Ivy tells me that in Judaism, you can sin without knowing it, which frightens the heck out of me.

In Christianity you have to know what you’re doing in order to sin. It’s the difference between an orthodoxy (believing right) and an orthopraxy (doing right.)  You see that most explicitly when Jesus says that if you nurture anger, you’ve committed murder in your heart.

But according to Ivy, if you’re Jewish and you buy a package labeled Kosher, you call the manufacturer and verify that it’s Kosher, and then eat it assuming it’s Kosher, but it’s not, then you’ve sinned against the dietary laws.

In the book I’m going to review later this week, I came across a distinction I’d never seen in a Christian book (which is saying something!) that if you fail to respond to God’s prompting in a loving way,that’s not a sin. That’s an imperfection.

Sitting at the bus stop while reading, I bolted up and took notice.  Really? You mean–those aren’t sins?

I’d considered those things “sins of omission.”  But now I find they’re not sins at all.

So here’s the new lineup, as I understand it:

  • You punch your brother in the face: sin of commission.
  • You notice your brother parking in a no-parking zone and keep that information to yourself so his car gets towed: sin of omission
  • Your brother is having a bad day, and you could say something to cheer him up, but you don’t: imperfection

Or to give another example, failing to file your income tax would be a sin against the United States Of America (we call it a crime) whereas failing to vote is merely apathy. Imperfection.

God deserves perfection, but let’s face facts: he’s not going to get it from me. I’d like to give it to him, but there are limits to what I can do, how often I will respond. How often my cranky self or my tired self will take over against The Spiritual Perfect Self I Was  Designed To Be. (TSPSIWDTB has not, in fact, shown her face around here since I was six months old and spit out my pastina.)

But those aren’t crimes. They’re failures to become a better person, to be God’s hands to others — but they’re not crimes.

All of a sudden, it’s more like weeding a garden than I thought. (Thank you for that metaphor, St. Catherine.) Life is good! There’s plenty to work on, but life is good.


  1. Ken Rolph

    Failing to file your income tax is not a moral problem. It only applies to some societies. Jesus failed to file his income tax return. I don’t see how this qualifies as a sin. It may be a crime or an administrative problem.

    1. philangelus

      My point wasn’t that refusing to pay taxes is a sin, only that the government regards that as a crime, which makes it the municipal equivalent to sin against God.

  2. Ivy

    We seek forgiveness for sins in error, sins commit unwillingly, and sins commit unknowingly during the Yom Kippur service. We can sin without intending to, and without knowing we have.

    I think your no-parking example hits it perfectly for Judaism. Let’s say you see a parking spot in a zone that says “No Parking Friday 9 am to 11 am”. It’s late Thursday night, you’re tired, you figure you’ll move the car in the morning and you’ll take the space. Then you wake up at 9:30.

    Did you mean to do wrong? No.

    Have you commit a misdemeanor and can you be fined for it? Yes.

    Judaism carries a stronger sense of law; Christianity carries a stronger sense of intent.

    Let’s say you don’t want to drive the speed limit. You hate it. You think it’s stupid. You do it anyway. You can’t get a speeding ticket, regardless of your attitude. Orthopraxy.

    Let’s say you don’t want to take communion. You hate it. You think it’s stupid. You do it anyway. Your attitude would damage your participation in the sacrament. Your heart wouldn’t be in it. Orthodoxy.

    Let’s say you don’t want to give up bread during Passover. You hate it. You think it’s stupid. You do it anyway. It’s a greater blessing because you’re overcoming your own nature to obey the laws. Orthopraxy.

    As I understand Christianity, if you can’t relate to G-d during Communion, but you feel a strong connection and bond while saying the rosary, you’re advised to focus more heavily on the rosary, which is another difference.

    1. philangelus

      We’re obliged to receive Communion once a year (in Catholicism) but I see what you’re saying. That’s one of the awesome things about “peasant Catholicism.” If you go into the back of just about any church,t here’s a bulletin board with pamphlets, devotions, notices, etc. Those aren’t “officially” Catholic but they’re all different practices and ways of getting closer to God. There are a billion Catholics, after all. It doesn’t make sense we’d all have the same strengths.

      I assume that within Judaism there’s a similar rainbow of ways to worship and adore God, and to grow spiritually.

      But that’s why you have people who are devoted to the rosary, and others devoted to the Liturgy of the Hours, others who find Centering Prayer to be amazingly fruitful and others who find it’s not helpful at all. Plus, in the same life, you’ll have different stages of development, so what worked for you once early on stops being as effective as something else. Or you find a new depth to an old practice, moving from merely reading the Bible to meditating on it to real “lectio divina.”

      And it’s all good stuff. 🙂 It’s like God dipping His hand into the jelly bean jar and coming up with ten different flavors.

      1. Ivy

        It’s kind of the opposite. If you’re good at studying Torah but bad at keeping Kosher, you should focus on the kosher laws. It’s the challenge set before you and the greatest thing is to overcome it. You don’t abandon any element in either faith, but Christianity has you play to your strengths, and Judaism has you focus on your weaknesses. Personally, I think Christianity has the better approach on this one.

        1. philangelus

          Oh, trust me, we have to work on our weaknesses. 🙂

          But it’s not a sin not to pray the rosary; there are other ways of praying. It IS a sin to be constantly screaming at everyone in anger, so we have to work on that and not say, “Well, but my strength is generosity, so I donate a lot.”

    2. cricketB

      In the parking example, it depends on whether you know you’ll get up when the alarm goes off and move it. In my case, guilty, both in deed and intent. Now if my husband had done it, and something happened to his alarm clock, it would only be in deed. Which brings up the further question about how well we know ourselves and whether we lie to ourselves about what we’ll really do.

  3. cricketB

    I can see it now: Every Jew in town performing a full inspection of the butcher and his entire supply chain. Then, in the little time he has left after hosting these inspections, the butcher joins the crowd inspecting the dairy. By then it’s dinner time, and no one’s cooked anything, so they inspect the local restaurant.

    We won’t get into a friend’s experience cleaning a machine for making chewing gum to Kosher standards. Suffice to say the procedures weren’t written with chewing gum in mind.

    Failing to pay your fair share for good government is a moral sin. Yes, the government isn’t perfect, the “fair share” calculations are biased, and we disagree with some of what they do, but the majority of their work is done well, and quietly. Also, they’ve taken over many things that used to be done by the church.

    There’s often a prayer or something said during collection at church. Is there a similar ritual for taxes? There should be.

    Did Jesus actually refuse to pay taxes, or did he quietly pay what was appropriate for his job and income?

    The only time I tell people they’re in a no-parking zone is in front of the school. If I knew they’d get there before the car left, I’d call the tow truck myself.

    Our daughter just (hopefully) finished another round of “it was an accident”. Uh, who filled the glass so full that the “accident” was guaranteed to happen?

    1. Ivy

      LOL! There are trusted organizations that handle such matters, such as the United Orthodox Congregations (their symbol is the letter u inside of a letter o). If you just see the word “kosher”, it likely isn’t. Google the whole debate over Hebrew National and its Kosher status if you want to see the fun in action. Or the discussion on egg matzoh for passover. It’s kosher for some people (the infirm and the very old and very young) but not others, and many companies present it as kosher for passover, but put the conditions of it being kosher only in Hebrew. This is an ongoing debate, because it leads people who can’t read Hebrew to sin in error.

      It is actually a violation of Jewish law to say a blessing prior to doing charity, because then the person would want to clean his hands first, so to purify himself before making the blessing, and if he hasn’t said the shema first, he’d want to do that, in order to make the blessing in the correct order in the prayer schedule, and a whole lot of pre-blessing stuff would get done so the person would be in a worthy state to approach G-d, while whatever charity was needed, wouldn’t happen. There have been stories of homeless men being offered donations of food, who wanted to say shema and wash their hands ritually and all that before accepting and blessing the food.

      Jesus didn’t refuse to pay taxes. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” and all that. He just didn’t fill out a 1040A, schedule 5.

      1. philangelus

        He also sent Peter out to fish, and he said that in the fish’s mouth he’d find two coins that were enough to pay the Temple tax both for him and for Peter. And the “render unto Caesar” does seem to imply he had no problem doing it and therefore probably did.

      2. cricketB

        Is there something other than a full blessing? Enough that He knows it’s His, and to ask that the next part of the chain (the politicians and bureaucrats) don’t mess it up too badly? Or does He already know?

