We are in the season of repentance. But what actually does repentance mean? What does it do? If repentance is intended to change us, make us better people, it does not appear to work.
I have never noticed that after the Ten Days of Repentance (note, not the ten days of Atonement) are over, anyone seems to have changed in any recognizable way. So what is Teshuvah? Is it an act of drama, in the way that at the Seder on Pesach we pretend we were slaves in Egypt? And now we are imagining that we have been brought before a Heavenly Court to be judged and we have to prepare our defense? What if we have nothing to repent for?
The Torah does not command Teshuvah as an obligation to repent. After all, how can you command people to regret if they do not, or to think or believe in any idea? The Torah says that if you have done something wrong, you should own the act and declare it. That is the law of Vidui, confession (Leviticus 5.5). Not to a priest, but to God or the person you have wronged. Then you follow that up with Kapara, atonement, which in Temple times meant offering a sacrifice. But all this could be done anytime throughout the year. The Bible added some special occasions for personal Kapara. Every Rosh Hodesh, New Month, was a time for Kapara, and of course, so was Yom Kipur.
The word Teshuvah as used in the Torah simply means to return to a place, to come home. To the waters of Noah‘s flood returning to their initial levels. It is also used to re-connect with God when we strayed and then God would re-connect with us. But that certainly did not imply that God had something to repent for, even if metaphorically one might want to suggest it.
Teshuvah in the Torah is a national idea. In Deuteronomy, it says that after abandoning the Torah and going into exile, the Children of Israel will return to God. And God will return to them. This is reiterated many times in the Books of the Prophets and Ezra. But this is in reference to a general return, a national revival rather than a personal obligation.
Why did it all change? One possibility is that Teshuvah only became a feature in reaction to and a substitute for the Christian belief in Grace. That only through Grace, by recognizing Jesus as one’s savior, could one overcome original sin. But such an idea has no place or logic in Jewish thought. Nevertheless, you could argue that just as Grace involves surrendering to an idea, so Teshuvah is surrendering to God directly. As Christianity challenged Judaism in the second century the polemic of the rabbis was to combat their theology by asserted a different one.
Similarly, the rabbis wanted to emphasize the uniqueness of the Jewish nation by emphasizing its significance over the universal. On a national level, Teshuvah is linked to the ideas of Geulah, redemption, and Mashiach. That what Judaism looked forward to was a return to the homeland it had lost. And on a wider level, to usher in a new era of Divine rule and humans living better together on earth in the present. To achieve both of these required repairing our relationship with God, on a personal as well as a national level.
If Teshuvah means to return on a personal level, the question is to what state? To birth, creation, the Sinai revelation, or wherever one was beforehand? The post-Biblical concept of Teshuvah and the way we use it nowadays reminds us of personal failure. But one may wonder what is the point of Teshuvah if we humans have no free will? The Torah implies that we are free to make choices. Sometimes the wrong ones too, as in the stories of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and Cain admitting his guilt for killing his brother. The only response was to realize what had gone wrong and take a decision not to do it again, to say “sorry.”
But nowadays it can be argued that our sins are not our fault. We are determined, conditioned, constrained compelled by our circumstances, education, and training. Moreover, how can we be free if God knows what we are going to do? Yet the Torah prescribes punishment. Our secular penal societies are predicated on the idea that we can and must take some responsibility for our choices. Otherwise, what is the point of punishment altogether? So obviously at some level, the assumption is that we have choices to make. As Maimonides insists ( Laws of Repentance 5.1).
So how are we to understand the actual function of personal Teshuvah that emerged during the Talmudic era and is the very center of our prayers and thoughts every day, let alone Rosh Hashanah?
Some suggest it is simply cathartic. It is palliative to guilt. It relieves us of anxiety and fear of consequences. Greeks experienced catharsis through drama. Judaism invited the individual to experience it through Teshuvah. Others argue it is simply an aesthetic counterbalance to our behavioral patterns. To present an alternative experience to our self-indulgence. I like the idea that it emphasizes two very different realities in this word. The physical world of crime and punishment and the spiritual world of forgiveness and restoration. Teshuva belongs in the purely spiritual realm. Rosh Hashanah, with the sound of the Shofar, jolts our passivity and apathy. The strangeness of its sound contrasts with the mundane world we usually inhabit.
Another view of Teshuvah is that its purpose is to remember. After all the Torah describes Rosh Hashana not as a New Year, but as a Day of Remembrance, Yom HaZikaron. Some may argue that memory is a dangerous and unreliable phenomenon that impedes human progress. It inclines us to look backward instead of forward. But just as we can remember to avoid pain, so we can remember what actions we took in the past that we felt or sensed were wrong. That way memory harnesses the past to help us deal with the present and future.
The Jerusalem Talmud imagines a conversation between Wisdom, Prophesy, and God as to what punishment there should be for a sinner. Wisdom, the rational mind, replied that “Evil Pursues the Wicked.” There can only be punishment. Prophecy, the mystical, replies “The sinful soul shall perish.” God replies that “Let a person repent and be forgiven.” Wisdom says the impact of crime is physical and must be responded to according to the law. The mystic, the prophet, says it is a failure of the soul and the punishment is alienation from God. But God replies that repentance can be therapeutic and heal relationships and we can be forgiven.
We as a people have always been alienated from God to some degree or another. Was there ever a time (in reality, not myth) when as a nation we all lived up to the implications of a relationship? Certainly not during the First or Second Temples when most Jews were not committed religiously and ethically to God. And not since. Only a small minority has kept the flame alive. They are the ones who take the idea of Teshuvah seriously.
Many of us are ambivalent about the nature of what we call God if indeed we believe at all. But regardless, we all know we are not perfect, and trying to be a better person can’t do any harm.