Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Nitzavim-Vayelekh (Aggadah)

Good News! Our third granddaughter was born in the pre-dawn hours of Friday morning. A big Mazal Tov to all concerned.

Is Teshuvah Possible?

Some few weeks ago, I was discussing Maimonides’ concept of teshuvah with some of my friends, when one of them said that it is unrealistic, being based upon excessive expectations of human beings. A well-known passage in Hilkhot Teshuvah 2.1 states that true teshuvah occurs when a person confronts the identical opportunity to sin (“with the same woman… in the same place… and feeling the same strength of desire…”) and refrains from doing so, “not through weakness or cowardliness or inability,” but out of teshuvah: a genuine sense of God-fearingness and a decision to live a better, purer life. §2 continues:

What is teshuvah? It is when the sinner abandons his sin, removes it from his thoughts, and firmly decides in his heart that he shall never do it again, as is said “Let the wicked man abandon his path” [Isa 55:7], and he regrets the past, as is said, “For after I had turned away, I repented” [Jer 31:19}. And He who knows the mysteries of the heart [i.e., God] will testify that he shall never again return to this sin.

My friend was troubled by the word “never” (le’olam), in that it seemed to demand too much of a person. Indeed, everybody has had the experience of going to the synagogue during the Days of Awe, reciting the confession on Yom Kippur, and sincerely wishing to rid themselves of their all-too-familiar character flaws and failings. I am not speaking here about superficial people, but of those who take their Judaism, and the spiritual-ethical life, seriously. Yet almost everyone, if asked to describe their experience honestly, will admit that year after year their teshuvah has been less than perfect: they have resolved with all their heart to change those things which they dislike about themselves, and which in many cases may cry out urgently for change--possibly traits and habits and deep-seated aspects of themselves which may endanger their health, the welfare of their family and their loved ones, their possibility for happiness in life, their very lives--and yet, the barriers to teshuvah seem just too great, and they repeat the same process year after year, confessing the same faults.

I agree that the “bar” set here is very high. But in blaming Rambam for formulating matters this way, one is so-to-speak “shooting the messenger,” rather than dealing with what is really responsible for this situation. The fact of the matter is that the concept of teshuvah in Judaism is extraordinarily difficult; but it is so, not because Judaism is a harsh, demanding religion (although it may be that as well), but because of the nature of human beings, because of the human condition itself. Any serious adult who looks at his or her life and says, I have done wrong, must realize that any process of personal change, to be serious, must in principle be for the rest of his life. A person who says: I’ll do Teshuvah for one day, for one week, for one month, and then I’ll go back to being whatever I feel like, can not be taken seriously. It’s not a question of the halakhah being too harsh or not being lenient or understanding, but of the nature of what personal change means.

There is an old aphorism that “people don’t really change.” Indeed, if one examines some of the classic works of human and “humanistic” cultures, one finds this idea widely expressed (this idea was one I first heard from Rav Amital, whom I eulogized in the other half of this week’s paper). For example, what makes the Greek tragedies tragic is the fact that the hero may be conscious of his destiny and of the terrible things that he is to do in the future, and even do everything within his power to avoid doing so—and yet it still happens. A classical example of this is Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex. People today (thanks to Freud) think of Oedipus as being about sex and the ubiquity of incestuous longings within the family. But for the Greeks, the legend of Oedipus was essentially about fate, about destiny. Oedipus’ parents were told by an oracle that their son was destined to kill his father and marry his mother; to avoid this fate they abandoned their child, who was raised by strangers and never told his real origins; when he nevertheless heard of the oracle he began wandering around the world so as avoid his supposed parents; and along the way he got into a fight with another man, a stranger, whom he killed, and fell in love with and married an older woman whom he found strangely attractive—and these turned out to be Laius and Jocasta, his true parents. He thus tragically fulfilled the very destiny he’d tried so hard to avoid! The central point is that, for the Greek mentality, we have no real choice as to what we do in life. We are destined to perform certain deeds, and they catch up with us no matter what. Similarly, in much of the great literature of the Western world—in Shakespeare’s plays, in much of the fiction that flowered in the 19th and 20th centuries--character is more often than not something fixed, the fascination of the story lying in the playing out of character. The flaws in each character, however great and noble they may otherwise be, are there from the beginning.

