REPENTANCE


Repentance is a prerequisite for divine forgiveness: God will not pardon man unconditionally but waits for him to repent. In repentance man must experience genuine remorse for the wrong he has committed and then convert his penitential energy into concrete acts. Two substages are discernible in the latter process: first, the negative one of ceasing to do evil (Isa. 33:15; Ps. 15; 24:4), and second, the positive step of doing good (Isa. 1:17; 58:5ff.; Jer. 7:3; 26:13; Amos 5:14–15; Ps. 34:15–16; 37:27). The Bible is rich in idioms describing man's active role in the process of repentance e.g., "incline the heart to the Lord" (Josh. 24:23), "make oneself a new heart" (Ezek. 18:31), "circumcise the heart" (Jer. 4:4), "wash the heart" (Jer. 4:14), and "break one's fallow ground" (Hos. 10:12). However, all these expressions of man's penitential activity are subsumed and summarized by one verb which dominates the Bible, שוב (shwb, "to return") which develops ultimately into the rabbinic concept of teshuvah, repentance. This root combines in itself both requisites of repentance: to turn from the evil and to turn to the good. The motion of turning implies that sin is not an ineradicable stain but a straying from the right path, and that by the effort of turning, a power God has given to all men, the sinner can redirect his destiny. That this concept of turning back (to YHWH) is not a prophetic innovation but goes back to Israel's ancient traditions is clear from Amos, who uses it without bothering to explain its meaning (Amos 4:6–11). Neither he nor Isaiah stresses repentance, except in his earliest prophecy (1:16–18 – to which the prophet adds 19–20 by way of interpretation – and 27), not because they believe it is insignificant, but because in their time the people had sinned to such an extent, that they had overstepped the limits of divine forbearance and the gates of repentance were closed (Amos 7; Isa. 6). For Isaiah, the need to turn back indeed continues to play a role, but only for the few who will survive God's purge. This surviving remnant will itself actively engage in a program of repentence to qualify for residence in the New Zion (e.g., Isa. 10:20–23; 17:7–8; 27:9; 29:18ff.; 30:18–26; 31:6–7; 32:1–8, 15ff.; 33:5–6). Indeed, the name of this prophet's firstborn was imprinted with this message: "[Only] a remnant will return" (Shear-Jashub; Isa. 7:3).

In the teaching of both Hosea and Jeremiah, on the other hand, the call to turn back is never abandoned. When Jeremiah despairs of man's capability of self-renewal, he postulates that God will provide a "new heart" that will overcome sin and merit eternal forgiveness (31:32–33; 32:39–40; cf. Deut. 30:6; Ezek. 36:26–27).

[Jacob Milgrom]

Rabbinic Views

The rabbis are eloquent in describing the significance of repentance. It is one of the things created before the world itself (Pes. 54a); it reaches to the very Throne of Glory (Yoma 86a); it prolongs a man's life and brings on the Redemption (Yoma 86b). God urges Israel to repent and not be ashamed to do so because a son is not ashamed to return to the father who loves him (Deut. R. 2:24). God says to Israel: My sons, open for Me an aperture of repentance as narrow as the eye of a needle, and I will open for you gates through which wagons and coaches can pass (Song R. 5:2 no. 2). On public fast-days the elder of the congregation would declare: "Brethren, it is not said of the men of Nineveh: 'And God saw their sackcloth and their fasting' but: 'And God saw their works, that they had turned from their evil way' [Jonah 3:10]" (Ta'an. 2:1).

The rabbis were not unaware of the theological difficulties in the whole concept of repentance. Once the wrong has been done how can it be put right? The general rabbinic answer is that it is a matter of Divine Grace, as in the following passage, in which it is incidentally implied, too, that the concept of teshuvah has only reached its full emphasis as a result of a long development from biblical times: "They asked of wisdom? 'What is the punishment of the sinner?' Wisdom replied: 'Evil pursueth sinners' [Prov. 13:21]. They asked of prophecy: 'What is the punishment of the sinner?' Prophecy replied: 'The soul that sinneth it shall die' [Ezek. 18:4]. Then they asked of the Holy One, blessed be He: 'What is the punishment of the sinner?' He replied: 'Let him repent and he will find atonement'" (TJ, Mak. 2:7, 31d). The third-century Palestinian teachers debate whether the repentant sinner is greater than the wholly righteous man who has not sinned, R. Johanan holding the opinion that the latter is the greater, R. Abbahu that the repentant sinner is greater (Ber. 34b). R. Simeon b. Lakish said, according to one version, that when the sinner repents his sins are accounted as if he had committed them unintentionally, but, in another version, his sins are accounted as virtues. The talmudic reconciliation of the two versions is that one refers to repentance out of fear, the other to repentance out of love (Yoma 86b). Even a man who has been wicked all his days who repents at the end of his life is pardoned for all his sins (Kid. 40b). The ideal, is for man to spend all his days in repentance. When R. Eliezer said: "Repent one day before your death," he explained that since no man can know when he will die he should spend all his days in repentance (Shab. 153a).

