Objectless Repentance in the Religious Zionist Turn to Hasidic Texts

Introduction

When we talk about teshuvah, about repentance, what do we mean? Is it a process of reviewing our sins and determining how to make up for them? Is it about feeling bad about the things we’ve done wrong? While this is a fairly typical way of describing the process of repentance, thinkers from Religious Zionism’s turn toward Hasidic texts would have us think otherwise. Rav Shagar and Rav Froman critique this model of repentance, and each suggest their own alternative. Rav Shagar wants us to focus on the future, on living up to our ideals in a broad sense, in making the world the way it ought to be. Rav Froman wants us to open up ourselves rather than examine our actions, and express ourselves before God. This is in line with Rav Froman and Rav Shagar’s broader critiques of “religious materialism” and religion that is focused on checking boxes and acquiring religious achievements. Yishai Mevorach does not discuss repentance specifically, but he aims the same critique at faith in general, arguing that only giving up on an object-based faith can save religion from fundamentalism.

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Rav Shagar

In a small book of Rosh Hashanah derashot called Zikaron Leyom Rishon, Rav Shagar challenged the way people often talk about repentance. In a derashah called “Sin, Guilt, and Covenant” (1990), he says:

We review our personal history (ḥeshbon hanefesh); here is where we made mistakes, this is where we transgressed, etc. We accept upon ourselves to be better. Do we stop reviewing at that point? Is that the extent of sin and repentance? (36-37)

Is that really sufficient? Does the simple process of “I did X, I regret it, I commit to not doing it again” exhaust the process of repentance? Some of what is at stake here, as we shall see throughout this post, is the nature of religion. Is religion about more than just actions? If it is, then a word as fundamental as “repentance” has to be about more than just actions as well.

Without going as broad as that, however, Rav Shagar raises another issue with this form of repentance. In a derashah called “Repentance and the World to Come” (1989), he differentiates between “this world” and “the world to come.” “This world” is characterized by that at which we can point; if you can put your finger on it, it’s part of this world. “The world to come,” in contrast, “is not what exists, but what could exist” (29); “the world to come” (which Rav Shagar follows the Zohar in understanding as “the world that is always coming”) is about the potential of a better future. In this context, Rav Shagar raises the problem of the sincerity and finality of repentance.

Someone could claim: Do any of us really think that it’s possible to become different? That we might merit forgiveness (seliḥah) on the complicated personal level or the confused and conflicted national level? Perhaps this is all just self-deception. Will any of us really merit forgiveness (meḥilah)? “This” is “this,” hard and unchangeable! […] The world is indeed “this world.” However, it is possible to live it as “what is coming” rather than “this,” to gaze upon the possible rather than the already existing. This is actually no less real a reality. Even as something as of yet unrealized, as something that is not yet “this,” it is decisively important that we connect to it at least as “what is coming.” (30-31)

The anxiety of repentance, permeating the months of Elul and Tishrei, questions where we can ever really be sincere in our desire to be better. And even if we can be sincere, who is to say that it will last? What if we change ourselves only to rapidly fall back into our old ways. While he does want us to acknowledge that real, lasting change does happen (31), Rav Shagar thinks we should shift away from these questions. They are “this world” questions, they’re concerned only with the actions we have or have not performed. Instead, we should look to the future, to the world we want to create and how we want to live. Instead of a critical repentance wherein we scour and examine ourselves and our actions, Rav Shagar wants us to embrace a creative repentance, where we create ourselves anew.

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Rav Froman

Rav Froman’s small book, Ḥasidim Tsoḥakim Mizeh, contains many short, aphoristic sayings on a number of topics. In one of them, he addresses the nature of repentance.

What is repentance according to Rebbe Naḥman?

It doesn’t mean sitting with a journal, writing out a personal accounting (ḥeshbon hanefesh) and repairing all your deeds. That’s repentance for Yekkes.

What is repentance for Rebbe Naḥman? You pour out your heart before Hashem. Your heart, like water. (§41, trans. Ben Greenfield.)

As typical of aphoristic works, Hasidim Tsoḥakim Mizeh tends to be striking, but often cryptic, and this passage is no exception (what does it mean to pour out your heart before God? Why is the water bit important?). Despite this, we can derive some clear ideas from it. The first is that he shares Rav Shagar’s critique of repentance as reviewing your personal history and actions (ḥeshbon hanefesh). Repentance is not about deeds, about things you can write down in a book (corresponding to Rav Shagar’s image of things at you can point). Instead it’s about personal expression. Whatever exactly he means by pouring out your heart before God, the bigger idea is that who you are exceeds your actions, and you should express who you are within the context of religion. Repentance is thus perhaps a return to who you are, or perhaps a decision to have a more personal relationship with God going forward, more based on who you are rather than on what deeds you do or do not perform.

