Leavings of Sin: Rav Aharon Lichtenstein on Teshuvah

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Shlomo Zuckier


The yeshiva “academic year” begins in Elul, a heady and intense time leading up to the Yamim Noraim that centers around teshuvah and self-improvement. The mere memory of that season is liable to invoke feelings of divine longing and spiritual awakening in yeshiva alumni. Despite these stirrings, it can be difficult to embrace the Yamim Noraim spirit for those whose lives are structured not around a yeshiva schedule but around vocational, familial, and other responsibilities. While classically the shul rabbi’s shabbos shuvah derashah was meant to break this monotony and inspire spiritual inspiration, the prevalence of the rabbinic derashah nowadays (at least in the US) dulls the intensity of the derasha experience. It is perhaps for this reason that the more noteworthy teshuvah derashot over the past half-century have been offered not by shul rabbis but by rashei yeshiva. Most famous among these, at least in the Modern Orthodox world, are the annual teshuvah derashot of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, offered from 1964 to 1980, and those of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, offered from 1985 to 2010 at either the Gruss Institute in Jerusalem or a New York synagogue.

While derashot are most potent in the moment, with the indelible impression they make upon their listeners, quality lectures of this sort also have the capacity to be of enduring value. To that end, Pinchas Peli collected and published seven derashot of Rabbi Soloveitchik in his journal Panim el Panim and then in a volume, Al ha-Teshuvah, which has since been translated into English. Most recently, consumers of teshuvah literature will be most excited to learn, twelve of Rav Lichtenstein’s teshuvah derashot have been published, by the Mishnat HaRAL project through Maggid books. Return and Renewal: Reflections on Teshuva and Spiritual Growth, adapted and edited by Michael Berger and Reuven Ziegler, affords access to Rav Lichtenstein’s teachings on teshuvah to a general audience. This publication not only allows for the broader public to study and consider Rav Lichtenstein’s teachings regarding repentance, but also consolidates his thoughts on teshuvah for consideration as part of his broader hashkafic and theological writings.

The topics presented in the book have some range, but all are centrally focused on repentance. They include:

  1. considerations of certain halakhic issues regarding teshuvah – whether it is an obligation or not, and gradations of sin and repentance;
  2. the timing of teshuvah – does it stem from a norm or a time of crisis, and teshuvah at different stages in one’s life;
  3. the experience of sin and repentance – undoing and rehabilitating a relationship with God, the motivating factor of teshuvah, experiencing teshuvah from a place of mediocrity; and
  4. the interaction between teshuvah and other themes, such as truth, integrity, humility, and joy in avodat Hashem.

The book’s writing style follows Rav Lichtenstein’s inimitable fashion, with complex sentences (somewhat attenuated, given the transcribed oral presentation format) drawing upon both traditional Jewish sources and the occasional reference to classical Western literature to support its arguments. The study mixes halakhic analysis with spiritual reflection and includes some consideration of communal concerns as well. As one would expect from Rav Lichtenstein, the analysis relies not on pat generalizations and platitudes, but on a deep and broad consideration of each topic, establishing the scope of the topic at hand and staking out particular positions on various issues.

In particular, the style in many of the essays utilizes the “mapping out the topic” approach that would be familiar from Rav Lichtenstein’s Talmud lectures. For one representative example, the essay “La-Kol Zeman: Teshuvah within Four Time Frames of Our Lives” analyzes the temporal aspect of teshuvah in a variety of ways: is teshuvah occasional, responding to a particular sin, or annual, to be carried out on a yearly basis independent of sin? Is it meant to be perennial, drawing upon previously resolved sins as part of the teshuvah process, or not? And to what extent should teshuvah be perpetual, carried out daily, because today might be one’s last opportunity?

Comparing Return and Renewal and On Repentance

As regards content, given the proximity and similarities between Rav Lichtenstein’s and Rabbi Soloveitchik’s teshuvah derashot, a comparison between Return and Renewal and On Repentance is in order. It is only reasonable to compare the teshuvah writings of one great theologian and leader of Modern Orthodoxy with those of his son-in-law and talmid muvhak, who occupied a similar position for much of that audience. An analysis will reveal several points of contact, but also several distinctions between the two works.

