Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Ki Teitsei (Rambam)

Thoughts on Teshuvah

The following passage appears after Rambam discusses the quality of the Ten Days of Penitence as a time uniquely suited to teshuvah, and especially the property of Yom Kippur as a “time of teshuvah for all,” marked by a universal confession of sin, repeated several times during the course of the Holy Day. In the concluding section of Hilkhot Teshuvah 2.8, he writes:

8. … Sins which a person had confessed on this Yom Kippur, he should repeat and confess again on a subsequent Yom Kippur, even though he has remained steadfast in his repentance. As is said, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me” [Ps 51: 5]

This passage is rather puzzling, for just a few lines earlier, in §5, he states that those sins which are not known publicly, but are between the individual and God, ought to be confessed quietly, to God alone, citing another verse from the Psalms, “Happy is he whose transgression is lifted, whose sin is covered” [Ps 32:1]. This would seem to suggest that, in general, it is a good thing for sins to be hidden or “covered.”

The halakhah here is based upon a debate in the Talmud, Yoma 86b:

Our Rabbis taught: Sins that a person confessed on this Yom Kippur, he ought not to confess on a subsequent Yom Kippur; but if he repeated them, he needs to confess them the following Yom Kippur; and if he did not repeat them, yet nevertheless confessed them, concerning such a one Scripture says, “like a dog that returns to his vomit, so is a fool that repeats his folly” [Prov 26:11]. Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said: All the more so is he praiseworthy, as is said, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me” [Ps 51:5].

Rather, to what does the verse “like a dog that returns to its vomit” refer? As in the teaching of Rab Huna. Rav Huna said: Once a person has performed a sin and repeated it, it becomes permitted to him. Can one imagine that it is really permitted to him? Rather, that it becomes to him as if it is permitted….

A few explanatory comments about the text: (1) The question, “to what does so-and-so think this verse refers?” is a very common one in the Talmud. The operating assumption is that every sage has the entire Bible literally at his fingertips, has thought about the exegetical problems involved in any given verse, and thus has one or another explanation for any given verse. If he rejects the interpretation offered by A, he must have another explanation for that same verse. (2) Rav Huna’s idea that if one repeats a given sin several times “it becomes permitted to him” is of course intended ironically, and reflects a common enough observation about human nature: once a person has gotten into the habit of performing a given action a few times, even if it runs counter to a value system to which he is ostensibly committed, he stops thinking about it, and it becomes automatic. Subjectively, it is as if it has become permitted—which of course in no way alters the objective legal status of that act. (3) Already in Talmudic times Yom Kippur was the main time for confession of sins—notwithstanding the “occasional” confession described by Rambam in Teshuvah 1.1: that is, a confession of one specific sin made at the time that the person realizes he has done wrong and decides to abandon a specific act. But unlike the formulaic Confession familiar to us, the Yom Kippur Confession seems to have consisted of a confession of those sins that the person had actually done. Hence, the question with which our sugya opens: if he had already confessed a given sin (and not committed it again), should he or should he not confess it the next year, and subsequent years?

The former view, that of the Rabbis, states that a person should not be preoccupied with his sins. Confessing the same sin year after year, no matter how serious it might have been, is indicative of a guilt-ridden soul. Moreover, it suggests that the person feels, even after having “done teshuvah,” that he is still identified with the sin, that it is somehow still part of him, that he can never achieve the sense of innocence of the person who has never sinned, who has always lived a clean and upright life, who has never strayed from the straight and narrow path.

The Rabbis, against this almost morbid preoccupation with past transgressions, seem to counsel an upbeat, sunny, optimistic approach to life. It is as if they say: of course one makes mistakes in life, everyone has weaknesses, and one must certainly undergo a process of repentance, even of penitence, in which one uproots whatever faults led to the sin, confessing it sincerely and contritely to one’s Maker—but then one moves on and goes on living in a positive way, cheerfully doing mitzvot and studying Torah and helping others as much as one can. If one has truly and genuinely repented, then one is in fact a different person, one is no longer the same person who committed one or another sin. Teshuvah—as Rav Soloveitchik constantly reminds us in his writings on the subject—is a process of psychological re-creation, of remaking oneself.

