Teshuvah: Progress or Return?
While in theory the blowing of the High Holiday shofar should be enough to “awaken us from our slumber” and move us to repentance, in practice most people need to look to other sources to enable them to rethink the way they live or their understanding of repentance itself. Those sources may be secular rather than religious, like the essay by philosopher Leo Strauss titled “Progress or Return? The Contemporary Crisis of Western Civilization.”
The essay is framed by Strauss’s analysis of the concept of teshuvah, or repentance. He writes, “Repentance is return, meaning the return from the wrong way to the right one.” This meaning, Strauss says, implies that “deviation or sin or imperfection is not original. Man is originally at home in his father's house” but “becomes a stranger . . . through sinful estrangement.” Thus, repentance is "home-coming"; it is “the restoration of the perfect beginning.” In this beginning, “men did not roam a forest left to themselves, unprotected and unguided. The beginning is the Garden of Eden. . . . The great time—the classic time—is in the past.”
In other words, teshuvah is, simply, restoration. The ideal man existed in the Garden of Eden; we attempt only to return men to that state. The modern West, Strauss argues, is obsessed with progress, with moving forward; but the idea of teshuvah reminds us that moving forward does not always mean moving in the right direction.
In order to fulfill his purpose—to use the idea of teshuvah as a critique of the modern glorification of progress—Strauss chooses to speak only of the restorative component of teshuvah. And certainly there are also rabbinic and prophetic sources that emphasize teshuvah’s restorative aspect. For example, Rambam (Laws of Repentance 2:2), in defining teshuvah, uses a passage from Isaiah: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the man of iniquity his thoughts; and let him return unto God” (55:7). The same emphasis is found in many other verses cited in relation to teshuvah, such as Jeremiah 3:14 and its commentaries.
Yet within the concept of teshuvah there is also an element of progress.
To begin with, in many cases restoration may not be possible. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein notes that full restoration is nearly impossible, for example, once a human relationship has been betrayed. The Torah recounts in painstaking detail the building of the tabernacle as God’s home on earth among his people; from this we learn that God was willing to restore his relationship with the Jewish people fully despite their treachery in creating the Golden Calf. In contrast, if a betrayal of this magnitude had occurred between two human beings, such as a husband and wife, their relationship, even if saved, would never be exactly the same.
Even where full restoration is not possible, however, teshuvah may succeed if its goal is not restoration but transformation. Rambam (ibid. 5) writes that when one repents, in effect he changes his name; he becomes a different person. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik often stressed that the greatness of teshuvah lies specifically its creative aspect, as in this passage from Halakhic Man:
The desire to be another person, to be different than I am now, is the central motif of repentance. . . . When [halakhic man] finds himself in a situation of sin, he takes advantage of his creative capacity, returns to God, and becomes a creator and self-fashioner. . . . He does not regret an irretrievably lost past but [sees] a past still in existence, one that stretches into and interpenetrates with the past and the future. . . .
The man who emerges is not simply restored; instead, he is a new person.
Similarly, Rabbi Abahu argues, though some disagree, that the place reached by true penitents cannot be reached by those who are not penitents, even if the non-penitents are perfectly righteous (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 99a). More specifically, the Talmud (Yoma 86b) teaches that when one repents out of fear, his willing transgressions will be treated as if they were inadvertent; but when one repents out of love, teshuvah meiahavah, his transgressions are actually considered righteous deeds. Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, analyzing another statement of this principle in one of his weekly communications, asks, “How can a sin retrospectively become a virtue?” His explanation:
Every human choice forecloses some avenues of redemption, and makes others more accessible. Teshuvah meiahavah involves assuming responsibility for past misdeeds by finding the paths toward redemption inevitably, if accidentally, opened up by those choices. These include finding the ways in which you personally are capable of making better choices, of helping others, of having a deeper relationship with G-d—finding the place that you as a baal teshuvah can stand that goes beyond where you could have as an unblemished tzaddik.
Thus, in real teshuvah there is progress: the person who emerges did not exist before—or, more powerfully, could not have existed before. To paraphrase Rabbi Soloveitchik, this is the type of teshuvah that fulfills the divine command of imatatio Dei, imitating God. It is the type of progress that allows the penitent a richer return to his Creator.
Indeed, this kind of progress may also mitigate the crisis of the contemporary West that rightly concerns Strauss. A famous aphorism attributed to secular figures from Bernard of Chartres to Isaac Newton, and found in Jewish sources as well, is that human beings should see themselves as dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of giants. Our accomplishments may be small; but if they are integrally connected to a constructive tradition, they can leave the human condition just a little better than it was before. In this view, we should view the crisis of the West as demanding not return but small steps forward, building on what is good in human history and recognizing that only by standing on great shoulders do we gain the perspective needed to take those steps.
Jonathan Ziring is a rabbinical student at RIETS, Yeshiva University, and is a Tikvah Fellow.