Many classic Soloveitchikian themes of teshuvah are noticeable immediately upon consideration of Rav Lichtenstein’s study: the heightened role of confession within repentance; the concept of standing before God; the power of free will; repentance in response to a shock; the concept of breaking the covenant; the exclusivity of avodat Hashem as servitude to God; teshuvah as elevating sins; the comparison between seeking out sins and seeking out leaven before Pesah; crisis as a mehayyev (obligating force) of teshuvah; and a future-oriented rather than past-oriented view of spiritual activity. Some of these can be traced further back as classical Maimonidean or Brisker themes, while others are more particularly the Rav’s contributions. In any event, Rav Lichtenstein engages his father-in-law’s teshuvah discourse by drawing upon these themes, at times citing the Rav. In fact, the volume’s central distinction between two types of sin, to be analyzed below, is explicitly attributed to the Rav (p. 16):

The Rav z”l used to speak frequently of “sin,” meaning specific actions, and “the ways of sin,” the whole context of lifestyle and personality out of which sin develops and by which it is sustained.

At the same time, however, Rav Lichtenstein evidences a fairly explicit shift away from certain Soloveitchikian themes. In comparing Rav Lichtenstein’s writing on teshuvah to the Rav’s, the argument from silence is instructive – Rav Lichtenstein leaves out almost completely any discussion of the Temple service on Yom Kippur, whose repentance-related themes comprise a core part of the Rav’s On Repentance. Relatedly, Rav Lichtenstein avoids significant treatment of less prosaic topics such as the nature of the atonement afforded by the day of Yom Kippur itself, the metaphysics of sin and its stain, and the role of suffering in expiating sin. While avoiding these more abstruse metaphysical topics, Rav Lichtenstein substitutes for them more experiential perspectives. Rather than emphasizing the metaphysics of sin and its impact on the broader world, he focuses on the phenomenology of sin, how it impacts upon the sinner and his or her relationship with themselves and with God. Rather than discussing the nature of Yom Kippur in the Temple of years past, Rav Lichtenstein turns to contemporary religiosity, considering what sort of introspection might be necessary for various communities. Even among more prosaic areas of Halakha that appear frequently in his volume, Rav Lichtenstein avoids overly involved discussion of the halakhic nuances. While these appear more frequently in On Repentance, Return and Renewal prefers to mention or gesture at them and then move on to focus on the more practical upshot from these discussions. For example, while the Rav dwells at length on the question of whether teshuvah can be commanded (On Repentance, pp. 15-18), Rav Lichtenstein notes the question (pp. 64-65) quickly, and then spends much more time contemplating whether teshuvah, and divine service more generally, is most spiritually meaningful and effective if commanded or if merely presented as an opportunity (pp. 65-68).

There would appear to be two ways to explain this divergence between the topical preferences of these two gedolim: one based on audience and genre, and the other based on discrepancies between the religious worldviews of the Rav and Rav Lichtenstein.

As regards audience and genre, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s derashot from 1962-1974, on which the book is based, were given in Yiddish to an audience presumed to be able to follow some fairly complex halakhic reasoning and attracted Torah scholars outside of Modern Orthodoxy’s immediate orbit. By contrast, Rav Lichtenstein’s derashot were given from 1985 to 2010 in English either at Kehillath Jeshurun in New York, or at the Gruss Institute in Jerusalem, aimed at a general rather than a yeshiva audience. The audience’s interest would have been best accommodated by minimizing excursions into complex issues of the Temple service of Yom Kippur, and even complex exposition of questions in lomdus relating to teshuvah. The use of more familiar textual sources would allow for paying attention to other matters close to the hearts and minds of the audience, including communal and humanistic concerns.

