Tag Archives: teshuva

Are People Who Do Terrible Things Necessarily Terrible People?

Dear Josep,

This is a topic I’ve been thinking about for a very, very long time, and several half-baked posts on it have been sitting in my drafts folder for months, if not years. Don’t ask me why it finally gelled now, on the sixth day of Chanukah when my kids are on vacation, Eitan is off touring, I’ve been up since 4am for no good reason, I’m still in my PJ’s, I have writing/editing work to do that people actually pay me for due forthwith, and a doctor’s appointment I need to drag the kids to in a couple hours. But then, my muse has a habit of turning up at the strangest times. So here we are.

There were two epic stories that I found irresistibly captivating as a kid. One was the Star Wars trilogy (the original one. I prefer to pretend the so-called “prequels” don’t exist) and one was the Harry Potter series. I get the sense that sci-fi and fantasy are not your thing, but there’s a reason stories like these are so appealing to so many people. Both Star Wars and Harry Potter feature a hero who starts out an orphan living a hard life with his aunt and uncle, and is suddenly swept away to a magical world to discover that he is destined for a mystical and pivotal role in the ultimate redemption of his world. Who doesn’t fantasize at some point or other about discovering that they’re special and destined for greatness, and most importantly,  essential to the world they live in?

There is another thing about stories like these, however, that I think is universally appealing. In both of these stories, and in most other stories, there is a clear division between light and darkness. There are good guys and bad guys. In both Star Wars and Harry Potter, the hero discovers that there is a certain level of darkness within him; but ultimately it is still very clear to us what it takes to cross the line between the two.

Real life is much more complicated.

There’s been a recent wave of allegations against public figures, many of them media personalities, of sexual harassment and assault. Many of these people immediately lost their careers; their life’s work being banned or boycotted in response to the allegations. Which is only what they deserve, right? If you assault a woman, you are a Bad Guy, period, and everything you’ve ever done in your life is now tainted with evil. Right?

…So… that’s the thing.

People Are Complicated

Consider the following TED Talk by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger. They dated as teenagers, until Tom raped Thordis one night. The talk is about their raw and incredible story of shame, responsibility, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

There is one line Thordis says in the talk that really struck me: “How will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognize the humanity of those who commit it?”

Before we unpack this, let’s hop over to another case I’ve been thinking about a lot for a long time.

Rabbi Barry Freundel was a community rabbi who helped many people convert to Judaism in Washington D.C. He is currently serving jail time after being found guilty of voyeurism. He had set up a hidden camera in the community mikveh, and videotaped dozens of women as they prepared to immerse (which is done without clothes on). The entire Jewish world was rocked by this scandal. He was a well-loved rabbi who took advantage of the extremely vulnerable position of the women who trusted him. We were shocked and disgusted.

About two years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend when she mentioned something about trying to give him a call to see if he was all right. It turned out that she had known him fairly well–and that her experiences of him were all positive. She told me a story about him going well out of his way, well above the call of duty, to do an important kindness for her when she was in a vulnerable place. So I asked her how she can reconcile the kind, funny, friendly man she knew with the one who violated women’s privacy in such a despicable way.

I don’t remember her exact wording and who said what in this conversation, but the upshot was that people are complicated. Good people can do really awful things. Rabbi Freundel did some terrible things and he should pay the consequences for those actions. Aside from the damage he did to the sense of security and dignity of these women, he brought shame and dishonor on himself and on Jews as a whole.

But does that mean that the wonderful things he did–such as helping my friend in her hour of need–meant nothing?

Good Guys and Bad Guys

Is Rabbi Freundel a good person because of the good things he did? Or is he a terrible person because of the terrible things he did?

I’ll bring you a more extreme example.

This woman tells the story of how she slowly discovered that her beloved father had committed multiple murders over the course of his life. “Why am I so mad?” she retorts. “Because my mother stayed married to a murderer. Because she let a monster raise her child. But that’s the thing; my father wasn’t a monster. He was the guy who snuck me candy when my mother forbade it. And he was the guy who made up silly songs to sing on the way to school. And he was the guy who was home in time for dinner every single f***ing night. He was a good father to me.

