Is Teshuva Fair? Two Contemporary Views Regarding the Mechanisms of Repentance
Ever since we were children our teachers have taught us to believe that God will forgive our misdeeds if we perform teshuvah. Year after year we review this cardinal teaching of our faith, so that by the time we have graduated out of the Jewish day school system we practically take it for granted. If we say sorry for some wrong which we committed then of course God will pardon us – indeed, why should He not? There is a neat reciprocity to this arrangement which appeals to our desire for some sort of higher order and predictability. Yet if we take a step back for a moment, I think we will reveal that as straightforward as it may come across, the notion of teshuvah is anything but intuitive. After all, our experience tells us that something done cannot be undone; this idea has even been codified scientifically, under the law of entropy.[i] Had we not been told otherwise, we would have expected the spiritual realm to function in exactly the same way. Simply stated, man cannot change his past – at least not in concrete terms. At first glance, then, something seems unjust about his receiving “credit” as though he had. It is for this reason precisely that many texts struggle to define the parameters of forgiveness. For myself, the most eye-opening of these has been Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower, a symposium of sorts in which the world’s leading thinkers and theologians debate whether the author should have graced a Nazi soldier who begged for forgiveness upon his deathbed. Actually, it was this text which first alerted me to the “problem” of repentance, if you will, and I highly recommend the work to anybody interested in probing one of the most fundamental tenets of Jewish faith.
That said, these questions are not new ones. The Talmud, written 1500 years ago, relates the tension that gripped Reish Lakish as he grappled with this very issue:
Reish Lakish said: Great is repentance, for because of it premeditated sins are accounted as errors, as it is said: Return, O Israel, unto the Lord, thy God, for thou hast stumbled in thy iniquity. ‘Iniquity’ is premeditated, and yet he calls it ‘stumbling.’ But that is not so! For Reish Lakish said that repentance is so great that premeditated sins are accounted as though they were merits, as it is said: “And when the wicked turneth from his wickedness, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall live thereby!” That is no contradiction: One refers to a case [of repentance] derived from love, the other to one due to fear.[ii]
In attempting to resolve a scriptural dilemma, Reish Lakish unwittingly exacerbates a philosophical one. Conventionally, repentance is conceived of as a process which nullifies one’s sins. Reish Lakish takes it a step further. For this sage, repentance, ideally performed, represents an opportunity to recast one’s transgressions as merits – an opportunity not only to remove but also to revert the moral force of one’s actions.
If you are like me then you are probably wondering: how does that work? This is a question which Jewish scholars have been brooding over for centuries. Two contemporary thinkers have articulated what, at least in my opinion, constitute some of the best responses to this challenge. Let us present them here and then unpack them together.
Response #1 – R. Jonathan Sacks:
Any act we perform has multiple consequences, some good, some bad. When we intend evil, the bad consequences are attributed to us because that is what we sought to achieve. The good consequences are not: they are mere by-products, happenstance, unintended outcomes… However, once one has undergone complete repentance, the original intent is cancelled out. It is now possible to see the good, as well as the bad, consequences of his act – and to attribute the former to him, since the meaning of his act is no longer defined by what he originally intended but by what part he played in a [series of events] whose [positive] outcome was only now fully apparent in retrospect. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony, the good they did would live after them; the bad was interred with the past. That is how, through repentance, deliberate sins are accounted as merits. [iii]
Response #2: R. Akiva Tatz:
The definition of complete repentance [as defined in Maimonides’ legal code] means that [the sinner] would not do the same thing again [if presented with the same opportunity to do so]. That means that the weakness has been eradicated – they’re higher than they were before. The person who’s fallen is a person who had a fall in their character, the fall has been used to reveal that, and they’ve used the opportunity now to eradicate the problem. The person now uses that experience of fall in order to weld together and eliminate the problem. They are now, through having fallen, a person who no longer has that problem. The mechanism is that the fall has become an intrinsic and inalienable part of their rise. “Ki nafalti, kamti” – I have risen because I fell. A person who looks back on such an occasion will relish the moment that he fell, retroactively – he wouldn’t give it up for anything because that was the experience that became part and parcel, as it were, of his growth. That’s one understanding of how the transgression becomes a merit.[iv]
R. Sacks and R. Tatz both spell out the ethical underpinnings of teshuvah quite cogently. Yet while their explanations may lead us to the same destination, close analysis seems to reveal two different points of departure. To highlight the tension between these two approaches we must pause to reflect on the role of intention vis-à-vis outcome in determining the morality of one’s actions – do we judge one’s actions purely based on what he or she meant to do, or is what one actually did also relevant? In ancient Rome these two spheres were distinguished with the terms mens rea (“guilty mind”) and actus reus (“guilty act”). More simply we might say, is it really the thought that counts, or, in the final analysis, do actions speak louder than words?
