A recent discussion began among the Jewish community in America as they approached Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Like many online discussions, even responses to weekly rabbinical sermons, things got messy. Especially since the conversation regarded the definition of sin in Judaism. Some felt that Jews were not capable of sin, others outright refused to participate in an ongoing guilt complex among the Jewish people, while some expressed confusion at why “sin” was relevant at all, since the concept originates with Christians and not Jews.
Jewish theology is not a collection of statements (ironic, I know, for a people often narratively linked to a list of commands – thou shalt and thou shalt not) but is instead an ongoing discussion across time and traditions and folklore and origins (and, and, and) of what is best/ right/ virtuous in terms of the self and most thoughtful/ considerate/ compassionate in terms of another. The Ten Commandments, after all, are about oneself and one’s relationship to fellow humans as well as God. When the leaders of pre-captivity began adding and nuance the laws, and later when more commandments and addendum were provided, the rabbis taught that certain things (from the food we eat to the clothes we wear to our health and so on) are forbidden not because they are wrong but because they are obviously not right. As Rabbi Hillel famously said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah, the rest is the explanation and commentary; go and learn.”
This creates a rather wide gap in understanding, when considered. On the one hand, it leaves our understanding of humanity and evil up to interpretation. On the other, certain things seem to be self-evident. “Thou shalt not commit adultery”? What’s to discuss, right? Don’t commit adultery. Boom. God said it, that settles it. We’re done here, right?
Another way of applying this, specifically to the discussion of sin (or the consequences of our interpretations), is if we focus on the good and positive all the time, if we speak easily of self-empowerment or living our best lives, of maximizing our potential, of manifesting goodness… then… well, the reverse or opposite of this isn’t “bad” things, necessarily. Instead, the opposite of constant positivity is instead the erosion of any ability to identify what is true.
When we look at the world today, our issue isn’t an inability to identify evil. We can easily name evil. Rather, it appears our issue is living in a world of constant potential greatness – of “blessed”ness and “girlboss”ing – and the eays that this makes us unable to tether ourselves to reality. We do terrible things because it “Feels right” (for ourselves). We live in a constant state of pursuing our authentic self to the neglect of responsibility. We brush off friends when they become inconvenient. We harden ourselves even while we insist that we are soft and gentle, meek and mild, shouting constantly about the purity of our heart and how well-intentioned we were. Caught up in the promise of progress and self-improvement, we are too busy trying to escape reality to ground ourselves in it.
It’s not a new debate, right? This is what Raphael highlighted in his painting, The School of Athens. Art historian Horst Woldemar Janson wrote in his History of Art: The Western Tradition that this painting, above all others, offered “the perfect embodiment of the classical spirit of the Renaissance.” The tension between Plato and Aristotle is the centerpiece of the painting, indicating that the debate not only goes back to the Greco-Roman expansion in 4th through 3rd century B.C.E., but that their divergence is at the center of all philosophical thought. If we (like Plato) are idealistic and direct ourselves toward the heavens, then we are not of much value to “real life” on Earth. On the other hand, if we (like Aristotle) are focused on the present circumstance, we may never see the beauty that crowns the cosmos.
This is why the Jewish concept of sin is so provocative.
It is a common misconception that “sin” originates with the Jewish people and their sacred texts. In Judaism, yes, the word “sin” exists, but it is a word borrowed from Christianity (a product of Greco-Roman philosophy, specifically the teachings of Aristotle). It is not original to Jewish teaching or their sacred texts. Sin, as it is popularly understood today, is a transgression against God. You did evil in the eyes of the Lord and as a result, you will be condemned (forever!) to the fiery pits of hell. While Aristotle was less concerned with the spiritual punishments and rewards of our actions, focusing instead on law and justice in the present, his teachings helped Christians (borrowing a little bit from Plato) construct the idea of a hereafter where justice and retribution were executed by God. It allowed the fledgling religious community to build ideas of “persecution” and explain away their oppressed state, where they could not yet fight back. That would come later. For Christians, “sin” was the offense against them individually or communally. It was what brought about God’s judgement (later, in the afterlife), and was the ultimate punishment because, after all, if God is the big casino in the sky, “the house always wins.” It helped Christians explain injustice in the world. “Go ahead and do bad things! God will get you in the end!”
