Thursday, September 14, 2006

Elul - Rambam on Teshuvah

Two Kinds of Teshuvah

Before continuing our translation and exposition of Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuvah, I would like to make some general comments, taking up from where we stopped last week. At times, people read texts with certain preconceptions, reading into them certain ideas which are not actually there. This makes it difficult for them to see what the text itself is saying. Such misconception are rife regarding teshuvah: e.g., the idea that teshuvah as such is integrally related to Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur, and that doing teshuvah is an obligatory mitzvah incumbent upon all.

A careful reading of these halakhot reveals a rather different picture. On the most basic level, teshuvah is not an obligatory mitzvah, but a process that sometimes happens, which the halakhah describes in conditional terms. Thus, Maimonides opens the very first halakhah of this book with the words: “When a person sins…. when [if?] that person repents of his sin, he should do and say thus-and-such.” Teshuvah, at least in this initial definition, is only pertinent to those who have in fact committed some specific wrong, and feel guilt and contrition in relation to it. (Not infrequently, a perfectly decent, upright person may become obsessed with guilt and the need for atonement—but that is another subject, which has more to do with the darker recesses of the human soul than it does with halakhah.) Moreover, it is difficult to describe even this process as a mitzvah, because it is essentially an internal process of awareness and cognition, culminating in contrition and regret in relation to the past, and resolve to change one behavior in relation to the future. It isn’t clear whether such a process can even be commanded, as it depends entirely upon the individual’s inner consciousness of wrongdoing and of the need to change—and such things cannot be artificially commanded from without. At most, the halakhot may provide some sort of outline or guideline of the process to be undertaken, and stipulate a formal ritual of confession, as a kind of expression or concretization of this inner motion.

Secondly, the process of teshuvah as described by Maimonides can take place at any time, and is not limited to any particular season of the year. The confession proscribed by Rambam in 1.1 is a personal one, recited privately by the individual penitent, specifying the particular sin, and is unrelated to our Yom Kippur Confession (Rambam takes it from the Temple ritual, as per Yoma 36b). This kind of teshuvah, which for want of a better term might be called “specific teshuvah,” forms the subject of Hilkhot Teshuvah 1.1-2.5 (or 2.6), 2.9-11. The ordinary person, who lives a decent, upright, honest life, and has no specific transgression weighing on his conscience, in theory need never concern himself with this kind of teshuvah. But there is a second kind of teshuvah as well, which might be called “general teshuvah”: namely, that associated with the season of the Days of Awe, with which we are all familiar. As there is no human being who is free of shortcomings, confrontation with our own failings forms an important part of the moral and spiritual life. Hence, the halakhah has set aside a certain period of the year when every person ought to be concerned with teshuvah. There is even those Jewish ethical thinkers who hold that every person, even the one who is seemingly decent, should always be engaged in teshuvah. There is likewise a mystical vision of teshuvah as a movement of the entire cosmos towards God (as in the memorable description in Rav Kook’s Orot ha-Teshuvah). But this kind of teshuvah belongs more to the realm of personal stock-taking, and working on character deficiencies, than to the more focused, specific teshuvah that involves regretting and abandoning a specific transgression. In any event, this latter type of teshuvah is the subject of Teshuvah 2.6 [or 7]-8 (the Days of Awe); 3.1-4 (“each person should see himself as half guilty and half innocent”); and 7.3 (teshuvah involving character improvement). The rest of the book, notwithstanding the title, does not deal with concrete laws of teshuvah, but with other, more aggadic aspects of teshuvah, or with related theological issues.

In addition to the human propensity towards failure and imperfection, teshuvah as an ongoing, “general” process is important because certain obligations of the Torah are open-ended, and as such invite constant improvement. Interestingly, the conflation of the Mishnah and Tosefta from Pe’ah 1.1, traditionally recited every morning after the Blessings for the Torah (“these are the things for which there is no measure….”), includes representatives of the three major categories of Divine service: acts of kindness to others (gemillut hasadim), the direct service of God through focused prayer (iyyun tefillah), and Torah study, which is seen as most important (talmud torah keneged kulam). Every person can learn more Torah; he can be more “proactive” in helping others; and he can attempt to daven with more attention and concentration (a constant, life-long battle).

“The Ways of Teshuvah”

We shall now return to our translation and commentary on Rambam’s text:

4. Among the ways of teshuvah is for the penitent to be constantly crying out before the Lord with tears and supplication. And he gives charity according to his ability, and distances himself greatly from the thing in which he sinned, and he changes his name, as if to say, I am different and not the same person who did these things. And he changes all his deeds towards the good and towards the straight path, and he exiles himself from his place. For exile atones for transgression, as it makes him submissive, humble and low-spirited.

This halakha clearly relates to a radical act of type of teshuva, in which the person undergoes a profound inner change, one that completely turns about his whole manner of being in the world. Such radical change is a searing, cathartic experience which occurs, at most, only once or twice in a lifetime.

What are the elements described here? First, intensely emotional prayer; tze’akah, crying out to God; a prayer born of a sense of despair, of desperation, of alienation from God, of a sense of shame and unworthiness. A plaintive cry for Divine mercy and restoration of love, perhaps a cry for help to “save one from oneself,” because one does not have the strength to bring ones good intentions to fruition on ones own. Second, a change in identity, symbolized by the change in name. This is a major step, a symbolic break with and rejection of ones past, a discontinuity of identity with the person who did these awful things. Not infrequently, such changes of name are encountered among today’s so-called hozrim bitshuva, “returnees” or newly-pious Jews—although in fact they are more accurately described as converts or neophytes then reformed sinners.

