Teshuvah, Chapter 1
Maimonides' Laws of Repentance
Introduction: Reflections on the Laws of Teshuva
Those of us who were privileged to study under Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l, if only tangentially, remember the shiurim he gave every year during this season, bringing ever new and profound insights into Maimonides Hilkhot Teshuva (“Laws of Repentance”). This text, which is the final section in the opening book of his great halakhic compendium, the Mishneh Torah, deals with a variety of issues in Jewish thought, not necessarily confined to issues of “repentance” in the narrow sense.
Typically, the Rav’s shiurim on this topic focused on the first two chapters of this work, which—perhaps together with the first half of the third chapter, and the seventh chapter—are richest in definitions and descriptions of the significance of teshuva as such. (One of my own hopes in life is to some day have the time and calmness of mind to write a modern commentary—or, more modestly, some extensive glosses—on this great text.)
Before turning to the two chapters, a brief outline of this treatise as a whole. The question as to why Rambam composed it as he did is an intriguing one. What are the significance of the numerous other, seemingly extraneous, elements in this book? Chapters 3 and 4 contain a catalogue of those sins or traits which prevent a person from performing teshuva, as well as of the varieties of heresy, apostasy, denial, etc. of basic Jewish beliefs that in some sense place a person beyond the pale. Chapters 5 and 6 deal with issues of free-will (an indispensable prerequisite for teshuva) and the related, knotty theological issues of the seeming contradiction between God’s knowledge of man’s action and human freedom (yedi’ah u-behira), and that of predestination of man’s own actions (e.g., the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart). Chapter 7 is a veritable song of praise to teshuva; Chs. 8 and 9 deal with the World to Come and its spiritual nature; while Ch. 10, which concludes both the book and Sefer ha-Madda as a whole, is a description of the ultimate goal: the pure, sublime love of God (see my comments on this in Vaethanan).
To return to the opening chapters: there is a fundamental difference between the definition of teshuva in Chapter 1 and that in Chapter 2. The first chapter, in which teshuva and the confession of sin which is its external expression are defined in very narrow, focused, specific terms, is concerned with kapara: teshuva as a prerequisite of atonement. Chapter 2 is more concerned with teshuva as a moral-psychological act, the rebuilding of the personality; there, the test of true teshuva is if one withstands temptation when it crosses ones path again.
This dichotomy is a basic one, that may be defined as the tension between kapara and teshuva: between formal, often ritual expatiation, and internal work on one character and personality. Atonement, in turn, is inextricably wrapped up with the Day of Atonement, as a day carrying in itself quasi-mystical properties, as well as with the sacrificial system—particularly with the sa’ir hamishtaleah, the “scapegoat” sent into the desert on Yom Kippur bearing the sins of the entire people of Israel. We encounter here an extraordinary idea, that seems diametrically opposed to our modern ethical-spiritual-psychological understanding of teshuva. Not only is there collective atonement here, by means of the ritual performed by the high priest, but there is even atonement without any teshuva at all, at least for “minor” sins. (See m. Shavu’ot 1.6; Rambam, Teshuva 1.2; Sefer Ha-Mizvot, Aseh §73; etc.). How is this to be understood?
Another baffling, anomalous feature of this ritual is that the Yom Kippur goat is not at all a sacrificial offering in the usual sense: i.e., of an animal that is slaughtered on the Temple precincts, its blood poured out against the altar, and its flesh consumed by its fires. Rather, it is sent far into the wilds of the Judaean desert, where it is pushed over a cliff. Ramban, in his commentary to Lev 16:8, noting that one could almost be seen as an offering to demonic forces, speaks of it as a sacrifice to Middat ha-Din (“the Aspect of Stern Judgment”).
Adherents of the historical critical school will explain all this quite simply, as a development from a more “primitive,” semi-magical conception of religion, to a higher, ethical approach. The notion of vicarious atonement through animal sacrifice fits in with the models of ancient religion, the language of ritual sacrifice described by Robertson-Smith (one of Wellhausen’s precursors) in his Religion of the Semites. And indeed, classical Reform Judaism expurgated all reference to the Yom Kippur ritual and the goat from its Mahzor.
But for those of us who adhere to a more holistic, organic conception of the Torah, we must wrestle with this concept, and attempt to understand the religious meaning even within this seemingly anomalous ritual. What value can there be to atonement without repentance? More important, what does it do to the moral image of God, if He allows people to get off lightly, without undergoing the cathartic experience of abandoning their past wrongdoings and undertaking with a full heart to repair their ways? Indeed, one of the central motifs of modern Jewish apologetics vis-a-vis Christianity is that, unlike the Roman Catholic confession, where the sinner confesses to a priest behind a curtain, is told to say a few “Hail Marys,” and goes his way without real change or contrition, Judaism demands moral self-correction. (I’m not sure, by the way, that this stereotype is an accurate rendition of the understanding of the confession within Catholicism—but that’s another issue.)
