Thoughts about Teshuvah
1. Before beginning to discuss teshuvah, one needs to correct a certain wide-spread misunderstanding. The term teshuvah is mistakenly identified, particularly in contemporary Israeli discourse, with the adoption of religious observance or Orthodoxy. This is a double error: it leads to ignoring the ethical or inter-personal dimension of teshuvah, which may often be of paramount importance, whether by a “secular” or a “religious” person; and it encourages two reactions among those who are already “religious”: either complacency, thinking that “I’m already OK”; or, acting on the assumption that teshuvah has to do primarily with religious observance, seeking out new fine points of religious piety about which to be punctilious.
The essence of teshuvah, as we have pointed out here innumerable times in the past, and as may be seen in any of the classic teshuvah texts, is about recognizing one’s wrongful actions in the past, regretting those actions and articulating this regret in words (Vidui: Confession of sins before God); and resolving to change one’s future behavior. All this applies to all areas of life, and perhaps particularly to the inter-personal area (where a precondition of teshuvah before God is making amends with one’s fellow whom one has wronged).
More than that, teshuvah entails an attempt to correct the flaws in one’s character. Rambam, at Hilkhot Teshuvah 7.3, writes:
A person ought not to think that teshuvah only relates to transgressions which involve a concrete act… Rather, a person also needs to repent of anger and enmity and jealousy and ridicule and the pursuit of wealth and of honor, and gluttony, and of similar things…
(To which list, one might add laziness, fondness for gossip, and many other negative traits). It seems to me that, beyond the details and the mapping out of specifics, the fundamental idea or prerequisite of teshuvah is self-awareness. I think that most people, on some level, know themselves and their character and their own faults and weaknesses. But in everyday life we have a hundred and one reasons to ignore this self-knowledge, which is often very painful -- psychologists would say, for the sake of all sorts of benefits, real or imagined, which these faults bring us—and we continue to act on these faults. Teshuvah, then, is the process of self-examination, of bringing to the surface those things that we know in our heart of hearts, and acting on that knowledge in a constructive way.
I recently read an article by Eva Illouz, cultural sociologist and an outstanding Israeli intellectual (Musaf Ha-Aretz, Sept 4, 2013) who, in the course of writing on the subject of “Why People Fall out of Love,” discuses the concept of bad faith, mauvaise foi. This concept, which originated among the French existentialists of the mid-20th century, refers to a person who has a false sense of self, of his/her own needs, and who on some level lives with himself in a dishonest manner. The process of teshuvah, as I see it, is closely related to the rejection of this kind of dishonesty and false consciousness, which are the very basis of the sense of self. Teshuvah is thus connected with authenticity (on condition that this is consistent with proper values).
Hence, except on a very superficial level, the notion that there are people who are mahzirim be-teshuvah—expert in bringing others to do teshuvah—is false. Teshuvah, at least on this more serious level, can only be done by the person him/herself. It involves breaking through false consciousness and defenses to discover those truths about oneself which have been hidden in the soul, and beginning the process of repair and reconstruction of the self.
2. A teaching of Resh Lakish concerning the subject of teshuvah appears in two versions in Yoma 86b. In the one, he says: “Great is teshuvah, for because of it deliberate transgressions are transformed into errors, as is said ‘Return, O Israel, because you have stumbled in your transgression’ (Hosea 14:2).” The textual basis of this saying is the contradiction between the verb, “you have stumbled,” which implies an error, an inadvertent act or even one committed through mishap, and the term ‘avon, “transgression,” is widely understood as implying deliberate sin; this “quip” somehow removes the seeming apparent contradiction.
The second version of his saying states “Great is teshuvah, for by its means deliberate sins are transformed into virtues,” A proof text is then brought from Ezekiel 33:19, read as if to say that the evil man who repents of his evil will live by virtue of those very sins! The passage then ends with the remark that there is no contradiction between the two readings of Resh Lakish’s dictum: the former deals with one who does teshuvah “out of yirah”—out of fear of God (whether this understood as fear of Divine punishment, or awe at His overwhelming majesty and grandeur; but see below): while the latter refers to one who does so “out of ahavah”—motivated purely by love of God.
What are the ideas implied here? A transgression, however viewed, is a deliberate act. Typically, a person transgresses because of some benefit or pleasure he expects to derive therefrom: eating forbidden foods, engaging in forbidden sexual relations, gaining wealth through dishonest means or by downright theft, all enhance one’s immediate pleasure in life. But once a person repents, he begins to see things differently. His world–view becomes one in which goodness and decency, informed by Torah and mitzvot, are paramount; his earlier acts, based upon a short-term, self-centered and hedonistic approach to life, seems based upon a mistake, a childish view of life which led him to perform these acts. The deliberation involved in committing the sin seems in retrospect to have been based upon a limited purview of life, one which he feels he has outgrown. The root cause of the sin seems simply mistaken—he seems himself as a shogeg.
