Repentance, Evolved

Originally delivered on Rosh Hashanah in Princeton, NJ 5778 (2017). A shorter version of this sermon, primarily focused on the conclusion, is available in blog form.

The rabbis teach[1] that even before God created the physical universe, God created repentance. But a modern biblical scholar named David Lambert disagrees. He teaches that the rabbis, not God, created repentance. And, as shocking as it may sound, he says they didn’t create teshuvah before the world was created, but rather around the first century of the common era. Dr. David Lambert is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. I will refer to him by his last name “Lambert” during the sermon. His book is called How Repentance Became Biblical. Lambert’s scholarship has the potential to transform how we modern Jews approach teshuvah.

Before I go too far, however, I feel the need to put a warning label on this sermon. This sermon contains a variety of intellectual arguments that might be easier to digest by reading, rather than listening. This sermon also refers to many more Jewish texts and stories than I would normally put into a single sermon. My hope is that this sermon will feel like a deep dive into the waters of repentance, without feeling like we are drowning. You can tell me afterwards whether I succeeded or not.

With that warning, let us begin by looking at the biblical practice of fasting, which we often associate with repentance. Lambert shows that, in the Bible, the practice of fasting is governed by a particular, let’s call it, Theory of Change. That theory of change is: when you are suffering, you can make things better by fasting. How so? Fasting makes your suffering visible to others and especially to God. Too often, our pain and suffering are invisible. Depriving oneself of food and water is a way of making the invisible, visible; a way of crying out; a way of getting God’s attention.

The best analogy for fasting in the bible is the hunger strike. People do not go on a hunger strike to repent or show remorse. People go on a hunger strike to bring attention to their situation. In 1917, Alice Paul went on a hunger strike to draw attention to women’s right to vote. In 1968, Cesar Chavez went on a hunger strike to bring attention to the rights of farm workers. In the Bible, Hannah went on a hunger strike to bring attention to her state of infertility. When someone goes on a hunger strike, we are forced to pay attention. It is exactly that response — the paying attention — that biblical figures who fast are hoping for.

We encounter[ed] Hannah’s story during [tomorrow’s / today’s] Haftorah reading. Hannah herself explains that her self-affliction is an attempt to get God’s attention: She says: “O Lord of Hosts, look upon the ‘oni, the affliction of your maidservant and remember me … ”[2] Look upon my affliction, see how I am not eating and how I am crying and take notice! Another striking example of biblical fasting appears in the story of King David and Bathsheba.[3] David has an illicit relationship with Bathsheba and arranges to have her husband, Uriah, killed. Later, David is confronted by the prophet Nathan, who convinces David that he has sinned against God. The prophet declares God’s judgment for committing adultery and having his lover’s husband murdered: the child of their illicit union will die. Indeed, the child takes ill. So King David fasts, and explains why: “I fasted and wept because I thought: ‘Who knows? The LORD may have pity on me, and the child may live’ .”[4] In other words: if I go on a hunger strike and cry out, perhaps God will take notice.

This is the Theory of Change of fasting in the bible. Fasting in the bible is not about repentance or self-reflection or changing behavior. In the Bible, fasting is a way for anyone, whether rich or poor, to get an audience with the king of kings. Physical manifestations of suffering, like fasting, cause distress to God. Lambert argues that making suffering visible creates an untenable situation that demands a divine response.[5]

Now we are ready to go one layer deeper. According to the biblical understanding, this special form of communicating with God can sometimes get blocked. The most common way that it gets blocked is the presence of sin. Lambert shows how the presence of sin infuriates God. When God sees sin, God becomes unable to empathize with fasting or self-affliction or crying out.[6] And to avoid future suffering, the only solution is to remove the sin, to remove the object that is making God angry.

One place to see how this works is the story of Jonah, which we will read together on YK afternoon. Jonah flees God’s presence by sailing away in the wrong direction. A storm comes. The sailors cast lots to identify who is causing the evil that has come upon them. Jonah tells the sailors: since he is the cause of the sin, he has to be thrown into the sea. The sailors cast Jonah into the sea, and the sea stops raging. The source of the sin has been removed. God’s wrath abates.

