Teshuvah – The Enactment of Penitents
By Rabbi Joel Levy
Repentance or Teshuvah (literally “return”) is a central theme of the High Holidays. The forty day period from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur is seen as a time that is particularly ripe for personal reflection and change. There are many different guides to the process of repentance in rabbinic literature, all of which tend to view repentance as a somewhat lonely, introspective affair. Maimonides’ “Laws of Repentance” are typical of the genre. An individual comes to realise that they have erred and manages to articulate that error before God:
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 1:1
If a person transgresses any of the mitsvot of the Torah, whether a positive command or a negative command – whether willingly or inadvertently – when he repents, and returns from his sin, he must confess before God, blessed be, He it states: “If a man or a woman commit any of the sins of man… they must confess the sin that they committed” (Numbers 5:6-7).
The sinner regrets their past errors and resolves to set aside that type of behaviour in the future:
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:2
What constitutes Teshuvah? That a sinner should abandon his sins and remove them from his thoughts, resolving in his heart, never to commit them again as it states “May the wicked abandon his ways….” (Isaiah 55:7). Similarly, he must regret the past as it states: “After I returned, I regretted” (Jeremiah 31:18).
For sins “Bein Adam L’Chavero”, between a person and his neighbour, other people will clearly be involved – minimally as the victims of the sinner’s bad deeds! The sinner needs to both set right the damage they have caused and also seek forgiveness from their victim:
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:9
Teshuvah and Yom Kippur only atone for sins between person and God; for example, a person who ate a forbidden food or engaged in forbidden sexual relations, and the like. However, sins between people; for example, someone who injures a colleague, curses a colleague, steals from him, or the like will never be forgiven until he gives his colleague what he owes him and appeases him.
At the stage of appeasement the victim is called upon to display a degree of moral valour. The victim is required to acknowledge that the perpetrator has really changed and to accept their apology:
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:10
It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and refuse to be appeased. Rather, he should be easily pacified, but hard to anger. When the person who wronged him asks for forgiveness, he should forgive him with a complete heart and a willing spirit. Even if he aggravated and wronged him severely, he should not seek revenge or bear a grudge.
Despite the final section just quoted which does seem to call upon the victim to bring a certain openness to the table; these four sections of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, describe a procedure that is largely about the individual sinner’s search for personal change and growth. Society is involved in shaping the norms to which the repentant aspires, but beyond that it simply watches and waits to see whether the individual undergoes an inner transformation or not.
What follows is an aspect of rabbinic repentance that reveals a side of the process that is much more communitarian. The following sections describe a society that is shaped around promoting and facilitating the journey of the potential penitent:
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of robbery and lost property 1:5
Whoever robs is obligated to return the article that he obtained by robbery itself, as it is written: “And he shall return the article he obtained by robbery” (Leviticus 5:23). If this article was lost or underwent a change, the robber must pay its value… Even if a person robbed a beam and used it in building a house, Scriptural Law requires that he tear down the entire building and return the beam to its owner, for the beam remained unchanged. Nevertheless, because of the “enactment of penitents” our Sages ordained that the robber pay the worth of the beam and did not require him to destroy his building…
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of robbery and lost property 1:13
Whenever a person robs a colleague of even a prutah’s worth, he is considered as if he took his very soul, as it states: “Such are the ways of those who are greedy. They take away the soul of the owner” (Proverbs 1:19). Notwithstanding the severity of this sin, if the article that was taken by robbery no longer exists, and a robber seeks to repent and comes of his own volition to return the value of the article he obtained by robbery, our Sages ordained that one should not accept it. Instead, the robber should be helped and forgiven, to make the path of repentance more accessible to those who wish to return. Our Sages did not look favourably on anyone who accepts payment for an article that was taken from him through robbery.
These two sections from Maimonides’ “Laws of robbery and lost property” are shocking in different ways. In 1:5 we learn that despite a Scriptural Law requiring a robber to return a stolen beam under all circumstances, even if the beam had been integrated into their house and to return it would require them to destroy their own home, the Sages created an “Enactment of Penitents” overturning the Torah and allowing the robber to pay the value of the beam instead of returning the beam itself. Section 1:13 goes even further, demanding from victims that under certain circumstances they forgive and forget even without receiving any recompense for their loss.
The “enactment of penitents” is a rabbinic principle requiring that all members of society tune themselves into the psychology of potential penitents. Maimonides states it clearly; that everyone has a job making the “path of repentance more accessible to those who wish to return”. Society in general is invested in the idea that personal growth and change is possible but difficult, and that a collective effort must be made to ensure that no obstacles are placed in the path of the sinner.
What would a contemporary Takanat HaShavim look like? What are the hurdles that we feel stand in our way when we contemplate significant religious change in our lives? How could we better structure our communal lives to create communities that actively promote religious transformation and teshuvah?
Rabbi Joel Levy is the rabbi of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue and is Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.