Third, that he should engage in charity and “change all his deeds towards the good.” These three elements—altered behavior, prayer, and charity—are well-known elements of the “routine” teshuvah of the Ten Days as well (note the concluding phrase in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, often read in a shout: teshuva tefilah u-tzedakah); Rambam also mentions them in that context, in 3.4; but here they seem to carry a special intensity. Fourth, exile. The image is that of a successful, accepted member of society, who carries within himself the consciousness of having committed a grievous sin. The deliberate casting off of his comfortable, respected place in society; the abandonment of his familiar environment, of the everyday background to his life, even of the physical scenery that, without us even being aware of it, provide a tremendous sense of security. He becomes a stranger, a wanderer, a person without any pre-existing prestige or reputation, living life, so to speak, in its most fundamental elements. This rejection of comfortable bourgeois life, because it blinds us to the moral and spiritual dimension, is a basic element of monastic mentality; it is reminiscent of the practice, in Hindu culture, of prosperous house-holders who, at a certain stage in mid-life, abandon everything to go wandering and become itinerant monks with begging bowls. (See also my comments about Naziritism in HY I: Naso and HY III: Ekev)

It is regarding this type of radical teshuvah, I think, that the Talmud (Yoma 87b) says “Great is teshuva through which deliberate transgressions become like merits.” True, soul-searing teshuva has the power to change an individual so radically that all the sins he did earlier are forgotten, nay, transformed, because they are the stepping stones to a new self. The classic story in this respect is that of Eleazar ben Durdai, a notorious profligate, who one day was told by one of his paramours that “you are lost to the life of the World to come.” Immediately he left her, went and sat in a valley between two great mountains, place his head between his knees, and wept, bewailing an entire life wasted on the pursuit of self-centered pleasure. As he dies weeping, in an act of teshuva, a heaven voice is heard, “Rabbi (!) Eleazar ben Durdai is invited to Eternal Life.” On this, Rebbe commented, “there is one who earns his place after many years of effort, and one who earns his place in one hour!” (Avodah Zarah 17a)

One more interesting point in this halakha: the phrase “he distances himself from the thing he did.” The act of teshuvah, the decision of the human will, is not always strong enough to prevent relapses into ones old ways over the course of time, particularly in face of the inevitable temptations encountered in ordinary life. For this reason, artificial barriers are useful. Indeed, this is a basic idea in halakha generally: that one should make “fences” around the law—in the area of sexuality, but in many other areas as well. Here, it is advocated as a means of avoiding the known weakness of the reformed sinner. Compare the legends of medieval Christian monks who used to sleep in bed with beautiful young women to test their devotion to chastity. In Judaism such a “test” would be seen as slightly ridiculous, inhuman and unrealistic.

Public or Private Teshuvah

5. And it is praiseworthy that the penitent should confess in public and make known the thing and tell them, and reveal sins between himself and his neighbor to others. He says, “Verily, I have sinned against so-and-so and done to him thus and such, and today I repent and regret it.” And one who is haughty and does not make his sins known but covers them up, his repentance is not a complete one, as is said, “He who covers his sins shall not succeed” [Prov 28:13]. Of what are we speaking? Of sins between a man and his fellow, but in sins between man and the Omnipresent, there is no need to publicize himself, and it is arrogant to do so if he does reveal them. But only before God, blessed be He, before Whom he details his sins; but he confesses them in public only in a very general way. And it is good for him that his sins are not revealed, as is said, “Happy is the man his transgression is taken away, whose sin is covered” [Ps 32:1].

The fundamental idea here is that certain sins do require public confession, presumably because they were in any event well-known, but Hazal did not wish to encourage a person to wallow in public confession of sins, in the style of Evangelical revival meetings, because they saw in this an act of self-humiliation and even debasement. In any event, there is clear dialectic here between public and private sin. Rav Soloveitchik has written at length about the interplay between the social aspects of teshuvah and the private – internal-psychological aspects. The reprobate loses his trustworthiness, so that, e.g., the gambler, the embezzler, the congenital liar, need make a certain public demonstration of teshuvah to restore their reputation. A whole chapter of the Rav’s book, On Teshuvah, is devoted to this subject.

Let me conclude with a personal experience, shedding important light upon the Rav’s attitude towards this question. In 1973, while I was still living in Boston, I was approached by a journalist friend involved in the then-nascent ba’al teshuvah movement who was preparing a book of personal stories of ba’alei teshuvah associated with various streams within Orthodoxy. Knowing my acquaintance with Rav Soloveitchik, he asked me to approach the Rav so as to solicit the name of a ba’al teshuvah who was among his students, who might tell his story. The Rav’s answer was unequivocal, and went approximately as follows: “Maimonides says that it is the nature of the penitent to be modest and self-effacing, and not to publicize his sinful past. Ours is not the way of Christian revivalists or evangelists, who make a big show of announcing their repentance in public. It is against the nature of a baal teshuvah to seek publicity of this type. Such a book is the very antithesis of true teshuvah.”


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