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

A Time for Re-thinking

We are approaching Advent, the beginning of the Christian liturgical year.  You would never guess it by the red cups at Starbucks and commercial hubbub proclaiming the holiday shopping season, but Advent is traditionally a penitential season.  It is a time for reflecting on the past year and deciding what course corrections we need, not unlike Elul in the Jewish tradition.

The Jewish tradition offers a framework for pursuing this re-thinking of past choices, and the Hebrew name for it is teshuvah.  Literally it means “turning back” to God.  Participants in my Reconciliation Workshop for Episcopalians rank the teshuvah discussion highest.  Many Christians wondering how to repent find teshuvah to be a useful framework.  Although highly individual, teshuvah nominally consists of five elements.

Recognition:  Recognizing sin as sin requires intellectual assent to a moral compass, or awareness of right and wrong.  Awareness is key.  Someone who grew up in a house full of gossip may not immediately recognize the sinfulness of the evil tongue.  When undertaken seriously, introspection involves not only recognizing wrongdoing but also delving into the motives that drive patterns of action.

Remorse:  Once we see the moral failure in our thoughts and actions, after we have cast aside blame and have assumed full responsibility for our own acts, it is natural to feel regret for them.  We might feel a separation from God.  We might even feel a separation from ourselves, or the self we hope to be.  Actions count more than feelings in the Jewish tradition, so it is significant that this feeling finds such a prominent place in this process.  Remorse is important because it signals a change of heart.  It’s the very seed of transformation, and God plants it.

Restitution:  An apology expresses regret whereas restitution restores justice.  Restitution may be as simple as an earnest apology.  If a pattern of destruction caused repeated or serious harm, restitution may require concerted effort and expense.  Leviticus 6:5 established restitution as the amount of damages plus 20%.  In Luke 19:8, notorious Jericho tax collector Zacchaeus turns to Jesus and declares, “If I have defrauded anyone of anything I will pay back four times as much.”  His declaration would have impressed hearers in his day as extraordinary restitution.

Resisting Wrongdoing:  The single action that can do the most to mend fractured relationships is to stop causing harm.  Sometimes this step is delineated as two separate steps, with resolving never to commit the offense in the future as a separate step, much as the Twelve Steps delineate readiness for Gods help to change as a separate step from asking for God’s help to change.  Although all the elements of teshuvah are required, desisting from wrongdoing is regarded as the most difficult and most important.

Confession:  There are many rabbinic traditions for confession.  Some recognize inserting one’s personal confession of sins into the liturgy at the proper moments in the community ritual.  Others encourage a private confession to God in prayer in addition to ritual confession.  Some insist on speaking the confession aloud, as our thoughts crystalize when articulated verbally, and words take on weight or their own when spoken.  Christians also recognize several traditions for confession, including confession in community before communion and individual private confession spoken aloud to another person. Many traditions recognize profound healing power in confession.

Join the conversation.  When do you make time for re-thinking the year gone by?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.