Thursday, September 28, 2006

Yom Kippur & Shabbat Shuvah

For further teachings on Yom Kippur and teshuvah generally, from the hafatarot, Hasidism, and Rambam, scroll down to the appropriate heading.

Atonement, Repentance, and What is Between Them

The terms kaparah and teshuvah, generally translated as “atonement” and “repentance, are often used in tandem, and are at time even confused with one another; but, in fact, they represent two almost diametrically opposed aspects of the process of Divine-human reconciliation. Kaparah represents Divine forgiveness, atonement, covering up and erasing the wrongdoing, with or without human effort—or perhaps by means of ritual, such as the sending away of the goat into the wilderness. Teshuvah, as we have discussed in the past weeks in our readings from Rambam, is the human effort to alter ones behavior, to resolve to behave differently in the future, and thereby in some sense also change the meaning of the past. The one epitomizes Divine grace; the other, human effort.

Elsewhere we discussed in this forum Richard Rubenstein’s important essay on “Atonement and Sacrifice in Contemporary Jewish Liturgy” (in his book After Auschwitz, pp. 93-111). He draws an analogy there to “priestly” and “prophetic” religious modes, exemplified in the Western world by the Catholic and Protestant churches, which may also be seen as corresponding to the poles of atonement and repentance. The former accepts the inevitability of human failure, emphasizing the element of divine compassion, of God forgiving and in some sense even erasing sin; on the psychological level, religion functions here to as a mean of coping with human failure. There is something popular, warmly human, folk-like, “Mediterranean” in such an approach. The latter focuses upon moral demands, upon the teaching of high ethical and personal standards, as the only true concern of religion. It is demanding, perfectionist, judgmental in its moral expectations; its image of God is stern, even harsh, making no allowances for human frailties and accepting no excuses. This type is typified by Northern European culture and, in the US, by the New England WASPs and their “Protestant work ethic.”

The one errs in the direction of being overly forgiving, accepting, even sloppy in its approach to morality and norms. The other can be harsh, cruel, unrelenting, inhuman. The one portrays God as a warm, embracing, nourishing, indulgent mother (note the cult of the Mary, as the Mother figure par excellent, in Catholicism; Art Green has recently explored possible analogies and parallels to this in the figure of the Shekhinah in Spanish Kabbalah); the other, as a stern, demanding father, imposing unequivocal demands. Interestingly, in the Jewish tradition God is sometimes referred to as Av ha-Rahamim, usually translated as “merciful father,” but which may literally be rendered as “wombed father”—that is, both mother and father, at once incorporating and transcending gender.

Within the Jewish world, this polarity may in some ways be found in the contrast between Mitnaggedism, and especially the Lithuanian Musar movement, on the one hand, with their emphasis on strict halakhah, unstinting devotion to the rigorous intellectual discipline of Talmudic study and, in the case of the latter, the demand for moral perfection; and, on the other, Hasidism, with its emphasis on warm, emotional, joyous prayer, its simple, straightforward love of God, and a certain celebration of the simple man and even, in some schools, a kind of anarchistic bohemianism. Stated on a more theoretical level, this polarity also relates to the ideas of ahavah and yirah, the love and fear of God, both of which are seen as necessary parts of a complete, whole religious personality.

Some scholars wish to see this tension as reflecting a certain process of historical development: the Bible, they argue, emphasizes atonement, the eradication of sin freely granted as a divine gift; in response to the intercession of Moses or other prophetic intermediaries between God and Israel (as in the incident of the Golden Calf, Exod 32-34; see my discussion of this in HY I: Ki Tisa); or as being affected in an almost automatic way through the bringing of sacrifices. The concept of teshuvah, on the other hand, is developed and articulated in Rabbinic Judaism by Hazal. Indeed, the idea of different approaches to sin and the sinner within different levels of text, is hinted at in an interesting passage from the Palestinean Talmud (j. Makot 2.5 [31d]), which I quote with the additions from the Cairo genizah manuscript brought by Urbach in Hazal (p. 409):

Rav Pinhas said; “The Lord is good and upright” [Ps 25:8]: Why is He good? Because he is upright. And why is He upright? Because he is good. “Therefore he teaches sinners in the path.” On the path of repentance. They asked the Torah: What is the sinner’s punishment? Let him bring a sacrifice and he shall be atoned. They asked Prophecy: What is the sinner’s punishment? It said: “The soul that sins shall die” [Ezek 18:4]. They asked David: What is the sinner’s punishment? He said “Let sinners be consumed from the earth” [Ps 104:35]. They asked Wisdom: What is the sinner’s punishment? He said, “Sinners shall be pursued by evil” [Prov 13:21]. They asked the Holy One blessed be He: What is the sinner’s punishment? He answered them: Let him do penitence and I shall accept him. Concerning this it is said: “The Lord is good and upright, therefore he teaches sinners in the path.”

