Soul Repair: A Jewish View
David R. Blumenthal
This is the second 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. The first part used the biblical story of King David to illustrate the importance of taking ownership of one’s wrongdoing, though guilt alone is not enough to repair the soul. This part will explain teshuva, repentance, and the steps one must take in order to repair the soul through this process. Additionally, it explores the various kinds of forgiveness and what each of them entails and requires. Part three will discuss 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. Part Two is based on an article on repentance previously published by Professor Blumenthal.
Teshuvah – Repentance
In the first piece, I applied the theme of repentance and forgiveness to the biblical story of King David, concluding with a psalm in which David seeks God’s Presence. Rabbinic tradition follows the advice found in this Scriptural excerpt very closely. The tradition teaches that everyone sins. Anyone who thinks they do not sin is deluding themselves. To tell the truth: everyone commits serious sins, and any attempt to deny that is self-deception, denial.
The process of “repairing” the wrong that one has done is called teshuva, returning to God. Teshuva isthe key concept in the rabbinic view of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. Repentance requires five elements: recognition of one’s wrongdoings as sins (hakarát ha-chét’), remorse (charatá), desisting from sin (azivát ha-chét’), restitution where possible (peira’ón), and confession (vidúi).
Recognition of one’s wrongdoings as sin is an act of one’s intelligence and moral conscience. It involves knowing that certain actions are sinful and recognizing that such actions are more than just lapses of praxis. It also involves analyzing one’s motives as deeply as one can. It means realizing that such acts are part of deeper patterns of relatedness and that they are motivated by some of the most profound and darkest elements in our being. For example, stealing from someone is not only a crime but also a sin against another human and a violation of God’s covenantal demands.
Remorse is a feeling. It is composed of feelings of regret and failure to maintain one’s moral standards. Remorse is rooted in guilt, in the feeling of responsibility for what we have done wrong. It may also encompass feelings of anguish, of being lost or trapped, and perhaps of despair for our own sinfulness. It is an awareness of being alienated from God and from our own deepest spiritual roots. It is the consciousness of having abandoned our own inner selves and God.
Desisting from sin is neither a moral-intellectual analysis nor a feeling; Rather, it is an action. It is a ceasing from sin, a desisting from the patterns of sinful action to which we have become addicted. Desisting from sin involves actually stopping the sinful action, consciously repressing thoughts and fantasies about the sinful activity, and making a firm commitment to never commit the sinful act again.
Restitution is the act of making good, as best one can, for any damage done. If one has stolen, one must return the object or pay compensation. If one has damaged another’s reputation, one must attempt to correct the injury to the offended party. If one has killed or maimed, one must seek out survivors and help them; one must seek out other potential victims and protect them.
Confession has two forms: the ritual and the personal. Ritual confession requires the recitation of the liturgies of confession at their proper moments in the prayer life of the community. Personal confession requires individual confession before God or inserting one’s personal confession into the liturgy at the designated moments. The more specific the personal confession, the better. Judaism does not recognize absolution as part of the process of sin and repentance. There is no designated authority who can dispense forgiveness of sins after confession and penance. Rather, sins between persons require the asking and granting of forgiveness by the parties concerned, while sins between persons and God require the asking of forgiveness by the penitent and the granting of forgiveness only by God.
A person who follows these five steps to teshuva is called a “penitent” (chozér be-teshuvá). Rabbinic tradition teaches that all the steps to teshuva are necessary. Their interrelationship is best described as a spiral that touches each of the five points described above yet advances with each turn. Thus, one may begin at any point—with recognition, remorse, desisting, restitution, or confession. As one repeats the steps of teshuva again and again, one’s analysis and remorse deepen, one’s commitment to desist and to make restitution becomes firmer, and one’s confession becomes more profound. As one cycles through the five phases of teshuva again and again, one’s teshuva becomes more earnest, more serious. At its height, one achieves “full teshuva” (teshuvá gemurá), which requires full consciousness and action such that, given the same situation, one would refrain from the sin for which one had repented. Sinfulness and guilt are very deep dimensions of human existence, and dealing with them calls upon all our spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and moral resources.
Sin and guilt disrupt our lives on the human level; they distort our relationships with other individuals, with social institutions, and with ourselves. Sin and guilt also disrupt our spiritual lives; they distort our relationship with God and with our deepest inner spiritual being. Because sin and guilt alienate us from humanity and from God, there is more than one kind of forgiveness.