At the same time, however, the discrepancy might also be explained by reflecting on the distinct worldviews of the two presenters. For the Rav, for whom “out of the sources of Halakha, a new worldview awaits formulation,” (Halakhic Mind, p. 102), halakhic argumentation is necessarily the beginning and end of any discussion about teshuvah. For Rav Lichtenstein, Halakha is certainly the core and basis of the entire institution of teshuvah, but many other sources of insight exist as well. In particular, contributions from humanistic sources, Jewish and otherwise, provide important reflections on how the process and experience of teshuvah should be viewed. For example, Socrates’ aphorism that “the unexamined life is not worth living” is cited approvingly several times in the volume (pp. 16, 71, 147, and 150). While this approach might not be the focus of a shiur in Gemara and lomdus, for a more general reflection on teshuvah, this broader palette of prooftexts is appropriate for Rav Lichtenstein. In a sense, then, the works on teshuvah by these two colossi reflect their approach in their disquisitions on jewish thought more generally; whereas the Rav was more likely to go into extended and often abstruse halakhic discussion than was Rav Lichtenstein, the latter was more likely to take a broader perspective on the topic at hand and to cite humanist thinkers as sources of authority. Parenthetically, one might compare this distinction regarding these two thinkers’ use of non-Jewish sources to their particular approaches to ethics outside of halakhah, in “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakha” and Halakhic Morality, as I may do on another occasion.

The Volume’s Key Question: Moral Repentance or Religious Repentance?

As noted above, there is really one primary hakirah, a particular question, that runs through the various essays in this volume – the distinction between teshuvah as fixing one’s sins and teshuvah as returning to a better relationship with God. In fact, the theme appears so many times that it approaches the point of redundancy. One wonders whether an alternative organizational structure of the volume might have succeeded in integrating this theme, such that it appeared as a single, lengthy essay rather than being presented again and again (albeit from different perspectives) throughout the volume.

Many questions throughout the volume tie into this core question of moral repentance (fixing one’s behavior) versus religious repentance (fixing one’s relationship with God). Two sources on repentance in the Torah (Numbers 5 and Deuteronomy 30) and two versions of contemporary confession (aval anahnu hatanu versus the al het listing) each distinguish between a sin-oriented and relationship-oriented teshuvah. There are at least five aspects to sin, as is laid out several times in this volume (pp. 44-45, 62-3, 90, 122-3), which map onto the two categories. The impetus for teshuvah, whether it is based on a particular sin or on one’s situation (whether individual or communal, whether a state of mediocrity or a crisis), also splits among these two questions. Whether combating sin should ideally be a struggle or not, the nature of communal repentance, and even the distinct emphases between Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, tie in to this fundamental question pervading the entire volume. As was so often the case for Rav Lichtenstein’s hakirot, the reader is asked to embrace both sides of the hakirah, and to strive for teshuvah to both repair the sin and the human-divine relationship.

Themes Relating to Rav Lichtenstein’s Broader Oeuvre

While this central question dominates many of the essays from their various perspectives, additional perspectives and issues are taken up throughout the volume as well. Many of these integrate well with themes key to Rav Lichtenstein’s worldview more generally, as one might have expected. Possibly most prominent among these themes is the close relationship between teshuvah and avodat Hashem, divine service in general. If teshuvah is meant to repair one’s religious ways, an understanding of teshuvah must confront the nature of religiosity overall. Thus, the halakhic Jew’s dual focus on the detailed regimen of mitzvot and the sweeping relationship with God (p. 39-40, and addressed at length in Rav Lichtenstein’s Orthodox Forum article on “Law and Spirituality”) correlates well with both the topic of avodat Hashem and with the primary question of this volume. The theme of commandedness, and the related expectation of a strong work ethic, which is so core to Rav Lichtenstein’s conception of religiosity (for both Jews and non-Jews), and discussed (among other places) in “To Cultivate and to Guard” (By His Light, ch. 1), appears several times as well (pp. 8-9, 24, 66-67, 89-90, 114, 134-35).