Here, “goodness” and “uprightness” are seen as in conflict: goodness, in the sense of kindness, understanding, gentleness, and forgiveness even towards the person who has strayed from the path, is opposed to “uprightness”—that is, the straight, unwavering path of high-thinking principle. (This is reminiscent of other midrashim, as that on Ps 85:11, in which truth and love, justice and peace, are seen as struggling with one another, differing even on such a cardinal question as to whether or not mankind should have been created altogether.)

In any event, these two opposites are ultimately reconciled in teshuvah. Unlike the written Torah, which provides a technical solution to the problem of sin, or other sections of the Tanakh, which seem to almost vindictively demand punishment of the evildoer, God accepts the penitent. Teshuvah provides a solution to the knotty problem of how the human being is to deal with his propensity to wrongdoing; how to rid himself of the almost inevitable burden of guilt that seems to accompany the very fact of being human.

We don’t often think about this, but the Jewish concept of teshuvah—of personal ethical change as being efficacious to achieve atonement before God and, perhaps more important, as having the capability of changing and purifying the human personality itself—is a great hiddush, a remarkable turn in human thought. The issue of guilt stands at the center of many cultures, certainly of Western culture. Sophocles’ great Oedipus trilogy is concerned with the question: how is Oedipus, who committed two monstrous sins, to deal with his guilt? The answer is that, despite his ignorance of the nature of his act (at least on the conscious level), and despite his genuine contrition and the intense mental anguish he undergoes, there is no way for him to find forgiveness or solace, and he ends his life blind and miserable. Likewise, the central question underlying the Pauline epistles, and of Christianity, is: how is man to be saved from the burden of existential guilt? (Paul assumes that no man can completely fulfill the Law, and hence all are condemned to guilt.) His answer, basically, is, that this is only possible through a mystery, a weird act of supernatural intervention, in which God becomes incarnate (as it were) and vicariously suffers on behalf of mankind.

The radical, but utterly simple thesis behind the Jewish concept of teshuvah is that man can change himself, and that by changing and recreating himself he can atone for the past. Hence there is no need for either Greek tragedy or for Christian theological somersaults.

* * * * *

In any event, this issue prompted me to leaf through the Bible, to see what it actually says about teshuvah, kaparah, and the relationship between them. What I found there, first, was the obvious: Leviticus is filled with chapters about korbanot (sacrificial offerings) in which forgiveness comes about as the result of various types of sin-offerings, the comprehensive collective ritual of Yom Kippur (Lev 16) being only the best known and most elaborate of these. On the other hand, there are prophetic exhortations to repent, of which the haftarot for this season, and for this Shabbat, are among the most obvious examples (see Isa 55:6-7; Hosea 14:2-5, 10; Joel 2:12-14; etc.). Interestingly, the account in Jonah 3:4-10 is almost the only case in which a prophetic call in fact leads to the almost immediate repentance of an entire city. So much so, that one wonders whether this is in fact a covert message that such things never happen in reality, especially given the enigmatic, unreal quality of the book as a whole. Given that Nineveh was the greatest city in the world, the center of the powerful Babylonian empire, an earlier version of Rome, it is difficult to give much credence to the scene of the king leaving his throne, putting on sackcloth, and calling on others to do the same.

What I found more interesting was the existence of a kind of intermediate category between teshuvah and kaparah. The Book of Psalms contains several deeply moving, religiously profound penitential psalms in which the author confesses his sin, declares his desire to become clean of his guilt, and calls upon God to help him to do teshuvah—to erase his sin, to purify his heart, to make him whole. In brief, there is such a thing as man turning, changing, but it is beyond his power to do it himself; he needs Gods’ help, an act of grace and love that is, in a sense, a kind of kaparah. Thus, in Psalm 32:

Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is forgiven. Happy the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit… I said: “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord, and You will forgive the guilt of my sin….