To the Jewish mind, of course, all hashkafic questions of this nature hinge on halakhic considerations. When we turn to the legal codes, though, we find a most equivocal picture. Although several prominent authorities rule that kavanah is required in order to discharge one’s obligation of the religious commandments,[v] others disagree.[vi] On the one hand, we seem to receive reward for interpersonal mitsvot, such as giving charity and visiting the sick, even lacking any specific intention to fulfill a religious requirement.[vii] On the other hand, certain prayers are deemed invalid unless the one who recites them meditates on the meaning of what he or she is saying.[viii] Most commandments involve some form of explicitly physical action – then again, the six mitsvot[ix] which apply in all places and at all times are, in the plain sense, wholly cerebral. In short, it is hard to tell whether intentions or outcomes matter more in Judaism. This debate bears directly on our question because when we seek to take back the past, as it were, we do not know what exactly we should be trying to take back.
Allow me to suggest that there are two ways of looking at this issue: rationally and ethically. Rationally speaking, only intentions seem open for revision: I can change how I relate to a given act or event long after said act or event has taken place. By contrast, actions are irreversible: effects can be neutralized but never undone. From this perspective, teshuvah, if it is to make any sense, cannot require man to undo his actions, as this is impossible. All we can do is change the way we feel and think about those actions, thereby claiming their positive outcomes retroactively, as it were, as R. Sacks suggests. In purely logical terms, this explanation seems much more accurate.
And yet, something seems lacking. How morally potent is private regret, at the end of the day? Not very, we would have to admit. Certainly the victim feels no better just because the perpetrator feels worse. Moreover, if the sole result of one’s remorse is that one does not repeat one’s misdeeds moving forward, then he or she has essentially returned to “square one.” Perhaps we should restore such a person’s spiritual account to zero – but to throw in credit on top? That seems unfair. When we think about the issue in this light it would seem, as R. Tatz suggests, that sins can only truly count as mitsvot if those sins actually give rise to mitsvot in some causative sense. Granted, the connection to the initial sin may be less direct than the one proposed through the first approach: treating others with more care and compassion in the future does not change the fact that I treated them poorly in the past. Maybe in rational terms the arrangement is a little artificial. Still, on the most basic human level, something beyond a mere rectification of intent seems necessary. If an individual is to receive credit for his misdeeds then it should be because, in reflecting upon them, he has been moved to perform acts of kindness which he would not otherwise have pursued. Only then does the latent positivity within those earlier moments of sin reveal itself as the facet of one’s actions which ultimately endures.
Incidentally, it is interesting to note what would appear to be the nafka minah (practical difference) which arises from these two different perspectives. Consider the individual who never returns to his misdeeds but who, on the other hand, does not adopt any course of conduct aimed at redeeming his former mistakes through positive action. Has such an individual performed teshuvah to the degree implied by Reish Lakish? The answer would seem to depend on whether intention suffices for the purposes of repentance, as we have explored.
Ultimately, I would not insist upon this reading of the two responses brought above, for there may be other ways of interpreting them. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that the more philosophically-oriented R. Sacks seems to focus on one’s intention while the more mystically-oriented R. Tatz focuses on one’s actions themselves. I am sure both would agree that, ideally, teshuvah should feature not only a return to the sinner’s previous level but also a progression to a higher spiritual plane. Still, in purely theoretical terms, it is interesting to meditate upon what seem to be two different approaches to the mechanisms of teshuvah, apparently stemming from the two competing conceptions found in Jewish sources: do actions matter more, or do intentions?
Alex Maged is currently a Sophomore at YU and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] According to the law of entropy (also known as the second law of thermodynamics), energy expended for the purposes of work can never be fully recovered in a usable form.
[iii] Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible: Genesis, the Book of Beginnings (New Milford, CT: Maggid & The Orthodox Union, 2009), “The Future of the Past.”
[v] The Bahag (Berachot 2:7) rules that mitsvot require kavanah. The Rif (Rosh Hashana 7b), as understood by most commentators, also rules this way. See Deuteronomy 11:13 and 26 :16 for two scriptural sources commonly adduced in support of this position. The Talmudic source for this opinion seems to be R. Zeira’s request that the individual blowing the shofar on his behalf have him (i.e. R. Zeira) in mind before doing so. This incident can be found on Rosh Hashana 28b.
[vi] Rabbenu Chananel (Berachot 13a), Rashba (ad loc) and Ritva (Rosh Hashana 28b) all rule that mitsvot do not require kavanah. This would seem to be the clear implication of Berachot 13a, where the Talmud rules that one who reads the text of keriat shema from the Torah without the intention of fulfilling the mitzvah of keriat shema can nevertheless fulfill his obligation. See also Rosh Hashana 28a, where Rava rules that one can fulfill the mitzvah of listening to the shofar if he blew the shofar for musical purposes.
[vii] See Kovetz Shiurim II 23:6. The author, R, Elchanan Wasserman, differentiates between mitsvot which require kavanah and those which are discharged through the proper execution of the act. For these latter mitsvot, the concern lies with the result of the action much more than with the intent accompanying it. R. Wasserman cites many interpersonal mitsvot as examples of such result-oriented mitsvot.
[viii] See Mishna Berura 60:7. The author rules that one must repeat the first verse of the shema if it was not recited with kavanah; the same holds true for the first blessing of the shemoneh esrei.
[ix] According to the Sefer ha-hinukh the following mitsvot apply constantly: (1) to believe in God; (2) not to believe in any power besides God; (3) to believe in God’s oneness; (4) to fear God; (5) to love God; (6) not to stray after the heart or eyes.