A good example of Rav Lichtenstein’s characteristic nuance appears in the chapter on “Mediocre Teshuvah and the Teshuvah of the Mediocre” (pp. 97-120). While noting, on the one hand, that the Torah is less opposed to mediocrity than are certain 19th century thinkers, and that there is still value to teshuvah of this nature, Rav Lichtenstein also argues that such teshuvah is “grievously inadequate” (p. 110) and that it is the role of the one doing teshuvah to do everything they can to escape the limitations of mediocrity. Still, if someone does the best he or she can, and yet falls short of a full and perfect teshuvah, God accepts the teshuvah, weighing the effort more heavily than the results, and yielding a process attainable by non-elites.

Teshuvah and Religious Humanism

Certain cases in the volume would appear to reflect Rav Lichtenstein’s broader orientation as a religious humanist, as well. One example of this is his nuanced position (noted above) opposing elitism that excludes most religious practitioners, while at the same time having high expectations for the average person in his stirring push against mediocrity. This religious humanist framework allows each individual to pursue religious excellence on their own level.

Additionally, the question as to whether one should have a certain happiness as they go through the process of teshuvah is resolved with a “personal, intuitive answer” of “an emphatic yes” (p. 217) and only afterwards proven from sources. This position derives primarily not from a halakhic or hashkafic source, but from Rav Lichtenstein’s developed religious humanist reflex that spiritual activities, even when difficult, must be attended by joy. A flourishing religious individual, fulfilling his or her telos of serving God, must be happy, even while fulfilling the difficult task of teshuvah.

Rav Lichtenstein’s strong and consistent advocacy of guilt as a healthy religious reaction to sin throughout the volume (see pp. 62-64, 79-81, 89, 93, 110, 131, 208, 215) reflects his religious humanist worldview where what is demanded of a person is more than conforming certain actions and beliefs, but living a life “as ever in my great Taskmaster’s eye,” where failure of necessity entails a deep-seated guilt.

Related to this is the view that “teshuvah… is itself a crisis” (p. 130), as the religious individual’s personality and life is torn apart as they attempt to reform themselves to properly stand before God again. The humanism inherent in the focus on the experience of the person in their religious experience facilitates the development of these novel formulations.

While being understanding of human weakness and not artificially assuming everyone is an elite scholar, and taking the human experience seriously throughout, this volume still strikes a fairly demanding pose (as one might hope for a sefer on teshuvah): It urges people not to accept the mediocre excuses of the beinoni (p. 105) and strongly rejects an attitude of fatalism in light of free will (e.g., pp. 1-4). The appropriate modulation of expectations for the religious practitioner is yet another expression of Rav Lichtenstein’s religious humanism.

Commentary on the Modern Orthodox Community

In addition to the development of teshuvah themes of general interest, one feature of the volume is the explicit reflection on the Modern Orthodox community, and, at times, its contrast to more Haredi communities. Acolytes of Rav Lichtenstein will be familiar with some of these reflections from his articles “The Future of Centrist Orthodoxy” in Leaves of Faith vol. 2 and “Centrist Orthodoxy: A Spiritual Accounting” (By His Light, ch. 12), but the added valence of teshuvah provides for new perspectives and makes these comments pack an additional punch.

As in those volumes, a critical angle is often taken towards Modern Orthodox apathy. For example, the community is accused of lacking the proper passion in prayer (p. 31):

For the Modern Orthodox Jew and his community in particular, the inclination and the capacity to pray properly and with passion, with a plaintive cri de coeur issuing mi-ma’amakim, from the depths, is often sadly deficient.

In his discussion of timhon levav, or the role of wondering, Rav Lichtenstein critiques both the Haredi and the Modern Orthodox worlds for failing to find the proper balance between introspection and self-certainty (pp. 155-56):

[For the Charedi world] there is no tim’hon levav at all – just passionate certitude, never to walk against your best light, yet never examining what is the nature of that light…. In the Centrist world, by contrast, there is a surfeit of tim’hon levav… While the Charedi world is so certain that it, and it alone, has absolute, comprehensive, detailed truth, the individual in the Religious-Zionist world often doubts its ideals and its ideology, its goals and its methods. Riven by conflicting loyalties, driven by a quest for integration, he finds himself in a state of tension. He likes to see that tension as creative – it has an appealing ring – but on the other hand, he’s not quite certain.

