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SIDIC Periodical XXIX - 1996/1
Teshuvah and Repentance (Pages 02 - 06)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Mark L. Solomon


Teshuvah is the essential, inner dynamic of Judaism. If Torah is our guide to redemption, prayer the expression of our yearning for redemption, and mitzvot (good deeds), the vehicle of redemption we create around us, Teshuvah is the engine which propels us, and gets us started again each time we grind to a halt.

The fundamental, literal meaning of Teshuvah is return or repentance. The word itself does not occur in the Bible, but was the term the Rabbis coined from the cry of Hosea, "Return, O Israel, to the Eternal One your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity" (14:1), a cry taken up by subsequent prophets and by the Deuteronomist (Ch.30).

From the words of Malachi (3:7), "Return unto Me, and I will return unto you", the Midrash weaves a poignant parable. A King had a son who committed a grievous sin, and was exiled to a far country. After some time, the king began to yearn for his son, and sent a messenger to him, saying "Return to me". The son replied "I cannot return, for the way is too far". Thereupon the king sent a message back again: "Do not fear, but start on the journey and come as far as you are able. I will come the rest of the way to meet you".1

In the Bible, Teshuvah is generally an act of the whole nation. By rabbinic times it had come to signify the penitence of the individual, a reaction to the sense of personal sin which came to preoccupy people in late antiquity. It had two aspects: a response to a specific misdeed and a pervasive mood of penitence. The desirability of the latter is pithily conveyed by Rabbi Eliezer (1st-2nd century CE) who said "Repent one day before you die". His disciples asked, "Who knows when he will die?" "All the more then" he replied "let him repent today, for perhaps he will die tomorrow; thus all his life will be spent in Teshuvah".2

The methodology of repentance developed by the Rabbis and codified by Maimonides involves four steps: reformation, resolution, remorse and confession. The test of a true penitent is put succinctly by Rav Judah (3rd century CE): "One who, when the same opportunity for sin recurs once or twice, resists it. He added: The same woman, the same season, the same place".3

The first and crucial step in the process is the inner reformation of the sinner. As the very word Teshuvah indicates, this is a psychic re-orientation, a turning around. A nineteenth century Hasidic teacher thus plays on the verse, "As far as the East is from the West, so far has God removed our transgressions from us" (Ps.103:12) "When you stand facing east, you need only turn around to face west. Likewise, if you sin you need merely a slight mental turning around to be far removed from your transgressions".4

The Primacy of Teshuvah

The basic religious yearning for atonement led the Rabbis to elevate Teshuvah to the position of one of the primal realities in the spiritual cosmos. The Talmud (Pesachim 54a) lists seven things that were created before the universe: Torah, Teshuvah, Paradise, Gehenna, the Throne of Glory, the Sanctuary and the name of the Messiah. To the objection that until sin existed Teshuvah was not necessary, the answer is given that "the Holy One, Who is to be blessed, provides the remedy before the disease". Teshuvah then, is present from before the beginning as the potential for change at the heart of existence. Even while the Temple stood and the cultic means of atonement prescribed in the Torah were available, Teshuvah was the sine qua non: "Sin offering and guilt offering and death and the Day of Atonement, all of them together do not expiate sin without Teshuvah".5 The Rabbis responded to the crises of the destruction of the Temple, and the loss of the cultic atonement rites by the bold stroke of declaring that Teshuvah alone sufficed:

Rabbi Yose ben Tartos said: Whence can it be proved that one who repents is regarded as if that person had gone up to Jerusalem, built the Temple and erected the altar and offered upon it all the sacrifices mentioned in the Torah? From the verse, The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit (Ps.51:19).6

No matter how great the sin or how confirmed the sinner, Teshuvah is always available and always efficacious, as many rabbinic stories testify. One such concerns the first murderer. On the verse, "And Cain went out" (Gen.4:16) the Midrash comments:

He went out rejoicing. On his way Cain met Adam who said to him, "What has happened regarding the sentence passed upon you?" Cain replied "I repented and I am pardoned." When Adam heard this he began to slap his own face and said "Is the power of repentance as great as that? I did not know it was so." 7

Another Midrash contrasts Teshuvah with prayer: the gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes shut, but the gates of repentance are always open.8 God stands ready not only to accept sincere repentance but actually to facilitate it. On the verse "Open to me, my sister" (Cant.5:2), R. Issi comments:

God says to the Children of Israel, open to Me, My children, the gate of repentance as minutely as the eye of a needle, and I will open for you gates wide enough for carriages and wagons to enter through them. R. Levi said: If the Children of Israel would but repent for one day, they would be redeemed and the Son of David would come straight away, as it says, "Today, if you would hearken to His voice" (Ps.95:7).9

This latter statement, typical as it is of rabbinic
hyperbole, nevertheless conveys the idea of the utterly transformative, salvific effect of Teshuvah for the individual, for the people and for the entire world. In a number of sayings, Teshuvah appears as the summum bonum of human existence: "Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole life of the World to Come".10

The Power of Teshuvah

The regenerative power of Teshuvah is such that it does not merely transform the individual, but actually converts all that was, so to speak "negative energy" into "positive energy". Sin does not simply disappear from the penitent's make-up, it actually turns into an equivalent "quantity" of virtue. In a long list of the praises of Teshuvah, Resh Lakish (3rd century CE) states: "Great is Teshuvah, for one's sins become like good deeds [if one repents] out of love".11 Exploiting this felix culpa theme, R. Levi Isaac of Berditchev, one of the greatest hasidic teachers of the 18th century, assured a notorious sinner that he envied him greatly since, were he to repent, each of his sins would shine brightly and he would be altogether luminous: "You are destined to be a shining light, and for this I envy you".12 The Talmud takes this idea to its apparently illogical conclusion in its famous statement that "In the place where repentant sinners stand even the perfectly righteous are unable to stand".13 Reflection yields the profound truth embodied in this paradox: in experiencing sin then withstanding it and transcending it by doing Teshuvah, the penitent has learnt and grown in ways that someone who has not been through that process could never do. Out of our weakness emerges a unique strength, and when we vanquish ourselves we win the greatest victory.

Through Teshuvah, as Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, one of this century's great Jewish thinkers, put it, the future overcomes the past. Teshuvah defies fate and undermines fatalism for it challenges the idea that what we have done and what we have been inexorably determine what we will be and do. Teshuvah holds out the possibility of change and renewal. It is the essence of our freedom and indeed of our humanity; for in returning to God we return to our truest deepest selves: the image of God in which we are made. For Nachman of Bratzlav, one of the most radical of hasidic teachers, it is through Teshuvah that we become truly human. In characteristically trenchant fashion he states that

Prior to repentance a person has no real existence, and it were better for the person not to have been born; it is Teshuvah that gives us existence. By Teshuvah one declares: "I am ready to exist as a person of worth". 14

So great is the transformative power of Teshuvah in Nahman's view, that through it we become born again: "A sigh over our transgressions transforms us into newly-born creatures".15

The renewal wrought by Teshuvah, however, can reach beyond the individual. In one of the Talmud's most startling statements in praise of repentance, possibly intended as an anti-Christian polemic, we read:

Rabbi Meir used to say: Great is Teshuvah, for on account of a single person who repents, the whole world is forgiven, as it is said, "I will heal their backsliding; I will love them freely, for My anger is turned away from him" (Hosea 14:5); the verse does not say "from them" but "from him".16

Teshuvah: The Wider Context

Many modern Jewish thinkers have reverted to the biblical idea of Teshuvah as a movement not of the individual but of the nation. In Zionist thought Teshuvah becomes the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel, and to their true destiny as a nation living and exercising its creativity in its ancestral land. A.D. Gordon, an important early Zionist ideologist, took this idea a step further, arguing that in the early centuries of diaspora existence, Judaism had been perverted by the Jews' separation from the earth, and that only agricultural work on the land could restore the soul of the Jewish People. In a wider sense we could say that our newfound consciousness of our interdependence with the natural world, our desire to go "back to nature" and our remorse for the damage we have done to the environment, is one example of a widespread movement of Teshuvah taking place in our lives.

Another instance of Teshuvah taking place in society, adduced particularly by orthodox Jews, is the common phenomenon since the 1960s of young men and women from assimilated backgrounds rediscovering their Jewish roots and forsaking their parents' acculturated way of life for an intensely observant orthodox lifestyle. The many thousands of people who have travelled this path in recent decades see themselves, and are commonly known, as baalei teshuvah, literally penitents. This too is but one manifestation of a trend towards extreme or reactionary modes of religious expression evident throughout much of the world and some may be inclined to question the value of such movements of "Teshuvah" and their spiritual, moral and social consequences.