He does not speak here of teshuvah in the sense of changing his ways, but of the sense of comfort derived from the confession of sin in and of itself, and of God’s subsequent enjoying Divine grace and God even serving him as place of refuge and a deliverance.

Or even more so in Psalm 51, associated with David’s penitence following his sin with Bathsheba. (Incidentally, David as an individual, like the people of Nineveh as a collective, responded to prophetic admonition with a frank confession: “I have sinned to the Lord” – 2 Sam 12:13)

Have mercy on me, O God, in your lovingkindness, and blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly of my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgression, and my sin is constantly before me. I have sinned against You alone… Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be white as snow.… Create in me a new heart, and a correct spirit renew within me… Cast me not away from Your presence…

Once again, the emphasis here is on the need for a kind of spiritual purification, reestablishing the sense of intimacy and closeness to God which had been shattered by his own sins, and his feeling that he needs Divine help and intervention in order to do so. The penultimate verse sums it up: “God’s sacrifice is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart He shall not despise” (v. 18). A similar spirit moves Lam 5:21 and Ezek 36:25.

Applying this polarity to the concrete question of how, in practice, one ought to do teshuvah, I would formulate the dilemma thus: How does one look at oneself honestly, see ones faults, and try to correct them -- without being either so harsh on oneself that one becomes bitter, harsh, humorless; or, on the other hand, being so lenient with oneself, sloppy with moral and other standards, that you do not really even begin to change at all, but accept all of ones own faults?

The Talmud in Sotah 31a tells the story of two rabbis who came to Rabba, each one having dreamt of a different biblical verse: the one saw a verse pertaining to fear of God, the other one relating to the love of God. Rabba’s conclusion was “both of you are righteous rabbis.” In other words, at least as I see it, there is no one “right answer.” The continuum of Hasidim & Mitnaggedim; love & sternness; world-acceptance &. world rejection (a la William James); Prometheus & Bontsche Schweig; Bet Hillel & Bet Shammai; human majesty and dignity vs. existential angst (see Soloveitchik’s Adam One and Adam Two): priest & prophet; openness to the unconscious, emotional aspects of life vs. emphasis on the conscious, rational dimension; healthy-minded vs. sick-minded—all these are basic character and cultural archetypes, each one of which has a role to play in the fabric of human pursuit of the good way. Some people are one way, some the other. (For what it’s worth: I find myself torn in this respect. My family heritage combines the Hasidic & the Mitnaggedic; science & the arts; rationalist & romantic)

A Teshuvah Miscellanea

Reader Anthony Elman sent some interesting comments to my piece for Shabbat Shuvah. I had asked the question: “How does one look at oneself honestly, see ones faults, and try to correct them -- without being either so harsh on oneself that one becomes bitter, harsh, humorless; or, on the other hand, being so lenient with oneself, sloppy with moral and other standards, that you do not really even begin to change at all, but accept all of ones own faults?” On this, he commented:

I agree with the way you put this. As a psychotherapist, I used to pose the same question for people who were one way or the other with themselves - more usually very harsh. I would look at this in terms of a harsh father (actual or inner) or a wishy-washy forgive-everything mother. What I challenged clients to nurture in themselves was a combination of rigour and compassion, an ability to look at themselves rigorously but at the same time compassionately. To acknowledge wrong-doing does not have to be combined with giving oneself a hard time, “beating oneself up.” In fact I believe that this combination of rigour and self forgiveness are vital ingredients of emotional health and growth. (as a therapist, I don't accept it all depends on the kind of person we are, in a fixed sense, as we can grow and change)

* * * * *

Another problem entailed in teshuvah is that of heshbon nefesh, personal stock-taking. How does a person know that his self-evaluation is a truthful one? Not infrequently, a person may “do teshuvah” for those things that seem easier to correct, that even fit in with his deeper character flaws, rather on those that really need changing. For example, a misanthrope, a person fundamental lacking in love for or caring for others, may emphasize various peccadilloes involving ritual mitzvot, decide to pray with greater intensity or be more educated to Torah study, rather than to deal with, or even be aware of, the fact that he is nasty to others. Or, vice versa, a person lacking in a deep inner life, who has not cultivated his own inner intellectual or spiritual center, but is a “khevra-mann,” is immersed in the life of society, will notice some minor flaws in his interpersonal actions, while completely entirely neglecting these other lacks. How then does one know that ones heshbon nefesh is true to the mark? There are no pat formulae, but at times a person, in prayer, while reciting the Confession on Yom Kippur, or simply when alone will himself, will have a moment when he feels the truth of his situation with great power that bears the mark of truth, and feel that he has been graced granted a moment of grace, in which he sees himself, so to speak, as the Almighty sees him.