The second version of Resh Lakish’s saying takes matters further. The person realizes that his transgression taught him something about himself, about life, about the nature of what we might call worldly temptations, so that he now chooses the path of goodness and uprightness with a sense of real choice. He knows what the other life path is like; he knows both the temptations and satisfactions of living for gourmet meals or erotic adventures—temptations which our society portrays vividly in the media—and has rejected them, insofar as they are inconsistent with his new-found understanding of life. Both the transgressions, and the self-knowledge and perspective on the world they have given him, have become a kind of source of strength for him to adhere to the good, the pure and the holy.
I once had a rather strange and brief conversation with one of the serious Jewish thinkers of our day, a man who had struggled his entire life with issues of belief and theology as well as with the ethical problematics of certain areas of halakhah itself. We were talking about a certain person: a great talmid-hakham renowned for his piety, his sterling ethical character, and for the wholeness and almost childlike naiveté of his faith. He commented, “Yes, he may be an ideal person—but I can tell you for certain that he has never undergone a “dark night of the soul.’” In other words, the person who has lived his whole life in purity can only go so far in achieving real depth of religious consciousness (thus, at least, according to my interlocutor), because he does not truly understand, on the gut level, what it means to choose one path or the other. (Indeed, various Hasidic texts speak of the ba’al teshuvah and the tzaddik as archetypes, symbolized by Judah and Joseph; Maimonides, in Chapter Six of the Eight Chapters, designates them as the one who is naturally righteous and the one who subdues his Urge.)
On the other hand, let me conclude with an old Yiddish story. The Vilna Gaon was once confronted by a Jew who challenged him: “You know, it’s no big deal for you to live a pure and holy life living as you do, sequestered all day long in your study and rarely going out into the real world. Now if you were to go out into the market-place and still be ‘The Gaon,’ that would be a real kunts (trick).” The Gaon’s reply was succinct: “Ikh bin nisht a kunts-makher!”—“I am not a trickster”—i.e., doing tricks is not the point of life.
3. The Baal Shem Tov spoke of the tension between the fear and love of God, noting that “Even though the masters of Kabbalah have told us that all matters of Torah and prayer must be done be-dehilu u-rehimu, with love and fear, on Rosh Hashanah the order is reversed: first fear, and then love.”
It occurred to me that this conception of the Days of Awe is reflected in the structure of the Selihot recited during this period. The Selihot themselves—penitential poems interspersed with recitations of the Thirteen Qualities of Divine Mercy—are introduced by a medley of biblical verse. These begin with a confession of spiritual and ethical bankruptcy (“You, O Lord, are righteous, and we are filled with shame. What can we say, what can we speak, what can we justify? We must search our ways and return to You”), followed by verses about walking in God’s house with silent reverence and bowing down to Him—a gesture of submission and abject humility before His towering, awesome presence—and concluding with a series of verses describing God’s might and majesty as manifested in the awe-inspiring phenomena of nature.
I find this reminiscent of Rambam, Yesodei ha-Torah 2.2, where he describes a certain dialectic involved in the love and fear of God:
When a person contemplates His great works and creations and sees through them His wisdom, which has no comparison and no end, immediately he loves and praises and extols and desires with a great desire to know the Great Name. As David said “my soul thirsts for the living God” (Ps 42:3}. But even as he contemplates these very things, he immediately shrinks backwards and is filled with fear, knowing that he is a slight, small, dim creature, of limited consciousness before the One of Perfect Knowledge. As David said, “When I see Your heavens, the works of Your fingers—What is man that you should know him…” (Ps 8:4).
POSTSCRIPT: Essay on Orthodoxy (Ki Tavo)
A number of readers responded to my recent essay on Orthodoxy as if I was somehow challenging or even rejecting the traditional belief in Torah mi-Sinai / Torah min ha-Shamayim. Indeed, I have addressed this issue in the past (see HY IX Shavuot [=Mitzvot]; HY X: Bamidbar-Kallah [=Zohar]), where I present an approach to this subject that is not literalist or fundamentalist, but deeply reverent to the mystery of Sinai—but in any event that is not the issue here. Indeed, my central point was that Orthodoxy as we know it today is not really about belief at all, and perhaps not even about observance, but is a sociological construct; what bothers me about contemporary Orthodoxy is the extremism, what in shorthand I might even call the craziness of many of the ideas and practices advocated today in the name of Orthodoxy. I have developed this critique at greater length elsewhere. Essentially, I would call for a return to straightforward, simple observance of Torah and mitzvot as such, without excessive strictness and without authoritarianism. The problem, even though I believe deeply in the value of community, is that much of the community to which I have chosen to belong throughout my adult life has “gone off the deep end.”