The Day of *Atonement brings pardon for sin if there is repentance (Yoma 8:8), but Judah ha-Nasi holds that the Day of Atonement brings pardon even without repentance except in cases of very serious sin (Yoma 85b). The Day of Atonement is ineffective if a man says: "I will sin and the Day of Atonement will effect atonement." If a man says: "I will sin and repent, and sin again and repent" he will be given no chance to repent (Yoma 8:9). The second-century teacher R. Ishmael is reported as saying (Yoma 86a): "If a man transgressed a positive precept, and repented, he is forgiven right away. If he has transgressed a negative commandment and repented, then repentance suspends punishment and the Day of Atonement procures atonement. If he has committed a sin to be punished with extirpation (karet), or death at the hands of the court, and repented, then repentance and the Day of Atonement suspend the punishment, and suffering cleanses him from the sin. But if he has been guilty of the profanation of the Name, then penitence has no power to suspend punishment, nor the Day of Atonement to procure atonement, nor suffering to finish it, but all of them together suspend the punishment and only death finishes it." This scheme contains all the tensions resulting from the different aspects of atonement mentioned in the Bible.

Repentance involves sincere remorse for having committed the sin. The third-century Babylonian teacher, R. Judah, defined a true penitent as one who twice more encountered the object which caused his original transgression and he kept away from it. R. Judah indicated: "With the same woman, at the same time, in the same place" (Yoma 86b). The penitent sinner must confess his sins. According to R. Judah b. Bava a general confession is insufficient; the details of each sin must be stated explicitly. But R. Akiva holds that a general confession is enough (Yoma 86b). Public confession of sin was frowned upon as displaying a lack of shame except when the transgressions were committed publicly, or, according to others, in the case of offenses against other human beings (Yoma 86b). Confession without repentance is of no avail. The ancient parable, as old as Ben Sira (34:25–26), is recounted of a man who immerses himself in purifying waters while still holding in his hand a defiling reptile (Ta'an. 16a).

The sinner must be given every encouragement to repent. It is forbidden to say to a penitent: "Remember your former deeds" (BM 4:10). If a man stole a beam and built it into his house, he was freed from the obligation of demolishing the house and was allowed to pay for his theft in cash, in order to encourage him to repent (Git. 5:5). It was even said that if robbers or usurers repent and wish to restore their ill-gotten gains, the spirit of the sages is displeased with the victims if they accept the restitution, for this may discourage potential penitents from relinquishing their evil way of life (BK 94b).

[Louis Jacobs]

In Jewish Philosophy

Repentance was a favorite subject in medieval Jewish ethical and philosophical literature. *Saadiah discusses repentance in section five of his Emunot ve-De'ot. Baḥya ibn *Paquda devotes the seventh "gate" of his "Duties of the Heart," and *Maimonides, the last section of Sefer ha-Madda, "Hilkhot Teshuvah." to repentance.

Saadiah, Baḥya, and Maimonides agree that the essential constituents of repentance are regret and remorse for the sin committed, renunciation of the sin, confession and a request for forgiveness, and a pledge not to repeat the offense (Emunot ve-De'ot, 5:5; Ḥovot ha-Levavot, 7:4; Yad, Teshuvah, 2:2). In the case of sins perpetrated against other people it is necessary to beg forgiveness from the person one has wronged before one can receive divine forgiveness (Emunot ve-De'ot, 5:6; Ḥovot ha-Levavot, 7:9; Maim. Yad, Teshuvah, 2:9). Maimonides in particular, emphasizes the importance of verbal confession, or viddui (Yad, Teshuvah, 1:1), maintaining that one should publicly confess those sins that one has committed against one's fellow men. Of course, a verbal confession without inner conviction is worthless (ibid., 13:3).

The conditions necessary for repentance, according to Baḥya, are:

(1) recognition of the evil nature of one's sin;

(2) realization that punishment for one's sin is inevitable, and that repentance is the only means of averting punishment;

(3) reflection on the favors previously bestowed by God; and

(4) renunciation of the evil act.

