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.

Yom Kippur (Haftarot)

“Is this the fast I have chosen”

The haftarah for Yom Kippur morning is Isaiah 57:14-58:14: yet another selection taken from the group of chapters that have been the focus of attention throughout the seven weeks of comfort. The reason for its choice is quite clear. In the first half, God—“the high and lofty One, who inhabits eternity, whose name is holy”—says that He will not quarrel with the sinner indefinitely but, after a period of anger and punishment, will heal him and bring him rest. The second, longer section (58:1 ff.) calls upon the prophet to raise his voice “like a shofar” and inform the people of their true sin. He describes sarcastically how they seek him “daily,” considering themselves righteous, fasting and afflicting themselves and bowing their heads “like a bullrush”—the whole time behaving hypocritically, unrighteously. The true fast, says the prophet, is to “give your bread to the hungry, and make the misfortunate part of your household, clothe the naked…” Then, and only then, will God shower blessings upon them and rebuild their ancient ruins.

The motif of public fasts, their use and misuse, is a perennial one among the prophets (compare Zechariah lengthy answer when asked by the people, after the Return, whether they need continue to observe Tisha b’Av; Zech 7:12-8:19)—and rightly so. There is a propensity for every institution, even the most spiritual and elevated, to become misused, its spirit distorted and perverted. Hence, there is a constant need for Musar, for moral admonition, or—if that word carries connotations of a negative, self righteous kind of moralizing—of calls for renewal, for refreshing its vital life energies from within, and ridding it of the dross, of preoccupation with tangential and minor things. This is the essence of the prophet’s call in this chapter, with special focus on the institution of fasting—a much needed reminder in the midst of the Great Fast Day.

Jonah and Moby Dick

The haftarah for the afternoon of Yom Kippur is the Book of Jonah—one of the two longest haftarot of the entire cycle, and one of only two occasions when an entire book (albeit one of the “Twelve”) is read as haftarah. The story is one of the more popular “Bible stories” in Western culture, but mostly for the wrong reason—i.e., for it being a whopper of a “fish story.” It has a close connection to the Yom Kippur message, of the power of teshuva, of atonement and forgiveness, as will become clear from our reading, but that has nothing to do with the fish.

Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, whose main protagonists, so to speak, are the great white whale of its title and the half-mad whaling captain Ahab, is considered one of the great works of American literature. Moby Dick is, of course, not only a great sea epic, but first and foremost a moral tale. (There is also a direct connection between the two books, beyond the nautical setting: in the opening chapters of Moby Dick, the narrator Ishmael describes a sermon about the Book of Jonah he heard from Father Mapple, the preacher at the whaler’s chapel in the town of New Bedford from which Ahab’s whaling ship, the Pequod, departed. This sermon is disappointing: Mapple completely misses the point of the Book of Jonah, conveying a conventional Calvinist outlook in which obedience to and rebellion against God are the only meaningful parameters of the religious life.) Its hero, Ahab, is obsessed with a single-minded craving for vengeance against the white whale who years earlier bit off his leg; in the process of pursuing this beautiful and essentially innocent great sea creature, he destroys both his own and his crew’s lives.

Jonah, like Ahab, is a stubborn, obdurate character. Unlike Melville’s novel, which sprawls over six or seven hundred pages, in the expansive and leisurely tradition of the nineteenth-century novel filled with illuminating and informative digressions, Jonah’s tale is told in spare, concise terms, as is typical of the Bible: the whole thing is read aloud in the synagogue in ten or fifteen minutes. It opens with God’s call to Jonah to prophesize to the great city of Nineveh “for their evil has come up before Me”; instead, he flees from God, boarding a ship headed to the then most distant imaginable place, the city of Tarshish on the far end of the Mediterranean. Unlike other prophets, such as Isaiah or Moses, who initially rebuffed God’s call out of a sense of their own smallness and inadequacy, Jonah seems to have run away because of a principled quarrel with God’s way of running His world, as we shall see in Chapter 4. Another difficulty: what kind of conception did he have of God, that he thought he could run away from Him? Or was his flight an unthinking, instinctive impulse?

Once they are on the high seas God sends a tremendous storm, which threatens to capsize the ship; the sailors pray to their respective gods, while Jonah is fast asleep below deck. Interestingly, these pagan sailors are shown as pious people, with an innate sense of awe and of the presence of a moral order in the universe. When the captain wakes Jonah to ask him to pray to his god, he realizes immediately that it is on his account that disaster has overtaken these men; significantly, he describes his credo with the words “I am a Hebrew; I fear the Lord, God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9; meaning: there is no place on earth or at sea where he can escape the reach of God’s hand). The sailors are horrified at what he has done and, as the storm worsens, see no option but to throw him into the sea (as a kind of propitiatory sacrifice to his god?). This is not done lightly or callously; note the prayer in v. 14, where they say “let us not be lost on account of this man, nor place upon us his innocent blood, for You, God, have done as You wished.” The sea immediately ceases it raging, and the relieved sailors offer sacrifices of thanksgiving.

Scene 2: Jonah is swallowed by a great fish (not, as usually thought, a whale) sent for that purpose by God, in whose innards he survives for three days (long enough for the creature to swim the great distance from wherever they were—perhaps already well into the Western waters of the Mediterranean—to the seashore closest to Nineveh). While in the fish Jonah utters a prayer, reminiscent in both spirit and language of many of the more personal psalms of prayer uttered in times of stress found in the Psalter, with appropriate references to water, sinking to the depths, etc. Did Jonah learn anything from this experience? Did he realize that God was trying to tell him something? Can we perhaps think of the fish as his rebbe, or Zen master, whose task was to teach him through indirection?

Scene 3: In any event, in due course Jonah is spit out on the dry land somewhere near Nineveh, and this time realizes that he has no option but to fulfill God’s command and prophesy to the men of that great city. The so-called “pagan” people of Nineveh immediately repent and exhibit sincere contrition, not only fasting and wearing sackcloth, but abandoning their evil and violent ways. God in His turn forgives them and reverses the decree of destruction against them. Uriel Simon, in his studies of Jonah, has noted the parallel between the two non-Jewish groups —in the sailors of Chapter 1 and the Ninevites of Chapter 3—both of whom exhibit exemplary natural piety and capacity for repentance, as foils to Jonah’s stubborn and intransigent nature.

Scene 4: The crux of Jonah’s quarrel with God is in 4:1-2. Jonah felt very bad that God forgave the people of Nineveh, explaining this as the reason for his flight. “Is not this what I said when I was still on my own land; that’s why I fled to Tarshish: for I know that you are a compassionate and forgiving God…” What a strange, paradoxical answer! Why should he flee because God is compassionate? The only coherent answer is that Jonah was unable to accept such a God. He wanted God to be stern, unforgiving, angry, vindictive, one who only loved those who never made a mistake, punishing sinners in full measure—no doubt, because that is how he himself was. Jonah nevertheless knew that God was compassionate, forgiving, loving, long-suffering, etc.—but he couldn’t take it. Bizarre and illogical as it may sound, Jonah must have thought that he knew better than God Himself how He ought to run his world; he considered himself, so to speak, as “frummer,” more pious, more religious, than God Himself. (Not to mention that the Ninevites were non-Jews, and quite possibly part of a group that had historically been enemies of Israel to boot!)

God makes a last ditch attempt to teach Jonah. Jonah goes to sulk in a makeshift hut outside of the city, over which God makes a gourd grow to give him shade. Next morning a worm comes along, making it dry out, and God also sends a harsh east wind, a hamsin, to make things even more unpleasant. When Jonah complains about all this, God answers by drawing a comparison between the gourd “on which you had pity, even though it flowered and died in a single night” (4:10), and His own compassion on the people of Nineveh (4:10-11). What kind of an answer is this? How can God’s compassion for the people of Nineveh, based upon selfless empathy for imperfect creatures who had gone astray in their ignorance, be compared with Jonah’s complaint about the loss of the gourd, rooted, not in empathy, but in self-pity and grief at the loss of an object that had been convenient to him? This is indeed the point: God was mocking Jonah’s capacity for compassion and his much-vaunted moral uprightness, by exposing his essential self-centeredness and egotism. In passing, He makes the important point that human sin, evil and monstrous as it may often be, is ultimately grounded in simple ignorance and lack of understanding (“more than twelve myriads of men who do not know their right hand from their left”), rather than in any deliberate choice of evil.

Did Jonah change his own view of the world? We are not told; I somehow doubt it. In any event, God has the last word here.

To return for a moment to Moby Dick. Melville’s story involves other issues as well, such as the elemental struggle between man and nature, but at root there is an essential similarity between Ahab and Jonah. Ahab is motivated in a single-minded way by emotions of hatred and vengeance, blinding him to all else around him; killing the whale has become the sole purpose of his life. He is impervious both to the consequences for the crew placed under his charge, whom he drags with him on his mad vendetta, and to the essential innocence and purity of the white whale itself. Ahab learns nothing. Only Ishmael, the battered survivor, lives to tell the tale. Jonah, too, represents an all too familiar religious type: stern, unloving, without compassion, frozen in a rigid, stereotyped type of thinking dominated by Fear rather than Love. At least Jonah suffers nothing worse than a touch of sunstroke in the last scene and, we are told by the midrash, returns to a normal life (he is even cited briefly as a prophet in 2 Kings 14:25), and doesn’t bring a ship-full of men down to the briney deep.

In Jewish tradition, this haftarah concludes with the final verses of Micah (7:18-20; see HY II: Shabbat Shuvah), bringing home the point about Divine compassion, a central theme that permeates Yom Kippur, and particularly the final hours of the fast.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Yom Kippur (Hasidism)

Yom HaKadosh!” (“The Holy Day”)

Yom Kippur is often referred to by Hasidim and in Hasidic texts simply as Yom ha-Kadosh—“The Holy Day” par excellence. The implication is that, over and above its qualities as a day of atonement and forgiveness of sin, beyond it being a day when we engage in teshuvah and confession of sin, when we search our in souls and plummet the depths of our own failings and inadequacies, it is a day of pristine holiness, the holiest day of the entire year.

The use of this term suggests something of the Hasidic approach to Yom Kippur. It plays down guilt and dwelling upon one’s own faults and shortcomings; as we have noted many times in these studies over the course of the past year, Hasidism tends to see sadness and self-castigation as the enemies of true religious service, which should be based upon a joyful approach to life, which feels the Divine energy pulsing throughout the universe. Hence, more than a dwelling upon one’s own imperfections and rooting out of the negative, teshuvah is seen as an act of regeneration, of reaching out to the Holy One. Yom Kippur is thus The Holy Day, because it is a day when God is close and available to man. “Seek the Lord when He is close” is the motto of the ten days of repentance generally, and of Yom Kippur in particular; in ancient times, this was manifested in a concrete way by the moment when the high priest entered the holiest place on earth, the Holy of Holies.

As many of the early, classic Hasidic books are collections of sermons on the weekly Torah portions, they do not have any special section on Yom Kippur or the other holidays. What follows is a selection from that place in the Torah where Yom Kippur is mentioned (which, incidentally, is located quite close to the exact center of the Torah: one of the middle portions of the middle book, read near Passover, the mid-point of the annual cycle). From R. Moshe Hayyim Ephraim of Sudylkow’s Degel Mahaneh Efraim, Parshat Aharei Mot, s.v. vekhiper:

“And he shall atone for the children of Israel of all their sins once each year” [Lev 16:32]. There are deep things here, in my humble opinion, and this is in accordance with the approach of the paytan [liturgical poet] who arranged Seder ha-Avodah for Yom Kippur: “And thus would he count: ‘One, one and one, etc.… one and seven’” [from Mishnah Yoma 5.3]. And the Talmud [at b. Yoma 55a] explains the reason why.

Seder ha-Avodah refers to the section of the Musaf service describing the order of service performed on Yom Kippur in the Temple in Jerusalem. The passage quoted here describes how the High Priest, after entering the Holy of Holies and offering the finely ground incense, sprinkled the blood (of “his” bullock and of the people’s goat of atonement) on the veil of the ark “once upwards, seven times downwards,” each time counting “One, one and one, one and two,” etc. The Talmudic passage offers two explanations as to why the word “one,” for the upward sprinkling, was mentioned together with each of the downwards sprinklings: so that the priest would not become confused, or because the practice is alluded to in a biblical verse. But he continues:

And there is, in my humble opinion, a Kabbalistic reason for this. For it is known that the sefirah of Binah [Understanding/Intuition] is called “one.” For Binah belongs to the World of Thought, and there, all is complete unity; but it is only in the body that the branches are separated into the right arm and the left, which are the aspects of Hesed & Gevurah [“Kindness” and “Sternness”]. Therefore thought is called one, for there the union is constant. And this is the “one” alluded to in the Avodah, which incorporates the three mind-aspects of Keter-Hokhmah-Binah (Crown—Wisdom—Understanding/Intuition), which are the secret of thought, that is called “one”… down to “one and seven,” which is Malkhut.

The realm of the upper, intellective sefirot is only rarely touched upon in Hasidic writings (with the exception of the school of Habad, so called because of its emphasis specifically on these attributes). The three sefirot mentioned are: Keter, representing the Divine Crown, the point of contact so-to-speak between the Infinite and the created world (which is the closest Kabbalah ever gets to discussing the Godhead itself); Hokhmah, the Divine Wisdom or Logos, the “point” from which the universe was created, symbolized by the letter Yod; and Binah, the quality of applied intellect or reasoning “which derives one thing from another,” that which spreads and extends the quintessential Hokhmah into length and breadth (symbolized by the letter Heh). The important point here is that these three sefirot are described here as one or, more precisely, as being in a state of constant union (Hokhmah & Binah are also called, mythically, “Father” and “Mother’)—together constituting that realm of Divine Wisdom and Will that so transcends the world that it cannot be differentiated.

We find, that there are included therein all ten sefirot, and in each there is mentioned the word “one,” so as to incorporate them all in the “one,” which alludes to Binah, and so as to sweeten the judgments in their root. And this is the aspect of Yom Kippur: mother and daughter [referring to the sefirot of Binah and Malkhut]; and understand. And this is alluded to in, “And he shall atone for the children of Israel for all their sins once a year” [ibid.]. “One” is the world of Binah, and “year” is Malkhut. That is, to draw the world of Binah into that aspect, that it might be incorporated and united therein, as in the Avodah. And thereby all the judgments will be sweetened by themselves, and the sins of all Israel shall be atoned—and understand this. For here the Torah alluded to our way, from whence atonement comes to Israel on Yom ha-Kippurim once a year, as mentioned above. And understand.