For the translator of sacred texts, throughout the centuries in-between then and now, who chose “sin” on the page to explain wrongs and injustices, their translation allowed them to sound religious and make an easy choice, allowing them to play into an understanding the reader was expected to have instead of developing (or even engaging in) a complex concept of right and wrong, of injustice in the world, and the ways in which we may hope for the moral arc of the universe to bend towards justice, but anticipate and explain the frequency with which that moral arc is broken.
For the Jew, sin is not a simple thing. It is a concept made up of three ideas.
- Chet – usually translated as “sin” but it doesn’t mean that. It means to miss the mark, or to be off. In other words, a mistake. Mistakes are manageable. You learn from mistakes. You don’t learn from sin.
- Avaira – also usually translated as “sin” but it doesn’t mean that either. It means to transgress, or to cross a line. Crossing a line is another type of mistake. You got carried away, you went too far, but (again) with reflection and introspection, there’s a potential for growth.
- Avon – more often translated as “iniquity” but let’s be real. No one knows what that is. For Christians, “inquity” is an inherent flaw in the person – not the views, not their actions, but who they are as a person. They might be able to do differently with coercion or force, but the flaw is who they are, not what they do so even when they try to do “right” in an individual instance, they will always return back to who they really are overall. For Jews, the word indicates trouble. It’s more serious than a simple mistake, but it doesn’t label you as evil. You’re not a debased sinner condemned to the fiery pits of hell; you did something wrong. Okay. Acknowledge that, reflect, grow, make amends, and move on.
Yom Kippur (taking place on the day I am writing this) is the most sober day of the Jewish calendar, the most serious of the High Holidays, because it is the day of atonement. Today, Jews around the world spend time in prayer and many fast as a sign of repentance (or “turning around”, reversing their actions and choices, changing their views, and seeking forgiveness from God and one another). Fasting, or abstaining from food and drink, is a way of “cutting the bullshit” and getting real with who we are when we are not sugared-up, lightened up, or well-fed and sluggish.
In the days preceding Yom Kippur, many Jews donate to charity or “make amends” in tangible ways to show God they are serious this time, that they’re going to get it right, or at least that they are trying in practical ways to reorient their lives. The idea here is, “Please God, show mercy. We mean business – we really are going to be different this time and make a lifestyle change!”
My challenge this Yom Kippur – to everyone who has read this far – is to focus instead on the ways in which we delude ourselves and hype ourselves up, the ways in which we cover ourselves in a thick paste of bullshit, of self-deception and spin and “empowerment” meant to make us feel better… and which, ya know… distract us from how awful we really are.
The world is on fire. Yes. I absolutely believe that.
The last few years have been painful and awful. I find myself rejoicing when friends and family members die because “at least they don’t have to see the next terrible thing when it comes. At least now, they can be at peace and not have to suffer like those of us who are still alive. They don’t have to see how awful things are getting as we continue to spiral and spiral around the proverbial drain, as we destroy our world and one another.”
I also believe we can’t lie our ways out of this. We can’t keep “positive confessing” or “speaking things into existence” or “manifesting” our ideal life like empty words colored up and printed on a t-shirt will make things better. We can’t bumper-sticker our lives with cute phrases and hashtags. We can’t keep lying to one another, and more importantly, we can’t keep lying to ourselves about who we are, how we are, and our complicity in awfulness.
I’m not trying to be a downer here, but… seriously.
How has the manic ramble of “I’m fiiiiiine!” and “Yeah-yeah, sure-sure, totally! Things are great for me! Doing so great!” been working for you? How has girlbossing and hashtagging, the Instagramming of sunsets and rich food been going for you? Have you ascended into your bliss? Have the lies we’re living in become your reality and made things better for you?
Or are you like me? Are you at the breaking point where, simply to keep yourself in touch with reality, it’s time to admit this thing has gone to shit and you can’t live a lie anymore?
