What is Teshuvah? Contrasting the Rav and Rav Lichtenstein

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Meir Ekstein

In memory of David Landes zt”l―this piece is a continuation of our never-ending conversation.

The most intense and inspiring period in yeshivot is the month of Elul and the ten days of teshuvah (repentance). The new year begins with excitement and anticipation, but it is also an intense time devoted to teshuvah. The day begins with the piercing sound of the shofar intended to arouse us from our spiritual stupor and entails a scrupulous, demanding review of our behavior. The forty days of “Elul zman” are devoted to a concentrated, deep, religious period. Yet it isn’t always completely clear exactly what the contents of this period are meant to be. Is it an exercise in self-flagellation? Is it a time to accept new resolutions? Will the intensity of my prayers guarantee an automatic clean slate?

Over the centuries there has arisen a diverse range of opinions and books that discuss at length the question of what is teshuvah? Wide-ranging writers have chosen different themes to develop in line with their times, cultures, and personalities. I’d like to look at key characteristics of Rav Soloveitchik’s lectures on teshuvah that were published in Al Ha-teshuvah,[1] a classic work, and compare it to Rav Lichtenstein’s lectures on teshuvah published fairly recently in the volume Return and Renewal.[2] The comparison has particular interest in light of the fact that R. Lichtenstein is both a devoted student of R. Soloveitchik and his son-in-law. Thus, any differences between the two are despite what they share in common.

R. Soloveitchik for many years presented a teshuvah lecture, a major, well-attended event with hundreds of rabbis and laymen. Pinchas Peli, who translated and published the lectures, describes them in his introduction (7-12) as an unforgettable experience where R. Soloveitchik transformed halakhic innovations―via his inspiring, fiery, passionate delivery―into a spiritual dramatic experience. R. Soloveitchik’s dramatic style in his learning and delivery made his lectures an almost theatrical performance.

In these lectures, he infused his learned inferences with passion and narrative. His brilliant creative readings and hiddushim (innovations) are dramatic enough by themselves. But the performance was enhanced not only by the novelty of his innovations but also through the stories within which he framed them.

For example, on page 17, R. Soloveitchik talks about the nature of sin:

There is a concept of the impurity of sin. All of Tanakh is full of descriptions of the contamination, filth, and disgust engendered by sin. A sin is as if one displaces the divine crown from a person’s head and damages his spiritual wholeness… A person who sins changes his legal status… The person before his sin isn’t the same person as he is after the sin… The sin uproots him from his natural rights from his humanity. He is utterly transformed… His previous self flees, and a new self comes in place.

The interpretation is remarkable. R. Soloveitchik animates sin with such emotion and action that one can no longer think of the abstract idea of sin in the same way. Instead, one sees filth, decay, disgust, a damaged spirit, a rotted self. Sin is transformed from doing something wrong into a dreadful loathing. The drama and emotions become frightening and alive.

In another example, in his description of vidui (confession) on page 47, he ponders why the vidui begins with the word ana (please). He asks, “What is this request ‘ana’? Does ‘ana’ refer to a huge entreaty? What is one asking for? I sinned?” He explains that within the “ana” is both hidden and hinted the very possibility of repentance. “If we listen carefully to the agonized and heartbreaking cry ‘ana,’ it is begging from God to please not shut the door in my face. ‘Ana’ don’t lock me out. Give me a chance to plead…” R. Soloveitchik further explains, “Repentance is irrational. The angels don’t understand it… they want to shut the door. But God subverts the angels in order to accept people who repent.” The penitent is trying to stop the door from being slammed shut by the angels. God sabotages simple reason in order to allow us, the sinners, to repent. A single word of prayer is brilliantly transformed into a powerful conflict and story.

The last example I would like to bring refers to a crucial understanding of R. Soloveitchik on repentance. On page 134, he talks about seeing teshuvah as much more than merely purifying oneself from sin but as a full renewal of one’s covenant with God, a type of conversion, which he compares to the actual process of converting to Judaism. Furthermore, in a careful reading of Rambam chapter 7 (in Hilkhot Teshuvah), he talks of repentance as enabling a person to recreate himself. He is no longer the same person he was before. In Rambam’s words, “Yesterday this man was hated before God, abominable, distanced, repugnant. And today he is loved, pleasant, nearby, and a friend.” R Soloveitchik emphasizes, “First ‘this man’ and then ‘he’” (230), “and the radical change… instantaneously the repugnant sinner turns into a beloved good person” (232). Rambam, along with R. Soloveitchik’s interpretation, transmutes the reality of repentance into a revolution.

R. Soloveitchik’s derashot are brilliant and insightful. They make concepts come alive; they create theatrical narratives that carry the reader along in awe and amazement. They are rousing and turn every-day teshuvah into moments of cosmic significance―from the purging of filthy decay, through foiling the angels from sealing the gateways of repentance, to ultimately result in rebirth.

There are times when repentance is indeed experienced in such earth-shattering ways. But on a practical basis―and perhaps I am only speaking for myself―repentance doesn’t ordinarily feel so radical. I do not consider myself righteous, but I also do not consider myself wicked. There is much I need to improve, but it hardly feels groundbreaking or akin to becoming an entirely new person―certainly not on an annual basis. Perhaps R. Soloveitchik did feel that way on a regular basis, or perhaps he was only speaking about unique moments. Either way, in my day-to-day, or year-to-year reality of teshuvah, it is hard to recreate the fervor and conversion that R. Soloveitchik is portraying.