Yishai Mevorach

Finally, Yishai Mevorach applies the same critique to faith more broadly. Working in a Lacanian, psychoanalytic mode, he provides an interesting reading of Rebbe Naḥman’s popular teaching, Lekutei Moharan §282. The teaching talks about the importance, particularly for someone leading communal prayer, of finding something good in everyone, including yourself. Reading Rebbe Naḥman very close, Mevorach notes that the teaching instructs the reader to search for “another bit more” (od me’at) good in each person, while saying that if they search for “another thing” (od davar) that is good in each person, they will fail. You can always challenge the validity or sincerity of a good thing that you have done, so it can’t hold up to scrutiny. Instead, you have to search for the good in each person, and yourself, that is not a thing or deed, it’s just “another bit more.”

Building off this reading of Rebbe Naḥman, Mevorach discusses the nature of faith and religion more broadly.

The religious person’s castration anxiety comes from how he understands his religion-faith as an object that he holds. this is a possessive, phallic relationship, afraid of losing the additional object, which does not really belong to the individual. In Rebbe Naḥman’s language, the believer’s relationship to the faith object is a relationship of “another thing,” rather than “another bit more“: another thing, another object, and now I hold onto it really tightly so that it doesn’t scatter or disappear. I have to demonstrate ownership. At this point, the religion descends into harsh, violent fundamentalism. In contrast, Rav Shagar proposes a different possibility, wherein faith is present as “another bit more,” as an excess of my being rather than another object. He was talking about faith that does not trying to preserve the thing, because it will persist no matter what. (37-38)

Translating out of his psychoanalytic idiom, Mevorach argues that faith and religion too often become possessions, objects external to us. Religion that is too obsessed with specific actions leads to two problems, he says. First, it loses the self, it becomes about a person’s actions rather than about who they are. It is separate from them, and easily abandoned. Second, and connected to this, is it becomes violent. Because religion is external, in this model, even affirming religion yourself is just imposing it on yourself. At that point, imposing it on others is a difference of degree, rather than kind.

As I hope I have shown at this point, the school of thought embodied by Rav Shagar, Rav Froman, and those around them seems to have maintained an idea (at least by some of them) that repentance and religion not only are not about specific actions, but cannot be about specific actions. Focusing on specific actions is, for various reasons, very problematic. When we approach the high holidays, as we pass through the season of repentance, the focus should not be on our actions, but on our personal capacity for change and for a relationship with God.

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Rav Kook

In this light, it’s worth noting a very similar idea from Rav Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook’s Orot Hateshuvah, albeit with an important difference. The third chapter of Orot Hateshuvah lays out a dichotomy between “detail repentance” (teshuvah peratit) and “unspecified and general repentance” (teshuvah stamit kelalit).

There is a form of penitence that addresses itself to a particular sin or to many particular sins. The person confronts his sin face to face, and feels remorseful that he fell into the trap of sin. Slowly he struggles to come out of it, until he is liberated from his sinful enslavement and he begins to experience a holy freedom that is most delightful to his weary self…

There is another kind of feeling of penitence, unspecified and general. A person does not conjure up the memory of a past sin or sins, but in a general way he feels terribly depressed. He feels himself pervaded by sin; that the divine light does not shine on him…

Day by day, inspired by this higher level of general penitence, his feeling becomes more firm, clearer, more illumined by reason and more authenticated by the principles of the Torah. His manner becomes increasingly brightened, his anger recedes, a kindly light shines on him, he is filled with vigor, his eyes sparkle with a holy fire, his heart is bathed in rivers of delight, holiness and purity hover over him. His spirit is filled with endless love, his soul thirsts for God, and this very thirst nourishes him like the choicest of foods. (trans. Bentzion Botsker, 46-48)

The former is focused on repenting and making up for specific acts a person may have performed. The latter, is an attempt to fix a general feeling of distance from God. It’s part of the person, and really all of existence, moving towards God, rather than away from specific actions. While Rav Kook does not critique action-focused repentance the way that Rav Shagar and Rav Froman do, in fact he maintains its validity throughout Orot Hateshuvah, it’s notable that he both distinguishes between them and seem to put the broader form of repentance on a higher level. While the later thinkers may not be basing themselves on Rav Kook, at least not explicitly, the resonance with their ideas is striking.

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The Commandments and their Reasons as Hardware and Software: Toward a Materialist Understanding of Mitsvot

In this post I want to continue exploring new metaphors for talking about aspects of Judaism (an exploration I started here). Specifically, I want to look at what it might mean if we think of the commandments and their reasons (traditionally referred to as “ta’amei hamitsvot”) as analogous to hardware and software, respectively. This analogy will enable us to draw out and discuss various aspects of the commandments and their reasons, and the relationship between the two.

To clarify a little what I mean by the terms “hardware” and “software,” hardware is the physical devices we interact with in order to access software, while software, the thing we actually want to access, can only be accessed via hardware. I use my computer to access Microsoft Word; using Word is a goal that is only accessible via my computer. Similarly, once we say that the commandments have reasons (not uncontroversial in the history of Jewish thought), it makes sense to articulate reasons that can only be achieved via the commandments. If giving charity makes you a more generous person, “becoming a more generous person” is something that is only accessible via the generous act of giving charity. I therefore use charity to access “becoming a more generous person.”