Was he a monster?

Was he a good father?

Yes.

And yes.

In my review of Rabbi Sacks’s Not in God’s Name, I mention a concept he introduces: “moralistic dualism”. People who hold this worldview believe that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, the children of the light and the children of darkness. To a moralistic dualist, what this woman says about her father is an irreconcilable paradox. You can’t be both a monster and a good father. But he was. And he’s not the only one.

Which brings us to the place every single discussion about morality and evil brings everyone these days–the archetype of evil in our age. There’s an incredible German movie about the last hours of Adolf Hitler called Der Untergang, or “Downfall” in English. Some people took issue with the movie because it “humanized” Hitler.

And I must ask:

What was Hitler if not human?

Not only was he human–he was acting out of a belief that he was saving the world.

Does that mean he shouldn’t be held responsible for the choices he made? Of course not. Recognizing someone’s humanity does not and should not mean absolving them of responsibility.

This Is Where It Gets Really Uncomfortable

(Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

You know why I think we do this? Why we believe that people who do terrible things are irredeemable monsters?

Because we want to believe that we could never do it.

Oh yes. I see all you readers there squirming in your seats. “Me? I could never do such a thing. I’m a Good Guy. A child of light. I’m Harry Potter, I’m Luke Skywalker, I would never ever ever do something terrible.”

How true is that really? How different are you from Johnny Mascia and Barry Freundel and Louis C.K.?

This is the thing the world needs to hear and I’m going to do the blogging equivalent of shouting it from the rooftops:

IT IS NOT YOUR INHERENT NATURE THAT MAKES YOU DIFFERENT FROM HITLER.

IT IS YOUR CHOICES.

It is the choices you make every single day about how to wield your power.

We may not be wizards or Jedi knights, but we all have power, whether it’s physical, political, financial, social, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, artistic–what have you. It is how we choose to use our power that determines what we are. That is the ultimate message of both Star Wars and Harry Potter. Good Guy or Bad Guy is not a thing you are. It’s a thing you have to choose–every moment of your life.

On Forgiveness

Shortly before Yom Kippur last year, Rabbi Freundel issued a heartfelt public apology for his actions. “No matter how many times I attempt to apologize, it will never be enough,” he wrote. “I am sorry, beyond measure, for my heinous behavior and the perverse mindset that provoked my actions… as I sat in the courtroom listening the victim impact statements, each felt like a blade entering my gut. The speakers expressed their feelings of rage, hurt, humiliation, vulnerability, and violation. How could I have been so incredibly blind, so unaware of my impact on others? I ask myself that question every day.”

I’m probably going to get all kinds of comments on this post about how Rabbi Freundel doesn’t deserve to be called a rabbi and how could I even suggest that he is anything other than a voyeur, a peeping Tom, an abuser?

Yes, I am suggesting that. I am suggesting that people are bigger than their actions. That people can make bad choices and then genuinely regret them, and go on to become better people who don’t repeat those bad choices. We have a name for this process in Judaism. It’s called teshuva. And we believe it works because we believe that all people are, at their very core, pure goodnessTeshuva means “returning”: returning to your essence, to who you really are. And who you really are is a spark of the Divine–a spark that is always calling you to choose good.

We don’t have to forgive unforgivable acts. But we can forgive the people who commit them.

Obviously, it is not my place to forgive any of these people for what they have done, and I would never say that victims must do so. People need to do what’s right for them and take care of themselves and find their own journey to healing. Thordis found that forgiveness was the right path for her. It helped that her rapist was actually repentant and genuinely regretted what he did; that’s not always true. But it is true sometimes, and in the #MeToo world, I get the sense that people don’t actually believe that.

