It was the kind of event I attend frequently these days, and I was in a role in which I often find myself. It was a Jewish gathering to which a number of political officials had been invited. I was asked to sit with a non-Jewish official in order to explain the language of some of the speakers to him.
It was about this time of year, so it was no surprise to me that one of the speakers used the word “teshuvah.” He actually used it enough times that my non-Jewish companion felt compelled to ask me, “What is ‘teshuvah?’ ”
In my many years of experience in the rabbinate, I have emphasized to my Jewish listeners that teshuvah is no easy term to define. Literally, it means return. But it is generally used to mean repentance, or atonement, or personal change. And in actual practice, it is quite a complex process.
But for this gentleman, I felt it was appropriate to keep things simple. I therefore told him that teshuvah refers to the improvement of individual religious behaviors required of Jews, especially in preparation for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
My companion found this explanation adequate, and matters might have ended there were I not the contemplative type, constantly reviewing and reconsidering my words. It was during the long drive home that I realized I had shortchanged my non-Jewish friend, and had done an injustice to the sacred term “teshuvah.”
Individual religious behaviors? Does teshuvah apply only to individuals and not to their relationships? Only to individuals and not to communities? Is teshuvah limited to only the religious aspects of our lives, and not to our social, political, and even economic conduct? And do only our behaviors require teshuvah and not also our emotions, attitudes, and thoughts?
These were the questions that ran through my mind. I made peace quite easily with the question of whether or not I had been fair to my companion. For him, my definition of the term used by the speaker earlier that day was more than adequate. But for myself, in my own teshuvah process, defining “teshuvah” as “improving individual religious behaviors” would be inadequate, to say the least. For my students, congregants, and other recipients of my teaching, defining teshuvah in such a narrow fashion simply would not do.
To properly define teshuvah in a manner both consistent with its traditional meaning and relevant to the lives of contemporary Jews, a much more comprehensive approach is necessary. To achieve that better definition, two graphic images will prove helpful: that of a box and that of a circle.
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First, to help us understand the concept of teshuvah and apply it to our personal lives, we must think out of the “box.” We must be creative and mercilessly honest with ourselves. We must realize that much of what has been written about teshuvah – and very much has indeed been written on the subject – was addressed to individuals living in a very specific “box.” That box was the society of a century ago, or even many centuries ago. Those teshuvah prescriptions were written for individuals who lived a lifestyle we can no longer imagine, just as they could not possibly imagine the nature of our lifestyles today.
Even those tracts about teshuvah written in more recent times are typically addressed to a very narrow segment of the Jewish community. The mussar shmuezen (ethical discourses) published by contemporary yeshiva heads and prominent rabbis are most commonly directed to their bachurim, their disciples. It is no wonder that many of us find the standards demanded by those works to be excessive, beyond our reach, and often disappointingly irrelevant.