Repenting — Not Just for Rosh Hashanah

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Making amends is a year-round pursuit in Judaism — and Islam and Christianity as well.

“Repentance may be regarded as the cornerstone of religious life of both the individual and society.”
— Mahmoud Ayoub, fellow in Christian-Muslims relations, Hartford Seminary

Dara Horn, a 37-year-old novelist and academic from New Jersey, has three siblings — two sisters who are also writers and a brother who is an Emmy-winning animator. She also has three children of her own. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that since childhood, her mind has fixated on the ancient paradigm of sibling rivalry, particularly some of the episodes canonized in the Hebrew Bible. Her imagination zeroed in on the saga of Joseph and his brothers.


“Siblings are people who share a past but not necessarily a future, and forgiveness and repentance are about new ways of understanding a shared history,” explained Horn, whose 2013 novel — her fourth — A Guide for the Perplexed, is a modern-day retelling of the Joseph story, which hinges upon an intense sibling rivalry and a supreme act of repentance and sacrifice.

Repentance, or teshuvah in Hebrew, is the act of reviewing one’s past actions, asking for forgiveness from others and from God, and seeking transformational change. Ron Wolfson, the noted Jewish educator and professor at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, teaches that Judaism is a system of relationships. In his much-talked-about book, Relational Judaism, Wolfson writes that a Jew enters into a relationship with family, congregation, Jewish community, tradition and texts, the state of Israel and, ultimately, God (or some manifestation of higher power). No relationship is complete without tension, transgression and the need for sincere apologies and forgiveness.

Repentance, which plays a central role in the High Holidays, also takes center stage in many other religious traditions, particularly the two other major Abrahamic faiths. Each has different notions about the meaning of sin, how to “get right with God” and how an individual can meaningfully transform oneself. It is fair to say that how Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other faiths understand the concept of repentance says a great deal about the essence of the particular faiths themselves.

In the biblical saga of Joseph, his 11 brothers, jealous of his “favorite son” status — and severely annoyed by his obnoxious and arrogant personality — sell him into slavery. Years later, when Joseph has achieved great power to become practically ruler of all of Egypt, his brothers come before him pleading for food.

“He tests and even taunts them for a time,” Horn said in an email interview. “But when he reveals who he is, he says something truly amazing: ‘Don’t be angry at yourselves that you sold me to this place, because it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.’ This is technically true; if Joseph hadn’t been enslaved in Egypt and been positioned to save Egypt’s food supply, Joseph and his brothers all would have died in the famine. But for the reader, it is still a mind-blowing revision of history: ‘Hey brothers, remember that heinous crime you committed against me? Don’t worry, it’s all good — it was a benevolent act of God!’ ”

Horn said his handling of the situation “shows the amazing power that Joseph has to forgive, and exactly how he does it — by choosing to remember and understand the past in a way that allows for a shared future.” It is also, essentially, a major act of repentance on Joseph’s part: Joseph was an arrogant young man at the time of his brothers’ betrayal. When he is vindicated by seeing them bow before him, he doesn’t say, “ ‘I was right,’ ” she said. “I think the acts of his brothers at this point, especially his brother Judah, who pleas for the release of his young brother Benjamin just as he failed to do at the time of Joseph’s betrayal, are also evidence of repentance.”

Professors Philip Cunningham and Adam Gregerman are, respectively, director and assistant director of the Institute for Catholic-Jewish Relations at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Cunningham, a professor of theology, is Catholic, while Gregerman, whose specialty is ancient Jewish and Christian sources, is Jewish. During the 2013-2014 academic year, the two co-taught a class called Jews and Christians: Estranged Relatives or Total Strangers? Session nine was titled Sin and Repentance.

In a recent joint interview, Cunningham said that “both Judaism and Christianity ask similar questions about how human beings stand in relationship to God. There is a sense that human beings are capable of sins — and that is displeasing to God. There is also a sense that people can be penitent and change their ways.”

To understand the concept of sin in Judaism, Gregerman said, it is essential to keep in mind that Judaism is based on a series of mitzvot, or commandments. Failing to perform the commandments or violating the negative commandments — those that dictate one’s relationship to others, to community and to God — means that one has to repent to be in good standing with both the body politic and with God.

“The Jewish idea is to see sin as a misdeed. The sin reflects not an evil or sinful person, but a sinful action,” said Gregerman. “The word for sin, chet, is related to an arrow in Hebrew. One needs to repent when it goes in the wrong direction or misses the mark. Jewish ideas of repentance are based on Jewish ideas of Torah observance. You repent when you don’t observe the commandments.”