* * * * *

The Sefat Emet (Shabbat Shuvah, 5602, s.v. aseret yemei) speaks of penitents as being mehadshim, as being in touch with certain forces of creativity in a way that the tzaddik, the person who has lived a righteous his entire life, cannot be. What does this mean? The person who sins sees certain possibilities in life—admittedly negative ones, usually involving unlimited indulgence of his instinctive, biological self—that the person who has walked the straight and narrow has never confronted, at least not with such power and intensity. The sinner has also had a glimpse of the vast possibility for evil that lies within himself, that if he lets himself go he can descend to the pit. In order to do teshuvah he cannot simply return to a type of naive, innocent piety; he needs to create a new synthesis, to recreate himself as a person.

It occurs to me that the modern Jew, one whose mind has been opened by various questions, doubts, intellectual possibilities, may be in a similar situation. He cannot return to naive faith, but must create a new kind of Judaism. Note: I am not speaking here of rejecting the halakha or a new kind of Reform, but of a new and different spiritual, emotional, and intellectual superstructure or ambience for the old Torah. Such an approach is no less authentic than that of the most extreme Orthodox; nay, it may be more authentic and genuine Torah.

“Reflect Upon the Day of Your Death”

It has often been commented that the much vaunted “openness” of our society is no more than a reversal or switching of previous taboos. Whereas Victorian society had a strict taboo on any reference or allusion to sexuality, but openly accepted the fact of death and human mortality, contemporary society shouts about sex from the rooftops, but approaches the subject of death with the hush-hush attitude formerly reserved to sexuality.

True, in recent decades such people as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and others have made attempts to deal with the subject of death and dying in a serious, psychologically constructive way; nevertheless, the predominant mood is still one of denial, with extreme emphasis on youthfulness. Old age, rather than being venerated and respected, as in traditional societies, is denied for as long as humanly possible—no doubt because of its proximity to death.

Judaism, as a rule, does not pay overly much attention to death. The emphasis is on life: ve-hay bahem—“you shall live by them”; the Torah is essentially a guide to life, not a handbook for getting into the Afterlife. The law (Lev 21) preventing priests from having any contact with bodies of the dead may have perhaps been a rejection of the cult of death in ancient Egypt, and elsewhere, in which the priest’s main function was to help the dying man negotiate the dangerous transition to the spirit world.

An interesting homily in Berakhot 5a, brought by Levi bar Hamma in the name of Resh Lakish, enumerates four steps involved in confronting the temptations of evil. First, “a person should always exercise his Good Urge against his Evil Urge”—that is, marshal ones moral will power. “If you defeat him, well and good. If not, engage in Torah”: Engage in Torah study, filling ones soul with positive intellectual contents as a powerful counter balance to lewd thoughts. If that does not work, step three: “one should recite Shema”—i.e., invoking the unity of God, and reflecting upon the most basic fundaments of ones faith. Only if that fails does one turn to the fourth and final step: “Reflect upon the day of death,” as is said: “Speak with your hearts on your beds, and be silent.” Awareness of the ultimate silence of the grave is sure to stop all but the most hardened sinner dead in his tracks.

But all this holds true in the normal course of events, during the round of the year. However, on Yom Kippur (and to only a slightly lesser degree on Rosh Hashana), which is “the time of repentance for all,” one of the important motifs, one of the psychological foundations of teshuva, is to reflect upon our mortality, to remember that human life is limited. (The motif of death also plays an important role, paradoxically, in Sukkot, the joyous festival par excellence—but more on that in due time.)

This motif is expressed in the Selihot for Erev Yom Kippur (Adon Din im yedukdak & Adon be-Pakdekha Enosh labekarim); in Dunash ibn Labrat’s piyyut, Asher eimatkha; in the contrast between the Supernal King and the humble earthly monarch, and their respective deeds (Melekh Elyon / Melekh Evyon; Ma’aseh Eloheinu / Ma’aseh Enosh); etc. But it attains its climax in the popular liturgical poem, Unteneh Tokef, the center-piece of the Musaf prayer. “Who will live and who will die… whom by fire, whom by water, whom by plague, whom by earthquake...” The portrait of the frailty of human life reaches its zenith in: “Man’s foundation is from dust, and his end is dust. He attains his bread with his very soul; he is likened to a broken potshard, to dried out grass, to a wilting bud, to a passing shadow, to a cloud that passes by, to a wind that blows, to dust that scatters, and to a fleeting dream.”