R. Lichtenstein’s book is also a collection of his annual teshuvah derashot transcribed and edited by students. But he has a very different style in his learning, writing, and content. He is passionate but far less exhilarating and theatrical. His style is dryer, more painstaking, and meticulous. He is systematic, comprehensive, and analytic, and at times he can seem tedious. But for most people, he is far more relevant.

The first essay in his book (1-18) deals with teshuvah as obligation and opportunity. He has a brief halakhic discussion about whether teshuvah is an obligation and quickly concludes that it must be: “The very existence of the opportunity imposes a fresh obligation… It is inconceivable that a person who attaches significance to his own spiritual state should be totally impervious and insensitive to the ability to restore his relationship to God and to cleanse himself. If, indeed, he does not seize the opportunity, this is both a symptom and a cause of spiritual weakness” (7). He writes later in the chapter about the need to seize opportunities: “The failure to exploit spiritual opportunities… is not some kind of pallid passivity but in the perception of Chazal, it is spiritual rot. One needs to repent from the failure to exploit spiritual potential” (8). In characteristic R. Lichtenstein style, there is no turmoil or revolution. Instead, there is stoic obligation and duty. However, this notion that we must take every opportunity to cleanse ourselves, to become closer to God and to repent from missed opportunities, easily applies to ordinary people.

Many of R. Lichtenstein’s other derashot also discuss notions that lack major upheaval but are real, down-to-earth topics that an average person can relate to. In his second chapter, he discusses the purification of hearts. On page 32, he cites the Ramban that “our service to the Almighty [should] be with our entire heart, to wit, with proper and complete kavvana… without any kind of interfering thought… To love the Lord with all your heart…” Can any of us claim to be loving God with all our heart at every moment? I think not.

In the following chapters, R. Lichtenstein discusses further concepts of teshuvah that relate to every man. Is partial teshuvah possible? On the one hand, can one truly repent if one is fairly sure he or she will sin again? On the other hand, should one entirely give up on repentance if one doesn’t think he or she will be able to permanently change his or her thinking, behavior, and feelings? R. Lichtenstein maintains that one should absolutely repent, even partially, as long as one’s failure is not due to indifference. If one truly wants to do teshuvah but is unable to, his or her teshuvah is of value and accepted. He discusses mediocre teshuvah and its importance. We must invest what effort we can even if the results are not as impressive: “We must recognize that teshuva is not simply a destination attained; it is a direction pursued” (118).

R. Lichtenstein talks about our too-often spiritual inattentiveness, the too-frequent absence of the presence of awe and fear of God. He speaks of gradations of sin and how one ought to repent even for minor infractions. R. Lichtenstein surprisingly and reassuringly celebrates not the hero of repentance but the average Joe who tries his best (109). Teshuvah, for R. Lichtenstein, is an honest process of self-examination. It is not measured only by results but by the nature of our exertion.

Frequently during the ten days of teshuvah, in saying the standard vidui, it is hard for me (and for many ordinary people, I imagine) to relate to the terrible sins enumerated. I am aware of commentators who interpret the concessions in a much milder manner. R. Soloveitchik’s approach, despite being intellectually exciting and inspiring, fails to help me in my day-to-day approach to teshuvah. Maybe I should feel utterly self-disgusted, but I don’t. Perhaps I should be recreating myself entirely every year, but I can’t. R. Lichtenstein addresses this issue. He states that teshuvah is a painstaking obligation even if I haven’t committed appalling sins. The process of self-reflection and trying to improve myself, even in miniscule ways, is an endless obligation. It is super significant and the hallmark of spiritual growth and teshuvah. Missed opportunities, spiritual inattentiveness, lapses in focus, minor infelicities, and even mediocre repentance are vital and substantial. Every single person must take the process and necessity of repentance seriously.

The contrast between R. Soloveitchik and R. Lichtenstein is apparent. R. Soloveitchik valorizes and emphasizes the hero of repentance. Teshuvah stems from a romantic, emotionally laden, and existential crisis. His focus is on the overwhelming self-disgust of sin and the miraculous outcome of transformation. The post-Yom Kippur joy focuses on the result, the transformation. R. Lichtenstein valorizes and emphasizes the everyman of repentance. His is a more classic, analytic approach, based on spiritual duty and painstaking self-reflection. His emphasis is on the effort and process of repentance, which applies even to minor gains as the result of sincere attempts. The central joy of repentance derives from its very possibility, from the opportunity and the process through which we encounter God. R. Soloveitchik has man soar heights through comprehensive re-creation. R. Lichtenstein has man soaring heights through sheer determination and spiritual attentiveness.

[1] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Al Ha-teshuvah, ed. Pinchas Peli (Jerusalem: Eliner Library, 1974). All page numbers refer to the Hebrew edition. Translations are my own.

[2] Aharon Lichtenstein, Return and Renewal: Reflections on Teshuva and Spiritual Growth (New Milford, CT: Magid Books, 2018).

Meir Ekstein is a rabbi, community activist, and the director of Tiferet Orot, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educational ventures in Israel. He is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Beit Shemesh.