The Science of Repentance


Teshuvah, generally translated as repentance, is a principal theme in the Jewish community even before the onset of the High Holidays (also known in Hebrew as the Yamim Nora’im, Days of Awe). Selichot — collective prayers acknowledging the sins of the Jewish people as individuals and a nation and requesting absolution from G-d — are read in advance of Rosh Hashanah and through the 10 “Days of Repentance” between then and Yom Kippur.

But what is the meaning of this push for repentance that returns year after year? The JT reached out to various local thought leaders on the idea and practical process of repentance in Judaism.

Spiritual Perspectives

“The idea of teshuvah, repentance, goes at least as far back as the Talmud, an encyclopedic work of mostly legal literature put together approximately between 0-400CE,” said Rabbi David Katz of Har Sinai – Oheb Shalom Congregation in Pikesville.

Rabbi Levi Druk of Chabad of Downtown directed readers to the second chapter of the Mishneh Torah, the major work on Jewish Law written by the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides, for a historical guide to the process of repentance.

According to the Mishneh Torah, repentance in Judaism is not a casual sorry tossed at a friend or one’s Creator. Rather it is comprised of three steps: recognition, regret, and not making the same mistake when faced with the same situation.

“We learn from Maimonides that we must ask forgiveness sincerely and if need be, persistently. And our sincere entreaty to be forgiven should be acknowledged,” Rabbi Katz said. He emphasized that true repentance is evidenced not only by a change of heart, but by a change of action. “When a person is tempted to do the wrong thing and then, confronted by the same situation twice, does the right thing, he or she is said to have truly repented.”

“Our efforts must be real and honest. And we must work hard at it. Human relations are complicated and often hard to figure out. What is required from us is the effort to make relationships work. We may not always succeed but we must always try,” he added.

Rather than a time for resentment, teshuvah can be a process of healing and moving forward.

“Each year the High Holy Days remind us that we have a hand in shaping our own lives and destinies,” Rabbi Steven Schwartz, the Rabbi Mark Loeb Senior Rabbi’s Chair at Beth El Congregation in Pikesville, remarked. “If we are going in the wrong direction, we can turn. If we have made poor decisions, we can make better ones. If we have spoken words we regret, we can acknowledge that, and work to make it right.”

Rabbi Schwartz emphasized that therein lies the power of teshuvah: “We have the power to choose who we will be in the new year — or in the next moment — the power of changing for the better.”

A Prescription for Change

Dr. H. Steven Moffic, a retired professor of Psychiatry and Community Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin and award-winning author of “The Ethical Way: Challenges & Solutions for Managed Behavioral Health,” offered his insights on the subject of repentance in Judaism.

“As far as I can tell and relate it to modern mental health, teshuvah means return, a return to a path of righteousness and doing good after making mistakes,” he said.

“Mistakes offer an importunity for personal improvement if three steps are followed: One, admit mistake. Two, regret the mistake. Three, make a plan to not make the same mistake again. Or simply the 3 R’s of Recognition, Regret, and Redress.”

“As in many of Maimonides’ perspectives, gleaned from his work as both a rabbi and physician, this one has both spiritual and mental health insights,” Dr. Moffic observed. “Teshuvah certainly relates to trying to resolve problems in relationships with others. Jewishly speaking, we have often put a strong emphasis on guilt, and some appropriate amount of guilt for our erroneous actions can help put us back on righteous pathways.”

So, how well has Maimonides’ ideas held up to modern psychiatric science for personal change?

“Quite well, I would conclude,” Dr. Moffic said. “First of all, it does provide a sound strategy for self-help that can — and should — be tried outside of any professional help. It recognizes how hard it is for most of us to admit mistakes, as we often deny them or project and blame others for what we have done. Believing in this blueprint should help one to accept mistakes as human and common to others. The second step, regret, can be the psychological catalyst to change in the sense of a return to our better selves and even an improvement over our prior selves.”

As for the third step, Dr. Moffic said: “A plan to not make the same mistake again is what makes the whole process meaningful, for in Judaism, it is the right kind of action that is essential ethically speaking. Not doing the same sort of mistake again is the initial psychological proof that Teshuvah has been made.”

Regret Versus Shame

“The essence of teshuvah is not repentance,” said Dr. Zipora Schorr, Director of Education and High School Judaics at Beth Tifloh Dahan Community School. According to Dr. Schorr, “the word actually means ‘return’ — return to one’s inner essence, the ‘me’ I really am.”

“When we experience regret, and truly understand that our actions may have been harmful to another, or even to ourselves, we allow ourselves to learn and to grow, and that is how we ‘return’ to the person that G-d created: one with goodness, compassion, care for another. Regret helps us focus on both the past and the future, being honest of what was so that we can become who we really can be.”

“Perhaps at its very core, teshuvah calls upon an individual to fess up; to admit; to say I’m sorry; and, to promise not to do it again,” said Dr. Emanuel “Manny” Goldman, a former director of the Board of Jewish Education in Baltimore.

“Seems rather straight-forward, if not simple,” Dr. Goldman added. “As the readers and the writer of this formula know oh so well, to muster the energies — psychic and physical — and express these words requires inordinate strengths. There is a complex chemistry splashing about in this repentant formula’s flask.”

And, as Dr. Schorr reminds us, perhaps a return to the self is a more appropriate reference — the person we seek to be and work constantly on becoming.

“If one finds oneself repeatedly making the same mistakes,” Dr. Moffic said, “either through personal insight and/or feedback from loved ones, that is where consultation with clergy and/or professional mental healthcare is called for.”

“Scientifically,” he added, “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has a strong research basis for helping one to overcome erroneous cognitive beliefs. I would assume that Maimonides would embrace this modern adaptation of his ideas. Indeed, it is no wonder that it was a Jewish psychiatrist, Aaron Beck, M.D., who developed CBT in the first place. It fits Maimonides like a glove.”

At the the end of the day, Dr. Goldman said, “Watching over all is G-d, known and unknown, understood and not understood. However one expresses their Judaism, may I conclude by penning that teshuvah is an ultimate expression of that ‘lonely man and woman, boy and girl of faith’ subjectively and objectively recognizing that there is a source and measure to it all: G-d.”

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