This is also a basic difference between Christianity and Judaism. On the deepest level, Christianity does not believe in teshuvah; it does not think that people can repent or change themselves. True, on a certain level Christianity has its great penitents; in what is considered the first autobiography in all of human literature, Augustine’s Confessions, we read the story of a man who grew up as a heathen and a hedonist, who lived for his own pleasure and committed every conceivable sin, until one day he saw the light, changed his ways, and became a Christian--a monk, an ascetic, and a model of piety.

But on a certain fundamental theological level, classical Christianity believes that we are all infected with original sin, that none of us can achieve perfection, nor even moral decency, and that the only thing that can save us, that can gain us atonement, that can “justify” us before God, is God’s vicarious self-sacrifice through the so-called mystery of the Incarnation and Passion of Jesus. (The above is of course a highly simplified and abbreviated version of Christian theology and anthropology.) Indeed, one might say that this central idea of Christianity was created by the Jew Paul in light of his own conflicts and difficulties with Rabbinic Judaism; to put matters rather over-simply, he was a man who found the demands of Judaism too much for him. I envision Paul as a certain kind of neurotic yeshiva bakhur, who was so strict in his demands on himself, who interpreted Judaism and the halakhah in such in unmerciful and uncompromising manner, that he felt overwhelmed by it all and felt it impossible to be “justified”--that is, to be accepted or loved by God for himself, through his own “works” or actions. One day, as a result of the inner tension in which this placed him, he broke down and invented a new and different, supposedly more loving theology: one that revolved around the person of his beloved and possibly legendary teacher Jesus, in which forgiveness was freely given through the mystery of the Crucifixion. (Interestingly, a contemporary radical Jewish theologian, Richard Rubenstein, best known for his book After Auschwitz, once wrote a small book called My Brother Paul in which he explicitly identifies with Paul’s experience from this very point of view.)

Some people might ask: What about the vibrant “teshuvah” movement which has emerged in the Jewish world over the past 30 or 40 years? If not a mass movement, it certainly involves many hundreds and thousands of people of all backgrounds and all ages, who grew up as assimilated Jews and have adopted Jewish observance as a way of life, doing what is generally referred to as teshuvah. My answer is that, with all due respect to these people, who as individuals have affected a revolution in their lives in adopting a difficult and demanding new way of life, this movement is concerned with teshuvah only in the borrowed sense. True teshuvah is concerned with a person who has done wrong willfully and knowingly, in some cases in rebellion against God, but certainly knowing that what he or she is doing is against the norms of decent morality, of ethical human behavior; at a certain point this person looks at himself, feels disgust, revulsion and shame, and resolves to abandon his old ways and to strike out a new path.

The fundamental idea of teshuvah, in face of the above-mentioned “conventional wisdom,” is that human beings can change and start out on a new direction in life. But it is not a simple matter. To explicate this further, I would like to turn here to the seventh chapter of Maimonides’ Laws of Teshuvah:

1. As every person has free will, as we explained, a person should make efforts to do teshuvah and to confess his sins verbally and to shake off his sins, so that he will die and as penitent, and enjoy the life of the world to come.

2. A person should always see himself as if he is about to die, and that he might die presently, will he still stands in a state of sin; therefore he should repent of his sins immediately, and not say: “When I am old I will repent,” lest he die before he is old. This is what Solomon said in his wisdom, “Let your garments always be white” (Eccles 9:8).

3. A person should not say, that teshuvah is only concerned with transgressions that involve some act, such as sexual licentiousness or theft or robbery. Rather, just as a person needs to repent of these, he needs to search out his negative character traits and to repent of anger and hatred and jealousy and foolishness and the pursuit of money and of honor, and gluttony, and the like. For all these things he needs to turn in repentance. And these transgressions are more difficult than those that involve a concrete act, for when a person is immersed in these it is difficult for him to rid himself of them. As it says, “Let the wicked man abandon his path.”

I find it interesting that Rambam does not explicitly state that teshuvah is a mitzvah incumbent upon every person until this point in his great treatise on teshuvah. In Chapters 1 and 2 he defines teshuvah, emphasizing what a person needs to do in order to receive atonement for his sins, the formula of confession one needs to recite in the event of teshuvah, and further honing the definition of teshuvah and related acts. In Chapters 3 and 4 he discusses how God weighs up the deeds of human beings, the significance of the Days of Repentance and of the shofar on Rosh Hashana, and turns to a lengthy catalogue of obstacles to teshuvah and of people for whom teshuvah is difficult, if not impossible. He then turns, in Chapters 5 and 6, to an essay on free will and determinism, stating that free will is one of the central principles of Jewish thought.

