Rabbi Soloveitchik isolates a variety of types of repentance that emerge from the classical Jewish texts. In this paper, I reflect upon three of them, their inter-relationship and their philosophical significance – concentrating especially on the following question, in what sense are you able to become a new person?
In one of the central Biblical references to Yom Kippur, God informs us (Leviticus 16:30), ‘For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you, from all your sins ye shall be cleansed before the LORD.’ From this verse, two central notions emerge: atonement and purification/cleansing. These two notions, in turn, give rise to two distinct types of repentance: repentance of atonement and repentance of purification.
To achieve repentance of atonement, one merely needs to regret one’s past actions, to verbalise one’s regret, and to resolve to act better in future (of course, if your behaviour had earthly victims, restitution needs to be made before repentance of atonement can be considered fully completed). This procedure is well laid out in Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance. Let’s call this type of repentance – the repentance of atonement – Repentance1.
Repentance2 emerges in Maimonides’ Laws of Testimony (12:5-8). A wicked person is forbidden to testify in court until we have good evidence that there has been a significant change in their character:
“When is it considered that people who lend money at interest have repented? When they tear up their promissory notes on their own volition and manifest complete regret over their actions to the extent that they do not lend money at interest even to gentiles [to whom they’re Biblically allowed to lend on interest]. When is it considered that dice-players have repented? When they break their dice on their own volition and manifest complete regret over their actions to the extent that they do not even play without monetary stakes. When is it considered that those who guide the flight of doves have repented? When they break the tools they use to snare them and manifest complete regret over their actions to the extent that they do not do this even in the desert. When is it considered that merchants of produce in the Sabbatical year have repented? When the Sabbatical year arrives, they are investigated and it is discovered that they did not sell such produce. Expressing regret verbally is not sufficient. Instead, they must compose a document, stating: “I, so-and-so, the son of so-and-so, earned 200 zuz from the sale of the produce of the Sabbatical year and this sum is given as a present to the poor.”
In a sense, Maimonides is describing a process of repentance, of turning away from one’s wicked ways. Why then are these procedures not codified in the Laws of Repentance? Rav Soloveitchik (On Repetance, p.65) suggests that these laws constitute much more than the bare minimum type of repentance outlined in the Laws of Repentance. To be readmitted as a witness, you can’t just express regret and resolve for a better future. You need to prove that you’ve actually changed your ways. Repentance1 might be enough for atonement in your relationship between yourself and God, but the court needs more tangible outward signs – and not just signs of real and sincere regret – that might satisfy God – but we need to see real signs of change. This is a form of repentance that concerns itself with purification and cleansing. This is repentance2. And though Maimonides doesn’t demand these heights of repentance in his Laws of Repentance, this process of purification isn’t just a formal legal route back to your status as a kosher witness; it is an elevated form of repentance. Indeed it has its source in the Biblical verse with which we began, and its talk of purification, rather than mere atonement, from sin.
And, as Rabbi Soloveitchik also notes (p. 65), the prophets seemed to be very keen on the notion of repentance2. Isaiah (55:7) exhorts the wicked to forsake his ‘way’ and his ‘thoughts’. This isn’t merely an invitation to jettison our evil ways and our evil thoughts, but all of our ways and our entire outlook. I have to realise that my destructive patterns of behaviour are a manifestation of the sort of person that I am. I need to learn entirely new ways of thinking and being. In Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words, I need to reject my ‘entire way of thinking … [including, but not limited to] the intellectual obscurity and emotional ambivalence which combine to create sin and then cast man within it as though into a dungeon.’ In the words of Ezekiel (36:26), what I really need is a new heart; I need my stony heart to be replaced entirely by a heart of flesh. On the surface of things, and this is where things begin to get philosophically troubling, I am required to become a new person.
Certain thinkers, including Rabbi Soloveitchik himself, seem to take this notion of becoming a new person quite seriously. They give the notion significant philosophical and theological work to do. Rav Soloveitchik argues that repentance1 is accepted only because of God’s attributes of lovingkindess and mercy. He sees my genuine regret and my new resolve, and He forgives. But, repentance2 even finds acceptance from God’s attribute of justice. As Rav Soloveitchik argues (p. 67), ‘How then, can sins committed by someone else be counted against him? Through [repentance2]… man is reborn and he gains a new heart, a renewed spirit, another outlook on life and different horizons. One man enters the bath of ritual immersion and another emerges from the water. The sinful person emerges as a pure one. And indeed, our sages have pointed out that changing one’s name is especially beneficial for penitents.’ Even by the lights of Divine Justice my name is cleared because, after repentance2, I am numerically distinct from the person who did the sin.
But, as a notion taken literally, the repentance2 attempt to become a numerically distinct person from the person that you currently are (a cumbersome and paradoxical way of putting it that I purposefully chose) creates more philosophical, and even halakhic problems than it can hope to solve. Let me list just a few of the problems that arise from taking the imagery of repentance2 style rebirth at all literally:
- First and foremost, the hope that you can become a numerically distinct entity from yourself is a contradiction in terms; a completely nonsensical notion. Nothing can ever be numerically distinct from itself!
- Even if we accept that one person enters the repentance2 process and that another person entirely emerges, the following seemingly intractable questions emerge:
- The act of repentance is the fulfilment of a Biblical command; who is credited with its fulfilment; the person who started the process, or, the person who emerged? Was it the last act of a dying sinner, or the first act of a newly created soul? If it was the latter, what was he repenting for? He hasn’t yet done anything wrong!
- If I can no longer be held accountable for the sins performed by the previous incumbent of my body, do I lose the credit for the good things done by that person? This seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I don’t want to be cleansed of my merits along with my demerits.
- Jewish law still demands punishments for sinners, even after the completion of repentance2. The repentant convicted murderer will still be executed. How is this fair if the murderous person has been annihilated and replaced by a person who has never killed another? Punishment is, admittedly, waived for sins performed by a person before he converted to Judaism, but, surely, given the other problems with the notion of repentance2, this isn’t because the convert is a numerically distinct entity, metaphysically, from the previous, non-Jewish incumbent of his body – but that Jewish law, for various reasons (of both a legal and a symbolic nature) decides to treat the convert as a new legal entity.
- The word for repentance is ‘תשובה’, which also means, return. The Hebraic notion of repentance doesn’t have to be lumbered with Christological notions of original sin; of an inherently corrupt soul standing in need of purification. On the Jewish understanding, I was fine the way I was before I sinned, and I want to return to that state of innocence – the state into which I was born. If I only have to atone for the sins that I’ve done, I can return to my pre-sin state. If I have to annihilate the background characteristics and impulses that lead me to sin in the first place, then return to my pre-sin state will never be sufficient. Return isn’t okay, because I have nowhere good to return to. I need a complete overhaul – one that I don’t even survive; one that merely gives rise to another, better, person. This has a distinctly ‘un-Jewish’ feel to it.
It seems to me that there are (at least) two ways in which to rescue the notion of repentance2: Rav Soloveitchik’s route, which treats repentance2 as an important, and yet unrealisable ideal, only ever to be treated as realisable/realised as a fiction or as a metaphor; and a route inspired by Rav Tzadok Hacohen, which takes repentance2 more seriously, and yet manages to circumnavigate many of our concerns.
Taking Repentance2 Seriously
Rav Tzadok Hacohen (Tzidkat Hatzadik 99) talks about an elevated form of repentance in which sins are eventually, after much toil, forgotten, and eventually forgotten by God Himself, which, given certain metaphysical assumptions, is equivalent to saying that the sins are erased from history itself. This notion of a repentance that requires a degree of forgetfulness, coupled with an orthodox Lockean conception of personal identity over time, leads in turn, to an interesting defence of the notion of repentance2.
A word of clarification: the act of forgetting that Rav Tzadok invokes is not the ethically blasé forgetfulness that typifies the evil doer’s lack of concern for his actions and their consequences. Rather, Rav Tzadok is talking of a forgetting that is a gift of Divine grace that only comes to a person who has worked tremendously hard to rectify their actions and their way of life. Such a person, as he grows further and further apart from his old and evil ways, starts to view them as the actions of another person, and one can then start to feel, rightfully, less guilty: you’ve done your best to repair any damage, and you’ve moved on. When the memory does rear its head, for one reason or another, it pains you, as the memory of sin pains the psalmist (Psalm 51). At the completion of this process, you merit to forget the bad things that you did. They no longer arise in your consciousness. They no longer make themselves felt. They no longer inform your sense of self. This, for Rav Tzadok, is the sign of purification from sin. It is the sign of repentance2.
If you couple this account of repentance2 with an orthodox Lockean account of personal identity over time, you start to notice all of the problems with repentance2 evaporating – although new, lesser, problems arise in their place.
What makes a person at t1 the very same person at t2? What is it that constitutes personal identity over time? My three year old self and I may have a lot in common. But, I no longer wet my bed. My three year old self showed no interest in the writings of Bertrand Russell. I have no cellular material in common with my three year old self – all that stuff has been regenerated over time. There could even be a three year old with whom I have more in common – in some sense or other – than I do with my own three year old self back there in 1986. According to Locke, the key to personal identity is the notion of memory. I am the same person as any earlier person that I actually remember being. I remember being that three year old – just about. That three year old is me.
There are many uncomfortable consequences to such an orthodox Lockeanism – consequences that more sophisticated Lockeans in recent times have tried to fix. As Locke himself is willing to admit, a man who does terrible things when drunk, as long as he doesn’t remember what he did, was quite literally, not himself, and therefore not responsible for what was done, when he was so heavily intoxicated. Modern Lockeans avoid this embarrassing corollary with appeal to notions that are more complex than mere memory – such as psychological continuity and psychological connectedness. But the defender of repentance2 may want to hold on to the bizarre corollaries of an orthodox Lockeanism – in fact, these corollaries might be the key to making sense of repentance2.
Here is the theory of personal identity over time that I have in mind. Personal identity over time is inherently indeterminate until the person dies, as which point it becomes determinate. A person, before the point of his death, is indeterminately identical to any person that he remembers being. From the time of death onward, a person is determinately identical to any person that, at the point of his death, he still remembered being – and determinately distinct from any other person.
To use four dimensionalism, if only as a metaphorical façon de parle: if you manage to forget an action of which you’re not proud – and it stays forgotten until the point of your death, then you shed that temporal part – that temporal part is no longer a part of you. It turns out that until I repent, certain earlier selves are me (albeit indeterminately) because I remember them. If I manage to forget them – I end up shedding them. What was once my past self (at least indeterminately) no longer has anything to do with me. Just as I can lose a physical part – such as my arm – whilst retaining my identity; I can lose temporal parts – I can lose the summer of 1999 – whilst retaining the rest.
Let’s return to the problems we raised with repentance2 and see how they can be answered:
- Repentance2 does change the metaphysical contours of your identity, but it can only crudely be described as becoming a new person, and it is deceptive to try to characterise it, dismissively, as the attempt to become numerically distinct from the person that you currently are. It is instead the attempt to shed temporal parts.
- Again, it is loose talk, albeit, loose talk of great metaphorical and rhetorical power, to describe repentance2 as becoming a new person, despite the great metaphysical affects that repentance2 does actually have over the contours of your identity, therefore:
- The act of repentance can quite coherently be claimed by the person who does the repenting, the person who successfully operated upon his temporal profile, cutting out whole chunks of sinful past-selves.
- I can shed the bad temporal parts whilst retaining the good ones.
- Rav Tzadok Hacohen would probably argue that repentance2 cannot happen, the person cannot move on to the degree that it takes in order to shed temporal parts, before there has been full legal and moral restitution.
- You are not completely corrupt. You don’t need a complete recreation. You merely need to cut out some of those bad bits!