There are different gradations of repentance. The highest level of repentance, according to Saadiah, is the repentance which takes place immediately after one has sinned, while the details of one's sin are still before one. A lower level of repentance is that which takes place when one is threatened by disaster, and the lowest, that which takes place just before death. According to Baḥya, the highest level of repentance is the repentance of one, who, while still capable of sinning has conquered his evil inclination entirely. The next level of repentance is the repentance of one who, while managing to refrain from sin, is nevertheless constantly drawn toward sin by his evil inclination. The lowest form of repentance is the repentance of one who no longer has the power or opportunity to sin. Maimonides maintains that he has achieved perfect repentance (teshuvah gemurah) who, upon finding himself in the position of repeating his sin, is able to refrain from doing so (Yad, Teshuvah, 2:1).

Among the many other medieval works on repentance are Iggeret ha-Teshuvah ("Letter on Repentance," Constantinople, 1548) and Sha'arei Teshuvah ("Gates of Repentance," Fano, 1583) by Jonah b. Abraham Gerondi (c. 1200–1263), and Menorat ha-Ma'or ("The Candlestick of Light," Constantinople, 1514) by Isaac *Aboab (14th century).

[Samuel Rosenblatt]

Post-Medieval Period

The idea of repentance continued to play a central role in the life of the Jew in the postmedieval period, reinforced as it was by both the penitential liturgy and the rituals of the High Holidays. External stress, pogroms, and expulsions turned the Jew in on himself and led him to ask forgiveness of God for the sins which he assumed were at the root of his suffering. Messianic movements, often largely a consequence of the tribulations which beset Jewish communities, gave further incentive to renewed religious fervor and "re-turning" to God. Pietist movements, such as that of Ḥasidei Ashkenaz, practiced ascetic penitential techniques to scourge the sinful flesh.

Against this background kabbalistic speculation, which associated repentance not merely with the salvation of the individual soul but with the cosmic drama of redemption, gained ground. This doctrine reached its climax in Lurianic Kabbalah, where repentance was one step, but a most essential one, in the process of tikkun, or rectification. Through repentance, the Jew was able to assist God in the elevation of the holy sparks entrapped in the shells and thus usher in the messianic age – the work of creation having been completed and perfected.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the rise of two important movements in Eastern European Jewry in which the idea of repentance played somewhat different theological roles. In Ḥasidism, where the highly personal and anthropomorphic relation to the Deity, either on the part of the ḥasid himself or at least on that of the ẓaddik, was emphasized, the severity of the doctrine of repentance was toned down. Confidence in the loving response of God and His forgiveness helped lessen the sense of overburdening sin. By contrast the Musar movement, which may be regarded as the response of the Mitnaggedim to the challenge that Ḥasidism presented to traditional Judaism, played up the factor of sin, and thus repentance became the persistent task of the Jew, day after day, year after year. The turning inward to scrutinize one's deeds and motives – in essence the heart of the Musar movement – gave the follower of this movement an awareness of sin of which the average Jew or the ḥasid would be totally oblivious. This process of self-scrutiny and repentance reached its pinnacle for the follower of the Musar movement in the month of Elul, preceding the High Holidays. This month was wholly given over to soul-searching, and there are well attested cases of great exponents of the Musar movement who inflicted discomfort and even suffering on themselves as part of the self-punishment involved in genuine repentance.

Modern Developments

In the modern period, marked by a drift of Jews away from traditional forms of religion and belief in God, the idea of repentance appears in two guises. On the one hand, there is the traditionalist interpretation which still sees repentance as something of which the believing, as well as the unbelieving, Jew is in need. On the other, there is the re-interpretation of repentance as the way back to God for those who have weak roots in Judaism, or have at some stage abandoned whatever roots they had.

The traditionalist interpretation takes its most original form in the writing of A.I. *Kook who devoted a whole work to the subject of repentance (Orot ha-Teshuvah, 19705). Kook weaves together three themes in his concept of repentance: the kabbalistic idea that repentance is not merely something on the personal level, but partakes of cosmic proportions; messianic Zionism; the "re-turning" of the individual to God. By sinning, man isolates himself from the Deity and disrupts the potential unity and harmony of all existence. Repentance is the overcoming of this isolation, and communion with God, the ideal point of man's striving. In repentance, the harmony of the world is reestablished, for the repentance of one man helps to bring the whole world back to God. Israel's return to its ancestral land is seen by Kook as repentance (returning) on the national level and a further step in the reestablishment of the unity of the creative process. The repentance of the individual Jew strengthens national repentance and return, for righteousness is the very soul of Israel.

