Hanging by a Thread

My favorite thing about Jewish teaching on teshuvah, and truly, in many ways my favorite thing about Judaism, is its embrace of human nature—not the way we should be, but the way we really are.

Teshuvah is the name for the rabbinic concept of repentance that, along with prayer and tzedakah, is necessary to receive God’s forgiveness.  It is a process for turning away from our old ways, turning to God, turning to relationships with others, and turning to one’s true self–the self one was created to become.  The process of teshuvah includes feelings of remorse for our wrongs, intellectual assent to what is right and intent to change–all of which are interior and lack a clear external benchmark.  The external benchmark that matters for teshuvah is simply to stop wrongdoing. Doing so undoubtedly requires those interior changes, and indeed teshuvah requires them also, but completing teshuvah rests on action.

The Jewish tradition recognizes degrees of teshuvah.  To stop sinning due to fear of human consequence is a lower degree of teshuvah than to stop sinning due to fear of divine consequences after death, which is yet a lower degree of teshuvah than to stop sinning due to a change of heart.  To stop sinning because of love is the highest degree of teshuvah, but it is not required for forgiveness.  The right actions are enough.

Jesus’ parable of the prodigal reads like a “how to complete teshuvah” guide.  He veers off course, he realizes his wrongs, he regrets them, he confesses and offers amends to his father and he stops his riotous living.  But why?  Did the son return to his father out of love, his hardship having led him to appreciate his father in a whole new way? Or did he return because he was hungry?  In the Jewish tradition, it doesn’t matter.  The salient point is that he turned.

For some, a complete conversion of interior motives might seem dauntingly out of reach.  Judaism does not require inner transformation in the process of repentance and forgiveness.  Rather, it recognizes lesser modes of rapprochement as fully adequate.  A
penitent who continues to struggle with the same patterns that led him to sin prior to teshuvah, yet nonetheless manages to desist from sin, even if barely hanging on by a thread, is assured of forgiveness despite his continuing inner struggle.

In time, perhaps the inner transformation will come along also.  Rather than approaching the steps in teshuvah in a particular order, some approach them as a spiral.  Each step is visited and revisited as the penitent’s teshuvah deepens.  As a person makes amends, he comes into a more complete recognition of his offense.  As his remorse deepens, he desists from wrongdoing with greater earnestness and his confession becomes more genuinely humble.

Join the conversation.  When have you had to “fake it ‘til you make it?”  How did it work?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at

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