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Beit Hamidrash

Repentance: change of and within ourselves

By: Naftali Ehrenkranz

      To say that Judaism is a complex religion is to make a major understatement. Just the analysis of the 5 books of the Torah, the tip of the iceberg that is Jewish writings, has and still perplexes students and teachers for hundreds of generations. Within the Halchic and philosophical realm, however, Teshuva (repentance) proves itself to be one of the most complicated and confusing concepts. Thousands of questions have been argued upon by great Jewish intellectuals throughout history. Even after all of this, Teshuva still has not become a clear easily understood subject. Just miniscule segments of Rambam's Hilchot Teshuva have sparked incredible debates among the centuries' greatest gedolim.

        In Hilchot Teshuva, perek 2 Halacha 4, the Rambam writes that in order to do Teshuva one must change their name, claim that they are a different person (and therefore become a different person) and change their ways, among other things. There is a huge emphasis on change over here. In order for one to fufill their obligation of Teshuva, they must change their name, ways, and even their identity. Although this transformation seems a bit radical, let us rather focus on two other questions:

1: What is this "change of identity"?

2: How does one change their identity?

         Two of possibly the wisest Rabbis of the 20th century, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Cook Z"l and Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, attempt to answer these two questions. They address this issue with both beautiful yet completely different answers.

        Rav Cook claims that Teshuva is one's inner movement towards perfection. It is an internal process of self recognition. In order to truly do Teshuva one must discover the divine within themselves. God is not impossibly far away; on the contrary, He is part of every single one of His creations. Therefore, the change we make to ourselves, while doing Teshuva, is a return to our true selves, and within ourselves a return towards our Creator.

          Rav Soloveitchik believes that Teshuva cannot work within physical measured time; he claims that it can only occur within "living time". "Living time", he explains, is when all tenses: past, present and future, all happen in one's conscience within the same moment. Therefore, each tense equally affects the other. With this notion, the Rav defines Teshuva as the following: "The main principle of repentance is that the future dominate the past and there reign over it in unbounded fashion." In other words, the future is more influential in one's Teshuva since it guides the trajectory of one's past. What begins with sin is not necessarily negative because it has the potential to end with mitzvoth (and Teshuva). The change here is creation. One creates a new self by releasing themselves from their mindless, daily routine of sinning.

          Both Rabbis present eloquent and intelligent opinions on this topic, but if I were to choose which argument I better connect with, I would choose Rav Soloveitchik's. His definition of change in Teshuva appears to be closer to the Rambam's original definition than Rav Cook's opinion is. According to Rav Soloveitchik, the change is active; one must create a new self, a new future which in turn changes their past. This individual is most certainly changing their identity. According to Rav Cook, the change is more passive; one has to discover their true selves. This opinion does not harmonize too well with the Rambam's, since the individual is not changing their identity; rather, they are rediscovering it.

        Whether you agree with Rav Cook or Rav Soloveitchik, we can all agree that in order to truly repent, we must work hard at making ourselves become better people, and hopefully,