These three sefirot, which are so-to-speak spearheaded or concentrated specifically within Binah, unite in turn with each of the seven lower sefirot, which collectively represent the realms of emotion and action; and particularly with Malkhut, the feminine, which epitomizes all of them together, as well as the created world itself, which is known as “Daughter.” This unity results in sweetening and overcoming the “judgments,” the forces of conflict and disharmony present in the lower realms. Perhaps, too, for human beings Yom Kippur is a time for awareness of, and meditation on, the perfect unity of the transcendent World of Thought.

Binah is equated elsewhere with teshuvah as well. Why? Perhaps because the act of teshuvah is ultimately a mental act: of drawing distinctions, of winnowing out the good from the evil within one’s own soul and self—and as such involving the faculty of discrimination. On the other hand, teshuvah is also an act of will: after one examines one’s acts, or even ones entire life and way of being in the world, and pinpoints those things which need to be changed—the classical function of the understanding—an act of will is required to in fact undertake implementing these change in one’s behavior and day-to-day actions. This will (which we will discuss again below, from a different viewpoint) is in fact related to these upper sefirot, to the spark of the Divine will and wisdom within man.

Thoughts on Atonement and Guilt

To return to the phrase Yom ha-Kadosh: there is an interesting paradox here, in that the very day on which we must focus upon our sins and the negative facets of our personality, is that day that is connected to the most sublime holiness. But perhaps the solution to this paradox lies in the Hasidic concept of bittul atzmi. Teshuvah is the most sublime form of self-abnegation, whereby the very act of searching out one’s faults and shortcomings and attempting to renounce them brings one to a place in which one’s own ego and self are somehow left behind, and one approaches God, as it were, as a pure soul stripped of ego.

In this context, I wish to address a somewhat related issue, that always comes up during this season: the role of guilt in Judaism It seems to be a truism among many modern, educated people that guilt is a bad thing—a destructive, negative, “unhelpful” emotion. There are those who, troubled by the emphasis on sin and atonement, and the concomitant emphasis on guilt, de-emphasis this aspect to the point of attempting to read it even out of Yom Kippur. Thus, they may invoke the first teacher of Ger Hasidism, the Hiddushei ha-Rim, who called upon his disciples not to indulge in protracted Vidui (“Confession”), but to recite it quickly and joyfully, and to focus only upon the yearning for and love of God. Indeed, one Yom Kippur morning I was taken to task because, following the custom of my teacher R. Aharon Lichtenstein, I was beating my chest too vigorously.

It seems to me that this attitude hearkens back to the earliest days of modern psychology. Victorian society was one in which many people were plagued and even crippled by guilt. Many of Freud‘s patients, whose case histories have become classic psychoanalytic texts, were neurasthenic, sexually inhibited, fearful individuals. Much of his therapy was thus concerned with clearing up unnecessary neurotic compunctions and inhibitions.

Can there be any doubt, observing contemporary culture, that our society has for better or worse turned about 180 degrees in this respect? Today’s problems relate more to such issues as anomy and isolation, rootlessness and confusion about identity, the relativity and uncertainty of all values and ethics, the inability to love, and excessive sexual freedom and lack of inhibition that ultimately results in shallowness and vacuity of relationships. (See on this, already several decades ago, Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism)

Thus, one could well argue that what is needed today is a stronger sense of sin, of right and wrong, a more definitive sense of the parameters of good and evil. Moreover, such concepts as obligation, responsibility, external norms, and the consequent sense of one’s life being set before the bar of judgment, need not imply guilt but may, on the contrary, be seen as an act of kindness on the part of God, providing guidance and rock-bottom sureties and truth in a rudderless world.

I would also like to address a somewhat related issue. At a talk about the Jewish Renewal movement that he gave some weeks ago, Michael Kagan pointed out that R. Zalman Schachter, while very strong on traditional halakhah, insisted that Jews today are Jews by choice. That is to say, the traditional concept of obligation, of halakhah and Torah and mitzvot being imposed upon people willy-nilly, of God “holding the mountain over them like a barrel,” simply doesn’t work today.

I would of course agree on this point as a sociological description. I wrote here once that most of the forms of Judaism we see in the world today are in a sense ”inventions” of part fifty years or so, and that most Jews who are religiously observant today have in some sense or another chosen to be so. Not only are the numbers of converts and “ba’alei teshuvah” legion, but even those “raised in the faith” must have, in light of the pressures and temptations of the modern secular world, at one point or another consciously chosen to “stay within the fold.” There are also educational consequences of this: one can no longer simply say, “You are obligated to keep Shabbat because you were born Jewish,” but rabbis and teachers need to persuade a person of the beauty of Shabbat, help him/her to feel its light, its holiness, etc.

But all this is true only in terms of how we understand the sociology of the world in which we live. In principle, on the theological and philosophical plane, matters are totally different. The alternative to the concept of obligation is autonomy, in which the criteria for selection are ultimately given over to the individual, with the guidelines for ethical choice not at all clear. I believe that the concept of heteronomy is important and central to any Jewish scheme. There must be some external source of norms, both ethical and religious, not invented by human beings.

All this follows from a certain understanding, a philosophical anthropology, if you will, of the nature of man—of the fallibility of the human mind, of human moral sense and judgment. Emmanuel Levinas, in his Nine Talmudic Readings (Bloomington, Ind., 1994, pp. 30-50, at p. 32), discusses the well-known concept by which the Torah is literally thrust upon man (Shabbat 88a-88b), and contrasts it with what he calls “the temptation of temptation.” He sees, in the need to experience everything—to maintain infinite possibilities, not so much to actually experience unlimited sex, power, wealth, etc., but to have them available as an option—a basic disease of modern man. The moral force of the Torah derives precisely from its heteronomous nature. To freely, autonomously choose it would merely make it one more human choice:

The temptation of temptation may well describe the condition of Western man. In the first place it describes his moral attitudes. He is for an open life, eager to try everything, to experience everything, “in a hurry to live. Impatient to feel.”… He must be rich and a spendthrift and multiple before being essential and one.”

From this perspective, teshuvah, return to Torah, is quite simply a path back to mental and moral health.

Shabbat Shuvah - Yom Kippur (Rambam)

A Song, a Psalm to Teshuvah

The seventh chapter of Maimonides’ “Laws of Teshuvah” is a paean of praise to the virtues and benefits of teshuvah, painted in glowing terms as a kind of pinnacle of religious experience. Although largely based upon material taken from the aggadah about teshuvah in the final chapter of Yoma, it is, as always, presented and arranged in a manner reflecting Rambam’s unique perspective. Hilkhot Teshuvah 7.1:

1. Since every human being is given free will, as explained above, a person should make efforts to repent and to verbally confess his sins and to shake off his transgressions so that he may die and be a ba’al teshuvah and merit the life of the World to Come.

In the preceding chapters (5-6), Rambam had discussed the issue of free will (see HY V: Vaera). Here he reiterates that, in order for teshuvah to be at all possible, a person must enjoy moral autonomy, making it possible for him to do evil as well as good. Without this there can be no responsibility for his actions; with it, his turning from the evil path to the good path, which is the essence of teshuvah, is worthy of celebration.

