Spiraling Towards Repentance

There are five factors in teshuvah (repentance), each of which can be a starting point for the entire process.

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The tradition is quite clear, however, that recognition of sin, remorse, restitution, and confession, if they are done without desisting from sin, do not constitute teshuvah. Without ceasing one's sinful activity, one has only arrived at the "preliminaries to teshuvah" (hirhuréi teshuvah). Actual desisting from sin is what counts.

Thus, if one desists from sinful action because one has been frightened into it, that is still teshuvah and the person is considered a penitent. For example, if a person ceases to gamble compulsively because someone threatens to beat him severely the next time he does it, such a person is considered a penitent. Or, if a person ceases to steal because he has been told he will be sent to jail the next time it happens, such a person is considered a penitent. Furthermore, if a person becomes convinced that he or she will be punished in the life-after-death and ceases sinful action on that account, this person too is considered a penitent, though this motivation for desisting is higher than the previous ones because it is a function of a larger religious worldview which considers the wrongdoing as actual sin.

 Teshuvah which is rooted in fear of humans or God is called "repentance rooted in fear" (teshuvah mi-yir'á) and, while not the highest form of teshuvah, it is the core thereof. Reform of one's character through analysis of sin, remorse, restitution, and confession, when combined with the ceasing of sinful action, is called "repentance rooted in love" (teshuvah mei-ahavá). "Repentance rooted in love" is desirable but, without cessation of sin, reform of one's character is useless. Maimonides, the foremost halakhic (legal) and philosophic authority of rabbinic Judaism, lists desisting from sin as the very first step to teshuvah.

Rabbinic tradition teaches that all the steps to teshuvah are necessary. Their interrelationship is best described as a spiral which touches each of the five points, yet advances with each turn. Thus, one may begin at any point--with action, analysis, remorse, restitution, or confession. However, as one repeats the steps of teshuvah again and again, one's analysis and remorse deepen, one's restitution and commitment-to-desist become firmer, and one's confession becomes more profound. As one cycles through the five phases of teshuvah again and again, one's teshuvah becomes more earnest, more serious. At its height, one achieves "full teshuvah" (teshuvah gemurá), which would require full consciousness and action such that, given the same situation, one would refrain from the sin for which one had repented.

Sinfulness is a very deep dimension of human existence and dealing with it calls upon all our spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and moral resources--even when we recognize that ceasing to sin is the base line of repentance.

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Rabbi David J. Blumenthal

Rabbi David R. Blumenthal is Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies at Emory University, Atlanta. His books include Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest and God at the Center.