Are you like me and you can’t spend one more night doomscrolling through social media only to wake up and caffeinate, to pop those little helpers and apply the sunscreen and makeup and hair product, to pin this and tuck that, then take a selfie and filter yourself unrecognizable while insisting through every channel possible #WokeUpLikeThis and #Blessed ?
Last night, I found myself ruminating on all of this as I watched a documentary The Devil Next Door, a documentary following the 1986-88 trial of Cleveland autoworker Ivan “John” Demjanjuk, also known as Ivan the Terrible.
For those unfamiliar, “Ivan the Terrible” was the nickname given to a notorious guard at the Treblinka extermination camp during the Holocaust. The moniker alluded to Ivan IV, the original Ivan the Terrible, an infamous Tsar of Russia. After World War II, a cruel guard named “Ivan” was mentioned in Jewish survivor literature like Rok w Treblince (1945) by Jankiel Wiernik (translated as A Year in Treblinka).
Massive deportations of Jews began on July 22, 1942, from Warsaw. Over the next two months, the Nazis deported more than 250,000 Jews from Warsaw to their deaths at Treblinka. It has been established that Nazis also murdered more than 100,000 Jews from other areas of Poland at the death camp. According to multiple accounts, including testimony and memoirs of survivors as well as German officers and those who lived near the camp, upon arrival at Treblinka in railway freight cars, victims were separated by sex, stripped of their clothing and other possessions, marched into buildings containing “bathhouses,” and gassed with carbon monoxide that issued through ceiling pipes from diesel engines. The camp may later also have used the poison gas Zyklon-B, the legendary gas used in gas chambers. In an awful theater of false compassion, camp workers took those unable to walk and those who asked for assistance due to age, health, and infirmity to an area called the infirmary, replete with a Red Cross flag. Inside was a large ditch where they were killed.
As stories and legends began to come out of the camps and were published, “Ivan” was a recurring figure of awfulness and cruelty. Most accounts depict Ivan as a young man, about 25 years old, at the time he worked in the Treblinka camp. He was known for his extreme cruelty. According to multiple accounts, “Ivan the Terrible” would cut off the ears of workers and force them to continue working as they bled. Unrestrained and unaccountable in such a cruel environment, “Ivan” would kill workers outright when he didn’t torture victims with pipes, a sword, and whips before they entered the gas chambers.
Collected together, the stories of the Jewish survivors recall six different men named “Ivan” working at Treblinka. Ivan was a popular name, given its origin as a Russian tsar. The true identity of the guard referred to as “Ivan the Terrible” has not been conclusively determined. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, John Demjanjuk, a retired suburban Cleveland autoworker of Ukrainian descent, was accused of being Ivan and he was tried in Israel in 1988, where he was sentenced to death. The conviction was overturned, however.
One remarkable event during the Demjanjuk trial in Israel involved a star witness for the prosecution, Eliyahu Rosenberg. Asked by the prosecution if he recognized Demjanjuk, Rosenberg asked Demjanjuk to remove his glasses “so I can see his eyes”. When Rosenberg approached, Demjanjuk cheerily smiled and offered his hand. Rosenberg recoiled and shouted, “Grozny!” meaning, “terrible” in Russian. Returning to the witness stand, Rosenberg furiously insisted, “I say it unhesitatingly, without the slightest shadow of a doubt. It is Ivan from Treblinka, from the gas chambers, the man I am looking at now. I saw his eyes, I saw those murderous eyes!” Rosenberg then exclaimed directly to Demjanjuk, “How dare you put out your hand, murderer that you are!”
It was later revealed that Eliyahu Rosenberg had previously testified in a 1947 deposition that “Ivan the Terrible” had been killed during a prisoner uprising, one of the many clues that something was amiss. John Demjanjuk was first accused of being Ivan the Terrible at the Treblinka concentration camp and found guilty in the 1986-88 trials of committing various war crimes. He was sentenced to death by hanging. In 1993, exculpatory material from Soviet archives later identified Ivan the Terrible as someone else, Ivan Marchenko, which led to the Supreme Court of Israel acquitting Demjanjuk.