2. A person should always see himself as if he is about to die, lest he die that very hour while still adhering to his sin. Therefore he should immediately repent of his sins, and not say “When I am old I will repent,” lest he die before he reaches old age. Concerning this Solomon said in his wisdom: “Let your garments always be white” [Eccles 9:8].

Rambam here underlines the urgency of teshuvah. In youth and middle years a person often does not take seriously the idea that he will eventually have to “meet his Maker”; he may say to himself: I can always think about repenting when I am old and know that I will die soon; meanwhile, why not ”eat, drink and be merry”? This is the source of the well-known phenomenon of “death-bed repentance.” To counter this attitude, Rambam reminds his readers that each day may be his last—hence, he should always be morally and spiritually prepared. The problem is, that everyone knows of others who have died young; but deep down, none of us really believes in the reality of his/her own death. A well-known saying in Pirke Avot (2.15; cf. Shabbat 153a) has it, “Repent one day before your death.” To the question: “How can a person know that this is the day before his own death?” the answer is, of course, that he does not; hence, he must repent every single day of his life, because he never knows which one will be his last.

The phrase omed be-heto, “adhering to his sin,” is interesting. The implication seems to be that, so long as one has not consciously done teshuvah for a given transgression, one is in a “state of sin”—even if one has long forgotten the act. A person is always held accountable for his past actions until he has done teshuvah—that is, worked through the negative act of disowning the sin. It is almost as if the unrepented sin is a stain or blot on the person’s soul. In what way is this related to seemingly similar Christian notions and preoccupations? To what extent is this notion already inherent in Hazal, or even in the Bible? Further study is called for.

3. A person should not say that teshuvah only applies to transgressions involving [concrete] acts, such as licentiousness or robbery or theft. Rather, just as a person must repent for these things, so too must he search out his bad character traits and turn away from anger and hostility and jealousy and frivolity and the pursuit of money and honor and the pursuit of delicacies and the like: for all of them he must do teshuvah. And these sins are more difficult than those involving a deed, for when a person is immersed in these it is difficult for him to separate from them. And it also says: “Let the evildoer forsake [his path…”; Isaiah 55:7].

This is an essential point: namely, that teshuvah relates not only to specific acts, but also to amending and correcting one’s character in general. This point may be easy to understand, but very difficult to execute. It is relatively easy to conceive of a clearcut, distinct act of teshuvah regarding a specific act or type of act. A person may say: I used to be negligent about davening Minhah, from now on I will daven Minhah every single day—and do so; I used to pad my bills to my clients or make small “adjustments” in my favor that wouldn’t be noticed, from now on I will be strictly honest about my business affairs. Such things may be altered in one specific moment, like the description in the opening chapter of Hilkhot Teshuvah, at which point a person says confession and articulates his resolve, “I will never repeat this act.” But when dealing with more nebulous things, such as gossip, or gluttony, or pride, or laziness—can a person really perform teshuvah in a definitive way? Can a person really say to himself, “From this day on I am never going to speak ill of another person; from this moment I shall never feel jealousy, or anger, or think lascivious thoughts”? Maimonides is well aware that these things are far more difficult—not only because they are more deeply rooted in a person, but because they are more difficult to grasp hold of in a sharp kind of way. Nevertheless, they are an essential part of what might be called the “life project” of teshuvah.

4. Let not a penitent imagine to himself that he is distant from the level of the righteous because of the transgressions and sins he has done. It is not so; rather he is beloved and pleasing to the Creator as if he had never ever sinned. Moreover, his reward is greater, for he has tasted the taste of sin and withdrawn from it and overcome his Evil Urge. Our Sages said, that in that place where penitents stand, the completely righteous are unable to stand [Berakhot 34b]. That is, their level is higher than that of those who have never ever sinned, because they overcome their Urge more than the latter.

There is a tendency for the person who has once sinned to feel inferior, to feel that the people around him—be it a religious community, or simply the a community of decent, ordinary people—are better than him because they have never done the things that he has done. Hence Rambam takes pains to emphasize that, to the contrary, such a person is in no sense distant from God but, on the contrary, may actually be on a higher level than one who has lived his whole life in a state of righteousness. How so? One might say that the person who has never known the taste of sin has a certain naïveté about life; he has never been tested as to how he might stand up to temptation, having lived his entire life in a protected environment. Thus, for example: a person who has always lived within the yeshivah world, or within a tight-knit Hasidic community, surrounded by people of his own type, committed deeply to Torah and to certain standards of modesty, of kashrut, of Shabbat, and imposing strong social sanctions, has never really been tested, at least with regard to certain kinds of transgressions. Indeed, he might not even know how to go about committing one if he waned to! (Of course, other kinds of vices may be rampant in such a community: self-righteousness, gossip, vindictiveness when a person seems to be deviating even slightly from the norm, or tremendous pettiness—but these are other issues.)

It is this truth that is implied in the Rabbinic dictum, “Great is teshuvah, in that deliberate transgressions are transformed into virtues” (Yoma 86b). There is a certain deepening of the personality that may occur as a result of various kinds of disappointments in life. These may be disappointments in one’s own self: in the strength of one’s own character, a becoming aware of weaknesses, the realization that one does things that go against one’s own better self, that contradict the principles that one ostensibly believes in. When a person undergoes such an experience and then does teshuvah, returning to God and no longer living in the way he had until then, he may come to understand himself, and life, far more deeply.

But there are other kinds of disappointments in life that also deepen ones personality. This seems to be the point of the Sages’ whole discussion of yesurim, of suffering, as cleansing, as purging, as burning away the impression of certain transgressions. There is a certain depth one sometimes senses in people who have experienced difficulties in life, who have had to confront certain harsh experiences—which almost every person faces by the time they reach middle age—a certain awareness that life doesn’t always go smoothly. Very often younger people, or those who have lived protected lives, don’t feel this to the same degree: a person who has grown up in a reasonably comfortable middle class home, with decent parents, usually starts life with a sense of optimism, with the feeling that “the world is my oyster, I have all my life ahead of me and I have all these wonderful plans, and I believe that these dreams can all be realized. But at some point or another, a person encounters frustrations, be it in failing to achieve certain professional goals he has set for himself, or monetary difficulties, or illnesses, or rejection by loved ones, or the death of people who are close, or divorce or disappointment in the direction taken by one’s children. On one level such things are disappointing but, on another, deeper level, they can bring a person to a certain strengthening, a deepening of his character, an awareness of the complexity of life which humanizes him, which makes him less judgmental of both himself and others, and which gives to whatever decisions he may make at that point in life a certain strength, a certain profundity, that was lacking at earlier stages of life. This seems to be part of the point the Rambam is making here.

There is another point that it is very important to keep in mind. The word ba’al teshuvah is most often used today to refer to those who were not raised Orthodox and have adopted an Orthodox or observant lifestyle, so much so that people have forgotten its classical, essential meaning. Its contemporary use is really cultural, sociological and behavioral; but, in fact, teshuvah refers to an ethical and religious experience, which by extension has certain behavioral implications. One needs to emphasize time and again that, when Rambam or the Sages speak of a Ba’al Teshuvah, they are speaking of one who has consciously and deliberately performed sins—particularly moral sins, or one who has thrown off the entire path of Torah. Teshuvah means turning, returning to where one has been before—but with spiritual antibodies against the mistakes one has made before.

