Speakers describe sin from both religious, secular perspectives in interfaith forum

Students of all faiths congregated last week to discuss sin with religious leaders. Amy Sprengelmeyer ’00 began the evening by describing her hope that “Conceptions of Sin: Jewish and Religious Perspectives” would be the first in a series of events to foster Jewish-Christian dialogue throughout the year. She then introduced the presenters: Rabbi Matthew Kraus, Assistant Professor of Classics; Father William Cyr, Pastor, Saints Patrick and Raphael parishes; and Professor Victor Hill, Thomas T. Read Professor of Mathematics.

Sprengelmeyer said the lecturers spoke “in the order that their religions were established.”

Sprengelmeyer introduced Kraus by saying that he and his wife were rabbis of concregations in Worcester, Mass. Kraus began his remarks with a story about a group of rabbis who were attending a theological lecture on sin on a Friday night but left at 5 p.m., right in the middle of the lecture, to perform their

services. While the conception of sin is important to the Jewish faith, Kraus used the story to illustrate that the performance of ritual is more important. Kraus also read the Jewish prayer asking for forgiveness from God to the audience.

Cyr led into his presentation with the acknowledgment that Catholic conceptions of sin, while more theological than Judaism, were very similar. Cyr described the Catholic division of sin into mortal sin, in which one is turned away from God completely, and venial sin, a sin which goes against God’s will without turning one away from God completely.

Introduced by Christain Fellowship member Kate Hedden ’98, Hill described the closeness of his own Episcopalian denomination to Catholicism. “When given the choice among Jewish, Catholic or Protestant, the Episcopalian either chooses Catholic and Protestant or none,” he said. Hill noted that he sounded a lot like Cyr in what he was saying. Even though Catholicism and Protestantism have some theological differences, the conceptions of sin that both hold are very similar.

After the prepared remarks, the participants took questions from the audience. One person asked if Christianity, Catholicism in particular, had notions of group forgiveness or whether confession and forgiveness was strictly personal. Cyr explained the genesis of individual confession as Catholics know it now, which came from Irish traditions that were incorporated over time into the Catholic faith. Cyr noted that the communal nature of forgiveness is not totally absent in Catholicism, though.

Rabbi Devorah Jacobson, the Associate Chaplain of Williams, asked if there had ever been a time in the evolution of Christian doctrine when something that was once considered not a sin then came to be recognized as a sin. Cyr, in response, noted two examples: slavery and capital punishment.

Cyr then asked Rabbis Jacobson and Kraus about authority in the Jewish faith. They responded that each rabbi is the authority for his or her congregation and therefore there might be some differences among congregations in terms of practices.

Judy Wines ’00 said of the evening, “It was interesting that given the potential to evolve in different directions, the three views have remained so similar. I learned a lot about how Christianity took conceptions of sin that it received from Judaism.”

Chris Stephans ’99 said, “I think the evening was a success: I learned something new about each of the traditions featured, and I sense that others did, too. It was also a good opportunity to interact with other communities of faith on an informal level.”

Hedden said, “I was very interested to hear Rabbi Kraus. My conception of what Jews thought about sin was very different from what he explained as the right conception.”

Sprengelmeyer and Michael Hacker ’00 serve as the program directors of the Jewish Association. One of their goals this year was to foster discussions in a series that would involve people getting together. She said of the forum on sin, “I was really excited that we got such a big turnout and we were able to foster interaction between the different religions. Hopefully, besides exposing people to different religions, they were able to learn something about their own faith.”

Sprengelmeyer said the discussion will be the first in a series that will include such fora once during Winter Study and once a month during the second semester. She would like to include other faiths such as the Muslim Student Union in the discussion, and also would like to see professors and students take active roles as well as religious leaders. One such upcoming event might include an interfaith holiday party.