A series of writers answer the question: Do we still know how to atone?
The evidence is everywhere: Bernie Madoff announces that he is sorry to have caused his family pain, but then defends himself, saying that he only “made rich people richer;” Anthony Weiner first lies about his behavior, then admits his mistakes, but refuses to resign, and finally does so only under intense pressure as a last resort; Todd Akin makes the most outrageous and offensive comments about rape, then releases a video in which he asks to be forgiven for “using the wrong words in the wrong way.” It seems no one knows how to repent anymore — least of all, public figures.
Empty gestures and disingenuous declarations of remorse that begin, “I’m sorry, but….” should be recognized for what they are — poor imitations of genuine repentance. Teshuvah, or repentance, requires, as Jewish tradition understands it, genuine “turning,” which is also “returning” and “responding.” Those who would do teshuvah must simultaneously turn toward those they harmed and take full responsibility for their actions. They must turn inward, engaging in a process of soul reckoning to uncover the roots of their transgressions, and then resolve to address their shortcomings. They must then repair as best they can the damage they have done, whether physical, financial or emotional. They must turn to God in humility and contrition. And finally they must return to the path of righteousness to demonstrate that they have truly changed. Is it any wonder that genuine repentance is in such short supply?
But Judaism also promises that the rewards of repentance are commensurate with its difficulty. The penitent is like a new person, so much so that some rabbis suggest that those who do teshuvah should change their names. The penitent, they say, is on a higher level than even the one who is “wholly righteous.” Through repentance even our transgressions can be transformed into merits. Rav Abraham Isaac Kook wrote rhapsodically, “Penitence is the aspiration for the true original freedom, which is the divine freedom, wherein there is no enslavement of any kind.” Who would not wish to experience such freedom?
Judaism’s teachings on repentance are the quintessential message of hope: We are not bound to the mistakes of the past. At any moment, we can begin again, no matter how many times we have failed before. The gates of repentance are always open, and while there may be many obstacles to overcome, the path of repentance is well established and there are no barriers for the one who is genuinely determined to renew his or her life.
It is the perfect message for our time. To a culture that tolerates blatant evasions of responsibility, especially, it seems, when the transgression is particularly egregious, Judaism demands full accountability and transparency. To a world in which every youthful indiscretion is preserved on the Internet for posterity, and in which even criminals who have completed their sentences are barred from being restored to full citizenship, Judaism insists that there is a road back to wholeness and integrity.
The question is only whether we are prepared to take up the challenge of repentance, both to believe in the possibility of moral renewal and to work tirelessly to achieve it. We can be grateful that each year, Judaism forces us to confront this all-important question.
Louis E. Newman is the John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies at Carleton College. He is the author of several books on Jewish ethics, most recently, “Repentance: The Meaning & Practice of Teshuvah” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010).