The modern ba’al teshuvah, or better, what I would prefer to call a shav, a simple “returnee,” a neophyte to Jewish observance—one who, say, eats non-kosher food because that is how he was raised, or who goes to the beach or drives a car or goes to the movies on Shabbat because that is the way he has been raised—has not had any encounter with the evil within himself as a result of this. He had lived a certain type of routine life, and at a certain point he encountered Jewish religious observance and saw a certain beauty in this and decided to turn to this. This is a nice thing, it is certainly a very positive thing, it may even be something that is essential for the survival of Judaism because there has been a certain attrition from the ranks of the religiously observant, not to speak of massive assimilation in the community as a whole, and what is popularly called the teshuvah movement has brought a tremendous amount of new blood into the observant community over the past few decades. But this is not the phenomenon of teshuvah which Hazal or Rambam are talking about. The poignancy expressed in §4 is concerned with something else entirely.

Whether or not a person has been raised Orthodox, authentic teshuvah refers primarily to moral shortcomings, to a certain choice of wrongdoing. A person, for example, may have been raised in a home with certain moral values, certain personal values, with standards of honesty, decency, and dignity—and he threw all these aside and descended into a kind of demimonde, an underworld, not necessarily a criminal one, but of people who live only for pleasure, which very much exists in our world today. Or he may have become involved in a high-powered business world, in which personal monetary gain was the only value, who lived only for economic profit, and who was ready to cheat, to lie, to trample others to accomplish his aim. Or the sin may be less dramatic, but none the less corrupting. For such a person to return to the path of decency is the essence of teshuvah. Thus, the embracing of external religious observance is at most only one part of the classical model. The classical ba’al teshuvah is one who has gone through what might be called a dark night of the soul. A dark night of the soul in which he sees his own capacity for evil and he realizes that he must cast it off, he must uproot it from within himself—to uproot, say, a tendency to violence against other people, or to live a life based upon the pursuit of pleasure as an end it itself—and to turn towards the good, to try to return or restore some of his former purity or innocence.

5. All of the prophets commanded concerning teshuvah, and Israel will only be redeemed by means of teshuvah. The Torah has already promised us that Israel will ultimately do teshuvah at the end of their Exile, and immediately thereupon they shall be redeemed, as is said: “When all these things shall come upon you… then you shall return to the Lord your God… and the Lord your God will turn [your captivity…”; Deut 30:1-3].

Here Rambam turns from the individual plane to the communal, collective dimension: namely, that teshuvah is a necessary stage on the way towards redemption of the Jewish people. This is so, not only because it will so-to-speak tip the scales in favor of Israel, because they will no longer be considered as besmirched with evil, as being wicked in God’s eyes; but because the process of teshuvah per se, as a path that brings a person closer to God, is essentially a redemptive process, a cathartic and healing process. Rabbi Soloveitchik mentioned this point repeatedly, in his writings and in his teaching. Sin is not only a moral failing, but a kind of illness, a sickness of the soul; hence, its cure by means of teshuvah is at once a redemptive and a healing process. These associations are expressed in the sequence of blessings in the weekday Amidah: the blessings concerning teshuvah and forgiveness are immediately followed by those concerned with redemption, deliverance and healing (see Megillah 17b).

6. Great is teshuvah that brings man close to the Shekhinah, as is said: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God” [Hosea 14:2]. And it says: “And you have not yet returned to Me, says the Lord” [Amos 4:6ff.]. And it says: “If you return, O Israel, says the Lord, to Me shall you return” [Jer 4:1]—that is, if you return in teshuvah, you shall be attached to Me.

Teshuvah brings close those who have been distant. Yesterday this one was hated by the Omnipresent; he was disgusting, and distant, and an abomination; but today he is beloved, precious, close and a friend. Moreover, we find that, in the very same words with which the Holy One blessed be He rejects the sinners, with those same words does He draw them close, whether an individual or a collective. As is said: “And in that place where You say to them, ‘You are not My people,’ You shall say to them, ‘The sons of the living God’” [Hosea 2:1]. And regarding Jechaniahu in his wickedness it was said: “Write this man down as childless, a man who shall not succeed all his days…” [Jer 22:30] “though ‘Coniah son of Jehoiakim king of Judah wear the signet ring of my right hand [I shall tear it off…”; ibid., v. 23]. But once he repented in his exile, it is said of his son Zerubavel: “On that day, says the Lord of Hosts, I will take you, O Zerubavel son of Shealtiel my servant, and make you as a signet ring” [Haggai 2:23].

7. How sublime is the level of teshuvah! Yesterday this one was separated from the Lord God of Israel, as it is said: “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God” [Isa 59:2]. He cries out and is not answered, as is said: “even when you make many prayers I will not listen…” [Isaiah 1:15]; he performs mitzvot and they are thrown back in his face, as is said: “Who has asked this of you, to trample my courtyards” [ibid., v 12]. “Would that there would be one among you who would shut the doors [of My Temple]…” [Mal 1:10]. And today he is attached to the Shekhinah, as is said: “And you who are hold fast to the Lord your God are all living today” [Deut 4:4]. He cries out and is answered immediately, as is said: “Before they call I will answer” [Isa 65:24]. He performs mitzvot and they are accepted with pleasure and joy, as is said, “for God has already approved your deeds” [Eccles 9:7]. Not only that, but they are greatly desired, as is said: “Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to the Lord as in days of old and in former years” [Malachi 3:4].

This halakhah is perhaps the high point of this chapter, describing in graphic terms how the person who does teshuvah and turns to God is accepted with love, with open arms, and becomes a special object of divine grace. There is a sense in which previously, if he prayed to God while still in his evil stage, his prayers would be rejected, because God cannot abide hypocrisy. That is, a person who on the one hand denies the most essential moral laws or basic principles of Judaism, and then thinks that he is entitled to ask God to save him from whatever worldly catastrophes await him, is a hypocrite, and God does not answer such a person. Indeed, even if he does mitzvot, as it says here, they are thrown back in his face, because God cannot abide hypocrisy. But the minute a person truly changes within his heart, then God accepts him with tremendous love.

8. It is the manner of penitents to be humble and self-effacing [cf. above, Teshuvah 2.4]. If fools berate or mock them for their former actions, saying to them, “Yesterday you did such-and-such a thing, yesterday you would say such-and-such a thing,” they do not feel [pain] from this at all; rather, they hear it and rejoice, knowing that this is a source of merit to them. For so long as they are ashamed of the acts that they did in the past and are embarrassed by them, their merit grows and their level becomes even higher.

Rambam speaks here about the fact that it is the nature of a ba’al teshuvah to be extremely humble—a humility expressed particularly in the way in which he reacts to Regrettably, there is a widespread human tendency for people to feel a certain contempt for those whom they think are lower or less pious than themselves. A person who has been a criminal, a woman who has been a prostitute, face innumerable problems in returning to normal life. They may see themselves as marked with the mark of Cain, and feel ashamed to show their face in the world, fearing to meet people who may have known them from their previous life. This is a very profound complex, for example, among women who have been “women of the night.”

