Repentance & Reconciliation

The concept of teshuva, or “repentance,” is at the heart of Jewish theology and a cornerstone of interfaith understanding.

In 1990, under the leadership of Cardinal Cassidy, the Catholic Church began its own process of reflection and repentance with respect to the Jewish people, culminating in the historic statement “We Remember,” in which the Church asked forgiveness of the Jews for past acts of anti-Semitism.

Following are excerpts of remarks of Rabbi Jack Bemporad presented at the Pontifical North American College in Vatican City, Rome regarding the Vatican’s document “We Remember.”

In Judaism, repentance – teshuvah constitutes a new relationship to oneself, to the other and to the divine.

Teshuvah, as understood in Jewish teaching, involves not merely the consciousness of having done wrong but also the determination to rectify that wrong. Simply the consciousness or even the determination to change and not to again indulge that wrong is not sufficient in itself. For example, the Mishna in Yoma specifically admonishes, “if one says; I shall sin and repent, sin and repent, no opportunity will be given him to repent. If one says I shall sin and the Day of Atonement will procure atonement for me, the Day of Atonement procures for him no atonement.” (Bab. Talmud Tractate Yoma 85B) It is taken for granted that apart from “turning” in a full sense, repentance simply is ineffective. Merely acknowledging that one has sinned and asking forgiveness is not enough if one has intention of continuing in the same way of life. Thus to repent with the intention of sinning anew is no genuine or real repentance, neither can the day of atonement, the day set aside in the Jewish religion for repentance, bring about forgiveness for those who intend to go on sinning.

Indeed, the Mishna continues that even the day of atonement, as significant as that is for the forgiveness of sins, is not sufficient. “To atone for sins between man and the omnipresent (God) the day of atonement procures atonement. But for transgressions as between man and his fellow, the Day of Atonement does not procure any atonement until he has pacified his fellow.” (Ibid.) Repentance constitutes an actual transformation of the self and his interrelationships. In fact, it is only through repentance that the possibility of transformation can take place and the individual who did the wrong can become a new self. The new self disassociates himself from his former self and as it were emerges into a new life and a new relationship is now established with the past, with the other, and with the Divine.

This threefold relationship constitutive of repentance is a deeper and prior condition for Maimonides classic definition of true repentance wherein the individual facing the same situation acts differently. In Chapter Two of Maimonides Tractate on the regulations on teshuvah – repentance, he asks, “what is complete repentance? It is so when an opportunity presents itself for repeating an offense once committed, and the offender, while able to commit the offense, nevertheless refrains from doing so because he has repented and not out of fear or failure of vigor.” (see Book of Knowledge translated by Moses Hy Amson p.82B with slight alteration of the translation)

The doer of repentance does not repeat the offense due to the self transformation brought about through,teshuvah, having repented the past action, and having recognized the change which being now a new entity has brought about. The individual will not only not repeat the offense and endeavor to rectify to damage done, he will act differently. In the words of Herman Cohen, a turning away takes place. Of course both Maimonides and Cohen are referring to individual repentance. In fact, Maimonides concludes that paragraph with the remark, “if one remembers his creator and repents before death he is forgiven.” Maimonides is building on the classic text for repentance and forgiveness from the prophet Ezekiel. That God does not desire the death of the sinner but that he repent and live.

Maimonides continues by asking, “What is repentance? It consists in this, that the sinner abandon his sin, remove it from his thoughts, and resolve in his heart never to repeat it.” (Ibid.) Repentance is therefore needed to establish not only forgiveness, but for continued vitality and the possibility of the enhancement of life. It is to place the individual on a new level and thereby enabling the choice of life. It is for this reason that forgiveness is so intimately associated with repentance.

Baeck clearly indicates the role of repentance in Judaism. In his classic work, The Essence of Judaism (p.163), he states, “Man can ‘return’ to this freedom and purity, to God, the reality of his life, if he has sinned. He is always able to turn and to find his way back to the Holy, which is more than the earthly and beyond the limitations of his life: He can hallow and purify himself again; he can atone. He can always decide anew and begin anew. For man there is always the constant possibility of a new ethical beginning. The task of choice and realization, of freedom and deed, is never completed. ‘Return’ – thus does Judaism speak to men as long as they breathe; ‘return’ – but not as misunderstanding has interpreted it, “do penance” this return, this teshuvah, is the atonement of which man is never bereft and in which he is always able to renew his life.”

