Soul Repair: A Jewish View
David R. Blumenthal
This is the first of a three-part series of essays that discuss the Jewish tradition’s answer to repairing the soul in the midst of wrongdoing, guilt, and shame. This first part uses the biblical story of King David to illustrate the importance of taking ownership of one’s wrongdoing; guilt alone is not enough. Part two will explain teshuva, repentance, and the steps one must take in order to repair the soul through this process. Additionally, part two explores the various kinds of forgiveness and what each of them entails and requires. Part three explores the theme of moral injury as it applies to normal people who find themselves in situations that shift their sense of morality, such as war, and concludes this series by applying the steps of teshuva to situations in which people experience moral injury, the deep despair one experiences with the knowledge that one has committed an atrocity.
An earlier version of these essays in J. McDonald, ed., Exploring Moral Injury in Sacred Texts, 33-46 (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, Philadelphia: 2017); reprinted with permission of the editor and publisher.
I am embarrassed to be writing these essays. Who am I to give advice to men and women who have faced death? Who am I to offer guidance to women and men who have called upon their deep inner courage and risked their own lives and the lives of others? I did not serve in the Armed Forces. I have never been in a situation that required me to risk my life. I don’t even know how to fire a gun.
Who am I to give advice to those who have had to make life-and-death choices, especially those who made the “wrong” choice? Who am I to offer guidance to those whose errors are irreparable? I have sinned, as have all humans, but no one died as a result of anything I ever did. I have made serious mistakes, but I have not taken anyone else’s life. I am not even a doctor who has lost a patient. Still, it is my hope that these three essays will help us to understand our fellow humans and respond with empathy and prosocial behavior.
The rabbis instruct that before one begins to teach, one should pray: “May it be Thy will, oh Lord, our God and God of our ancestors, that no damage be done by my teaching.” Amen.
Guilt as a Blessing
We all do things that are wrong. In fact, we all do things that are seriously wrong: “There is no righteous person on the earth who has done good and has not sinned” (Eccl 7:20).1All translations are my own. That is the way it is, even though many of us live in denial.
If one has done something wrong, one should feel guilty. That is the whole point. To do wrong is “natural”; to feel guilty is also “natural.” If we could do wrong and never feel guilt, we would not be human; we would be satanic. Guilt is the healthy response to having done something wrong, especially when it is a serious wrong.
Serious guilt runs very deep; it touches our soul and colors our being. Serious shame makes us blush; it “covers our face.” This is not social embarrassment; this is guilt, shame. Serious wrongdoing engenders shame. Serious sin engenders guilt. That is the way it is. That is the way it should be. Without guilt and shame, moral chaos reigns.
In biblical and later Jewish tradition, sin is always the result of one’s actions. There is no such thing as “original sin,” which is transmitted through the generations and is somehow genetically inscribed in the human race. Rather, Jewish tradition teaches that humans have been taught what to do―by God and by society―and if we deviate from that knowingly, we sin. Put in theological language: the doctrine of free will requires that sin be a result of our actions. The doctrine of reward and punishment requires that we have agency and responsibility for our actions, for better and for worse. To be free, guilt must be the result of sin. That is how it must be for religion to be coherent.
The biblical King David is a man of many faults, but they are not military faults; they are moral faults. King David seduces Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and causes her to become pregnant. Then, he orders his soldiers to have Uriah killed in battle and subsequently marries Bathsheba. The prophet, Nathan, comes to confront him:
The Lord sent Nathan to David, and he came to him and said to him: “There were two men in a city, one rich and one poor. The rich man had many sheep and cattle, but the poor man had only one small ewe that he had bought and which he had kept alive and which lived with him and his children. It ate from his bread, drank from his cup, slept with him, and became a child to him. A visitor came to the rich man, but he was averse to taking from his own flock to prepare food for the visitor that had come to him. So he took the ewe of the poor man and prepared it for the visitor.” David was very angry at the [rich] man, and he said to Nathan, “I swear by God that the man who did this is a dead man, and he shall pay forty times the value of the ewe because he has done this thing and did not have pity.”
And Nathan said to David: “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, God of Israel: ‘I anointed you as king over Israel, I saved you from the hand of Saul, I gave you the house of your master as well as his wives, and I set you over the house of Israel and Judah. And if this were not enough, I would do more of this and that. Now, why have you despised the word of the Lord to do that which is wrong in My eyes? You smote Uriah by the sword and took his wife as a wife for yourself, killing him with the sword of the Ammonites. Therefore, the sword will not depart from your house forever because you despised Me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to yourself as a wife’” (2 Sam 12:1–10).
