newsJewish & Israeli Holidays

Repentance: A Leap Across Faiths

Design by: Sara Massarsky. Jewish man: Bundesarchiv, Bild/Knobloch, Ludwig. Christian man: Giacomo Ariani. Muslim man: Sanjay Austa.
Design by: Sara Massarsky. Jewish man: Bundesarchiv, Bild/Knobloch, Ludwig. Christian man: Giacomo Ariani. Muslim man: Sanjay Austa.

It’s been a banner year for transgressions.

Congressman Anthony Weiner is forced to resign after sending sexually explicit photos (after initially denying he had done so); the Murdoch papers are embroiled in a phone hacking scandal that implicates law-enforcement officials and undermines the integrity of British lawmakers; polygamist Warren Jeffs is convicted of raping two minors who were his “wives;” the Catholic Church continues to struggle with a seemingly endless string of revelations about clergy sexual abuse and decades-long cover-ups.  If we needed more evidence that human beings are inclined to engage in illicit behavior—and deny they are doing so—we need look no further than the morning paper.

How do we understand this human tendency to do evil? The Torah teaches us that its roots reach back to the very beginnings of human history—back to the Garden of Eden.

The question we face—especially as the Days of Repentance are upon us—is what we can do about our transgressions. Is there any way to undo the wrongs we have done and avoid making them again in the future?

Most Jews today regard “sin” as a primarily Christian concept. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Jews have always recognized that the tendency to transgress is deeply rooted in human nature (the yetser ha-ra, “evil inclination”). The traditional High Holiday liturgy spells out a long litany of transgressions we have collectively committed against one another. The traditional list is alphabetical, as if to remind us that we need to acknowledge and deal with all our transgressions, from A to Z.

For Jews, then, sin has been primarily understood behaviorally and in relationship to other human beings. We think about sins (each discrete act) and about the ways in which these specific harmful behaviors have undermined our relationships with others. And though we recite this confessional as part of our worship service, Jewish tradition keeps the focus on the interpersonal dimension of sin. God will forgive us only after we have sought forgiveness from those individuals we have harmed.

These views may seem obvious and uncontroversial, but they are not. Christianity, on the whole, has thought of sin differently—as a state of being which colors all aspects of human life. Christian reflections on sin, therefore, tend to focus on the condition of sinfulness (as opposed to discrete acts of wrongdoing). Moreover, Christianity has generally regarded sin as primarily an offense against God and secondarily against others.  If only we could get into the right relationship with God, our behavior toward one another would follow naturally.

These different ways of understanding sin lead to different ways of thinking about repentance. For Jewish thinkers, the work of repentance is primarily ours to do, though we implore God to help us.  To repent is to become whole again, to “return” (the root meaning of teshuvah) to the people we most fundamentally already are. For just as we sin one act at a time, we can likewise repent step-by-step as we strive to undo the effects of each individual transgression.

By contrast, when Christian thinkers discuss repentance, they tend to understand the concept as one of “conversion” (Greek,metanoia, “change of mind/heart”) in relation to God. Just as sin is primarily a matter of disorientation toward God, repentance is primarily about reorientation toward God through penance and prayer. Typically, for Christian thinkers repentance is at root atheological concept, while for Jews it is mostly an ethical concept.

Many Christian thinkers have thought of sin as a condition so deeply ingrained in our nature that we cannot escape from it on our own. It is only through a divine savior, who has been sent to the world as an act of divine love, that we can find salvation from sin. Because sin infects human nature so deeply, the human power of repentance is more limited.

Christians and Jews, then, agree that repentance is central to religious life, but they differ about where the focus lies (on interhuman relations for Jews; on human/divine relationship for Christians), as well as about the power of repentance to undo the sins we have committed. If we were to generalize, we might say that Jews put more stock in repentance for our wrongdoing, but only because we take the condition of sinfulness less seriously.

The contrast between these two views is best captured in the statements of Maimonides, “There is no sin so great that it can withstand the power of teshuvah,” and of Soren Kierkegaard, the great 19th century Christian theologian, “Repentance cannot cancel sin, it can only sorrow over it.  Sin advances in its consequence; repentance follows it step by step, but always a moment too late.”

For Jews, sin is real and persistent, but it is not a death sentence. There is an antidote; we call it repentance. That is the good news. The bad news is that the work of teshuvah is arduous. It requires deep moral introspection, the willingness to confront our failings honestly and to admit them openly and humbly to those we have hurt. And the process of doing teshuvah is a life-long project; we are never done.

Most of our sins (thankfully) are not so egregious that they make headlines. Yet, large or small, public or private, our transgressions take us away from our truest selves, damage our relationships with others, and alienate us from God. Jewish tradition offers us a great deal of wisdom on this perennial human predicament. Its insights into human sinfulness and repentance remain as transformative—and accessible—now as they were when the ancient rabbis first formulated them centuries ago.

Louis E. Newman is the John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies at Carleton College and author, most recently, of Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah( He teaches and offers workshops on Jewish ethics throughout the country.


As told to JNS by Ze’ev Maghen:

There is a story in the Quran of Umar, one of Mohammad’s closest friends and the future second caliph. One night during Ramadan, Umar broke the fast at Mohammad’s and went home in the wee hours of the night. Upon walking into his bedroom, his eyes fell upon his wife sleeping, and he instantly desired her.

At the time, the rules of Ramadan stood that from sunrise to sunset you could not eat, drink, or have sex. Once you had fallen asleep, even if you woke during the night—the fasting started anew.

Umar woke his wife, who protested that she had slept. He responded, “Well, I haven’t slept” and “fell upon her.” Afterwards, ridden with guilt, he raced to Mohammad and begged him to find some sort of loophole or leniency. The next morning, Allah abrogated the law, stating that from then on—couples were allowed to have sex throughout the night, regardless of whether or not they had slept.

This concept of leniency (“yusr” in Arabic), is a bedrock element of the Islamic religion and goes hand in hand with both repentance and forgiveness. One of Allah’s 99 names, “the forgiving,” is one of 20 that connote various aspects of forgiveness, clemency, or mercy.

Islam grew, in its formative stages, in a responsive fashion. Hundreds of laws that were sent down by Allah were found to be too difficult. The people turned to Mohammad, who turned to Allah and requested, in addition to forgiveness, for the laws to be changed and made easier.

This is at the root of the Islamic outlook on repentance. It sees itself, from the very beginning, as being a religion of bending, of taking it easy. Even God is willing to bend the rules, to change the rules that He has promulgated to make his follower’s lives easier.

Because of this, Islam sees Judaism as its diametric antithesis. Referred to as “usr” (notice the rhyming capability with “yusr”)—the religion of hardship, of intransigence—Judaism is looked at as a punishment on the Jews. Christianity, while seen as having ameliorated some of the hardship of Judaism, still comes with its own (such as priests not being able to marry).

Yet even with their perceived differences, Ramadan has its origins in a familiar holiday—Yom Kippur. Mohammad is said to have seen the Jews fasting on the 10th day of the month of Moharem (the first month in the Islamic calendar—sound familiar?), and taken that as inspiration.

Ze’ev Maghen is professor of Arabic literature and Islamic history and Chair of the Department of Middle East Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He is a Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Ramat Gan. His most recent book is, for a change, not about Islam, and is entitled John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage.

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