Certitude can’t come at the expense of introspection, nor can an abundance of wondering at the propriety of one’s religious community and its goals come at the expense of passion in living that life. This honest reflection on the limitations of both communities in this connection, is developed at length in the essay “Centrist Orthodoxy: A Spiritual Accounting.”

The comfortable state of Modern Orthodoxy is representative of the modern era and its relative stability (certainly as compared to the poverty and high mortality rates of years past), which can lead to a sort of calmness and even lack of focus. To that end, Rav Lichtenstein notes the risk of being lulled into a sense of security (pp. 73-74):

I need to focus upon the besetting sin, the inherent danger, of the Modern Orthodox community, the danger against which we need to be on our perpetual guard. That danger is, quite clearly, heise’ach ha-da’at, spiritual and religious inattentiveness.

One notes a similarity in themes to his previous essays, “Bittachon: Trust in God,” in By His Light and “My Soul was Faith,” in Seeking His Presence, as the community is charged to be attentive, to both investigate spiritual deficiencies and do what they can to fix them.


The essays collected in this volume aim primarily not at a lomdish analysis of teshuvah but at the phenomenological perspective of a religious humanist. Traditional Jewish sources, studded by references to the Western canon, form the backdrop against which success or failure to live up to one’s personal or communal religious obligations must measure up. This volume develops the concept that sin creates a rupture, both on a local level and as it reflects on the relationship between the oved Hashem and his God, each of which must be repaired by the penitent. The many insights into repentance included in the volume are deeply nuanced, and are of a piece with Rav Lichtenstein’s writings more broadly.

The subtitle of this study by Rav Lichtenstein is “Reflections on Teshuva and Spiritual Growth.” That description is certainly accurate, but what the volume offers goes beyond that. Each essay contains within it a charge – some more explicit than others, often directed at the individual, at times directed at the community – pushing for growth in avodat Hashem. For a religious community that has produced few musar books, this volume’s subtle yet powerful religious thrust is significant. Even where the text does not explicitly call upon the individual in the second person, the tone and humanity of its pieces, the piercing ability to reach people on their own level, forces the reader to confront his or her own situation as they read this text.

The presumed readership of this volume is American and English-reading Orthodoxy writ large. To a large extent, this community might be described, with a critical eye, as composed of two groups: those who see Judaism as a mere adornment, embraced primarily to enhance quality of life, on the one hand, and those fully focused on studying Torah (and facilitating such study), to the absolute exclusion of any other endeavor. This volume, framed by the context of teshuvah, offers a third way: a Judaism that is based on the divine command and the imperative of avodat Hashem – divine service and maybe even servitude – but also offers a broad, textured approach to the world, one that values literature and the humanities, eschews religious extremism, and accepts the world’s complexity. Of course, this worldview can be gleaned from Rav Lichtenstein’s other writings as well, but it is in some ways more powerful to see such an integrative religious worldview come to life in a series of derashot on teshuvah.

Although Rav Lichtenstein has left this world, his enduring legacy – as regards teshuvah but also about avodat Hashem in general – lives on, as this volume furthers the return and renewal of his teachings.

Shlomo Zuckier, a Founder of the Lehrhaus, is the Flegg Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at McGill University and a lecturer at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. He recently completed a PhD in Religious Studies at Yale University as well as studies in Yeshiva University's Kollel Elyon. Shlomo was formerly Director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Yale University. An alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva University (BA, MA, Semikhah), he has lectured widely across North America, and is excited to share Torah and Jewish scholarship on a broad range of issues. He has taught at Yale Divinity School, Yeshiva University, the Drisha Institute, Bnot Sinai, and Tikvah programs, and has held the Wexner and Tikvah Fellowships. Shlomo serves on the Editorial Committee of Tradition, is co-editor of Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity, and is editing the forthcoming Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut.