Newsweek and washingtonpost.com jointly produce a fascinating website called “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn.” Meacham is a Newsweek editor; Quinn is with the Washington Post.
The website is:
Rabbi Steinsaltz occasionally participates by responding to provocative questions about religion.
One recent question was:
“In Christian theology, there are Seven Deadly Sins: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth. Which of these do you think is worst? Which is most prevalent and harmful in our society today?”
Rabbi Steinsaltz responded:
“There is no list of “Deadly Sins” in Jewish theology, nor is there a list of worthy virtues.
We do not believe that good and evil are defined by particular qualities.
Good is not a matter of a specific way of behavior, but of the right behavior. This means that any quality of speech or action can be right or wrong, depending upon the framework in which it exists.
Even “the best” virtues can be ineffective – or even deadly – if applied incorrectly or at inappropriate times.
However, Jewish theology does speak about “good measures”: ones that are applied in the right time, in the right place, and indeed, in the right measure to the situation.
For instance, anger may be justified, and sometimes useful, when directed toward things that are negative, and love can be misguided and deadly when directed toward unworthy objects or in an undue amount.
Some of the things considered to be deadly sins can be – in the right time and place – good measures, and lead a person upwards.
Similarly, behaviors considered to be virtuous in some situations can become deadly in other ones.
Therefore, in the list of those deadly sins there is no real way of evaluation about what is the worst.
The answer will lie in the way and in the measure they are applied to any real situation.
If the result of envy, for example, is the desire to take away from those who have, just in order to humiliate and equalize them, then the envy is a negative power.
But, if envy is felt when one sees something beautiful or good, and this emotion will breed the impulse to do things on the same level, then the envy becomes a positive force that leads people upwards.
This holds true for most of the other qualities, sins or virtues, as well.”