However, while giving charity is one way of becoming a more generous person, it is certainly not the only way; similarly, my computer is not the only device with which I can access Word. We might therefore ask why we should use these specific pieces of hardware rather than any other. On one level, it’s worth noting that the question is not so fair. Sure you could use any device, but you have to use one, no matter which one it is. So you might justify the one that you use based on simply having to pick one, rather than any specific traits about it. Charity is as good a way as any to become a more generous person.

You also might justify your choice of hardware based on the fact that it is the one you have. Maybe you got it as a present, maybe it’s the one that all of your friends had, maybe you just found it lying on the curb and took it home; however it came to you, now you have it and it is yours. Barring significant issues with the device that interfere with its functioning, this alone is enough to justify using it, as opposed to switching to some other device. I have my phone, I like it, I identify with it, it’s mine. Sure the screen is cracked and the battery-life is stress-inducing, but I identify with its flaws as much as its functions. Moreover, having to pick out and purchase a new phone would be a difficult process.

This leads us toward Maimonides’s historicist conception of the commandments, and their relationship with the idolatrous rituals of ancient Israel’s neighbors. Maimonides argues that human nature cannot change rapidly, that it must be shifted gradually, and that God therefore gave the Israelites commandments that were the same or incredibly similar to the idolatrous forms of worship they were already familiar with. If the ancient Israelites wanted to “access” worship, they would inevitably turn to the “device” animal sacrifice, simply because it’s the one with which they were most familiar and comfortable, and so God accommodated this fact of human nature (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:32). This, Maimonides argued, despite the fact that animal sacrifice has noticeable drawbacks, and prayer or silent meditation would work much better. Sacrifice worked, however, and it was the hardware they already had.

If Maimonides conception assumes the difficulty of changing “hardware,” it assumes  some more ease in changing software. Animal sacrifice used to run “worship pagan pantheon X” and was now being used to run “worship YHWH, the one god.” This holds true to our analogy to software, which was always replaced more easily than hardware, particularly now that even major upgrades and shifts in operating systems can be achieved via the internet.

This brings us to an important point: software is not self-justifying. I use my phone to access WhatsApp, but I don’t use WhatsApp just for the sake of using WhatsApp, I use it for communicating with other people. If a certain piece of software isn’t getting the job done, I am likely to replace it. Moreover, because software is replaced so easily, it is not as easy to hold onto it simply“because it’s mine,” as in the case of hardware.

The analogy to reasons for commandments here is a bit tricky, but I think also important. Commandments are, as I have said, intended for the sake of the reasons for the commandments. But are those reasons for anything outside themselves? I think they are. I think we should understand reasons for the individual commandments as pivoting around larger ideals, such as holiness, morality, covenant, etc. The reasons for individual commandments serve to give us “access” to the larger ideals, much the same way as the commandments themselves give us “access” to the reasons for the commandments.

This is important for the way it enables us to view the historic assertions of reasons for the commandments, some of which we have moved well away from today (for a good example of this regarding the laws of Niddah, see Jonah Steinberg’s “From a Pot of Filth to a Hedge of Roses”). If there is one reason to which a given commandment is meant to provide access, then debates and differences of opinion in regard to the reason for that commandment require deciding who is right and who is wrong. However, if we conceptualize the reasons for the commandments as tools for accessing the larger ideals, then different reasons can coexist without one needing to be “the right one.” Moreover, in changing historical circumstances, with the people already used to certain actions and thought processes, different reasons might be just what is necessary to access the same larger ideal. Whether the details of commandments are based on the ritual worship of the Israelites’ neighbors (Maimonides) or on strict symbolism (Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch), both reasons are part of shaping the life of the nation in relation to God (cf. Rav Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Shemoneh Kevatsim, 2:54-57). Because the reasons are not ends in and of themselves, they can be replaced when they are not serving their function and we can change between them as necessary. Moreover, different people use their phones and computers for different things, and different people can perform the commandments for different reasons. People even generally use their hardware to access a variety of softwares, and there’s no reason that the commandments and their reasons could not work similarly.

By way of conclusion, I would like to take note of how this analogy structures the relationship between the commandments and their reasons. In a sense, it makes the reasons more primary. The commandments exist and are performed for the sake of the reasons. However, the reasons themselves serve larger ideals and are easily replaceable. The commandments themselves, on the other hand, have a significant presence in the life and laws of the people, and thus are not easily replaceable. This very real presence, and the difficulty it would create in trying to change the commandments, make the commandments more primary. Barring gradual change, the physical commandments are sticking around, while their reasons may shift. This emphasis on the primacy of the physical actions that make up the commandments in the historical life of the nation leads me to call this a materialist understanding of mitsvot. This approach also puts an emphasis on the shifting historical situation of the nation and the way it shapes the reasons for the commandments. The Jewish people have carried these actions with us through various contexts over the millennia, and we have been different in these various contexts. The commandments therefore have served, and continue to serve, different reasons at different times and for different people, just as different people use their hardware for different softwares.