Much has been written lately in these pages about Professor Martin Jaffee’s final (alas!) column, his and the editor’s apologies, letters of praise and castigation. One letter inspired me to look into our traditional Jewish sources, providing a “teachable moment,” an opportunity to learn some Torah.
Mr. Perry Weinberg, in the January 13, 2012 issue of JTNews, wrote: “Is there no room in all this for forgiveness? One thing I would hope we could all agree upon…is to allow each other to acknowledge our sins, to make teshuvah, and to start again.” Mr. Weinberg’s initial question is obviously rhetorical, since he immediately answers affirmatively, as he calls out for teshuvah and starting over.
There are many statements throughout the amazingly rich history of Jewish thought attempting to distill Judaism’s rich fabric into an essence or a few fundamental principles. According to Maimonides, repentance is one of our tradition’s fundamentals. Repentance is also inextricably bound to the concept of free will, that we humans are free moral agents.
God commands and we obey or disobey; we are rewarded or punished for our choices, good and bad. When we disobey, when we make mistakes, God grants us the opportunity to restore our relationship with Him and those whom we have wronged through the process of teshuvah, whose root meaning is “turning” but functionally has come to mean repentance.
Teshuvah involves several steps: Recognition of the wrong, repairing or compensating for the wrong when possible, asking the injured party for forgiveness, committing to not repeating the bad action, and confessing the specific transgression before God. Our tradition supplements the purely ethical on the human plane with the concept of atonement, the process through which we sinners can be reconciled with God.
Do we humans indeed have the capacity to choose? Does free will exist or is it a fiction we use to convince ourselves that life is meaningful, that the choices we make are indeed real choices, and that we genuinely and authentically can hold ourselves and others accountable for our actions? In the Jan. 28, 2012 Wall Street Journal, Gerald Russello, reviewing Aping Mankind by Raymond Tallis, observes:
Proponents argue that free will does not exist; seemingly free or intentional actions can be explained from materialistic causes. Because these causes affect every organism, there is no difference between “human consciousness” and that of animals and everything can therefore be explained as either a set of physical responses or the workings of some hidden genetic code.
In other words, these proponents argue there is no free will. However, Tallis, the reviewed author, vigorously argues in favor of free will. The review continues:
He [Tallis] takes on the “neuromania” [belief that we are our physical brains and nothing more] and “Darwinitis” [the insistence that our consciousness can be reduced to evolutionary terms] in a robust defense of the unique nature of human consciousness…Experiments that try to isolate specific actions to show that we are only reacting to stimuli…are misplaced…Such irreducibly complex reasons [for actions] are indicative not of biological avatars without free will but of something even more mysterious: ourselves.
The Midrash, supplementing the Genesis narrative, places in Cain’s mouth a similar defense when confronted by God over his murdering his brother, Abel (I paraphrase): “You, God, rejected my gift to You. You created in me this Evil Inclination, making me capable of murder. What do you expect?”
Essentially, Cain complains to God that his murder is God’s fault, not his own. It is this matter of choice, the uniqueness of human consciousness, which is of significance to the concept of repentance, as Maimonides states, writing 800-plus years ago: “This (teshuvah) is a great fundamental and pillar of the Torah and [the concept of] Mitzvah as it is said (Deuteronomy 30:15), ‘See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil’” (Laws of Repentance 5:3).
The Book of Genesis tells us that we humans are created in God’s image. This esoteric statement has been interpreted in many ways, one of which is our nature as thinking, freely choosing beings. We humans are not compelled by our nature to act in prescribed or predetermined ways. Obviously and eventually in the Midrashic narrative I paraphrased above, God does not accept Cain’s rationalization for his fratricide. We may be inclined by our inherent personality characteristics, or those that have been developed within us through education and experience, to act in certain ways. But justice systems of the civilized world are based on the assumption that people are freely choosing moral agents. Both Jewish law and our criminal justice system allow for exceptions where individuals such as the mentally incompetent are incapable of acting freely. They cannot know right from wrong and therefore cannot be held criminally accountable for their actions.
One of the great challenges of Jewish thought is how to reconcile an all-knowing and all-powerful God with human free will. If God knows what we’re going to do since He’s all-knowing, how can we be said to be freely choosing and thus responsible? Similarly, if God is all-powerful…well, then we have the problem of evil. Why does He allow such horrific suffering? Our ancient rabbis do not shy from confronting this challenge: God indeed creates everything, including good and evil in the world, allowing us humans to struggle along, providing the Torah as a “spice” or “medicine” to help us contend with such nasty problems as the evil we are inclined, but not forced, to commit.
Repentance, which involves seeking forgiveness, is one aspect of the moral stain of transgression and sin. The other side involves the injured party and his/her obligation to forgive. Again, Maimonides is quite clear and strong on this issue of forgiveness: “One is forbidden to be cruel, resisting being appeased; rather he should be easily pleased and difficult to anger. And at the moment the transgressor seeks from him forgiveness, he should forgive with a whole heart and generous spirit. Even if he has inflicted much pain and sinned against him grievously, he should not seek vengeance and retribution...Such is the way of the Jewish people” (Laws of Repentance 2:10, emphasis added).
Maimonides’s Hebrew for what I’ve rendered “the Jewish people” is zera Yisrael, literally, “the seed of Israel.” This is an unusual formulation for Maimonides. Indeed, the only other relevant instance I could find in Maimonides’s law code is in a similar passage, dealing with the case of one person physically wounding another. According to Maimonides, even if one has financially compensated the wounded person, that compensation is not sufficient to gain atonement, atonement being the restoration of the relationship between God and the transgressor, or the separate act of divine forgiveness. The one who has damaged must ask the wronged person to forgive the transgression in order to gain “atonement.” Financial compensation is necessary but not sufficient.
Jewish tradition is thus concerned about the spiritual well being of the one who has committed the physical damage. Just as in the aforementioned Laws of Repentance, Maimonides goes on to say that “the wounded person should not be cruel and withhold forgiveness, for this is not the way of the Seed of Israel” (Laws of Wounding and Damaging 5:10). The term “seed of Israel” suggests that this path of granting forgiveness is in some way nearly biological or genetic, “hard-wired” as we might say, in the Jewish people (“seed”), a notion quite unusual for Maimonides. Also note that to not forgive is considered an act of cruelty by Maimonides.
Yes, Mr. Weinberg, you are correct in noting the importance of repentance; it is indeed a fundamental pillar of the Jewish way of life. You are also correct that we Jews are bidden, by the very fact of being our being Jews, the “seed of Israel,” to forgive. Only through repentance and forgiveness are we granted by God atonement (or, to play with this word, at-one-ment).