The importance of Franz *Rosenzweig for the modern reinterpretation of the idea of repentance is first and foremost the example of his own life. Rosenzweig's personal experience of finding his way back to Judaism has come to be the paradigm of the modern ba'al teshuvah ("one who repents"). In 1913, he was on the verge of converting to Christianity, but while attending a Day of Atonement service in an orthodox synagogue he changed his mind and ultimately his whole life. From then on his mode of life and his writings represent the struggles and ideas of a man on the way back ("re-turning") to Judaism. Rosenzweig gradually took upon himself the yoke of the mitzvot and tried to find means, mainly educational, to bring other assimilated Jews to an awareness of the "inner fire of the Jewish star of redemption." Rosenzweig's conception of repentance turns on his portrayal of existential man facing God and the dialectical tension between man's anticipation of the call of God and God's love which is ultimately at the basis of such a call. Having been called by God, the man of faith enters into dialogue with Him. The turning to God is not simply this dialogic openness to Him, it also involves the attempt to fulfill the mitzvot as far as one can, in the hope and belief that one's ability to fulfill mitzvot will widen. Rosenzweig's attitude to those mitzvot he did not keep was "not yet," i.e., although he was at the moment not ready to observe these commandments, he hoped that at some future time he would be.

Unlike Kook, who dealt with the subject of repentance in relation to Israel's return to God and nationhood, Rosenzweig was concerned with the turning away of the individual from Western culture, specifically Christianity, back to Judaism. This feature of his thought, typical of existentialism where biographical experience and philosophy meet, colors his whole discussion of the subject. Whereas Kook is concerned with the repentance of the Jew, orthodox or otherwise, Rosenzweig speaks only to the "hyphenated" Jew, i.e., one who has been strongly influenced by non-Jewish cultural values.

In the thought of Martin *Buber the idea of repentance is essentially the turning of the whole man to God, the Eternal Thou. Though God is revealed to man in his dialogic relationships to other men and the natural world, these relationships continually move from the plane of the "I-Thou" to that of the "I-It." The relationship with God is always, and necessarily, that of "I Thou" since God is the Eternal Thou who can never become It. Yet in order to maintain this relationship with God, a total response is called for from man, a response which is often only partially forthcoming. Repentance, "re-turning" to God, is thus the renewed total response of "I-Thou." The influence of ḥasidic thought on Buber is apparent both in the highly personalistic approach to the Deity and in the idea that turning to God involves a relationship with him not merely in religiously separated times and places, but even in the most mundane of situations. Unlike both Kook and Rosenzweig, Buber is addressing man as man, not qua committed or even uncommitted Jew but qua "I." This is true despite his attempt to locate his philosophy within a distinctly Jewish framework – rejecting the Christian framework of an already achieved redemption.

[Alan Unterman]

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

C.R. Smith, The Biblical Doctrine of Sin (1953); E.F. Sutcliffe, Providence and Suffering in the Old and New Testaments (1955); W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, 2 (1967), 380–495; J. Milgrom, in: VT, 14 (1964), 169–72. RABBINIC VIEWS: S. Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1909), 293–343; G.F. Moore, Judaism (1958), 507–552; A. Buechler, Studies in Sin and Atonement (1928); A. Cohen, Everyman's Talmud (1949), 104–10; E.E. Urbach, Ḥazal (1970), 408–15; C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, Rabbinic Authority (1938), 315–33. JEWISH PHILOSOPHY: C. Nussbaum, The Essence of Teshuvah: a Path to Repentance, (1993); C.G. Montefiore, in: JQR, 16 (1904), 209–57; A. Rubin, in: JJSO, 16 (1965), 161–76; J.J. Petuchowski, in: Judaism, 17 (1968), 175–85; S.H. Bergman, Faith and Reason (1961), 55–141; M. Buber, I and Thou (19582); A.I. Kook, Orot ha-Teshuvah (19705; Eng. tr. Rabbi Kook's Philosophy of Repentance, 1968); N.N. Glatzer (ed.), Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought (1953, 19612); idem (ed.), On Jewish Learning (1955); F. Rosenzweig, Star of Redemption (1971), N. Rotenstreich, Jewish Philosophy in Modern Times (1968), 175–238; S. Schwarzschild, Franz Rosenzweig: Guide of Reversioners (1960).


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.