I found an interesting answer to this problem in an unexpected place: in an essay on “Atonement and Sacrifice in Contemporary Jewish Liturgy” by a highly unconventional Jewish theologian, Richard Rubenstein (in his After Auschwitz, pp. 93-111). Lambasting the smug certainty of liberal Judaism that it has reached a “higher” and “more elevated” conception of religion, he asserts that the essential function of Yom Kippur is not moral exhortation, but to enable people to come to terms with their guilt and moral failures. Speaks in primarily psychological, therapeutic terms, he goes on to elaborate upon the well-known distinction between “prophetic” and “priestly” approach to religion. The former exhorts people to constant moral perfection, leaving behind the person who cannot meet its high, uncompromising standards. It is often marked by an aesthetic and emotional barrenness, to the point of being almost inhuman. Priestly religion, by contrast, gives greater vent to the emotions, is more in touch with the unconscious and irrational side of human nature. It is more willing to accept “sinners.” Underlying this is a fundamental difference in attitude towards human beings: whereas prophetic religion believes in human perfectibility, the priestly type is based on “the unspoken conviction that human beings are more likely to repeat their failings... from one generation to another” (p. 106). Expatiation through, for example, animal sacrifice, as exemplified by the Yom Kippur ritual, thus provides an essential catharsis, enabling people to get on with their lives for another year.
Translating this back into the language of Torah, we can see the idea of kapara without teshuva—“atonment” or “expatiation” without contrition or penitence—as making a great deal of sense. Kapara is a free gift from God, given every year on Yom Kippur. This idea is expressed in a number of places in the liturgy, from “Because You loved us, you gave us this one day in the year to atone for all our sins,” to the closing formula of the middle blessing of the Yom Kippur Amidah , “who removes our guilt each and every year “ (u-ma’avir ashmotenu bekol shana veshana). As for the distinction between “prophetic” and “priestly” religion, or “church” and “sect” (Rubinstein takes these distinctions from the classical sociologists, Troeltsch and Max Weber) — the Torah, in its Divine wisdom and insight into human nature, is able to both transcend and encompass both of these conceptions, allowing room for both kapara and teshuva to be pushed to their extreme logical conclusions, notwithstanding the seeming contradictions between them.
This sheds light on another issue. There has been lively discussion these past weeks in Yakar over the issue of what Rabbi Mickey Rosen has called “closure” in teshuva: that is, Rambam’s assertion that authentic teshuva requires ones being able to say “I will never do this thing again.” When speaking of the real ethical problems most people face in life—i.e., dealing with such basic character traits as greed, anger, arrogance, jealousy, etc.—this is all but impossible. Rosen, seeing teshuva more as a striving to improve than as a one-time, definitive act, has counterpoised Rambam’s confession text in Teshuva 1.1 with a series of more poetic, general prayers of amoraim quoted in the Bavli and Yerushalmi. Perhaps this approach may be connected with the approach described above: Yom Kippur as a day for dealing with failure, while making some all-too-human, frail efforts to improve oneself in a limited way.
This insight may also help us to understand the role of Yom Kippur for many secularized Jews. For many non-observant Jews, participating in the synagogue service for at least some part of Yom Kippur, coupled with fasting, are acts of great power and significance. They seem to accomplish a certain catharsis, compensating for whatever failings one may have had as a Jew during the year—perhaps not unlike what was felt by the throngs in Second Temple days when the High Priest completed the service of the day. Such emotions are not to be mocked or scorned. (See also S. Y. Agnon’s stories about Yom Kippur, especially “Pi Shnayim,” in which the hero spends the entire day in futile efforts to get to the synagogue, and makes the morrow into a kind of private day of atonement.)
א. כל מצות שבתורה ביו עשה בין לא תעשה אם עבר אדם על אחת מהן בין בזדון בין בשגגה כשיעשה תשובה וישוב מחטאו חייב להתודות לפני האל ברוך הוא, שנאמר איש או אשה כי יעשו וגו' והתודו את חטאתם אשר עשו. זה ודוי דברים. וידוי זה מצות עשה.
1. Every mitzvah of the Torah, whether it be a positive or a negative one, if a person violated any one of them, whether deliberately or by error—when he does teshuvah and repents of his sin, he is obligated to confess before God, blessed be He, as is said, “Each man or woman when they do [any sins] … they shall confess their sin that they did” [Num 5:6-7]—this refers to verbal confession. And this confession is a positive commandment.