A comment about mehitzah. Some readers seemed to think that I am opposed to the very idea of a mehitzah in the synagogue. This is not true; indeed, I believe that it adds a certain element of tzeni’ut, of modesty, to the prayer situation, removing a certain sexual tensions which might otherwise exist. What I do find problematic is making it into the be-all-and-end-all, the criterion of “Orthodoxy” and “non-Orthodoxy,” and the peculiar notion that the absence of a mehitzah somehow makes a synagogue un-kosher, I don’t believe the case has been made halakhically; as Alan Yuter says in his famous paper, it’s really a matter of communal policy and (often arbitrary) pronunciamentos by Rabbinic leaders. If there are readers who think I’m missing something essential, please explain why, and reference your sources; I am open to comments and feedback.
On the Avodat Kohen Gadol
Many people find it difficult to find much meaning in the detailed descriptions of korbanot—the animal sacrifices offered in the Temple in ancient times—including the Avodat Yom ha-Kippurim, the elaborate and complex atonement ceremony performed by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. They may find it abstruse, primitive, and generally difficult to relate to. Over the past six months, I have been teaching a class in Talmud every other morning (alternating with my neighbor Moshe Kranc) dealing with Masekhet Yoma, seven of whose eight chapters deal with precisely this subject. I must state that, for myself, I find the material fascinating, and wish to share some of that fascination.
The most striking thing about the Seder ha-Avodah, the Yom Kippur ritual in the Temple, is the extremes encompassed therein. Ordinarily, the Temple service was focused upon the altar—the mizbaeh ha-hitzon or mizbah ha-olah, the “External” or “Burnt Offering Altar”—upon which were offered the daily offerings (Tamid) morning and evening, the additional Shabbat and festival offerings, the private offerings brought by pilgrims in celebration of the festivals, as well as a variety of other offerings brought by individuals for various special situations. Priests entered the Sanctuary proper only in order to light the seven-branched Menorah, to offer incense and, once a week, to place the shewbread on the special table designated for this purpose.
But on Yom Kippur things were different. On this day, on the one hand, the high priest entered the innermost shrine, the Holy of Holies, to “atone for the holy place” through performing certain rituals. On the other hand, the sa’ir la-Azazel—the goat sent into the wilderness, which was not strictly speaking a sacrifice at all—was sent far into the wilderness of the Judaean Desert, after the High Priest had confessed the sins of the entire people of Israel upon him, symbolically transferring them to his head. There, after a journey of several hours, he was pushed over a cliff where, we are told, “it did not fall halfway down the mountain before it was broken into separate limbs” (m. Yoma 6.6). Thus, the central rituals of Yom Kippur involved the innermost, most sacred place, and the opposite extreme—that which was totally outside of the holy precincts of the Temple, indeed, outside of human habitation altogether—the barren wilderness, mythically conceived as a place of satyrs and demons (see Lev 17:7; Isa 13:21)
Moreover, these two goats are integrally linked with one another. The Mishnah specifies that they be as similar to one another as possible, “in height, in value, in appearance, and that they be taken as one” (m. Yoma 6.1). Furthermore, the choice as to which one was to serve which function was determined by lot. It was forbidden for the priest to decide which would be which; the two goats were placed before the high priest in Temple courtyard, who cast lots over them, “one lot for the Lord and one lot for Azazel” (Lev 16:8). (Some Hasidic commentators note how this creates a kind of reverse mirroring to Purim, when the wicked Haman cast lots to determine when he would massacre the Jewish people; they also note that this holiest of all days can be called yom ke-purim—“a day like Purim”). Rav Soloveitchik, in speaking about this once, said that the destiny of a person is often the result of chance, of happenstance (notwithstanding our having free will, behirah hofshit, that can overcome any obstacle). As an example, he spoke of the religious destiny of the first generation of American Jews, some of whom gave up Jewish observance because they saw no option but to work on Shabbat, while others became the pillars of the of Orthodox community.
What are we to make of these polarities in a single day, and what do these two goats symbolize? Symbolically, I see them as expressing the dichotomies in the human personality. The human being‘s crowning glory, we are told, is his intellect, his soul, through which he can hope to transcend himself, to strive and yearn for knowledge of God, culminating in prophecy and unio mystica, to achieve the highest spiritual consciousness imaginable. These hopes are symbolized by the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies, that place where, we are told, the Divine Presence dwells between the wings of the cherubim. There he performs Avodat penim, that part of Yom Kippur focused upon purifying the holy place, “which dwells among them in the midst of their impurity” (Lev 16:16), sprinkling (first separately and then mingling the two together) the blood of the bull brought as an offering by the high priest and the sin-offering-goat of the people. This ritual, quite possibly the high point of the entire day, symbolizes the desire that, as human beings who are inevitably impure, we somehow achieve purify and purify the holy place in which divine and human meet (albeit only at rare intervals).