It is thus only at this point, once Maimonides has developed the concept of free will, that he can begin to speak of teshuvah as an obligation incumbent upon every person; without free will a person has no responsibility for his actions, and without such accountability there is no teshuvah. As I have mentioned elsewhere, this is one of the most important moral challenges of the contemporary milieu; the emphasis in modern culture on both biological and sociological determinism essentially pulls the rug out from beneath the traditional concept of personal individual responsibility. If everything is predetermined, whether genetically or by one’s socioeconomic background, then there isn’t much room for real responsibility for one’s actions.

In the next halakhah, he speaks of the importance of teshuvah in light of the inevitable reality of death: presumably, one wishes to die clean and pure; since no one knows when they will die and whether or not they will liv to old age, it is best to be in a state of constant teshuvah. Death can overtake a person at any time; a person may die suddenly, unexpectedly, from an accident or an act of random violence, from a massive heart attack or stroke, and not have any time for any soul-searching and repentance, or even to say Shema or a one-sentence Vidduy, let alone to say goodbye to one’s lived ones.

I do not know how many contemporary Jews, even those that are scrupulously observant, are seriously concerned with preparing for the Judgment that will follow their death, in the literal, concrete way described here by Rambam. But even if not, this halakhah points up an important truth: the fact of mortality, of the reality of death, is a basic principle of human ethics. The fact that our time on earth is limited, that we must constantly choose what to do with each day, with each hour, is or at least ought to be the greatest motivation for us to take life seriously and to act in accordance with our highest ideals. We can never be certain, if we postpone a good deed to some later time, whether we shall ever in fact get to do it.

This is especially true regarding inter-personal relations. Sometimes one harbors a grudge against a certain person because of what is ultimately a petty matter; the matter could be improved by a short conversation, by a few words of apology, by reaching out. Imagine that that person dies, so one can never be reconciled; the feud persisted for some stupid reason. What a waste! Some years ago the 22-year old daughter of a good friend of mine died suddenly, of an unknown heart condition. My friend regretted that her last words to her daughter, the morning of the day on which she was to die, were harsh words of criticism, of anger over some small thing. But now they could never be taken back… It is for this reason, as much as for reasons of Divine “economy,” that constant teshuvah is in order.

Rambam then turns to the essential point in this chapter, which is the hardest part of Teshuvah. It does not only involve repentance for specific deeds or even types of action, for which one can repent comparatively easily, because it involves specific, well-defined acts. Rather, the more serious, basic teshuvah involves character traits—and here matters become infinitely more difficult.

But having said all this, Judaism nevertheless believes in Teshuvah, and perhaps it is not even as overwhelming as it seems. When we come full-circle, to confront directly the full magnitude of what is required to do teshuvah, the element of divine compassion comes into play. I have written in the past (HY I: Ki Tisa) about what I call the covenant of Shavuot and the Covenant of Yom Kippur; the state of the Jewish people at Sinai, when they were in a certain sense naïve and innocent and accepted Torah in a wholehearted way; and what I would call the renewed covenant in the Cleft of the Rock, after the sin of the Golden Calf, when both they and God had seen in a very concrete way their capacity for sin and for frustrating expectations. On this latter occasion God revealed the thirteen qualities of Mercy, which not coincidentally is the leitmotif of the entire period of Days of Awe: that God ultimately moderates his stern judgment with love and mercy. We refer to this idea in our daily prayers as well, referring to God as ha-rotzeh be-teshuvah, “He who desires Teshuvah.” God desires that men repent; once a person comes to purify himself, God comes halfway to meet him and help him.

Christianity claims that it is a religion of love, and Judaism is a religion of law and harsh judgment—a claim unwittingly accepted by many Westernized Jews. But this is less than a half truth. I would amend it to say: Judaism is a religion of harmony between love and law: law at Sinai, love at the Cleft of the Rock; law on Shavuot, love and forgiveness and reconciliation on Yom Kippur.

NOTE: Arthur Green, in his new book Radical Judaism : Rethinking God and Tradition (New Haven: Yale: 2010) pp. 52-53, infers a similar idea from the liturgical use of the Thirteen Qualities. As used in the synagogue, Exodus 34:7 is truncated in mid-sentence; rather than reading “but surely He dos not clean them entirely (venaqeh lo yenaqeh), visiting the sins of the fathers on the children… etc”’ it reads simply “and he cleans” (venaqeh). Green describes this as “radical Midrashic surgery” bringing about “the transformation of a God who seeks retribution… into One who forgives and cleanses with unmitigated compassion.”


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