On July 29, 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the guilty verdict on appeal. The ruling was based on new evidence, the written statements of 37 former guards at Treblinka (some of whom had been executed by the Soviet Union, others died of old age, and could therefore not be cross-examined) that identified Ivan the Terrible as another man named Ivan Marchenko. One document described Ivan the Terrible as having brown hair, hazel eyes, a square face, and a large scar down to his neck. Demjanjuk was blond with grayish-blue eyes, a round face, and had no such scar. According to one testimony, Marchenko was last seen in Yugoslavia in 1944. According to the testimony of Nikolai Yegorovich Shelayev, a Russian Treblinka gas chamber operator, he and Marchenko together with two Germans and two Jews, operated the motor which produced the exhaust gas which was fed into gas chambers.
But in a twist few could have anticipated, although Demjanjuk had been acquitted, he was later extradited to Germany and convicted in 2011 of war crimes for having served at Sobibor extermination camp. Before his citizenship in America had been revoked (1986) and he before his trial in Israel (1986-88), Demjanjuk explained his time during the war (1939-45) as a P.O.W. At his trial, he seemed amused as he explained he couldn’t have been the Ivan the Terrible when he was a prisoner himself.
According to Demjanjuk, he was born in 1920 in Soviet Ukraine and conscripted into the Soviet Red Army in 1940. From there, he claimed, he became a prisoner of war with the Nazi invasion. It was a partial truth. As a prisoner of war, he became a Trawniki man, one of the Central and Eastern European collaborators recruited from prisoner-of-war camps set up by Nazi Germany for Soviet Red Army soldiers captured in the border regions during Operation Barbarossa launched in June 1941. Thousands of volunteers served in the General Government territory of German-occupied Poland until the end of World War II, and “Trawnikis” belonged to a category of “Hiwis” (German abbreviation for Hilfswilliger, literally “those willing to help”).
The truth is, Demjanuk may not have been “Ivan”, but he was just as terrible.
Demjanjuk eagerly joined the Nazis in the spring of 1942. He was recruited by the Germans and trained at Trawniki concentration camp, going on to serve at Sobibor, another extermination camp, and at least two other concentration camps before the war ended. After the war, he married a woman he met in a West German displaced persons camp and emigrated with her and “their” alleged daughter (there were thousands of rapes in the region by Nazi and Russian officers) to the United States, where he became a U.S. citizen in 1958, still claiming he had been a prisoner of war and unable to participate in any efforts to resist the Nazis despite having been tattooed with an SS “blood mark” to designate himself as one with pure (non-Jewish) blood. Only Totenkopf had such tattoos, recognizable as the “death’s head” division of the Nazi military forces. The Totenkopf was also used as the unit insignia of the Panzer forces of the German Heer (Army), and also by the Panzer units of the Luftwaffe, including those of the elite Fallschirm-Panzer Division 1 Hermann Göring.
In short, it was for those officers willing to kill or be killed in support of the extermination of the Jews. The Totenkopf symbol is recognizable as a skull with or without the mandible and often includes two crossed long-bones (femurs), most often depicted with the crossbones being behind some part of the skull. According to a writing by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the Totenkopf had the following meaning:
The Skull is the reminder that you shall always be willing to put your self at stake for the life of the whole community.
Instead, Demjanjuk claimed, he had been a farmer. He and his wife settled in Seven Hills, Ohio, where he worked in an auto factory and raised three children. In August 1977, Demjanjuk was accused of having been a Trawniki man and the FBI began investigating him and his community of fellow immigrants. Based on eyewitness testimony by Holocaust survivors in Israel, Demjanjuk was identified as the notorious Treblinka extermination camp guard known as “Ivan the Terrible” – but again, there were multiple Ivans at Treblinka. This allowed him to benefit from the confusion, as Demjanjuk maintained his innocence, claiming that it was a case of mistaken identity. He was not, he claimed, Ivan the Terrible.