On the other hand, the sa’ir la-azazel or sa’ir ha-mishtaleah, the goat sent away into the wilderness (or, in colloquial English: the “scapegoat”) represents the variety of human life which as often as not is filled with corruption, arising, inter alia, form our bodily nature, from our desires and animal-like appetites. This element is, so to speak, one which we wish to send, not only outside of the holy place, but far away from human habitation. We wish we could throw it over the cliff and see it smashed to smithereens. This is not the real us, we say symbolically. Our sins are something we wish to cast outwards and smash, to disown such negative deeds.
There is of course much more. I had originally planned this year to write about the avodat penim in some depth; perhaps another time. Instead, I will merely suggest here a few questions: What is the function and significance of the ketoret, the incense offered in the Holy of Holies when the priest first enters (a procedure which was a source of bitter controversy between the Pharisees and the Sadducees)? And what are we to make of the parallel to several of the communal sin-offerings described in Leviticus Chapter 4, which likewise involve bringing the blood of the sacrifice inside the Sanctuary, rather than sprinkling the base of the altar as is the usual procedure? What is symbolized by the close relation between the par kohen gadol and sa’ir ha-am, which in the end are mixed? And, most important, what is meant by the entire concept of atoning for the holy place? We ordinarily think of atonement as pertaining to human beings who have committed sins. What does it mean to speak of “atoning for the holy place”? An interesting verse near the end of the chapter, summarizing the Yom Kippur atonement ritual, is divided into two halves (syntactically divided by an etnahta) which express this tension or duality in the Yom Kippur ritual: “And he shall atone for the Holy Sanctuary, and for the Tent of Meeting, and for the altar he shall atone; and for the priests and for all the people of the congregation he shall atone” (Lev 16:33).
More on Bad Faith or Divided Consciousness
I wrote eralier about the problem of “bad faith”—that is, a person not knowing his own self—as one source of wrongdoing in life. Closely related to this is the accusation of hypocrisy or inconsistency when an outwardly religious person does not live up to his declared or implied values. Thus, for example, when a highly charismatic rabbi was recently found guilty by a court of misusing his spiritual authority to sexually molest some young men who were disciples of his, or when a Haredi politician was found playing fast and loose with public funds or accepting bribes, a typical reaction was “He’s a hypocrite” or “He’s not really religious.” But, without speaking into this specific case, matters are usually not so simple. A better explanation would be to ascribe such glaring contradictions in behavior to what might be called the double or divided consciousness of human beings. Our tradition tells us (I simplify somewhat) that our entire lives are an ongoing inner struggle between the forces of good and evil within our selves. The very first sentence of Tefillah Zakkah, a prayer recited by some at the onset of Yom Kippur, states that “You created within us two impulses, the good impulse and the wicked impulse, that we might have free will and chose the good.” Only rarely is this “battle” decisively resolved one way or another. Our wish to live a pure, virtuous, spiritual and ethical life conflicts with our powerful impulse for self-preservation and instinctual gratification, which do not always square with them.
Perhaps we may connect this to another idea. On Yom Kippur night, as has been is my custom for several years, I taught a class for those willing to stay in the synagogue after the end of the Evening Prayer (a practice I first saw in yeshiva, which hearkens back to the sages and elder priests who studied Torah with the high priest on Yom Kippur night). This year I spoke about the piyyutim—that genre of medieval liturgical poetry which dominates the High Holy day liturgy—and, as an example, we studied Az beterem nimtehu, from the Selihot for Tzom Gedaliah. This piyyiut is an elaboration of the midrashic idea (b. Yoma 76a; Pesahim 54a; etc.) that seven things were created even before the creation of the world itself: the Torah, teshuvah, God’s Throne of Glory, The Garden of Eden, Gehinnom, the Name of the Messiah, and the Temple. Needless to say, most of these are not really “things” in any concrete physical sense, but rather ideas, concepts; key principles that are necessary components of the Jewish moral universe. Among them, teshuvah, the very possibility that man can repair the evil he has done and change and repair his own personality, is a central one. It is by no means self-evident; to the contrary, one might well argue that humankind is dominated by blind fate ad destiny, that character is fixed, immutable, and brings in its wake various disasters (the Greek myth of Oedipus is but one of the striking exemplification of this idea in Western culture; compare also many of Shakespeare’s plays; and not the mechanistic and deterministic model of human behavior advocated by many contemporary biologists). Judaism dares to suggest otherwise: that teshuvah, meaning change, reconstruction of the self, is possible. Without it, human freedom and any meaningful ethics is meaningless.