This is certainly not the way people ought to behave towards a person who has changed his ways, who has turned to God, who has cast aside his former life—yet nevertheless, this is by and large how it is. “That’s human nature.” In an event, from the viewpoint of the person who has repented, Rambam teaches that there is a certain virtue in accepting insults with equanimity. There is a certain recognition that their very acceptance of these insults from ignorant people, knowing that they have in fact returned to God, can in a certain paradoxical sense a source of joy. Rambam discusses this the virtue of equanimity in his Mishnah Commentary, on Avot 4.4. He speaks of the quality of humility in almost stoic terms, stating that the ability to accept insults, and even gestures of real contempt, without getting angry, is somehow a particularly high level of ethical perfection. (This point is rather problematic for most of us, and deserves deeper discussion—but there is no time or space for it right now.)

Moreover, the individual should not make a big show of having become a ba’al teshuvah. I once mentioned in these pages an incident involving Rabbi Soloveitchik, in which we remarked that there is sometimes a tendency in the world of hozrim beteshuvah, of Jewish repentance, to engage in something very much like the Christian revival movement, in which people come and tell the stories of how they found the light. “I was a drug addict”; “I was a criminal”; or even “I was a professor” or “I was a pilot in the Armed Forces—and now I have become a pious Jew and am learning in yeshiva.” The Rav commented that the public relating of one’s teshuvah story is contrary to the spirit of Judaism, which teaches that a penitent must essentially be humble.

But it is an absolute sin to say to a penitent, “Remember your former acts,” or to mention them in his presence so as to embarrass him, or to mention similar acts or matters which are similar to them so as to remind him what he has done. All this is forbidden, and we are warned against them under the rubric of “oppression by means of words” against which the Torah has warned us, as is said: “And you shall not wrong any man his fellow” (Lev 25:17; cf.).

On the other hand, from the viewpoint of the person relating to the penitent, it is strictly forbidden to say anything bringing up his past. There is an entire sugya in Bava Metzia (58b-59b) about something called ona’at devarim—oppressing or exploiting people or causing them pain by means of words. Rambam, in his summation of this sugya (Hilkhot Mekhirah 14. 12-13), gives two examples of this: that one may not remind a convert of the fact that he is a convert to Judaism, that he was once—this is a phrase used particularly in the ancient world, of course—that he was an idolater and that he adhered to false beliefs; likewise, we should not remind a ba’al teshuvah of the fact that in the past he did certain acts of which he would today be ashamed.

The essential idea here ultimately brings us back to the underlying concept of free will: that one must wholeheartedly accept the possibility of change in other people. and be sensitive not to embarrass him by throwing his past back in his face. Many people, whatever their “official” belief system may teach them, tend to think that people don’t really change, and find it hard to accept the fact that a given person has truly made basic existential changes about his life.

A thought: does this mean that it is improper for one make cynical remarks even about the motivation of glitzy celebrities such as Madonna (“Esther”), who recently visited Israel on a highly-hyped visit sponsored by the Kabbalah Center?

The Ultimate Goal of Teshuvah: The Pure Love of God

As we approach Yom Ha-Kadosh, “the Holy Day”—Yom Kippur—we shall read the tenth and final chapter of Maimonides’ “Laws of Repentance,” which presents the pinnacle of his ideal of human religious perfection. (It would seem that it was no accident that he divided this treatise into ten chapters: an old custom calls for studying one chapter on each of the Ten Days of Repentance.) In this chapter such concepts as sin, confession, atonement, and forgiveness are notably absent; the subject here is no longer that of making amends, of purifying oneself from the stain of sin, but rather that of pure, unadulterated love of God, without any ulterior motif. Hilkhot Teshuvah Chapter 10:

1. A person ought not to say: I shall perform the commandments of the Torah and engage in its wisdom so as to receive all the blessings written therein, or in order to merit the life of the World to Come; and I avoid those transgressions against which the Torah has warned us in order to be saved from the curses written in the Torah or so that I will not be cut off from the life of the World to Come. It is not fitting to serve God in this way, for one who serves Him in such a way serves Him out of fear, and this is not the level of the prophets or of the wise men; for God is only worshipped in this manner by the ignorant people and the women and the children, who are educated to serve out of fear until their [religious] consciousness becomes broader and they serve out of love.

If is important to remember here that Rambam’s attitude to the afterlife or the World to Come is not like that of progressive moderns. Modern Jews have generally been skeptical about talk of the afterlife, and have tended to deemphasize it. Liberal schools in Judaism, and even the Modern Orthodoxy of the 20th century, have developed other rationales and motivations for observing the mitzvot—whether that of benefit to society, training personality and inculcating positive ethical values, their sociological value in binding the Jewish people together; or, simply, invoking the authority of halakhah as a first principle. For some, serious consideration of the afterlife is thought if as almost a Christian concern.

While Rambam does see the ultimate goal as the disinterested service of God, motivated by love alone, without any ulterior motif, he nevertheless does clearly believes in recompense in the next world. Thus the argument in Teshuvah 7.1 (in the passage sent out just the other day) that one ought to be in a constant state of teshuvah lest one die in a state of unrepentant sin, is clearly predicated on a belief in the afterlife. While this is not the highest possible motivation, the argument may legitimately be used for those who have not yet reached the highest levels of religious consciousness.

Indeed, two entire chapters, Teshuvah 8 & 9, are devoted to this issue. Unfortunately, as we are very close to the end of the year and of this series of “Ruminations on Rambam,” there is no time left to present these important chapters properly. Interested readers are invited to study it on their own, in Hebrew or in the available translations. We shall suffice here by noting that Rambam understands the afterlife in purely spiritual, non-corporeal terms, and as involving spiritual pleasures (“enjoying the radiance of the Shekhinah”) that we can in no wise begin to understand (this view prompts some of Rabad’s sharpest polemic words in the entire Yad). But all this does not confute the biblical conception of this-worldly reward and punishment; both are mentioned in the above passage as possible motivations for performing mitzvot. He has, if you like, what might be called a two-tiered concept of recompense.

2. One who serves out of love engages in Torah and mitzvoth and walks in the paths of wisdom, not because of any thing in the world, nor out of fear of the evil [that may befall him], nor in order to inherit the good; but he does the truth because it is truth, and in the end the good will come as a result. And this level is a very high level, and not every sage merits to it. And this is the level of the Patriarch Abraham, whom the Holy One blessed be He called “His beloved,” because he only served [God] out of love. And this is the level which the Holy One blessed be He commanded us by Moses, saying: “And you shall love the Lord your God” [Deut 6:5]. And when a person loves God with the proper love, immediately he performs all the mitzvoth out of love.

Several key points are articulated here. 1) The essential component of the love of God is “doing the truth because it is the truth.” That is, love of God begins with a philosophical acknowledgment of the truth of His existence and of His singularity. Love of God is not accidental or arbitrary, like e.g. the love of a particular woman, but is based upon His essence; 2) “In the end the good will come as a result”—that is, those who do good and follow the upright path will be rewarded, but this is not the motivation for their actions; 3) the Abrahamic model. Abraham is one of the central figures in Rambam’s archetypal world. Alongside Moses as the father of all prophets and Solomon as the wise man, we have Abraham as the archetypal “lover” of God; 4) the mitzvot are the expression of the love of God—hence their performance, “out of love” (which some say refers to one’s conscious kavvanah during their performance), must follow upon attaining conscious love of God.

