I remember once seeing a cartoon that showed a father examining his young son's report card, which was filled with Ds and Fs. As the father scowled, the boy asked: "What do you think it is, Dad, heredity or environment?" Over and above heredity and environment, Judaism insists on a third factor that influences human behavior: the soul. The notion of a soul, possessed of free will, explains why two brothers can be born to the same parents, and raised in the same environment, yet one ends up a criminal and the other a fully responsible individual, sometimes even a saint. It is also the soul that makes possible a person's ability to repent.
Most Jews associate repentance with the High Holy Days. The ten-day period from the start of Rosh ha-Shana to the end of Yom Kippur is known as Aseret Y'mai Teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance. However, attendance at synagogue on these days, even when accompanied by sincere repentance, only wins forgiveness for offenses committed against God. As the Talmud teaches: "The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, not for sins against man, unless the injured party has been appeased" (Mishna Yoma 8:9).
That last clause, "unless the injured party has been appeased," suggests that for at least one crime, murder, there can be no complete repentance, since there is no way to appease the injured party. This distinctively Jewish belief separates most Jewish thinkers from their Christian counterparts.
In Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower, written in 1976, there is an autobiographical account of an incident involving an acute ethical dilemma from the Viennese Nazihunter's own life. Late in the war, when Wiesenthal was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, he was plucked one morning from his work detail by a nurse and taken to the bedside of a dying Nazi soldier. The soldier proceeded to tell Wiesenthal much of his life story; most significantly, that though he had been raised as a Catholic altar boy, he had later joined the SS. During the invasion of Poland, he had rounded up Jews: In one town, he had herded the local Jewish community into a building, which was then set on fire.
Now that he had spent days lying in bed waiting to die, he realized the awful thing he had done and needed to know that a Jew forgave him. Wiesenthal remained silent and left the room. Thirty years later, he sent his account of the incident to leading Jewish and Christian figures, and asked them: "Was I right in not forgiving this repentant Nazi?" With few exceptions, the Christian respondents said that he should have done so. As Gustave Heinemann, the former German minister of justice, put it: "Justice and Law, however essential they are, cannot exist without forgiveness. That is the quality that Jesus Christ added to justice." Likewise, almost without exception, the Jewish respondents argued that he could not forgive the Nazi. The only ones empowered to grant forgiveness were the victims, which is why in this case forgiveness was literally a "dead issue."
In the case of almost all other sins, fortunately there is room for repentance. However, there are at least two common offenses, defrauding the public and damaging another person's good name, in which the damage inflicted comes dangerously close to being irrevocable. In the first instance, it is nearly impossible to locate and compensate every individual who has been defrauded; in the second, it is equally difficult to find every person who has heard and accepted an ugly rumor (see Lashon ha-Ra). The point is not to demoralize wouldbe penitents, but to underscore how cautious people must be before committing acts that have irrevocable consequences. As American humorist Josh Billings wrote: "It is much easier to repent of sins that we have committed than to repent of those we intend to commit."
Jewish tradition holds that teshuva consists of several stages: The sinner must recognize his sin, feel sincere remorse, undo any damage he has done and pacify the victim of his offense, and resolve never to commit the sin again.
Jewish law also offers some guidelines to the victim of the sin. In the normal order of events, if the offender sincerely requests forgiveness, the victim is required to grant it-certainly by the third request. Withholding forgiveness is considered cruel and is itself a sin.
Concerning offenses committed against God, a characteristic Jewish teaching is that of Rabbi Bunam of Pzsyha, who once asked his disciples: "How can you tell when a sin you have committed has been pardoned? His disciples gave various answers but none of them pleased the rabbi. "We can tell," he said, "by the fact that we no longer commit that sin."
SOME JEWISH TEACHINGS ON REPENTANCE
When to Repent
Rabbi Eliezer said: "Repent one day before your death."
His disciples asked him, "Does then one know on what day he will die?"
"All the more reason he should repent today, lest he die tomorrow" (Shabbat 153a).
Two guides to Repenting
"The repentant sinner should strive to do good with the same faculties with which he sinned.... With whatever part of the body he sinned, he should now engage in good deeds. If his feet had run to sin, let them now run to the performance of the good. If his mouth had spoken falsehood, let it now be opened in wisdom. Violent hands should now open in charity.... The troublemaker should now become a peacemaker" (Rabbi Jonah Gerondi, thirteenth century).
"It is told that once there was a wicked man who committed all kinds of sins. One day he asked a wise man to teach him an easy way to repent, and the latter said to him: 'Refrain from telling lies.' He went forth happily, thinking that he could follow the wise man's advice, and still go on as before. When he decided to steal, as had been his custom, he reflected: 'What will I do in case somebody asks me, "Where are you going?" If I tell the truth, "To steal," I shall be arrested. If I tell a lie, I shall be violating the command of this wise man.' In the same manner he reflected on all other sins, until he repented with a perfect repentance" (Rabbi Judah ben Asher, fourteenth century).
Maimonides on Repentance
"What constitutes complete repentance? He who is confronted by the identical situation wherein he previously sinned and it lies within his power to commit the sin again, but he nevertheless does not succumb because he wishes to repent, and not because he is too fearful or weak [to repeat the sin]. How so? If he had relations with a woman forbidden to him and he is subsequently alone with her, still in the throes of his passion for her, and his virility is unabated, and [they are] in the same place where they previously sinned; if he abstains and does not sin, this is a true penitent" (Mishneh Torah, "Laws of Teshuva," 2:1).
Sources: Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991. Reprinted by permission of the author.