The Meaning & Practice of Teshuvah
By Dr. Louis E. Newman
Foreword by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis
Preface by Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010, 222 pages
ISBN 10: 1-58023-426-7
ISBN 13: 978-1-58023-426-9
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - May 3, 2010
Repentance is an act where people rid themselves of the wrongs that they committed. Various cultures and religions handle repentance differently. Roman Catholics, for example, absolve parishioners from wrongs when they confess their improper act. They see repentance as a religious act. How does Judaism understand the repentance process? Is there a single view? Do Jews consider repentance as a practical or a religious act? What is "sin"? Is sin a non-Jewish concept? What happens on the holiday of Yom Kippur when synagogue worshipers pray for the removal of their sins?
Dr. Louis E. Newman is a Professor of Religious Studies in Minnesota. In this very readable book, Dr. Newman sees repentance as a spiritual, perhaps even mystical and magical process. He writes that repentance is "a central – some would say, the central – religious-moral teaching of Judaism." He quotes Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: "Repentance cannot be comprehended rationally; it does not really make sense. Even the angels do not understand what repentance is." He refers to the Babylonian Talmud's statement (in Berakhot 54a) that repentance was created at twilight just before the first Sabbath, and understands this rabbinic statement to teach that repentance is a miracle that God placed in the world.
The book examines repentance from seven angles and quotes sources from the Bible, and from rabbinical, mystical, moral, secular, and philosophical writings, and even the New Testament. He starts by talking about sin, which is the basis for his understanding of repentance: "Repentance is a response to sin, an effort to overcome its causes and undo its effects."
Newman sees sin "as an element of human nature, rather than a trait of human behavior." Sin, is "an existential reality." It creates feelings of guilt that eat away and devour the human psyche. He accepts the popular notion of a yetzer ha-ra, "the evil inclination," not as a metaphor, but as a literal fact. Thus, as Oscar Wilde in his Portrait of Dorian Gray, he sees sin as a "form of illness…life threatening," a poison that affects the body and destroys it, and he sees repentance as "rite of purification," a cleansing and rejuvenating and uplifting medicine.
Newman speaks in his second section about "release from sin." People, he writes, must realize that that they have a responsibility for the damage they do to others and to themselves. He describes how the holiday of Yom Kippur, suffering, and death remove sin. Suffering, for example, undermines arrogance.
Then, he discusses teshuvah, the Hebrew word for "repentance." He admits that the concept is not in the Hebrew Bible. He feels that teshuvah "comprises seven distinct steps: culpability, remorse, confession, apology, restitution, soul reckoning, and transformation."
Newman's fourth discussion is what he calls the "three dimensions" of teshuvah: repentance, prayer, and righteousness," a quote from the traditional High Holiday prayer book, which promises that these three "avert the severity of the (divine) decree."
He then talks about "experiencing teshuvah." True to his approach of seeing teshuvah as a religious experience, he writes about God's involvement in removing sin for we "need God's help to put ourselves right again."
In his sixth section, Dr. Newman discusses the difficulties that some people may experience when they try to do teshuvah. He quotes Maimonides' list of twenty-four impediments to a successful repentance. These include people who have become so habituated in their misdeeds that they have difficulty changing, bad attitudes, and lack of understanding.
In his final seventh section, Dr. Newman speaks about the benefits attained by repentance, such as ridding oneself of guilt, becoming closer to people and to God, and feeling free.
Thus Dr. Louis E. Newman lays out the general understanding that teshuvah is a religious experience. The book is clear and his points are made well. However, as he recognizes, this is not the only way to understand the process of repentance.
As he knows, the concepts of teshuvah and sin are not in the Bible; they are post-biblical. Thus, the Bible itself does not see teshuvah as a religious experience. The word "sin," which is a prime element in Christian theology, is chet in Hebrew, and chet means nothing more than "missing the mark." It is like a person shooting an arrow at a target and misses. What does he do? He does not feel "guilt." He does not seek religious absolution. He does not recite prayers. He realizes his mistake, thinks how he can avoid making the same mistake again, reaches back into his quiver, takes out another arrow, and shoots again. Seen this way, teshuvah is a practical endeavor and the holiday of Yom Kippur does not absolve people of wrongs that they committed; it reminds people that they need to take practical measures to correct their past wrong behavior.
Maimonides put it this way in his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance: teshuvah is when a person decides to abandon his past wrong behaviors, resolves not to do the wrong deed again, figures out how to correct his misdeed, and develops habits of behavior to assure that he will not repeat the wrong.
Seeing repentance as a practical remedial action rather than a religious experience does not diminish the value of Dr. Newman's fine book in any way. In fact, most Jews would agree with his spiritual approach.