3. What is the nature of the desired love? It is that one should love God with a great and excessive and very intense love, until his soul is connected with the love of God, and he muses about it constantly, like one who is beset with love-sickness, so that his mind is never free of the love of that woman: he daydreams about her constantly, whether when he is sitting down or when he is walking about, or while he is eating and drinking. Greater than this shall be the love of God in the heart of those that love Him, thinking about it constantly, as He commanded us, “with all your heart and with all your soul” [op cit.]. And this is what Solomon said by way of parable, “For I am sick with love” [Cant 2:5]. And the entire Song of Songs is a parable for this matter.

This, perhaps more than any other passage in the entire Maimunidean corpus, reveals the intense passion underlying Rambam’s religiosity. No cold, detached scholar he. The mind is an instrument for attaining knowledge of God, for honing ones consciousness of God, for constructing convincing, nay, foolproof proofs for His being (see below). But once that happens, the emotions come into play, and the love of God is rooted in intense passion. It is difficult to avoid the impression, as we stated earlier this year, that Rambam was moved by an intensely mystical consciousness (see HY V: Vayigash; Shemot—but note the important distinction I draw there between mysticism and Kabbalah).

4. The early Sages said: Lest a person say, I shall study Torah so that I may be rich, so that I may be called Rabbi, so that I can receive a reward in the World to Come—the Torah says, “to love the Lord”: everything that you do, you should only do out of love. Moreover, our Sages said: “and he greatly delights in His commandments” [Psalm 112:1]—and not in the reward of the mitzvot. And the great sages would privately command their wise students and enlightened ones, “Do not be like the servants who serve the master [in order to receive a prize”; Avot 1.3]; rather, because He is the master it is fitting that you serve Him. That is, serve Him out of love.

5. Whoever engages in Torah in order to receive a reward or in order to avoid catastrophe, engages in it not-for-its-own-sake. But whoever engages in it, not out of fear and not in order to receive a reward, but because of love of the Master of the Entire World who commanded it—such a one engages in it for-its-own-sake. Hence, when teaching children and women and the ignorant of the people, one only teaches them to serve out of fear and in order to receive a reward. But once their minds become expanded and they achieve greater wisdom, one reveals this secret to them little by little, and one gets them accustomed to this subject gradually, until they apprehend and know Him and serve Him of love.

These two halakhot, §§4-5, are to an extent a repetition of the ideas already presented in §§1-2, but here they are developed and elaborated more fully. Maimonides has a definite educational strategy: one is to train the majority of people (which includes all of the womenfolk; offensive as this may be to contemporary ears, one could hardly expect otherwise in the twelfth century Muslim world) on the idea of reward and punishment, which creates a personal, self-interested reason for observing the mitzvot. Rambam saw such observance as a value in itself, both sociologically and spiritually.

I find it very interesting that the idea of divine service and Torah “for-their-own-sake” is treated here as an esoteric, almost secret doctrine, to be disclosed little by little, in private, and only to selected individuals, as if it were in fact sitrei torah, “secrets of Torah.” Evidently, the fear was that, without worldly motivation, many people, who might never achieve a more sophisticated understanding, would abandon Torah and mitzvot. Also, perhaps, he regarded it as a secret teaching because it differs from the simple, literal meaning of the biblical text, and might be seen as challenging the truth of the latter. There are those who criticize Rambam for this as being undemocratic, teaching a two-tiered, or two-truth system.

My own experience of the world suggests that keeping this “higher,” disinterested approach a secret may be part of the reason for mass defection from Judaism. In today’s urbane world, the simplistic approach taught in childhood rapidly becomes untenable, and many people never learn a more sophisticated approach to religion, in which truth is recognized as the highest value in itself.

6. It is a well-known and clear thing that the love of the Holy One blessed be He does not become attached within a person’s heart until he muses upon it constantly as is fit, and he abandons all else in the world apart from it, as is commanded, saying, “with all your heart and all your soul.” And he does not love the Holy One blessed be He except through his knowledge of Him. And in accordance with the knowledge, so shall be the love—if but a little, then a little; and if a lot, a lot. Therefore, a person should devote himself to understanding and to comprehending the wisdoms and sciences that make his Creator known to him, in accordance with the person’s capability to understand and to apprehend, as we explained in the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah (Yesodei ha-Torah 2.2).

This is the central idea of what is known as amor dei intellectualis—the intellectual love of God. We saw above how Rambam’s passionate religious sensibility bridged the gap between the emotional and the intellectual. But the other side of the coin is, that one can only achieve love of God through knowledge of Him—and this requires considerable work: learning logic and philosophy and the traditional arguments for God’s existence and oneness, followed by constant thinking, contemplating, reflecting, meditating upon these things in depth. But, in the end, the deeper and more profound the intellectual apprehension, the more intense and passionate the love that follows.

This final chapter, both of Hilkhot Teshuvah and of Sefer ha-Mada (“The book of Knowledge”), thus closes several circles. The ultimate end, both of the process of self-work known as repentance, and of the knowledge of God, which began in Yesodei ha-Torah 1.1ff. with cognition of the first principles of His existence and His unity, are the love and knowledge of God. At the same time, this chapter is also a bridge to the next book, Sefer ha-Ahavah, “The Book of Love”—whose very title is suggestive of the idea expressed here, in §2, that the love of God is expressed through the mitzvot: e.g., the basic, constant, daily mitzvot such as prayer, Shema, blessings, tefillin, circumcision, etc., that constitute its subject.

RABAD’S GLOSS: “It is a clear and known thing…” Abraham said: We do not know to what this word shigayon refers, and we interpret it in two ways. As language alluding to song, as in the heading “Shigayon le-David” [Psalm 7]. Or, another view, that because of your love of her you shall go astray from your own concerns, because you won’t give them your attention.

In the concluding paragraph, Rambam’s bête noire, R. Abraham ben David of Posquières (Rabad), offers an interesting philological comment. What is the meaning, he asks, of the word lishgot / yashgeh, used here repeatedly to refer to the intense and preoccupying nature of the love of God. In most passages where this word is used in the Bible, it bears a negative connotation: “to err, “to go astray,” “to be mistaken.” In Proverbs 5:19, one of the few verses where it is used in a more positive way, to refer to the constant love one ought to have for one’s “love-doe,” the wife of one’s youth, it is translated by both RSV and NJPS as “infatuated.” The root meaning, “to go astray” or “to wander about,” is related to the sense of being infatuated, in which one’s thoughts are totally distracted from other things that one is supposed to be doing due to constant thoughts of one’s beloved. Thus Rabad’s second reading. (I remember such feelings of love-sickness, for the better part of a year, when I was 19. I would not want to relive that type of insanity. If so, is that really how Rambam wants us to love God?)

* * * * *

Having read and analyzed, in some modest way, four central chapters in Maimonides‘ doctrine of repentance, a very basic, simple question occurred to me: Why is teshuvah such a paradigmatic experience in Judaism? It seems clear, not least from the manner in which Rambam organizes these chapters, that it is through teshuvah that one arrives at the most authentic religious experience—the love of God. This question seems a good one to reflect about on Erev Yom Kippur. Many of my friends and acquaintances who’ve gone through the yeshiva system seem to have developed a certain allergy or even antipathy to too much talk about teshuvah. This is evidently because many yeshiva “talks” during Elul and the Days of Awe seem too much based upon guilt, haranguing the students for their imperfections, and making them feel generally lousy and inadequate. (Wags used to say of a certain Musar school, that “I don’t know if following their approach will assure you of a portion in the World to Come, but one thing is certain— after they get through with you, you won’t be able to enjoy this world anymore!”)