Further on, Baeck states, (p.230) “All reconciliation involves the way to the future; for in all return there is a progression. Mankind has the capacity of continual self renewal, of continual rebirth, of breaking obstruction, of turning ever again to atonement and reconciliation. For the path of history, the good remains mankind’s task despite all the bypaths of its errors. As an old saying has it: ‘A sin may extinguish a commandment, but it cannot extinguish the Torah’ (Sotah 21A)- The ‘light’ remains and in its radiance mankind finds its future. As another saying of the Talmud has it, the ‘day of atonement is the day which never ends.’ When history reaches this day of return, a new epoch begins in it. Then history declares a new covenant with God; life proves itself in history and finds its realization…The goal is teshuvah, the return to the origin, the pure and creative within ourselves…No historical incident is here seen as an isolated event or a mere link in the chain of fate; on the contrary, it is accorded a meaning and a value in the whole passage of human history. Thus the mythological conception of fate is…overcome. And also overcome is the historical loneliness of the generations believing themselves doomed to annihilation so soon as they are lowered into their graves. Here on the contrary each generation becomes an integral part of a series of generations, and thereby part of the great significance of history…History offers the answer to the depressing problem of individual existence because it makes possible a fulfillment of the tasks that are beyond the scope of any one generation.”

The teaching that the past can be redeemed if it can be connected to a present that endeavors to redeem it, is at the heart of the Jewish teaching of repentance and has been clearly put by the philosopher Max Scheler, very much in the spirit of prophetic Judaism. He argues (in his essay Repentance and Rebirth from the book on The Eternal in Man), that the past is indeterminate in significance until it has yielded all its potential effects. He states, “Every event of our past remains indeterminate in significance and incomplete in value until it has yielded all its potential effects.” (p.40) “Historical reality is incomplete and, so to speak redeemable.” (p.41J) Historical reality is incomplete and thereby redeemable. The past takes on new relationships in terms of the decisions we make in the present. As Scheler states the issue is “what ate we going to make of it?” Repentance not only involves a transformation of one’s thinking and doing, but also a transformation of being, it involves a change of heart.

When Cardinal Cassidy made his historic statement inaugurating the Prague conference devoted to the exploration of the history if anti-Semitism both past and present, he wanted to categorically assert that past acts of the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church required an act of teshuvah. I believe that he used the Hebrew word and the Jewish concept purposely and quite deliberately. He wanted to concentrate on its Jewish significance, otherwise he would never have used the Hebrew word. As we have seen, the word signifies in its etymological sense, a turn and a return. A new direction in Christian-Jewish relationships and history; a different relationship in the Church’s relationship to itself, to the Jews and in so far as Catholics may have acted in ways contrary to God’s word, a new relationship with God. It is one thing to condemn anti-Semitism in general and by anyone, anywhere. It is another thing to condemn it here by us and in the immediate past. But condemning it is not enough. A new way, a new direction is now required of us and what Cardinal Cassidy in his carefully constructed remarks was pointing to was a new way.

The Hebrew word teshuvah used in some of the bishops statements and in the document We Remember, clearly affirms that now and henceforth the Catholic community has learned that a new relationship must exist between the Church and the Jewish people. A new understanding of Judaism on the part of Catholics. A deepening relationship toward one another is necessary. A solidarity is envisioned whereby we could work together toward healing in good faith. A recognition that we needed to work together for mutual goals of redemption of “tikun olam,” the repairing of the world… and we have to do it as brothers. I have no way of knowing whether Cardinal Cassidy was aware of Baecks statement, that penance is not the heart of teshuvah but a new self; a new path, and a new direction that would never again repeat the way of the past and its cruelty. But I am sure that he was not stressing penance but rather recognition of a past that had begun to change with Nostra Aetate and the Guidelines and Notes. With the Papal statements and the visit to the Synagogue in Rome, and with the continuing efforts on the part of the Vatican and the Church to clarify its relations to the Jewish past and future.

I am sure that Cardinal Cassidy was fully aware of Maimonides’ statement that true repentance meant to face the same situation and act differently. As we have seen, the Pope embodied teshuvah in the Maimonidean sense in his many statements and actions directed toward reconciliation. And teshuvah, was also embodied in the agreement establishing full diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See when it provided for united effort on the part of the Catholic Church everywhere to fight anti-Semitism wherever it may occur.

The highest theological significance has been given by the Pope to the Shoah. It is a warning cry, that the suffering people of Israel has given to the world. That not just Jews or Christians but all human beings shall never again be degraded and dehumanized and treated like non-persons. But that all human beings created in the divine image shall be given a place in the sun to live in peace and the prophetic vision be realized that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation or learn war anymore but each person shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree and none shall make them afraid.”