Title: Mimini Mikhael: Essays on Yom Kippur and Teshuvah
By: Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
During this time of year, people like to think a lot about teshuva. With the publication of Rabbi Michael Rosensweig’s new book, Mimini Mikhael: Essays on Yom Kippur and Teshuvah, this is particularly auspicious for us overthinkers about the subject.
The book was put together “to highlight the inimitable kedushat ha-yom of Yom Kippur, to demonstrate how this heightened sanctity is concretized in specific norms and modes of observance, to underscore the pivotal institution of teshuva, and to illuminate the opportunity afforded by Elul and the Aseret Yemei Teshuva in cultivating a halachically meaningful life inspired by the experience of “lifnei Hashem” – being before Hashem in a real way. Another goal is to give readers the opportunity to truly prepare for the Yomim Noraim through quality Torah study and halachic analysis, which not only “surely enhances the experience and maximizes the impact of this unique period” but is also an integral part of what it means for a particular period of time to be “Mikra Kodesh.”
To analyze the entire book in such a short review is to attempt the impossible, so I will instead focus on a particular question that arises throughout: What, exactly, is teshuva? Rav Rosensweig highlights two particular approaches. For the Rambam, teshuva is an essential part of one’s avodat Hashem that elevates us from avodah mi-yirah (worship out of fear) to avodah mei-ahavah (worship out of love). It is integral to life and a default part of religious observance. Rabbeinu Yonah, on the other hand, sees teshuva as unnatural and even counterintuitive; something that we are only able to do thanks to Hashem’s tremendous chesed towards us. We should go out of our way to capitalize on every opportunity to do teshuva precisely because it is not a default that we intuitively have access to.
Taking both views together promotes the unified experience of teshuva, which Rav Rosensweig explains is “a divine gift that neutralizes past transgressions and at the same time charts a course to an enhanced spiritual relationship with Hashem.” Whether teshuva is natural or unnatural, though, we are left with the question of how to view this gift in the context of our lives. Rav Rosensweig notes that Yom Kippur, the ultimate day of teshuva, is “not primarily focused on particular infractions, but on the attainment of purity, the transformation of the holistic religious persona” and that “if the penitent achieves this comprehensive transformation, he is no longer held accountable for sins of the past… After the experience of teshuva, one’s past does not define or undermine one’s present.”
Rav Rosensweig emphasizes, though, that
Halakhah rejects the notion of a “born-again” Jew. No such concept exists in Judaism. One’s transformation through the process of teshuvah is limited and not absolute; one cannot fully divorce himself from his past. Rather, the authentic ba’al teshuvah is transformed while maintaining continuity with his past, both the constructive and the deplorable… Sins from previous years are still a part of one’s identity, even though they are no longer held against him. Moreover, one cannot and does not elude or evade concrete punishment by means of teshuva. Teshuva is not a refuge from legal or moral responsibility, but rather a mechanism that actually assumes greater accountability, allowing the reconciliation and sometimes even redemption of past infractions.
Understanding teshuva in this way allows us to recognize that it is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, but comes with many multifaceted halachic and hashkafic obligations. Rav Rosensweig, in his unique way, brings all of that to bear in every chapter of Mimini Mikhael; whether about Elul, the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, the avodah of the Kohen Gadol, the particular halachot of Yom Kippur, and more. In doing so, he encourages his readers on the journey towards teshuva while providing seemingly countless sources from across the breadth and depth of Torah and identifying overarching themes and distinctions that weave seamlessly into the broader topics and larger picture that he paints. As my friend and colleague Rabbi Avraham Wein wrote in his editor’s preface to the volume; “The narrow details help contribute to building the broader conceptual framework, but once the macroscopic themes have been developed, they allow for a deeper appreciation of the nuances and details of the minutiae within the related halachot.”
Mimini Mikhael is a sefer that is at the same time deeply technical and profoundly inspiring; written from the mind of a Brisker and the heart of a rebbe treasured by many of today’s best and brightest rabbonim. I did not personally have the pleasure of learning in Rav Rosensweig’s shiur, but his approach strongly resonated with me and others who I have shared it with. Whether a student of his or not, if you want to properly understand what the opportunity to do teshuva offers both philosophically and practically, it is a must-read.