My editor at the Forward recently wrote a very nuanced piece about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and whether we should still be singing his music in the #MeToo era, given the allegations against him. I sent her an email thanking her for writing it, and I wrote that I wish we lived in a world where people actually believed in repentance and forgiveness. I think we need to start by being more humble; understanding that goodness is not what we are, it’s what we choose; understanding that humans don’t fit neatly into the categories of “good” or “evil”; and having the strength and compassion to believe in forgiveness.

Gotta run and tend to Real Life now. Happy Chanukah and Bon Nadal!

With love,

Daniella

The Battleground of Good and Evil: Human Nature in Judaism and Christianity

Prefer to listen? I read this letter for the Jewish Geography podcast:


 

Dear Josep,

One of the major philosophical differences I have noted between Christianity and Judaism is our concept of the nature of man, what he is capable of, and what he needs in order to elevate himself above the darker aspects of his nature.

When I first encountered this difference I was skeptical. I was educated from a strong Jewish perspective, so I was aware that anything anybody said about Christianity was sure to cast it in a negative light. Therefore, I thought that maybe those who had taught me about this aspect of Christianity had been exaggerating it. But the more I learned about the fundamental principles of Christianity, the more I realized that this difference does exist; and that maybe the fact that I see it as a negative aspect attests to how deeply ingrained the opposite idea is in my belief system.

The root of the disagreement is in how we interpret the results of what Christians call the Original Sin, the sin of Adam and Eve.

It was definitely not an apple. According to Jewish tradition, God did not reveal what type of tree it was so it would not be shunned on earth, but rumor among the Sages has it that it was a fig tree.
A 15th-century depiction. For the record, Jews do not believe it was an apple tree. According to Jewish tradition, God did not reveal what type of tree it was so it would not be shunned on earth, and there are (of course…) a variety of opinions as to what type of tree it was. Some say grapevine; some say fig; some say a stalk of wheat; and some say citron (yes, that fruit we use during Succot).

Both Christians and Jews agree that when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, it fundamentally changed the nature of man, his purpose and goals, and the nature of the world in which he lived. We also both believe that the sin caused some kind of intermingling, or “tainting,” of humankind with evil. But what Christians believe this means is that man can never redeem himself from his inherent evil; that it is part of his essence, from which he can never escape on his own. The only way to redeem oneself from it, Christianity says, is “salvation through Christ.” That is, that God manifested Himself in His son–Jesus–who then suffered and died on the cross to atone for that original sin. All you have to do to redeem yourself from evil, then, is to accept Jesus. (Obviously, different streams of Christianity have different ideas about exactly how to do that and what it means, but that’s the basic idea.) That way, God will grant you salvation and grace.

It took me years and a lot of reading to fully wrap my head around that concept, because it is just so foreign to me.

So here’s what Jews believe about the sin of Adam and Eve.

The Tree of Knowledge is actually not exactly an accurate translation of what the tree is called in Genesis. In the text, it is called “עץ הדעת טוב ורע,” “the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” But the word for “knowledge,” “דעת,” does not simply mean “knowledge” as in wisdom, awareness, understanding, or the retention of information. “דעת” implies a deep intermingling, synthesis, and connection. When the Torah says a man “knew” his wife and then she became pregnant, it’s not just a euphemism; “knowledge” in that context is describing a deep connection. A more accurate translation of the name of the tree, then, would be “the Tree of the Synthesis of Good and Evil.”

So the effect of the Tree of the Synthesis of Good and Evil was not simply to give man “knowledge,” but to cause an intertwining of good and evil within man. Before eating from the fruit of the Tree, evil did not exist within man. It was embodied in the snake, which was an external source of doubt and rebellion against God.

In Judaism we have a concept of the “good inclination” and the “evil inclination”–yetzer tov and yetzer ra respectively. This is what we call these opposite forces that exist within us, the yetzer tov pulling us to strive for Godliness, and the yetzer ra pulling us towards our base desires. We believe that man lives with a constant conflict between these inclinations. The real essence of our soul, our higher self, is really the yetzer tov; that is how God originally created us. The yetzer ra was the result of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree. It was no longer externalized as the snake. It became an integral part of the nature of Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit.