One answer, on a simple, “balebatish” level, is that through teshuvah one becomes a tzaddik, one is removed from one’s previous state of sin (omed beheto), and becomes deserving of the World to Come as described in Teshuvah Chs. 8-9, enjoying the radiance of the Shekhinah, etc.

A second, quasi-Hasidic answer is that, paradoxically, through teshuvah, through becoming aware of and working through one’s faults, one breaks through to a kind of bittul, of self-abnegation, of negating one’s own identity, in the sense that one’s religious position is no longer dependent upon one’s own deeds. One becomes thrown back, so to speak, upon unconditional love of God, independent of one’s self.

The third answer, which I think is closest to the truth: the act of teshuvah, through the process of self-searching, of character work, of self-creation, brings one in touch with a kind of Divine creative power within oneself. Rav Soloveitchik ends his major essay, Halakhic Man, with a lengthy section on the “creative capacity” of this paradigmatic personality. Alongside his intellectual creativity and his creative activity within the world, the Rav devotes an entire chapter (Part II. 3; pp. 110-117 in Kaplan’s translation) to the concept of teshuvah as self-creation.

He contrasts the Judaic concept of repentance as self-creation to that of the homo religious (essentially, Romantic Protestantism and its spiritual cousins), for whom repentance is no more than “a guard against punishment, an empty regret which does not create anything new. A deep melancholy [that] affects his spirit…. a wholly miraculous phenomenon made possible by the endless grace of the Almighty.” In contradistinction to that, Rav Soloveitchik describes teshuvah as a “wondrous, creative act” that ”cancels the law of identity and continuity which prevails in the ‘I’ awareness”; through it, man “becomes a creator and self-fashioner” (p. 113).

I would add, that this creative power brings a person in touch with the deepest wellsprings of his soul, with that which is holy and a fragment of the Godhead within oneself. But because it occurs within the context of a profoundly religious value system, in the act of altering oneself to come more fully in line with the Divine will, it is not and cannot be an ego-expanding, prideful act, but one that deepens feeling of reverence and piety towards God, and prepares one to touch the wings of the Shekhinah.

May we merit to some small touch of angelic purity and renewal on this Holy Day. Gemar hatimah tovah

A Thought on Teshuvah

As I have done in previous years, I would like to present and comment on a passage from Maimonides’ Laws of Teshuvah. In this case, the opening passage, 1.1:

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.

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.

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.

Yom Kippur: the Time of Repentance for All

2.7. The Day of Atonement is the time of repentance for all, both individual and the public, and it is the conclusive time of pardoning and forgiveness for Israel. Therefore, all need to repent and to confess their sins on the Day of Atonement.

And the obligation of confessing on the Days of Atonement is such, that he begins on the eve of the day before he eats, lest he strangle during the meal before he confesses. And even though he confessed before he ate, he should confess again on the night of Yom Kippur in the evening prayer, and again in Shaharit, Musaf, Minhah and Neilah. And at what point does he confess? The individual after his prayer, and the prayer leader in the middle of his prayer, in the fourth blessing.

Rambam here leaves the subject of specific, focused teshuvah, and turns to the idea that Yom Kippur as a day of repentance for all and, as a natural corollary of that, as the “conclusive time of pardoning and forgiveness for Israel.” Or perhaps the logical order is the opposite: Yom Kippur is the day of universal, comprehensive forgiveness, the day when God once again reveals His attributes of freely-given mercy (as He did long ago to Moses in the revelation in the cleft of the rock); therefore, it is our obligation to pave the way for this gift by engaging in repentance. In any event, everyone is burdened, on some level or another, with a sense of sin, of failure, with misgivings about how his/her life is lived; as I commented in my sheet for Shabbat, it is a universal human problem. Hence, atonement is a basic need of the spirit.

A careful reading of this halakha reveals that there are two aspects to the act of confession of Yom Kippur: one begins “on the eve of the day”; but then, even though the person has confessed once, he repeats it in each of the five prayers of the day. The Talmud and in its wake Alfasi are more explicit and clearer on this point than is the Rambam: they speak of “the confession of Yom Kippur Eve” (mitzvat vidui erev Yom Kippur). The idea here seems to be that the essence of the day itself is, as its name implies, a Day of Atonement—i.e., of forgiveness, purification, of a gift of Divine love being activated. Hence, the work of teshuvah properly speaking is a prelude to it, that should already be completed before one enters the Holy Day—throughout the first nine of the Ten Days, reaching its culmination in the Vidui recited on the eve of Yom Kippur. In like fashion, the Rav used to speak of Yom Kippur as a rendezvous between man and God, the Confession recited at its very beginning serving as an entry to it. Thus Tefillah Zakkah, a long late medieval prose prayer of confession, was introduced among Ashkenazim as a kind of Vidui Erev Yom Kippur.

This is the reason for the first Vidui, recited at Minhah. But then, in the midst of this elevated presentation of the themes of atonement and forgiveness, we suddenly encounter the rather bizarre halakha that confession must be recited before the meal, “lest one choke”—the basis for the near-universal practice of reciting Minhah on this day in the early afternoon, before the pre-fast meal. What is this all about? Erev Yom Kippur is, and probably always has been, a time of great eating and even feasting—at times exaggerated, perhaps even to the point of hysteria, which one can imagine leading some people to choking on their food. Agnon, in his short story “Etzel Hemdat,” paints a partly-loving, partly-ironic picture of his small eastern European town of Buczacz on Erev Yom Kippur. He describes how a young boy goes to the home of a relative, the local hazan, to spend Yom Kippur, and is taken on a round of feasts and snacks that last the entire day.

The repetition of the Vidui in each of the prayers of the day then serves as an additional halakha, making the Confession part of the nusah, of the formulaic prayers for this day. The individual, who recites his Confession in as a kind of personal meditation, does so after the end of the statutory Amidah; the prayer leader, who recites or leads Confession on behalf of the entire community, does so in the long middle blessing, devoted to the theme of the day. For this reason, the conclusion of this blessing includes the phrase “the king who forgives our transgressions and removes our guilt each and every year,” alongside the reference to the holiness of Yom Kippur.

8a. The Confession which is customary throughout Israel is, “but we have sinned.” And that is the quintessence of Confession.

The Confession here is diametrically opposed to that found at the opening of “Laws of Teshuvah,” where the individual specifies the exact nature of his sin. Here, the sum and substance of confession is the admission of failure, of having fallen short of completeness in ones life—a “declaration of bankruptcy,” in the words of Rav Soloveitchik. Psychologically and spiritually, the important thing is that a human being be capable of admitting, to himself and to his God, that he is not perfect, that he has done things of which he is ashamed, which have harmed himself and others, and that he and no one else is responsible for them. The details are secondary.

Likewise, both Talmuds contain various confessions for Yom Kippur which, in essence, come to the same thing—a declaration of sin, of failure. By contrast, the double-alphabetic Confession familiar to us from our Mahzor strives for comprehensiveness; as such, it reflects a different view of the nature of confession on Yom Kippur.

More 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.)