Some problems remain with repentance2, but, I believe that these problems are of a less troubling nature. The first problem is that it is tied to an Orthodox Lockeanism that has all sorts of bizarre corollaries: e.g., if you get alzheimers or amneisa, then you don’t survive, and your body starts to host a new person entirely. Many philosophers, and many people with loved ones in such situations, would want to resist these corollaries. And yet the Lockean approach to personal identity over time is still, certainly, a going concern. And in fact, some family members do find comfort in the thought that the person in front of them is merely the persisting shell of their departed loved ones. The second problem is that people, on this view, become a quite strange species of entity; we could call them temporally gappy entities. If I did wipe out the summer of 1999, then the entity that I am was born in 1983 (although I can’t actually remember my birth, so perhaps I came into existence a little bit later), I then left the time line completely in the summer of 1999 for a few months, and then I came back again at the beginning of the Autumn. Are we happy with temporal gaps? Well, perhaps. Are we happy with an entity who has a fuzzy identity that suddenly snaps into precision at the point of its death? Perhaps. Repentance2 has gone from complete incoherence to mere philosophical eccentricity.
Repentance2 as an Un-Realisable Ideal
Rav Soloveitchik’s approach to repentance2 is able to avoid both incoherence and philosophical eccentricity. He accepts that, as a response to sin, a person will ‘‘erase’ certain years of a lifetime’ (p. 271). But, it starts to become clear that Rav Soloveitchik is speaking metaphorically. Of course, he doesn’t really erase them. He still remembers. But he tries his hardest to forget. Recalling the Biblical Chief Butler who forgot the promise he made to Joseph in prison, Rav Soloveitchik claims that, ‘He did remember’ but that ‘he wanted to blot out of his memory the whole unpleasant period he spent in jail, probably because he wanted to forget that he had ever been in prison’ (Ibid).
Of course, you can’t shed temporal parts like a snake shedding its skin. Your temporal parts are yours forever. But you can pretend. You can make-believe that you’ve shed them. You can try your hardest to forget them. They’ll still be there. But, there are certain types of sin, and certain types of guilt, that necessitate the radical, and necessarily unrealisable, attempt to become a different person. You change your name. You change the way you dress. You change the place you live. You change your social orientation and your friendship group. You sever every link that you have to your past life. Sometimes you simply can’t escape your sinful ways without such a gargantuan effort. Sometimes it’s also the only way in which to escape your crippling sense of guilt.
You might try to become a different person, and this effort might be necessary – but logic itself dictates that the effort cannot succeed. And yet, if you don’t shoot for the impossible stars of complete rebirth, you won’t ever reach the realisable moon of moral rehabilitation.
And even though the task isn’t achievable, and, in fact, in large part, because it isn’t achievable, the process of repetance2 so conceived can be very damaging. It involves repression. It involves suppression. And these operations come at a high psychological cost. Sometimes the disease is so bad that even the cure is unhealthy. Chemotherapy might be an effective treatment for cancer, but it’s certainly unhealthy for the body at the same time. The radical attempt to become a new person might sometimes be necessary, but it’s certainly dangerous for the psyche at the same time. And sometimes, it simply isn’t possible, even as an exercise in make-believe, as Rav Solovetichik readily admits (p.271-2):
“An ‘operation’ of this sort is not easily carried out. A man of fifty or sixty years of age can by no means erase in a moment a third, or a half, or even three-quarters of his life. What, then, should he do, if wants to repent at this stage of his life? Can he go on identifying himself with those years of sin? If he does so, it is as if he admits the existence of evil and acknowledges it as one of his permanent personality traits.”
But, for Rav Soloveitchik, it’s okay that even the attempt at Repentance2 will sometimes prove to be impossible, because for him, there’s also a Repentance-type-3…
Repentace3 of Resh Lakish
One more benefit for Rav Soloveitchik’s view of repentance2 is that it can make sense of the following Talmudic excerpt – an excerpt that has had a tremendous influence upon Jewish attitudes to repentance (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 86b):
“Resh Lakish said: Great is repentance, for because of it premeditated sins are accounted as errors, as it is said: Return, O Israel, unto the Lord, thy God,’ for thou hast stumbled in thy iniquity. ‘Iniquity’ is premeditated, and yet he calls it ‘stumbling’ But that is not so! For Resh Lakish said that repentance is so great that premeditated sins are accounted as though they were merits, as it is said: And when the wicked turneth from his wickedness, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall live thereby! That is no contradiction: One refers to a case [of repentance] derived from love, the other to one due to fear.”