Moreover, mentally returning to one’s former transgressions serves no useful purpose. Sin is likened to filth—not only was it filth in action, in the doing, but the very thought of the sin, in dredging up the memory, is so-to-speak filth in thought. Indeed, one might add: the person returning, in supposedly pious fashion, to confess his past sins, may consciously or unconsciously be getting a certain vicarious “charge” from recalling the pleasure he got from committing the sin—so that the very act of confession may actually become a stumbling block, perhaps leading him to repeat the sin at a later point—and such things are far from unknown in human life.

By contrast, the latter view, that of R. Eliezer b. Yaakov, takes a darker, more pessimistic view of human nature. The person who confesses the same sin over and over again, year after year, may tell himself something like the following: I committed adultery (or any other grave sin) so-and-so many years ago; I have thus far avoided repeating this sin by assiduously avoiding opportunities for temptation; or I may have learned how to marshal my will-power in a way that prevents me from falling; or I may have changed my life situation so as to make the sin less necessary or tempting (or all three). But I know myself: the roots of the sin, the psychological desire for illicit pleasure, is still there, lurking deep within the recesses of my soul. And, at a weak moment, they may yet come unbidden to the fore and once again be translated into action. “Do not be certain of yourself till your dying day,” our Sages say in Pirkei Avot. The spiritual exercise of reciting the Confession over this sin every year (presumably, our sugya is concerned with serious sins, not with forgetting to say Borei Nefashot or missing morning minyan once in a while) is part of an ongoing, life-long project of teshuvah; hopefully, the very possibility of repeating the sin gradually becomes more unlikely, as I gradually build up, so to speak, spiritual antibodies to it.

As far as teshuvah is concerned, one might say that R. Eliezer b. Yaakov is closer to the everyday assumptions of “the world”—to the reality that most people, in most cases, in most times and places, do not in fact undergo radical, total life changes. I once heard a shiur from Rav Yehudah Amital, of Yeshivat Har Etzion, in which he stated that the notion of teshuvah is a radical “hiddush”—a conceptual innovation that flies in the face of the assumptions of most of world literature. The tragic view of man —from the Greeks, through Shakespeare and down to Dostoyevsky and beyond—sees man as a prisoner of his destiny. If not “predestination” in the theological sense, in which free will is non-existent, then certainly subject to a kind of psychological determinism—that a person’s character is pretty much fixed, and sooner or later the faults in his character will lead him to act out whatever “destiny” has in store for him.

That even Judaism places certain limits on the power of teshuvah is indicated, on the level of the implied philosophy of the halakhah, by the fact that there are certain sins whose commission affect an individual’s status in a permanent way: a kohen who has killed another person, even inadvertently, cannot never again recite the Priestly Blessing; a woman who has committed certain kinds of sexual sins is debarred from certain marriages, no matter how chaste and modest she may become; and so on.

As for the dispute between the Rabbis and R. Eliezer b. Yaakov and the Rabbis, and the “optimistic” or “pessimistic” view regarding the human being’s capacity for change: on one level, the issue seems more a matter of temperament than one that can be resolved in any clearcut way. What William James calls “the religion of healthy-mindedness” and that if the “sick soul” exist in Judaism as surely as they do in other traditions. They have little to do with dogma or belief, and everything to do with psychology.

Another example of the manner in which different attitudes towards guilt pouring over into halakhic expressions appears in Mishnah Keritut 6.3. The Mishnah mentions a certain pious men named Bava ben Buti who was accustomed to bringing an asham taluy—a sacrifice ordinarily brought only when a person had substantive reason to think that he had committed a certain violation, but was not certain—every day of his life: “perhaps I have sinned unwittingly.” If the Sages would have let him do so, he would even have done so on the day after Yom Kippur, notwithstanding the atoning powers of that day. The Rabbis objected to this exaggerated concern with guilt, and conclude the mishnah with a reminder that the asham taluy is only to be brought when halakhically required.

Why then did Rambam, in the end, decide in favor of R. Eliezer b. Yaakov’s view? Was he “sick-minded” or darkly pessimistic about human nature? Or was he simply a realist, a pragmatic person, who suspected that the type of searing, radical teshuvah in which a person changes his life from top to bottom is rare thing; that, in the words of one of today’s pop-psychologist TV guru, “past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior”; and that repeated confession of sins, even if long gone, might be one weapon in an arsenal of measures to prevent their recurrence in the future.


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