumbles in it first.” (Ain Adam Omed Al Divrie Torah Ela Im Ken Nichshal Bahen Techilah). The plain meaning of this rabbinic statement is referring to issuing halakhic rulings in Torah and the inevitable errors of logic and interpretation that are part of the process of learning for a rabbi. When the sage errs and is corrected by his colleagues this advances his learning process. (see Rashi s.v. Ve’Hamchshalah)

In the Hassidic teachings of Rav Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin this teaching takes on a much broader application and he sees this pathway of error and stumbling as being relevant to a person’s struggle for spiritual attainment in Divine Service and understanding of the Torah. He writes, ”That in truth so established the blessed God for by means of a person’s efforts and actions they will attain all the spiritual levels and therefore even though in the beginning this draws one to stumbling, nevertheless by means of this stumbling they reach and establish themselves on the words of the Torah.”(Likutie Ma’amarim Amud 13)

Professor Moshe Idel in his work Kabbalah: New Perspectives describes Hassidism as, ”The Psychologization of Kabbalah” here we have Hassidism as the, ”Psychologization of the Talmud.” What in the Talmud is an observation about the process of issuing Halakhic rulings, in Rav Tzadok’s spiritual hand becomes a guide for the personal journey of the spiritual aspirant. We learn by mistakes, by at times committing sins but if we are sincere these sins teach us and we come to an eventual place of spiritual integrity. Here we see that sin can have a constructive contribution to spiritual development. We need not seek sin out as we are reliable to find it without effort — it is part of the human condition.

We will conclude with what is by far the most radical teaching within the 19th century Polish Hassidic tradition in relation to sin — the notion that sinning can at times be God’s will. Paradoxical as this sounds, as conventionally we would consider sin to be the opposite of God’s will, in the antinomian mind of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, not so.

In his work Mei Hashiloah redacted by his grandson it states, ”With regards to certain things in the Holy Torah, when it is clear to a person that now is the time for the Lord to work, as Elijah did on Mt. Carmel, then it is necessary to overturn the general principles of the Holy Torah and act only in accord with the understanding [binah] that God infuses to man. Rabbi Nathan says that when the understanding is not present, the person is required to conduct himself in accord with the manifested general rules of the Torah without transgressing the bounds of the Halakha.  Rabbi Nathan further says, when a person’s heart strives after the will of God and he removes from himself all personal attachments, God summons him to do an act which seems to him to transgress the principles of the Torah, heaven forbid. It is concerning this case that Rabbi Nathan said that a person whose heart strives after the Lord and has removed from himself all personal gain can be certain that it will not be counted as a sin, heaven forbid. He can be certain that it was a time for the Lord to work. (All is in the Hands of Heaven: The Teachings of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica by Dr. Morris Fairstein pg. 38)

The Mai Hashiloah does teach elsewhere that this teaching is not intended for casual application and is intended for a ”Holy man”. (Mei Hashiloah, Volume I Parashat Kedoshim s.v. Ish Imo Ve’aviv.) I would also point out that when one considers what we know of the life of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef it would seem that the most radical actions he ever took perhaps in fulfillment of this teaching were to break from the Kotzker rebbe who was his teacher and perhaps to pray one of the three formal prayers at a later time than prescribed by Halakha! So we need to be circumspect in applying this teaching if at all.

By way of explanation of this teaching there is a verse in Psalms 119:126 that reads, ”It is a time to act for God they have made void your Torah.” (Et La’asot La’Hashem Heyfiru Toratecha) in the piece quoted above the author translates the verse, ”It’s a time for the Lord to work…” Regardless, this verse in Psalms was utilized by the classical rabbis to underpin the Torah’s granting emergency powers on a temporal basis to set aside Torah law with the rarest of commandments excluded from this permission. (see the author’s essay Emergency Halakha in the Rabbinic Tradition in Millin Chavivin Rabbinic Journal of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah) Rabbi Moderchai Yosef Leiner is taking a teaching that generally was seen as only to be utilized by Prophets and establishment rabbinic authorities and in general for the collective benefit of Israel, the Torah or a specific Jewish community and is applying it to the spiritual life of a holy man i.e. a true Hasid. The notion that in however limited circumstances in the life of the individual what would by convention be considered a sin is in fact God’s will is a teaching that while certainly invigorating in its radical nature is also deeply concerning in regards to an individual’s ability to make responsible use of it absent the natural human proclivity towards rationalization. I believe this teaching is the appropriate climax of our studies and I will close with some brief remarks that hopefully serve in the capacity of spiritual brakes for those however few who may be in need of them.

The intention of this essay is to share with the student of Judaism a broader understanding of the religious category of sin as related to by the Classical and Hassidic Rabbis. The life process, spiritual journey and human beings are often not simple and it would be a shame for people to have a sense that the rabbis of our tradition saw sin, which as it is has such heavy and today Christian intonations, in black and white terms. These teachings as a whole clearly portray a more nuanced and sophisticated view of sin than what some might have expected.  The depth of thought that these teachings point to hopefully will garner additional respect for the Rabbinic and Hassidic tradition. I feel it only responsible to add that the Rabbinic tradition is more complex that what this brief essay can reflect and in order to gain a fuller understanding of how sin was viewed we would need to attend to other more conservative teachings that seem to go in a different direction. Teachings that require our understanding and potential reconciliation are ones that express concern and rejection of, ”A Mitzvah that comes about through Sin.” (Talmud Bavli Berachot 47b and Succah 30a) and the rhetorical rabbinic question to be answered in the negative ,”Do we say to a person sin so your friend can merit?” (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 4a) It should also be mentioned that the Izbica Hassidic work Mei Hashiloah failed to garner an approbation from a single Hassidic Rebbe of its time. It is the author’s hope that this essay stimulates the reader’s interest in the depths of Rabbinic and Hassidic thought and as King Solomon says, ”If you quest for it as silver and seek it as hidden treasure then you will understand the awe of God and attain knowledge of the Divine.”(Proverbs 2:4-5)

About Rabbi Zecharyah Goldman

Rabbi Zecharyah Tzvi Goldman is the founder and rabbinic administrator of the EarthKosher Kosher Certification Agency. He is also the founder and director of the Institute for Halakhic Conversion. He is the author of a broad range of books, essays and articles covering a diverse arena of Torah including: Halakha, Kabbalah, Chassidut and Aggada. A Lifelong student of Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychology he currently studies Torah and Chinese Internal Martial Arts and lives with his wife Ora and 3 children in Boulder, Colorado.

Check Also

Use Your Whole Brain to Improve the Way You Live Your Life

Rob Schware, a Whole Brain Living Coach, discusses the paradigm created by Jill Bolte Taylor to understand thoughts and emotions, offering tools for a more controlled, enjoyable life.

Opinion: A Middle East Quiz for Pundits & Protesters

Moshe Phillips criticizes American commentators for lacking historical understanding of Israeli affairs and perpetuating misconceptions about Zionism and Israeli policy.