Of the many recent thinkers who have reflected on the significance of Teshuvah, none is more profound or poetic than Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine. Imbued with the quasi-monistic tendency of much kabbalistic and hasidic teaching, Kook understands Teshuvah as the drive of all existence to return to its source in the One. He writes that
Penitence emerges from the depths of being, from such great depths in which the individual stands not as a separate entity, but rather as a continuation of the vastness of universal existence. The desire for penitence is related to the universal will, to its highest source ... In the great channel in which the life-sustaining force flows, there is revealed the unitary source of all existence, and in the hovering life-serving spirit of penitence all things are renewed to a higher level of the good, the radiant and the pure. Penitence is inspired by the yearning of all existence to be better, purer, more vigorous and on a higher plane than it is.17

Teshuvah, to summarise Kook's thought, is the "surge of the soul for perfection, to rise above the limitations imposed by the finitude of existence. It is a reach for reunion with God... Penitence in man is, in other words, only one episode in the entire drama of cosmic life... Its primary focus is the quest for self-perfection, but it overflows into the endeavour to perfect society and the world".18

A Challenge for Today

Hitherto we have considered many aspects of Teshuvah which understand the word to mean "return". This is not, however, the only meaning of the Hebrew word teshuvah. It also commonly signifies "answer, response". This denotation of the word was not traditionally associated with repentance, and it is only in modern existential Jewish thought, such as the philosophy of dialogue of Martin Buber and the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, that this fruitful connection has been made.

In Genesis God addresses the first question to Adam: "Where are you?" (3:9) The same question is addressed to each one of us, continually: Where are you in your life, what stage have you reached, what are you seeking... where are you hiding? Teshuvah is our response, our readiness and our attempt to enter into dialogue with God, the Eternal Thou. Throughout the generations, beginning with Abraham (Gen.22:1) the response of God-seekers has been "Here I am" - an openness to that dialogue, that demand. Teshuvah is an attitude of listening, a sensitivity to the voice of God, to the voice of conscience requiring of us self-scrutiny and responsibility. But our Teshuvah, our response, need not be solely to God, for other thous also call to us and elicit from us an answer. All true dialogue is Teshuvah.

Within the last few generations we have witnessed the beginnings of a new and supremely important act of Teshuvah in the form of interfaith dialogue, and especially Jewish-Christian dialogue. For those who have entered into it, on all sides, this has entailed an effort of repentance, not merely for wrongs done, but even more profoundly for the centuries of turning our faces away from one another; for the refusal to listen with generosity and speak with respect - the rejection of understanding. Now, at last, we have begun to hearken to the call, a call that comes not just from one another, but from God; for when we respond to one another we respond to the divine image which the other embodies. We have turned towards one another and towards the light in which all truths find their meaning. Perhaps only now can we begin to be worthy of our calling. Only in turning and responding to the other can we fulfil our potential, discover the extent of our freedom, and become most truly ourselves.

1. Pesikta Rabbati.
2 Avot de Rabbi Nathan (A) 15, 31b.
3 Yoma 86b; cf. Maimonides, Laws of Teshuvah 2:1-2.
4. Rabbi Nathan David Sidlovtzer, q. in Tiferet Banim
(Warsaw 1911) p.9.
5 Tosefta Yoma 5:9.
6 Leviticus Rabba, Tsav,7:2. In other texts, study, prayer, the Day of Atonement itself and, above all, good deeds, are stated to be means of atonement.
7 Ibid. 10:5.
8 cf. Lamentations Rabbah, 3.
9 Canticles Rabbah, 5:2:2.
10 Avot 4:22.
11 Berakhot 34b.
12 Yoma 86b. In this passage repentance motivated by fear of punishment is said to have the lesser effect of transforming deliberate sins into unwitting ones.
13 I. Berger, Esser Orot, Warsaw 1913, p.53.
14. Nachman of Bratzlav, Likkutei Etzot Ha-Shalem, Warsaw 1913, p.118.
15 Idem, Sefer Ha-Middot, Warsaw 1912, p.155.
16 Yoma, loc. cit.
17. A.I. Kook, The Lights of Penitence (Orot Ha-Teshuvah), trans. Ben Zion Bokser, ch.6, in Abraham Isaac Kook, ed. B.Z. Bokser, Classics of Western Spirituality, N.Y. 1978, p.56.
18. Ben Zion Bokser, ibid., p.39.


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