Another example of how sin blocks the channel to God’s mercy appears in the book of Joshua. You may recall the story of how the Israelites captured the city of Jericho soon after entering the Land. After circling the city for 7 days, the Israelites cause the walls of Jericho to fall. You may not recall, however, that when the Israelites destroy Jericho, they commit a major sin. God explicitly instructed the Israelites not to take from the cherem, a word that has been translated as “devoted thing” or “proscribed thing.”[7] At least one Israelite does take this forbidden thing, and God becomes angry.[8] Right afterwards, when Joshua and the Israelites were trying to capture the next Canaanite city, the city of Ai, they experience a great defeat. So Joshua engages in the standard acts of self-affliction and crying out: he tears his clothes, he falls on his face, he puts dust on his head: he makes his suffering visible. God tells Joshua to get up, saying “Why are you falling on your face? Israel has sinned…I will be with you no more until you destroy the devoted items that you took.[9] In other words, the Israelites’ sin of taking the forbidden items at Jericho has blocked the channel to God’s mercy. Until the source of the sin is removed, God will not heed any crying out.

At this point, we are ready to re-interpret another classic text for this season: Isaiah 58, the Haftorah reading for Yom Kippur morning. The reading begins with the people crying out to God, “Why aren’t you paying attention to us? We are fasting! We are afflicting our souls, but You (God) are not paying attention!” God speaks through Isaiah, saying “Is this the fast I have chosen, a day for you to starve your bodies and afflict yourself?…But is this not the fast I have chosen: to unlock fetters of wickedness, to let the oppressed go free!

I have always understood this passage as Isaiah critiquing the people for spending the day in self-affliction instead of actually doing something that will help people who are afflicted. And I understood the rabbis’ decision to read Isaiah 58 on Yom Kippur as a not-so-subtle kick in the pants: Hey Jews! All this praying you are doing may be well-intentioned but it is not good enough, it is not what God really wants.

But Lambert’s analysis makes a different interpretation possible. If, in the biblical worldview, our ability to collectively grab God’s attention is blocked by the presence of sin, then perhaps what Isaiah is saying is, God is not going to hear our cries or have any empathy toward our pleas until we remove the sin that is angering God. God cares about the orphan, the widow and the stranger. So if we are doing things that somehow harm the most vulnerable people in our society, we are going to make God angry. Perhaps Isaiah is not telling us to stop fasting and stop praying. He may be telling us that fasting and praying will have no effect on God until we remove our sinful behavior.

So far, we have been re-discovering the Biblical view of repentance, as seen through the lens of Lambert’s book, How Repentance Became Biblical. But our modern sense — as 21st century Jews — of Repentance bears little resemblance to these biblical views. That’s because our understanding of repentance is rooted in the creative work of the rabbis, starting in the first century.

The Hebrew word we know for repentance is teshuvah. That word, teshuvah, appears a handful of times in Tanakh, but it never means anything like repentance. The rabbis gave an entirely new meaning to the word. They used it to describe a process: let’s call it a “technology of the self.”

Here are some of the ways the rabbis created a new understanding of teshuvah.

· In the Tanakh, the goal is to remove material objects or actions that are angering God. For the rabbis, repentance is an interior, reflective, mental act.

· In the Tanakh, it doesn’t matter at all who initiated or took action to remove sin. For the Rabbis, repentance is performed by the sinner, an agent who acts with free will.

· In the Tanakh, the focus of the word shuv, of turning, is only on the present state — what is happening right now. For the Rabbis, repentance looks back at past behavior, and is intended to change future behavior.

We might call the Rabbinic approach a “spiritual exercise.”[10] We use our own internal resources to operate on ourselves. Perhaps this is the Jewish beginning of self-help. There is a story[11] in the Talmud that, for me, crystallizes the rabbinic repentance revolution. It is a story about Beruriah, who was married to Rabbi Meir.

There were some lawless men living in the neighborhood of Rabbi Meir, and they used to cause him pain. Once, Rabbi Meir asked of God that the[se men] should die. His wife, Beruriah, asked, “What are you thinking? Is it because it is written (in the book of Psalms), ‘Let sinners cease out of the earth’? [Beruria then makes a beautiful linguistic twist of the verse, to suggest that the verse can be interpreted to mean that first, ‘sins will cease,’ and then ‘the wicked will be no more.’ So she tells Rabbi Meir:] You should ask God that the[se lawless men should] repent and stop being evil.” R. Meir asked God on their behalf and they repented.

Here we have a beautiful example of the revolution from the biblical notion of removing the cause of the sin from the world — which in this case would have meant the death of a group of lawless men — to the rabbinic notion of repentance, in which people who sin are given the opportunity to make teshuvah.

Because of our familiarity with the rabbinic notion of teshuvah, I won’t describe it in more detail now. If you want to dig deeper, you can pick up a copy of Lambert’s book, How Repentance Became Biblical. But I will ask the question about why any of this matters. Beyond creating waves in the academy, so what? What does it matter if we can show that our contemporary practices and understanding of repentance, of teshuvah, were not born in the biblical text, but instead are rooted in rabbinic interpretations of the Bible? Who cares?

To close this sermon, I would like to offer one possible answer to this question. Knowing that our understanding and practices of repentance have evolved dramatically allows us to imagine the future evolution of teshuvah. And the evolution that I would like to see is what we might call “collective repentance.”

We Americans, as a collective, as a society, do not have a process for communal repentance. This summer, before and after the spectacle and tragedy of the protests in Charlottesville, we witnessed renewed public debates over what do to with civil war monuments. How, exactly, does a society repent for actions that took place generations ago? In the social justice circles I am active in, Black American thought leaders are laying the groundwork for reparations, a major conversation about financial repentance for the sin of slavery upon which this country was built. And Native American leaders I know continue to call for a public conversation about repentance for the genocide that earlier Americans committed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Our rabbis created teshuvah as a tool for individuals to reflect on past behavior. Can we, like the rabbis before us, summon the courage to create ways for our society to reflect on past collective behavior? Can we learn something from how German society struggled with its leadership of the Holocaust? Or from Catholic and Protestant theologians who wrestled with their interpretations of Judaism in the mid-twentieth century? Or from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa? Is repentance in American society ready for a 21st century evolution, one that would empower us to courageously, and collectively, take responsibility for the actions of our past and make things more right with those our society has harmed?

One direction that collective repentance might take is hinted at in Lambert’s scholarship. In an email exchange I had with Lambert, he described our contemporary approach to repentance as a “near obsession with interiority.” He critiques[12] today’s understanding of repentance as being overly focused on the victimizer. “The offenders — their feelings, their thoughts, their actions — remain center stage. They control the narrative. When will they choose to apologize? How do they feel about what they’ve done?” Instead, he suggests, we should re-embrace an approach found in the Hebrew Bible. There, the cries of those who are oppressed, widows, orphans or the enslaved Israelites, are heard. Victim are subjects in the narrative.

Any serious attempt at collective repentance must feature the voices of those who have been oppressed. Listening carefully to the cries of those who have been and in many cases continue to be marginalized in American society is one place to start. My purpose in bringing up the difficult topic of collective repentance is to show that the ancient rabbis did not complete the task of evolving the meaning of repentance. We still have much work to do to make teshuvah relevant to our own time. And as a people who have been on the oppressed side of at least two major collective repentance projects of the 20th century, one with German society and one with Christian theologians, we Jews may have something to offer along the way.

I would like to close with a midrash on Lamentations.

Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman had a reputation of being a master of aggadah. So Rabbi Helbo asked him to interpret a verse from the 3rd chapter of Lamentations. “You have covered Yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through” (Lam. 3:44). R. Samuel bar Nahman replied: prayer is like a mikvah, and teshuvah is like the sea. Just as the mikvah is sometimes open and sometimes locked, so the gates of prayer are sometimes locked and sometimes open. But just as the sea is always open, so are the gates of repentance always open.

In a 2017 version of the midrash we might say, just as the pools around town have gates around them and are sometimes open, and sometimes locked, so too are the times for communal prayer fixed by others. But teshuvah is like the sea, it has no gates, it can never be locked. The sea is always open. There are no gates blocking us from individual repentance. There are no gates blocking us from Collective Repentance. May we all take advantage of these ten days of amnesty, the ten days of teshuvah that the rabbis have crafted for us as a time to reflect, to turn, to ask others for forgiveness, and to find something we can do better at next year.

[1] Nedarim 39b

[2] 1 Samuel 1:11

[3] 2 Samuel 11ff

[4] 2 Samuel 12:22

[5] Lambert 453 (all Lambert references are to Kindle reading locations).

[6] Lambert 623.

[7] Joshua 6:18

[8] Joshua 7:1

[9] Joshua 7:10–12

[10] Lambert 3534.

[11] B. Brachot 10a.

[12]Repent Trump! The Problem With Apology” Religion Dispatches 10/20/16.

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