כיצד מתודין? אומר "אנא השם, חטאתי עויתי פשעתי לפניך ועשיתי כך וכך, והרי נחמתי ובושתי במעשי ולעולם איני חוזר לדבר זה." וזהו עיקרו של ודוי. וכל המרבה להתודות ומאריך בענין זה הרי זה משובח.
How does one confess? One says: “I beseech Thee, O God: I have sinned, I have transgressed, I have rebelled before You, and I did such-and-such, and I regret and am ashamed of my acts, and I shall never return to do this thing.” This is the essence of confession. And whoever confesses much and elaborates upon these things is praiseworthy.
וכן בעלי חטאות ואשמות בעת שמביאין קרבנותיהן על שגגתן או על זדונן אין מתכפר להן בקרבנם עד שיעשו תשובה ויתודו וידוי דברים שנאמר "והתודה אשר חטא עליה." וכן כל מחוייבי מיתות בית דין ומחוייבי מלקות אין מתכפר להן במיתתן או בלקייתן עד שיעשו תשובה ויתודו. וכן החובל בחבירו והמזיק ממונו אף על פי ששילם לו מה שהוא חייב לו אינו מתכפר עד שיתודה וישוב מלעשות כזה לעולם שנאצר "מכל חטאות האדם."
And similarly, those who are required to bring sin-offerings and guilt-offerings, when they bring their sacrifices for their inadvertent or deliberate sins, it is not atoned for by their sacrifices until thy do teshuvah and recite a verbal confession, as is said, “and they shall confess that in which they sinned.” Likewise, all those subject to the court-imposed death penalty or corporal punishment, are not atoned for by their death or by their stripes, until they do teshuvah and confess. And similarly one who causes bodily harm to his fellow, or causes him monetary damage, even though he has paid him what he owes him, is not atoned until he confesses and turns so as not to do that act again forever, as is said, “of all the sins of man” [ibid.].
There is a great deal to be said about this halakhah, but unlike previous years, I will not offer a full discussion at this point, but only explain it in outline form, and then focus on one specific issue.
This passage is divided into three sections: the definition of the mitzvah of teshuvah; the text of the Vidduy, in which are embedded several key concepts of teshuvah—i.e., the different levels of sin, and the stages of teshuvah itself; and the discussion of atonement, which is the theme of this chapter.
The classic problem here, is why Rambam defines confession, rather than repentance, as the key mitzvah here. Rav Soloveitchik typically explained this in terms of the two being inner and outer aspects of the same mitzvah: verbal confession is the formal structured expression (ma’aseh mitzvah), but the essential act is the inner shift within the human heart (kiyyum shebelev).
I would like to offer an alternative explanation: that teshuvah itself cannot be a mitzvah, because it is impossible to command it. Teshuvah, in a certain sense, just happens; one cannot set out to do it. The Rambam’s wording is unusual: “Every mitzvah… if a person violated any one of them… when he does teshuvah and repents of his sin, he is obligated to confess.” Teshuvah is described here as a precondition of confession, as something that happens, and is then expressed or articulated through verbal confession.
In a certain sense repentance is not a volitional act, that one may set out to do. Imagine that a person regularly, for many years, committed some transgression—cheated others in business, or committed adultery, or disregarded the Shabbat, or ate pork. Every year, he went to shul on Yom Kippur and recited the long litany of confession, but did not take seriously the words referring to his habitual sin. Then, suddenly, one day he “woke up” and realized that what he was doing was wrong, was not the way he wished to live his life, and he decided not to do so in the future. He did not—he could not—say to himself first, “I am going to do teshuvah for X,” as one does with virtually every other mitzvah. Rather, the thought itself—basically, a combination of regret for the past and decision for the future—was the act of teshuvah. Basically, teshuvah is a very simple inner act, or more properly decision.
Hence, I submit that the Laws of Teshuvah are concerned, not so much with teshuvah itself, but with everything that goes on around it, both before and after: self–examination and soul-searching (heshbon nefesh, hipus bema’asav) to foster teshuvah, the setting aside of ten days of penitence to this end, the rising before dawn for special prayers, the blowing of the shofar, etc.,; and the ”ways of teshuvah” that follow it, to reinforce and strengthen the essential decision within the personality—first and foremost, formal confession; fasting; and, in extreme cases, going into exile, changing one’s name, seeking out a humble social role, and various other acts of penance which medieval Judaism developed to encourage teshuvah.