Reader: As a catholic I was raised to believe I would sin in the same way with improper thoughts, as I would with improper acts. I try hard to put away every bad thought that comes into my mind and if I can’t, I can feel very guilty. Are thoughts considered that important in Judaism?
Mesora: Catholic notions are riddled with guilt, and in no way conform to God’s system of human design and development, and realistic expectancies. You have realized this already. Catholicism creates saints out of humans: when saints are merely imaginary and impossible heroes that man cannot possibly portray. Through His prophets, God taught that all men sin. The very inclusion of a day of Atonement “every year” teaches that mankind needs this regular atonement. Man must accept his instinctual faculty, and instead of denying it as other religions ask, he must embrace it, train it, and harness it for the good life and actions, intended by God. As God gave us each an instinctual component – a Yetzer Hara – it is inherently valuable. It is not evil by nature, as deemed so in Catholicism, and with their view of Satan. The instincts are an essential component for a perfect life, when directed by the intellect.
Regarding God’s value of our actions vs. our thoughts, we must study His words to determine His reality. The Rabbis do say in connection with Job, “although ‘Job did not sin with his lips’ he sinned in his heart.” The quote, “he did not sin with his lips” teaches that there is a distinction, and praise in refraining from verbalizing something negatively felt. But it also teaches that some flaw is attributed to Job for harboring wrong ideas and emotions. From here alone, we learn that sinful thoughts do not equate to sinful actions. I feel the understanding is quite obvious: man is more responsible for his actions than for his thoughts, since actions are completely in our control, but not our thoughts, at all times. Thoughts too must be distinguished: we may ascribe to wrong ideas like idolatry, which is a sin, and we may have sudden thoughts of revenge, lust, anger and the like, which we then recognize as evil, and do not act upon. There can be no equation between these two types of thoughts. The former is a commission of the mind – a far greater sin, as the mind is man’s highest component – while the latter is a sudden emotional urge, which at times is unavoidable. It just happens. A rabbi once taught that even performed sins, if generated from momentary passion, are not viewed as evil as those performed in a premeditated manner. There is far more to discuss on this matter, but I hope this addresses your basic question.