Last week, Joey Rosenfeld gave me a little book and suggested that I read the last chapter. I know whenever I accept reading material from Joey I’m about to fall down the rabbit hole, but it’s always fascinating and worthwhile. This book is שובי נפשי: חסד או חירות by הרב שג״ר. Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, known by his acronym שג״ר, was rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak, and brought Chassidut and post-modern philosophy into religious Zionist thinking.
For a hint at what this ספר entails, the authorities cited in the footnotes of the final chapter, in order of appearance, are:
Rav Zadok haCohen miLublin (the chapter focuses on Rav Zadok’s approach to teshuva)
I’ll try to explain my limited understanding of what he says. Don’t assume I’ve got anything right; talk to Joey if you have questions.
There’s a well-known paragraph in this week’s parasha:
We often interpret המצוה הזאת as referring to the whole Torah, that לא בשמים הוא and we have to learn and interpret it ourselves, without prophetic intervention. But that is hard to reconcile with the last pasuk of the paragraph, בפיך ובלבבך לעשתו. It sounds like it’s referring to a מצוה that is done בפה ובלב. Sforno thus assumes that המצוה הזאת is referring to the מצוה of the previous paragraph, the מצוה of תשובה.
Teshuva is presented as something that is both our responsibility (שבת עד ה׳ אלקיך) and ה׳'s (מל ה׳ אלקיך את לבבך):
And the Rambam explains the procedure, that it is בפיך ובלבבך לעשתו The Rambam describes it as a procedure that needs to be accomplished. It depends on Man’s free will, to decide to do better in the future:
But why then does the Torah have to tell us לא בשמים הוא? It doesn’t seem more outlandish than any other מצוה. The problem is that the idea of teshuva, that we can achieve forgiveness for a sin against the all-powerful and all-good G-d is a tremendous theological problem. The theology of Christianity centers around their answer to this problem; the Jewish answer is that teshuva is built in to the nature of the world.
Teshuva changes the past.
Rav Shagar asks, what is teshuva, really? And focuses on the תקנת השבין of R׳ Zadok Hacohen of Lublin:
R׳ Zadok was a student of the Ishbitzer, the author of the מי השילוח, a Chasidic rebbe famous for his philosophy of determinism, that הכל בידי שמים אפילו יראת שמים. He preached acceptance of oneself and allowing ה׳ to determine our actions. R׳ Zadok looks at teshuva in that vein.
This is very similar to the twelve step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, that overcoming addiction involves admitting that we can’t do it ourselves:
Rabbi Abraham Twerski famously uses these ideas in a Jewish, mussar-based manner.
Rav Shagar points out that these are two diametrically opposed approaches to teshuva: active, individual-centered, and passive, G-d-centered. Like most such dialectics, both are right and both are necessary, and both can end up in the same place, of being a new person whose past is changed:
As I understand Rav Shagar’s analysis, a person’s teshuva changes the future by making them a different person. The miracle of teshuva is that Hashem changes the past as well. It is this new person who had committed the sinful act. This is how Rav Shagar reconciles the two approaches to teshuva. The Rambam’s is תשובה מיראה. ”The person I was did wrong. I reject that person as I become better“. תשובה מאהבה is accepting. “I don’t reject the person I was. What happened, even though I shouldn’t have done it, was G-d’s will and it is part of what makes me a better person today”. That is why תשובה מיראה leads to זדונות נעשות לו כשגגות. The act happened, but “who I am today” would never have done such a thing. So the act is a שגגה, negligent, not intentional. But תשובה מאהבה leads to זדונות נעשות לו כזכיות. The act happened, but “who I am today” accepts it as an “act of G-d”, not under my control, but it made me who I am today, which is a good thing, a זכות.
[The problem with this approach is that it leads to antinomianism, that there are no laws and no right or wrong. Others have dealt with this in understanding the Ishbizter, and I won’t deal with that here. But this is not about our behavior now; that is certainly subject to the laws of the Torah and is under our free will. The question is how do we look at our acts in the past.]
As is true in so many things, both approaches are true. Doing teshuva is not an easy thing, but it up to us and our understanding of ourselves to make ourselves into the people we ought to be. קרוב אליך הדבר מאד; בפיך ובלבבך לעשתו.