At his trial in Israel (1986-88), Demjanjuk defied his own legal counsel and testified in his own defense. It was a poor decision. He was asked how he could explain away previous testimony where he was expressed knowledge of Treblinka and small towns around the camp, including Sobibor. He maintained, with wry humor, “I always said, I was never in Treblinka… I was not the gas chamber operator of Treblinka.” While in custody during the trial, Demjanjuk was interviewed several times by news agencies. In an interview with Israeli national television, he proudly insisted, “I just know one thing, one way or the other, I’m a hero. That’s all. Even if they hang me, I’m a hero.”
Although he was acquitted in 1993, Israeli judges and prosecutors agreed that there was sufficient evidence to show that Demjanjuk had served at Sobibor. His application for American citizenship admitted as much, though he perjured himself when asked to explain this during his trial is Israel. Still, Israel declined to prosecute and in September 1993, Demjanjuk was allowed to return to Ohio. In 1999, U.S. prosecutors again sought to deport Demjanjuk for having been a concentration camp guard at Sobibor. His citizenship was revoked once more in 2002, although he was allowed to remain in America under surveillance. The full weight of his crimes would be revealed later.
In 2009, Germany requested his extradition for over 27,900 counts of acting as an accessory to murder: one for each person killed at Sobibor during the time when Demjanjuk was alleged to have served there as a guard. He was deported from the US to Germany in that same year and in May 2011, he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. He died in 2012, awaiting an appeal.
He may not have been Ivan the Terrible, but he was still terrible. To his death, he maintained that he was a good person, a good Catholic, even a hero.
I was fascinated with the way Ivan the Terrible manifested a lie so intensely, how he willed the lie into existence, that he actually seemed to believe it. He convinced everyone around him – his family, his neighbors, his coworkers – that he a good Catholic, a good husband, a good employee, and a man who always did the right thing when his true legacy was murder and unconscionable, horrifying evil – the true definition of “sin” in every translation.
Most of us (I hope!) will never do what Ivan Demjanjuk did.
But therein is the lie. We think we’re incapable of doing truly terrible things. We think ourselves to be maybe not the best kind of person, but certainly not the kind of person who would do something sinful. Even socially, within our different groups and cliques as we move through work and worship and play and gym memberships, as citizens of this nation or that, we think “those days are behind us” and “never again!” Never again will we sit by silently as hate groups take over this part of the nation, this part of the government. We would never intentionally hurt someone or pervert justice. We would never harm a child. We’re past redlining and implicit racism, right? After all, we went to the HR seminar at work, so we’re good. We have a token friend of another ethnicity.
In reality, we’re all participating in evil every day.
Many of us benefit from it. Some more than others.
It’s easy and cheap to keep our head down and laugh at this inappropriate joke or do nothing when someone else is responsible. We want to be liked, after all. We don’t want to be a downer, or a nag.
At his sentencing in 1988, a tribunal of judges asked “What punishment should be imposed on Ivan the Terrible? Who, with his very own hands, killed tens of thousands, humiliated, degraded, victimized, and brutalized, and persecuted innocent human beings zealously?” Demjanjuk looked around the room incredulously, even defiantly. “I have a pure heart.” He was a good person, he said. One way or the other, no matter what anyone said, no matter what was written in his own hand, no matter what role he played in death camps, no matter what allegiance he once had to the Nazis, he maintained, “I have a pure heart.”
For me, at 2 a.m. on a Thursday morning, I couldn’t help but think about all the times I had said something similar. “I have a pure heart.” Indeed, when I look over my life, the people who have said that tend to be teachers and ministers, like myself, who have committed the unthinkable and maintained innocence.
The great sin of Yom Kippur is that we are asked to spend one day to face the truth of who we are. As the holiday ends, Jews reflect on the coming year – who will live, who will die, and in what ways we will be held accountable, whether in this life or the next. For so many, that is too much. Reality is too awful for us to acknowledge it, especially when we are told to reflect inward. No one can claim innocence, and this sobering, offensive truth is offensive because it forces us to reconcile ourselves to our mistakes, our lapses in judgement, our troubles, even the flaws in our character.