The concept of “original sin” is a fundamental aspect of Catholicism. It is the idea that all human beings bear guilt for the fall of man after the rebellion of Adam and Eve. The idea that Jesus was crucified for humanity’s sins lies at the heart of the faith. Unlike Judaism, Catholicism views people as inherently sinful. Cunningham explained that aspects of the religion, such as the liturgy of Mass, the act of confessing to a priest and the season of Lent, are designed to get the sinner to repent and change.

It might seem, Cunningham said, that Judaism and Catholicism have markedly different views of human nature. But, he avers, they are not so far apart as they might first appear. Both believe human beings, if unchecked, have a propensity to do wrong. Judaism has the mitzvot to keep people on the right path, Catholicism has Christ, he explained.

According to Rabbi Adam Zeff, religious leader of Germantown Jewish Centre, the biggest difference may be that Judaism considers repentance a communal endeavor, while in Catholicism, repentance — salvation — is a matter between the individual and God.

Zeff has spent a great deal of time thinking and writing about these issues. In his previous career, he was an anthropologist who performed field research in India. In his rabbinate, he’s spent a great deal of effort on interfaith dialogue. His synagogue recently held a Muslim iftar meal, celebrating the breaking of the Ramadan fast. This summer, as Israel battled Hamas in Gaza, he was preparing to head to the Jewish state for the year with his family and study Arabic at Haifa University.

“In Judaism in the ancient world, there was one rule of law that applied to everybody: the lowest of the low, the ditch-diggers, the teachers, the leaders; everybody was covered by this one standard of behavior,” he said. “In Hinduism, it is very different. Human beings are actually different. The dharma of each person depends on who they are. What might be the right thing for you to do might not be the right thing for me to do.”

The Islamic approach to repentance may have more in common with the Jewish understanding than any other faith, explained Zeff. The Arabic word tawbah bears a striking resemblance to the Hebrew idea of teshuvah — each connotes a return or turning toward. Like Rabbinic Judaism, Islam is based on a series of laws that is drawn from interpretations of the holy text.

“When we talk about the meaning of fasting, especially in Ramadan, it is so parallel,” he said. “Ramadan is almost like a monthlong party. This is a traditional aspect of Yom Kippur that we have lost. The ancient rabbis said it was one of the most joyous holidays of the year. They said, ‘We have the opportunity to turn back, we can reconnect.’ ”

Does the rabbi have any practical advice for Jews of whatever affiliation or religiosity who hope to get right with God or simply make themselves a better person?

Preparation is key, said Zeff. He encourages people to think about broad patterns of behavior they would like to change. Don’t try to unearth a year’s worth of potential slights or misdeeds, he said. Instead, focus on the big stuff. Arrive at the High Holidays with one insight that can lead to a real commitment for change, he said. Think of life as a big cruise ship at sea. Changing direction takes time, and drastic movements can sink you.

Learning how to manage changes in behavior lies at the heart of author Horn’s A Guide for the Perplexed. Her modern-day Joseph is a brilliant software engineer named Josephine Ashkenazi. Instead of being sold into slavery like her biblical namesake, she is captured by terrorists in post-revolutionary Egypt, and her sister bears some of the blame. In the novel, Josephine creates a program called the Genizah to use existing digital technologies to track and catalogue virtually everything about a person’s life — kind of like a Facebook timeline on steroids. If the Genizah software — named after the Hebrew word for a repository where Hebrew religious texts and tracts which are no longer fit for use are stored — were real, people could theoretically head to their laptop, tablet or smartphone and review nearly everything they had done or said over the previous year. If people could click on a program and review their thoughts and deeds for the past year, it might be the best — or worst thing that ever happened to the High Holidays.

“In Judaism we already have a concept of, as the rabbis put it, ‘an Eye that Sees, an Ear that Hears, and all of your deeds recorded in a book.’ The difference now is that we live in a world where all this is not only a theological concept, but the reality of life online,” she said. “I wanted to explore what this potential for complete recall really meant — if we had a memory resembling Divine memory, it would never be possible for us to forgive anyone. Fortunately, God is rumored to be more forgiving than we are.”

In bringing things back to the broader question of faith, repentance and the human potential for transformation, Horn said that Judaism “is not a fatalistic system like many other ancient traditions, nor a system that believes humans alone control the world, as many modern societies suggest.” Judaism teaches of “an interdependence between free will and destiny — that human beings cannot control the world, but they can control how they respond to it.”

The Joseph story has a powerful message, she said, one that Jews should keep in mind as they prepare to face the High Holidays.

“It suggests, in a way other ancient literature rarely does, that it is possible, even likely, that people can change.”

Bryan Schwartzman, an award-winning journalist living in Philadelphia, has much to repent for this year.

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