Our goal, our purpose, in life and in the world, is to overcome the yetzer ra–first within ourselves, and then outside ourselves, in the world at large. We believe that man is capable of this–that indeed, this is the mission God endowed us as people and especially as Jews. We do not need God’s salvation to overcome the evil within us, Judaism says. It is a constant struggle, but we believe that our job is to do it ourselves.

That said, God does help us out in a number of ways. The most important way, according to Judaism, was the giving of the Torah. The Torah is essentially a guidebook on overcoming the yetzer ra on a personal and societal level, and that is really the purpose of the mitzvot–to help us attain that goal. That is why the Torah is represented in the Garden of Eden, and later symbolically referred to, as the Tree of Life. The “fruits” of the Torah–the mitzvot–are the antidote to the fruits of the Tree of the Synthesis of Good and Evil.

"For a tree of life is she to those who cling to her, and those who hold on to her will be happy" (Proverbs 3:18)
“For a tree of life is she to those who cling to her, and those who hold on to her shall be happy” (Proverbs 3:18)

Jews and Christians agree that there were additional punishments God gave Adam and Eve because of their sin. He banished them from the Garden of Eden; he made them mortal; he cursed both Adam and Eve with the difficulty of labor–Adam, laboring for bread, and Eve, laboring for children. My interpretation of the significance of these punishments is that they were direct consequences of the synthesis of good and evil within man. God created the world in order to bestow His goodness upon it. But now, because good and evil were hopelessly intertwined, man would have to work hard to overcome the evil and attain the Godliness that he was created to receive. He could no longer sit in paradise and bask in God’s light. He needed to search for it and work for it, in a world where it was no longer obvious and tangible.

While this sounds like quite a bummer, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan points something out in his work, “A World of Love,” that reveals the unique power of a world in which good and evil can mingle. In the spiritual world, he says, proximity is determined by similarity. That is, if we wish to become close to God spiritually, we must become more like Him. The less we are like Him, the farther away from Him we are. By that understanding, in the spiritual world, nothing could possibly be farther away from good than evil. They are completely opposite and therefore can never engage with one another.

But spiritual matter can be anchored to physical matter–such as a soul to a body. And in the physical world, things that are evil can exist in very close proximity to things that are good. In that sense, then, this world, in which good and evil intermingle, is the only place where good can overcome evil. Our world is sort of a battleground between these two opposite forces, and we, human beings, are the soldiers on either side; it is up to us to choose which side. This battle wages within our hearts, but as you can clearly see, it also wages fiercely outside us, between different groups of humans who are making different choices about how to relate to the good and evil within themselves.

If you are interested in exploring these ideas more deeply, I highly recommend giving “A World of Love” a slow and careful read. It can be read online in its entirety here, or you can buy a copy of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book “If You Were God,” which includes this essay along with “If You Were God” (which I have referenced before and is also mind-blowing) and “Immortality of the Soul.”

But for now, back to human nature according to Judaism and Christianity.

The reason I was inspired to write about this was a little post on Brain Pickings about Dr. Viktor Frankl. Now, if you have never heard of this man or his iconic work, “Man’s Search for Meaning“… well then I don’t even know what to do with you because if anyone on earth should have read that book it’s you! Dr. Viktor Frankl was a Jewish Austrian psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz. Man’s Search for Meaning chronicles Dr. Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camp with a focus on his observations regarding the effect of the inmates’ attitudes on their survival, and goes on to describe the psychotherapeutic method he developed as a result of his observations, which he called “logotherapy.” His overarching idea is that more than anything else, man strives for a sense of purpose and meaning to his life, and that when he feels that his life has meaning, he can withstand even the most horrific conditions. And no one is more qualified than a survivor of Auschwitz to attest to that.