A similar motif appears in Job 8:9: “For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing; our days on earth are but a shadow”; or in Psalm 90, where man is like “grass, which springs up in the morning, but withers in the evening…” (v. 6); and in many other biblical passages. But ultimately, the goal of remembering death is not to become depressed and melancholy, but rather “Teach us to number our days, that we may acquire a heart of wisdom” (v. 12). That is, not to live life as if we are immortal and we have all the time in the world to squander, but to utilize the time we have been given—whose length we can never know for certain—to the hilt.

Thoughts on Yom Kippur

Partly in light if our discussion of the Book of Jonah, I would like to pose two general questions about Yom Kippur and the teshuva we seek on that day. Is “complete teshuva,” as described by Rambam in Teshuva §2.1 (viz. our discussion in HY II: Ki Tavo), realistic or even possible as a platonic goal? How are we to relate to the near impossibility of achieving “closure” on teshuva? There has been an ongoing discussion on this issue in the Yakar community; Rabbi Mickey Rosen is fond of stating that the quest for perfection leads to insanity, to a kind of catastrophe both to oneself and others. Instead, he suggests, one should seek moral excellence on the human level, what he calls “working with one’s imperfections.”

This elicits several important questions. First: what does this mean? Is it giving in too easily to the natural human inclination to laziness, an excuse to not working to hard to change, to a kind of sloppy acceptance of ones faults? Second: is it supportable by Hazal, as an authentic reading of their conception of teshuva? And, perhaps third, what led Maimonides to his outlook? Could it be that his personality make-up was such that he couldn’t comprehend ordinary, run-of-the-mill mortals. I can imagine him as a sort of “Yekke” type: as a person with an iron will, whose life was governed by the idea that, once a decision was made, you stuck by it tenaciously, through thick and thin, guided by ones will and reason, rather than by ones emotions. A handwriting expert, seeing a manuscript in Rambam’s own hand, described him as a man of “passionate emotions ruled by an even stronger will.”

We live in a watershed age: among other aspects, also in terms of the personality types that our culture fosters. The cultural transition from the Old World to the New World can be described in terms of personalities ruled by conscience and principle vs. those that focus upon emotion, feeling, spontaneity, sensitivity to others. “Berlin vs. Big Sur,” if you like; or, within America, the New England WASP vs. the Californian. Part of the sense of alienation of much of religious Jewry within the new, post-modern dispensation, the “New Age” spirituality, is that Judaism seems to come down squarely on the side of old-fashioned character values, such as self-discipline, conscience, etc.—or does it? The problem is a complex one, with far reaching implications for the nature and very possibility of teshuva.

Another Thought: “With this Aaron will enter into the holy place” (Lev 16:2). Yom Kippur is often described as representing the very peak of spirituality. On this day Jews are likened to the ministering angels, transcending all corporeal needs; the day itself is known in Hasidic lore simply as Yom ha-Kadosh, “the Holy Day.” The question is, what is the connection between the focus on sin and atonement, on human failure and imperfection, and the sublime spirituality attainable on this day? Are not the two ideas contradictory? Perhaps the answer lies in the idea of bittul, of self-abnegation, that through acknowledging ones own smallness and weakness one somehow opens oneself to up to letting God in. Again, there is a conflict here between what we usually think of as the modern world-view, with its celebration of the individual, and the mystical and spiritual insights of traditional religion.

Seder Ha-Avodah and Other Yom Kippur Thoughts

At the heart of the prayers for Yom Kippur—at the center of Musaf—is Seder ha-Avodah, the detailed description, nay, almost palpable reenactment, of the service performed by the High Priest in the Temple on this holiest of days. While the Avodah consisted of many details, one central feature stands out: two goats, identical in size, appearance and value, over which lots were cast. Over the one, the Kohen Gadol recited Viddui, a collective confession of sins on behalf of the entire people of Israel. This goat was led into the wilderness, far to the east, to the barren, rocky cliffs of the Judaean Desert, where he was pushed over a precipice and smashed to smithereens. In a very concrete sense, the sins of the Jewish people were so-to-speak cleansed through this violent, pagan-like ritual. The blood of the other goat, ritually slaughtered at the altar, was used to purge the Holy of Holies of any impurities accidentally accrued during the year. In a solemn, awe-inspiring ceremony, the High Priest, completely alone, entered this holiest site, the dwelling place of the Shekhinah, to sprinkle the blood of the second goat on the veil of the innermost sanctuary.