King David’s response to this accusation shows his greatness. He does not deny what he has done. He does not make excuses. He does not blame anyone else. Rather, King David admits his guilt. He assumes responsibility for his actions: “I have sinned unto God” (2 Sam 12:13). The greatness of King David, then, is not in his being a warrior; it is in the moral courage he shows when Nathan confronts him on the killing of Uriah and the seduction of Bathsheba. He does not deny what he has done; he assumes responsibility for his actions. King David confronts his wrongdoing. He admits what has happened. He feels guilty for his sin:
A psalm of David after Nathan the prophet confronted him concerning his adultery with Bathsheba: “Be gracious unto me, God, commensurate with Your loving-kindness. With the greatness of Your mercy, wipe away my very serious sins. Quickly, scrub me clean of my serious sins, and purify me from my lesser sins. Because I do recognize my very serious sins, even my lesser sins are before me all the time” (Ps 51:1–4).
Confronting one’s wrongdoing is good. Admitting it is essential. Feeling guilt for having done wrong is a blessing. Feeling guilt is a sign of our being morally awake.
Feeling Guilty is Not Enough
The child of the illicit relationship between King David and Bathsheba becomes deathly ill after Nathan’s confrontation and David’s confession. David recognizes that the child’s impending death is his responsibility, that the child is innocent, and that he, David, is responsible:
David prayed to God for the child, and he fasted, and he came and slept on the floor. The elders of his court rose to lift David up from the earth, but he would not, nor did he eat bread with them. On the seventh day, the child died, but the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child had died, saying, “When the child was alive, we spoke to him and he did not listen to us. How can we tell him that the child has died? Perhaps he will do something terrible.” David saw that his servants were whispering, and he understood that the child had died. He said to his servants, “Has the child died?” and they replied, “He has died.” Then, David rose from the earth, washed and anointed himself, changed his clothes, and came to the house of the Lord and prayed. Then, he returned to his palace and asked for food. He was served, and he ate.
His servants said to him, “What have you done? When the child was alive, you fasted and wept. But, when the child died, you rose and ate bread?And he replied, “While the child was alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Perhaps the Lord will be gracious unto me and the child will live.’ But now, the child is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam 12:16–23).
The Great Warrior of Israel chastises himself and prays for the innocent child who is about to die because of his sin—though he does so only as long as there is a possibility that the innocent one may not have to die. But, once the child is dead, David knows that he cannot bring him back. We cannot bring back the dead, even those who have died from something we have done. No one can bring back the dead. King David, the warrior par excellence, admits this. He cannot fix it. So, David turns to the present and the future.
The first thing that King David does is rejoin normal life. He washes. He changes his clothes. He prays. He eats. And, he talks to others. The second thing that King David does is try to repair the wrong he has done. He wronged Bathsheba by committing adultery with her, by getting her pregnant in an adulterous relationship, and by murdering her husband. How can he “repair” that? The very next verse says: “And David comforted Bathsheba, his wife, and he came to her and had relations with her. And she gave birth to a son, and she called him ‘Solomon,’ and the Lord loved him” (2 Sam 12:24).
King David will never escape from what he has done. It is done. He will always live with his evil deeds and the fault for the death of his child. But, as we see, fate will bring up the opportunity to repair this wrong once more. As King David lies on his deathbed, his son, Adoniyah, seizes the throne and proclaims himself king with the support of some very important people. Bathsheba and Nathan confront David:
And Bathsheba said to him: “My lord, you swore to your maidservant by the Lord your God saying, ‘Verily, Solomon, your son, will rule after me, and he will sit on my throne.’ But now, Adoniyah has become king … As for you, my lord the king, the eyes of all of Israel are upon you to say who will sit on the throne of my lord the king after him. And should my lord the king lie with his ancestors [before crowning Solomon], then I and my son, Solomon, will be considered sinners [and will be executed]” … And the king swore saying, “I swear by the Lord … as I have sworn to you by the Lord, God of Israel, saying that your son, Solomon, will reign after me, and he will sit on my throne, so shall I enact this day” (1 Kgs 1:17–30).
Guilt is not enough. One must rejoin life. And, one must repair—as best as one can. One can never erase the past. But one can, and must, return to normal life, consider what needs to be done to fix things—as best as one can—and spend the rest of one’s life fixing, repairing, as it says:
Grant me a pure heart, God, and give me a determined spirit. Do not drive me away from Your Presence, and do not take away Your holy spirit. Bring back to me the joy of Your salvation, and grant me a generous spirit [so that] I can teach [other] sinners Your way, and sinners will return to You. Save [me] from violence, God, the God of my salvation, so that my tongue may sing Your righteousness (Ps 51:12–15).
In the next piece, we will discuss the steps that one must take in order to repair the soul and repent for their wrongdoings.
David R. Blumenthal teaches and writes on constructive Jewish theology, medieval Judaism, Jewish mysticism, and holocaust studies. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and eleven books, a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, and was the Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies at Emory University.