…Seriously. If you haven’t read it, get on that, pronto. It’s pretty short.

Anyway, the post on Brain Pickings brought a five-minute video excerpted from a lecture of Dr. Frankl’s, in which he says, “If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we overestimate him… we promote him to what he really can be. So we have to be idealists, in a way–because then we wind up as the true, the real realists.”

No wonder the Nazis tried to get rid of him. What a quintessentially Jewish idea.

Humans are not static; we are constantly evolving. You can’t give a precise measurement of a person’s goodness or potential, because these things are in constant flux. And when we believe in each other and in ourselves, believe that we are all capable of being better than we currently are, we create a supportive reality for ourselves to actually attain that potential. In essence, he is saying that the higher our expectations and hopes for ourselves, the higher we can reach.

That is why I find the Christian concept of the Original Sin and the inherent sinfulness of man so discouraging. Because in a sense, Christianity is telling us that we cannot make ourselves more than we are; only God can do that. And I much prefer to believe that I have the ability to overcome my darker nature and become a better person. But I can see something comforting in the Christian idea, too. When you don’t have the capacity to redeem yourself of sin, you don’t have that responsibility, either. You can (and indeed, must) hand it over to the priest, or to Jesus, or to God. We Jews don’t have that option. We have to take full responsibility for ourselves and our natures. A rabbi can only council us, he can’t absolve us of sin. God will only cleanse us of sin if we are willing to change ourselves, as I explained in my letter on teshuva. We must constantly struggle, believing that we have the capacity to overcome. This (among many other things!) makes Judaism a much more challenging and demanding approach to life. And obviously I am totally biased, but in my view–it’s well worth it. The reward of achieving something you have worked for is sweeter than any gift someone could give you.

Much love,

Daniella


ETA: Josep wishes to register his indignation at the very suggestion made in this post that he may not have read Man’s Search for Meaning. 😉 It was assigned as required reading when he was in middle school, around the time they took him to see Schindler’s List, and he remembers it as an extremely emotionally harrowing read.

From the Archives, November 2014: As Long as the Candle Burns

We are now in the full swing of Aseret Yamei Teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (which begins on Tuesday at sundown). I’ve already posted about this period and these holidays, which focus on repentance and forgiveness. As I wrote there, the High Holidays are really about repentance as a community, but many use it as an opportunity to do some soul-searching on an individual level, too. There is a custom to take the opportunity to ask forgiveness of those you may have hurt in the past year.

Josep asked me a while ago about forgiveness in Judaism, and I wrote him this e-mail last November to explain about the process of teshuva (repentance) in Jewish law and thought.

Enjoy, and gmar chatima tova (roughly, may you be sealed in the Book of Life) to all.


Dear Josep,

“For you shall return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and all your soul. For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away… Rather, [this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, for you to do it”

–Deuteronomy 30:10-14

The above passage is part of a larger section towards the end of Deuteronomy, discussing the “blessing and the curse” that God gave the nation of Israel. It is considered the Biblical source for the commandment of teshuva (repentance).

The concept of teshuva is based on two fundamental principles in Jewish thought:

1) No matter how low a person sinks, now matter how horrible his actions, he is always capable of redeeming himself and changing for the better.

A story goes that Rabbi Israel Salanter, a famous rabbi who focused on the study of moral conduct and ethics, was walking down a dark street one night, and saw a faint light flickering in a window. He approached the window and saw a shoemaker repairing an old shoe by the light of a dying candle. Rabbi Salanter said, “Look how late it is! Your candle is almost extinguished. Why are you still working?” The shoemaker said, “As long as the candle burns, it is possible to mend.” Rabbi Salanter was struck by the deep allegorical wisdom in those words. In Judaism, the flame is a symbol of the soul.