        I always liked the offertory hymn of one of my old churches. Short, sweet and to the point.

        Your work, O God, needs many hands to help you everywhere, and some there are who cannot serve unless our gifts we share.
        Because we love you and your work, our offering now we make;
        be pleased to use it as your own, we ask for Jesus’ sake.

        1. Ivy

          I don’t think there is a half blessing. If there were, with the Jewish mindset, it would soon become “well, wouldn’t it serve G-d better to make it a full blessing?” Which would rapidly descend to saying shema and washing hands and…. It’s just easier to leave it at “do not hesitate”, not even for prayer. For some, finding an excuse to praise G-d is kind of an addictive behavior.

          A rebbi once made a speech before an audience. In the middle of the speech, he asked for an apple, and was brought it. He blessed it and bit into it. Then he told his audience. “There are some who make a blessing in order to eat an apple. Better still to eat an apple in order to make a blessing.”

          I keep giggling at “our offering now we make”. Wrenching the grammar to force the rhyme. *shudder*. And what’s with “some there are”? That doesn’t help the rhyme, and “there are some” and “some there are” both scan the same / . / So my only conclusion:

          “Of Jedi of old the last are we.
          Our prayers accept, the Force be with thee.”

          The sentiment of the prayer is beautiful. I really love it. The word order…

          1. philangelus


            There are some hymns that make me want to scream, and some I can’t bear to sing. I know Cricket’s church isn’t Catholic, but Catholics have some of the worst worship music imaginable. It’s gotten a bit better over the past five years, or maybe we just have been in a better church. But the contortions on the rhyme, scansion and meter are just abysmal sometimes.

            Ivy, how about doing the blessing *after* the charitable action? That way you’d have the immediacy. But maybe charity itself is a blessing. 🙂

            And Cricket, in my experience, God doesn’t half-bless anything. Either it bears fruit or it doesn’t. It’s like planting an apple seed and asking if it’ll grow half an apple tree. Either God blesses it up big, or God doesn’t bless it.

          2. cricketB

            I meant “shorter” or “something someone else might call a blessing but we call something else”.

            Love the parody.

            I preferred that denomination of all I tried. Very sensible.

            Have you been exposed to the Psalms sung with most of the line to one note, then the last four to a tiny tune, usually in a minor key, repeat for every line in the Psalm? Monotonous, boring, horrid. MIL’s church does that.

          3. cricketB

            Oh, and what about a stunted apple tree that only bears a few apples. “I had a little nut tree, Nothing would it bear, But a silver nutmeg, And a golden pear.”

      3. cricketB

        Sounds like the standards I used to write procedures for. It was often harder to convince my coworkers they didn’t need to do something than that they did.

  4. Nikki Hahn

    So true. Your title was very catching. I clicked on it, suspicious it might be another let’s-overlook-what-it-says-in-the-Bible thing, but was pleasantly surprised. I stopped striving to be perfect a while ago. Instead, I choose to be transparent like Paul. Let them see the weakness in me, the times I overcome my weakness, the times I can’t, and the times God helps me overcome and let them glorify Him.

    1. philangelus

      Welcome to the weblog, Nikki! I’ve been following you on Twitter for a while. 🙂

      I tend toward the opposite direction, the “If I feel like someone should be volunteering, and I don’t, that’s BAAAAAD.” That’s why it was such a relief to find that missing the boat on those optional “make the world a better place” things isn’t actually sinful. We should still try to do them, but they’re not separating us from God on the big scale. They’re just separating us from the good that could be.

      1. cricketB

        Over-working yourself is also bad, especially if it prevents you from helping in a way that’s more important.

        Nikki, your statement reminds me of my house-keeping guru. The belief that everything we have to do has to be perfect often prevents us from doing anything. Most of the time, good-enough is good enough, and it’s much better than nothing.

  5. Nikki Hahn

    I can’t overcome by myself on my weaknesses–just reread. lol

  6. Diana

    I’m glad you posted about this. I recently had a conversation with someone about this, and he (non-Catholic) was asking me, what about people who really think that what they’re doing is right, but they do something horribly wrong? Like, for instance, the suicide bombers? Someone who is really insane, who kills people, but who can’t completely understand what he/she is doing? I didn’t know what to say about that. Thought I’d throw it out there and see if anyone else had some insight.