It seems to me that these two goats personify the antinomies of Yom Kippur we have discussed in recent weeks: majesty and forgiveness; Divine Sternness with its ruthless, uncompromising demands for perfection, and tender, empathetic, motherly compassion. Or, in terms of human experience, the poles between which human life runs: human striving for perfection, for transcendence, for wholeness; and the knowledge of human failings and shortcomings; man as a free, conscious, thinking creature, capable of understanding the world, of transcending his given situation so as to be “little less than the angels”; and man as a biological creature, subject to a kind of determinism, ever given to chaotic urges and changes of mood, one more mammal species living in the biosphere of which he is himself a part. As Rav Adin Steinsaltz once put it, “a strange hybrid between angel and chimpanzee.”

What the ritual of Yom Kippur seems to be saying is that the way to the one must go through the other. One cannot simply bypass or glide over “the muck.” Rav Shmuel Reiner summarized it well: “There is a feeling that teshuva which only addresses sins is missing something of the depth of God’s service, while teshuva towards God [alone] is not sufficiently grounded in normative responsibility. Teshuva must include both elements.” Confession of sin, the tireless effort to somehow correct and vanquish our faults and to harness the chaos within, may be seen as expressed by the transference of sin to a hapless scapegoat who is destroyed in the wilderness. The sending of the goat to Azazel, a place where satyrs play, is perhaps symbolic of the dark places of our own unconscious, where demons and phantoms lurk, a kind of concession or sacrifice to these inchoate, uncivilized, primordial forces within (see Ramban on Lev 16:8). It is only from there, after dealing with that place, by working through the process of ethical perfection, of personal integration that is teshuvah, that one can approach the holy; that the Priest can enter “inwards and within,” to stand before the Presence of the Holy One, to experience the sublime sense of purity, of holiness, of oneness—reliving, perhaps, the oneness known by Moses at the epiphany in the cleft of the rock.

And perhaps, just as the confession of sin is in the name of all Israel, so too is his standing alone in the Holy Place, uttering the Unmentionable Name, in the awesome presence of the Divine Shekhinah, also somehow in the name of All Israel.

* * * * *

A few weeks ago we mentioned Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s deathbed blessing: “Would that your fear of God were equal to your fear of your fellow man.” I believe that this saying should be inverted with regard to the love of God. Today, there are all sorts of mystics and would-be mystics who loudly announce their quest for love, intimacy, connection with God, etc. To them I would say, “Would that your love of your fellow man were equal to your (real or putative) love of God.“ Indeed, one must remember that love of man, created in the image of God, is in itself an expression of the love of God. Hence, Yom Kippur, the great day of Divine forgiveness, is traditionally preceded by people asking and granting forgiveness to their fellow man.

* * * * *

A few nights ago I attended a panel discussion at which three people—a scientist, a philosopher, and a psychologist— spoke about their personal understanding of teshuvah. I was rather dismayed to find that at least one of the speakers, and many of those audience who asked questions from the floor, were still laboring under elementary misconceptions about the nature of these days. The popular use of the terms ba’al teshuvah or hozer beteshuvah obscures the real meaning of these terms: the usual paradigm for teshuvah is of a person who was not “born into the faith” who, as an adult, found his way to accepting observance the practical mitzvot. For various historical reasons, many “Orthodox” Jews in our era have come to see the halakhah as the summum bonum of Jewish life. But the essence of teshuvah has nothing to do with greater punctiliousness about the mitzvot, or the details of halakhah; it is a process that touches upon the heart of the moral life: the contrition and penitence involved in turning away from a path of willful evil—evil born of knowledge, not ignorance. The essence of teshuvah is concerned with the eternal struggle within the human soul between good and evil, not observance and non-observance.

My formula for understanding this is simple: the halakhah is the outer shell, the path; the core that we must seek is, on the one hand, a certain kind of religious consciousness, Ahavat Hashem and Yirat Hashem, the love and fear of God; and, on the other, an approach to life, to other people, expressed in the word menshlichkeit. As its very name expresses, the halakhah is the path on which one walks; it is not the destination.


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