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The Problem of Repentance (Yom Kippur)

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 edition of Kol HaMevaser: The Jewish Thought Magazine of Yeshiva University. Thank you to the editors for their helpful comments and suggestions!  

Ever since we were children our teachers have taught us to believe that God forgives our misdeeds when we perform teshuvah (repentance). 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. Of course God will pardon those who apologize to Him—why shouldn’t He? There is a neat reciprocity to this arrangement which appeals to our desire for some sort of higher order and predictability.

Simon Wiesenthal

Simon Wiesenthal

Yet the notion of teshuvah is anything but intuitive. After all, experience tells us that something done cannot truly be undone. This principle is expressed at its most fundamental level, perhaps, through the second law of thermodynamics, which states that energy expended for the purposes of work can never be recovered in a fully usable form. At first glance, we would have expected the spiritual universe to function in exactly the same way. If man cannot change his past—at least not in concrete, material terms—then something seems unjust about him receiving “divine 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 texts has been Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflowera 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 book that first alerted me to the “problem” of repentance, and I highly recommend it to anybody interested in probing one of the most fundamental tenets of Jewish faith.

That said, the problem of repentance is not a new one. The Talmud (Yoma 86b), written 1500 years ago, relates the tension that gripped Reish Lakish as he grappled with similar issues:

Reish Lakish said: Great is repentance, for because of it premeditated sins are accounted as mere mistakes, as it is said (Hosea 14:2): “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled in iniquity.”  [Israel performed an “iniquity” and yet Hosea describes it as if they had done no more than “stumbled”]—from which you see that repentance has the power to turn premeditated sins into mistakes.

But is that all Reish Lakish said? No! Reish Lakish went so far as to claim that repentance can even turn premeditated sins into good deeds, as it is said (Ezekiel 33:19): “When the wicked returns from his evil, acting justly and righteously…”[Thus, Reish Lakish seems to be contradicting himself].

In fact, there is no contradiction between these two statements. The first refers to a case in which the sinner performs repentance that is motivated by fear; the second refers to a case in which he is motivated by love.

In this perplexing passage, Reish Lakish resolves a scriptural ambiguity by aggravating a philosophical paradox. Whereas we usually conceive of repentance as a process through which one’s sins are nullified, Reish Lakish claims that repentance, ideally performed, represents an opportunity to recast one’s transgressions as merits: an opportunity not only to remove, but even to reverse the moral force of one’s actions. How does that work?

This is a question that Jewish scholars have been brooding over for centuries. Let’s look at two contemporary answers to this challenge—the first by R. Jonathan Sacks, the second by R. Akiva Tatz—and then we will analyze them together.

R. Jonathan Sacks

R. Jonathan Sacks

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.

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. “כי נפלתי קמתי—“I have risen because I fell”  (Micah 7:8). 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.

R. Sacks and R. Tatz both spell out the mechanical 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—that is, 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 of agency were distinguished legally with the terms mens rea (“guilty mind”) and actus reus (“guilty act”)Modern moral philosophers refer to “deontology” versus “consequentialism” when discussing similar ideas. In colloquial language, meanwhile, we might ask the question most plainly as follows:  is it really “the thought that counts,” or do “actions speak louder than words?”

To the Jewish mind, of course, all hashkafic (=outlook) queries of this nature hinge on halakhic (=normative) considerations. When we turn to the legal codes, though, we find a most equivocal picture.  Although several prominent authorities rule that kavanah (deliberative intent) is required in order to discharge one’s obligation of the religious commandments[i], others disagree[ii]. On the one hand, we seem to receive reward for interpersonal mitzvot, such as giving charity and visiting the sick, even lacking any specific intention to fulfill a religious requirement[iii]. On the other hand, certain prayers are deemed invalid unless the one who recites them actively meditates upon the meaning of what he or she is saying[iv]. Most commandments involve some form of explicitly physical action; then again, the “six constant mitzvot[v]” 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 need to know what exactly we should be trying to take back.

Allow me to suggest that there are two ways of looking at this issue; perhaps we might term them, respectively, the “rational” approach, and the “ethical” approach.

R. Akiva Tatz

R. Akiva Tatz

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 strictly logical terms, this explanation appears to be much more coherent than R. Tatz’s.

And yet, we sense instinctively that teshuva must involve more. After all, how morally potent is private regret, at the end of the day? Not very. 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 would be unfair. When we think about the issue in this light, it would appear, as R. Tatz asserts, that sins can only truly count as mitzvot if those sins actually give rise to mitzvot 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.

There is an important nafka minah that emerges from these two competing 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 “complete” teshuvah? Our decision in this case would appear to depend on whether we view repentance a function of intention or of action, as we have explored. One could adduce a number of Jewish sources in favor of each position.

Ultimately, however, the dichotomy between “actions” and “intentions” need not be framed as an either/or proposition. As a theoretical exercise, it can be instructive to weigh the value of these two factors against each other and draw whatever axiological conclusions we wish to draw; practically speaking, there is no need for compromise. Both R. Sacks and R. Tatz would surely agree that teshuva should ideally impact us on multiple levels. We must strive to refine our thoughts and feelings, and we must strive to improve our conduct as well. That is what it means to be a complete ba’al or ba’alat teshuva: to be elevated in heart and mind, body and soul.

G’mar Hatima Tova!


[i] The Bahag (Berachot 2:7) rules that mitzvot 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 (see Rosh Hashana 28b).

[ii] Rabbenu Chananel (Berachot 13a), the Rashba (ad loc) and the Ritva (Rosh Hashana 28b) all rule that mitzvot 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 mitzvahof listening to the shofar if he blew the shofar for musical purposes.

[iii] See Kovetz Shiurim II 23:6. The author, R, Elchanan Wasserman, differentiates between mitzvot which require kavanah and those which are discharged through the proper execution of the act. For these latter mitzvot, the concern lies with the result of the action much more than with the intent accompanying it. R. Wasserman cites many interpersonal mitzvot as examples of such result-oriented mitzvot.

[iv]  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.

[v] According to the Sefer ha-hinukh the following mitzvot 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.

1 Comment

  1. Mike Shriqui says:

    Excellent Alex, thank you.

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