"As long as the candle burns, it is possible to mend"
“As long as the candle burns, it is possible to mend”

(This principle is, by the way, in sharp contrast to my understanding of Christian thought, which–as I understand it–argues that man is inherently sinful and is constantly pulled towards sin. According to Christian thought, the only way to redeem oneself from one’s inherent sinfulness is to accept Jesus as having died to atone for it. In a sense, Christians also believe that “as long as the candle burns, it is possible to mend,” but the Christian idea of “mending” is fundamentally different from ours.)

2) God is infinitely merciful and anxiously awaits our repentance. This is true in Christian thought as well. In the liturgy for Yom Kippur, there is a line that reads, “Until the day of [man’s] death, [God] will wait for him, and if he repents–[God] will immediately receive him.” The image we have is of a God who is waiting for you with outstretched arms and great anticipation. He is like a father whose child has done something wrong, who is waiting anxiously for the child to say he’s sorry, so He can embrace him, forgive him, and end the child’s suffering from the distance between them.

The word teshuva comes from the root ש.ו.ב., sh.u.v., which means “to return”. There is something very important to learn from this. It’s not just about returning to God. It’s about returning to yourself, to your “source”. We are all created with a Divine soul, and underneath all the layers, we are totally pure and good. Teshuva cleanses us from those layers.

In another sense, however, teshuva changes us fundamentally. One might ask, I have done something so terrible–my act was real and tangible. How can it simply be erased, as if it were no longer there? The answer, from the Jewish perspective, is that maybe the consequences of the sin still exist, but the person who committed that sin no longer exists. You are not him anymore, and when faced with the same temptation, you would turn away and not do what he did. Maimonides (who wrote a very important work on the practical aspects of teshuva) actually recommends symbolically changing one’s name as part of the process to demonstrate that you are no longer the same person as the one who committed the sin. Bringing this together with the idea I mentioned in the previous paragraph, you are a different person–one who is closer to your source, to what you could be, to the potential of your Divine soul.

According to Maimonides, there are four steps to the process of teshuva.

1. Regret (“In Your Heart”)

Notice that the word for this is “regret”, not “guilt”. The word in Hebrew for guilt is אשמה, ashma, which comes from the root א.ש.מ., a.sh.m., meaning to blame. Guilt is self-blame. It is a natural emotion to occur when we’ve done something wrong, but it can lead us further down the spiral of self-destruction and negativity. Shame and guilt are the sense that there is something inherently wrong with you. The Hebrew word for regret is חרטה, ḥarata, from the root ח.ר.ט, ḥ.r.t., which means to chisel, to smooth, to engrave. To refine, to make a permanent and enduring change to something. Regret is the recognition that you are inherently good, and you have failed to live up to your potential. That what you did is not an expression of who you really are and who you really could be.

This step is crucial, because obviously, if you don’t genuinely understand what you have done wrong, you can’t really change. And if you don’t genuinely recognize your own potential to be someone who would never commit that sin, there is also no way to move forward.

2. Cessation

This part is fairly obvious. To repent for a sin, you have to stop committing it.

3. Confession and Asking Forgiveness (“In Your Mouth”)

Both Christianity and modern psychology also recognize that thinking and feeling are not enough. We cannot truly be free of something that torments us until we have given it a name and spoken that name out loud.

There is no special formula for this in Judaism, and it doesn’t matter where you are when you do it. All you have to do is speak to Him aloud, asking forgiveness, and explicitly naming what you did, in your own words. Unlike Christianity, this process is straightforward and does not involve a spiritual leader as intermediary. It’s just you and Him.

Asking forgiveness from the person against whom you sinned is also a crucial part of the healing process–for both of you. Again, this has to be totally sincere. Whether that person is able or willing to accept your apology doesn’t have a bearing on your process of teshuva; what’s important is that you express your regret verbally to the person you hurt.

4. Resolution Not to Repeat the Sin

Obviously, all of this doesn’t mean very much if you are not sincerely committed not to sin again. This is the real expression of the fact that you have changed. Maimonides says that teshuva is complete when you reach a point that when faced with exactly the same circumstances and temptations, you would make the right choice.

Love,

Daniella