    1. philangelus

      I’m guessing that if your moral reasoning is compromised, you aren’t morally culpable or praiseable for the things you do. The church explicitly says that those who commit suicide can be presumed to be in a state of pain such that their moral reasoning isn’t fully functioning and therefore it’s not a given that suicide is a mortal sin. But I’m not God, so I really don’t know. 🙂

    2. Ivy

      This reminds me of one of the teachings of the sages. Let’s say you have someone who loves to kill. The sages tell us that yes, we need to help this person, but also we should give him work as the kosher butcher. In other words, channel the drive to the good. If someone likes blowing things up, well, there are always mines to open, tunnels to build, and condemned buildings that need to be taken down. Lot’s of useful, good things for a munitions expert to do.

  7. Patient Husband's Former Officemate

    Where does the sentiment that “”I don’t always know the right thing to do, Lord, but I think the fact that I want to please you pleases you” fit in, if at all?

    1. philangelus

      That’s what makes something orthodoxic instead of orthopraxic. As Ivy said, in a pure orthopraxy, if you hated God and thought religion was dumb, but fulfilled all the worship requirements, you’d be a model member of the religion.

      But in an orthodoxy, intention and belief is taken into account.

  8. knit_tgz

    Thanks. Just thanks. My confessor had told me the same and now I finally understood.

    One thing I never understood, though, is: what’s the difference between apathy and sloth?

    1. Blue

      The way I understand it is, the difference is what you desire.

      If you are apathetic, you might have good intentions but you have no motivation. If you are slothful, you actually want to do as little as possible.

      1. philangelus

        It’s the difference between:

        “I’d answer, but I don’t care if you’re confused.”
        “I’d answer, but it’s too much work. Surely someone else will do it if it’s important.”

      2. cricketB

        I thought it was apathy is you don’t care enough to have an opinion, certainly not a strong enough opinion to do anything about it.

  9. knit_tgz

    Then, I suppose both apathy and sloth are sinful.

    And what is the word for: “I’d answer, but today it feels as tiring as writing a dissertation on philosophy” ? (Besides fatigue, that is).

    And also: How can you know when is the time to try harder and make a bigger effort and when is the time to take a break and rest?

    1. philangelus

      Sheer fatigue will mimic sloth. So will depression. That’s where knowing ourselves comes in. I cannot tell you how often I hear people calling themselves lazy when the real problem is depression.

      Just to share something bizarre, after Emily died, I wrote a Thank You note to someone who had sent us something, and addressed it, and was going to put it into the mail when I realized I *could not* mail the letter. Why? Because the stamps were UPSTAIRS and I was DOWNSTAIRS. And this insurmountable problem was too much for me to handle. I couldn’t figure out a way around it.

      Nine years later, I know that’s ridiculous. A normal human would get her butt up the stairs, apply the stamp, and go out to the mailbox. but for a while there, I was utterly frozen.

      Is that sloth? It appears to be sloth from the outside, but on the inside, it was overwhelming grief. I’m pretty sure that’s why the Bible assures us that only God knows what’s inside the heart of a person. The same actions can look like too many different things.

      For the second question, my response would be that you have to analyze how important it is, how much you’ve already tried, whether there are downfalls to continue trying, whether there are downfalls to stopping, and whether there might be a different way of approaching it. If God doesn’t want something good to happen yet, it’s not going to happen yet.

      I think if you ever feel desperate, like you’re thrashing, it’s time to stop.

      1. knit_tgz

        I cannot tell you how often I hear people calling themselves lazy when the real problem is depression.

        Depression is one of the less known problems in our time. People think they know depression. So we have depressed people blaming themselves because they’re lazy and selfish as they can’t find the energy to give love (or become frozen, empty or something like that) while other people who are simply garden-variety-sad say “oh, I was so depressed when my kid had a bad grade at school”. For most people, “depression” means “really big sadness”, so if a depressed person manages to keep a happy face, people (and many times the depressed ones themselves) will usually not suspect of depression.

        Also, I wish I could hug nine-years-ago Philangelus. And go get the stamps for her.

        Thanks for your answers.

  10. Pingback: Book Review: How To Pray Well « Seven angels, four kids, one family

Comments are closed.