The Talmud here distinguishes between two types of repentance. One, it calls the repentance of love, the other, the repentance of fear. Rav Soloveitchik (p. 275) argues that repentance of fear is what we have hitherto fore been calling repentance2: ‘Such repentance erases sins, but it has no creative power and does not germinate or give life to anything new. Premeditated sins are accounted as errors, as though they never took place at all. They are wiped way.’ Repentance2 whether it’s actually a realisable ideal or not, is certainly the attempt to wipe away the past. And, when you’ve tried your hardest to achieve repentance2, your sins, even though they may still exist, will be counted as if they were errors. But, according to this Talmudic excerpt, there is a higher, more exalted, level of repentance. Repentance3 is, in Rav Soloveitchik’s words, ‘repentance by means of which sin is elevated and exalted. This motivates man to fulfil the precepts with a vigor and a zest lacking before he sinned and causes him to study Torah in a different manner.’
How do you transform the summer of 1999, not into a summer shaped lacuna, but into a summer that was full of merit? You do this by using your negative past as a spur towards greater moral ‘vigor’ and ‘zest’. I remember an educator who worked for an organisation called Chabad Drugsline. This young man was a recovering heroin addict. He told us his story. He had stolen significant amounts of money from his parents. He had burgled. He remembers awaking one morning in a pool of his own excrement. He had multiple stints in prison. And, during one fateful stretch in incarceration, he found a drugs rehabilitation scheme that really worked for him. He came out of jail, and I use this metaphor pointedly, as a new man. He was clean of drugs. He fell in love with a wonderful woman and they were wed. He repaired his relationship with his parents and he dedicated his life to educating children as to the evils of drug addiction. The classes he gives are hundreds of times more effective and more powerful than a teacher who stands in front of the class and says, ‘Drugs are bad.’ And, he couldn’t be this amazing human being were it not for the shameful episodes of his past. He has taken those shameful episodes and he has transformed their moral significance. Yes, they are still shameful. But without them, he couldn’t be the fantastic person that he is. This is repentance3. This is clearly the sort of repentance that the Talmud alludes to when it talks of a power to recast the sins of the past into a positive light.
Rav Tzadok, or at least the theory that I tried to develop in his wake, would struggle to accommodate the notion of repentance3. Once you’ve successfully repented; once you’ve reached what Rav Tzadok calls the ‘purpose and completion of atonement’, you forget your sins (Tzidkat Hatzadik 99). If you’ve forgotten your sins, then you can’t very well use them as a motivation for future growth. Repentance2 as a serious Lockean theory is of philosophical interest, but I think that it’s too hard, perhaps, to fit into the classic Jewish taxonomy of repentance, which includes repentance3 at its zenith.
On Rav Soloveithick’s account, repentance1, 2, and 3 constitute different stages. At the first stage, you regret your wrong doing and resolve to do better in future. At the second stage one attempts to become a completely new person – even to the degree that they might try to sever all connections to their past life; perhaps this stage, damaging as it can so often be, should be bypassed by some penitents; but, for others, it might be a very important stage. But you can’t voluntarily forget your past on a whim. The memory remains. And it’s a good thing too, for this leaves the door open to the possibility of repentance3; the supremely dignified attempt to redeem one’s own past; using it as a motivation and as an engine for future moral growth.
Repentance1 is the repentance of atonement – when you successfully traverse that stage, you receive Divine forgiveness. Repentance2 is the repentance of purification – when you successfully traverse that stage – even if it’s only a game of make-believe, because temporal parts can’t really be amputated – God will treat your still existent criminal record as if it were all done in error, when in fact, your crimes were originally committed on purpose – your records are cleansed. Repentance3 is the repentance of redemption. It takes a rotten past and casts it in an entirely new light; a positive light.