In a civil contract, one party incurs a debt to another party, an obligation toward the party, or a claim against that party. In such a situation, the creditor can forgo the debt, waive the obligation, or relinquish the claim. The creditor can do this for no reason at all, although the creditor usually has some grounds for being willing to forgo the debt. So it is in the matter of sin and guilt. When one sins against another, one incurs an obligation to right the wrong that one has committed. This is a debt toward the offended party borne by the offender. The more serious the wrong is, the more serious the obligation is to set it straight.
The most basic kind of forgiveness is forgoing the other’s indebtedness (mechilá). If the offender has done teshuva (as described above) and is sincere in his or her repentance, the offended person should offer mechila; that is, the offended person should forgo the debt of the offender and relinquish his or her claim against the offender. This is not a reconciliation of the heart or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender no longer owes the offended person anything for whatever it was that he or she did. Mechila is like a pardon granted to a criminal by the modern state. The crime remains; only the debt is forgiven.
In rabbinic thought, however, only the offending party can make the wrong right, and only the offended party can forgo the debt of the sin. This means that if I offend someone, it is my responsibility to do whatever it takes to set matters straight; conversely, if someone has offended me, it is my responsibility to allow the offender to do teshuva, that is, to allow the offender to correct the wrong done to me. Teshuva is part of the structure of God’s creation; hence, the sinner is obligated to do teshuva, and the offended person is obligated to permit teshuva by the offender.
The tradition is also quite clear that the offended person is not obliged to offer mechila if the offender is not sincere in his or her repentance and has not taken concrete steps to correct the wrong done. The towering medieval Jewish authority, Maimonides, is decisive on this subject:
The offended person is prohibited from being cruel in not offering mechila, for this is not the way of the seed of Israel. Rather, if the offender has [resolved all material claims and has] asked and begged for forgiveness once, even twice, and if the offended person knows that the other has done repentance for his sin and feels remorse for what he has done, the offended person should offer the sinner mechila.
Mechila, thus, can be expected of the offended person only if the sinner is actually repentant.
For example, a woman who has been battered by her husband, or abused by her father, is not obliged to grant such a person mechila unless he has taken the following steps: first, desisted from all abusive activity; second, made concrete restitution; third, reformed his character through acknowledgement of sin, remorse, and confession; and fourth, actually asked for forgiveness several times. Only then, after ascertaining that he is sincere in his repentance, an abused woman would be morally bound, though not legally obligated, to offer the offender mechila.
The principle that mechila ought to be granted only if deserved is the great Jewish “No” to easy forgiveness. It is core to the Jewish view of forgiveness, just as desisting from sin is core to the Jewish view of repentance. Without good grounds, the offended person should not forgo the indebtedness of the sinner; otherwise, the sinner may never truly repent, and evil will be perpetuated. And, conversely, if there are good grounds to waive the debt or relinquish the claim, the offended person is morally bound to do so. This is the great Jewish “Yes” to the possibility of forgiveness for every sinner.
The second kind of forgiveness can simply be called “forgiveness” (selichá). This is an act of the heart. It is reaching a deeper understanding of the sinner; it is achieving empathy for the troubledness of the other; it is a deep appreciation for the guilt of the other. Selicha is an act of mercy―it is an act of grace. Selicha, however, is not an act of reconciliation; it is not an embracing of the offender. Selicha is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender, too, is human, frail, and deserving of sympathy.
Forgiveness, in the sense of selicha, is one of God’s miracles. Burdened by our sense of guilt and sin, we yearn for selicha, the forgiveness of mercy and grace, even if most of the time we do not get that. We hope for selicha, but we know that sometimes we must be content with mechila, the forgoing of our debt to the offended other .
The converse is also true. In the depths of our being, we want to grant selicha when we have been deeply offended and profoundly hurt; however, we can’t―we are too hurt. We are glad if we can forgo the debt of the hurt done to us, yet we sigh at our inability to truly forgive. For example, a woman sexually abused by a man may never reach the level of selicha; she is not obliged, nor is it morally necessary for her to do so, though she may feel deep down somewhere that she should.
The third kind of forgiveness is “atonement” (kappará) or “purification” (tahorá). This is the total wiping away of all sinfulness and guilt. It is an existential cleansing. Kappara is the ultimate form of forgiveness, but it is only granted by God. No human can grant atonement for the sin of another; no human can purify the spiritual pollution of another. This third type of forgiveness is not in our hands.
In the next installment of this series, we explore the theme of moral injury.
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.
Blumenthal, David R. “Soul Repair: A Jewish View – Part 2.” Canopy Forum, April 22, 2020. https://canopyforum.org/2020/04/22/soul-repair-a-jewish-view-part-2/