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Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah (review)
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Louis Newman’s Repentance is a welcome and comprehensive treatment of the Jewish tradition’s dealing with the tricky question of how individuals who form wicked characters address sin and restore their membership in the moral community, an activity that Aristotle, who believed that the virtuous and non-virtuous have little to say to one another, thought to be scarcely possible. Newman’s perspective is decisively Aristotelian but not as pessimistic as Aristotle’s. Primarily using biblical and Talmudic sources, but also with an eye toward the insights of other traditions as well as contemporary religious thought, Newman argues that the process of atonement among those who have developed the worst sorts of habits is one of a tradition’s providing for the prospectively repentant individual with a self-awareness sufficient to attend to compensate for that individual’s penchant for self-deception. Yom Kippur, the holiday in the Jewish tradition dedicated to atonement, is an opportunity that bears down equally on every Jew to cleanse oneself of the sinfulness in which one has inevitably taken part in the previous year (58–61). Newman elaborates various respects in which Judaism anticipates that one will have been seduced by yetzer ha-ra (“evil force”) and warns of the ignorance of believing that one is immune to evil’s pervasive influence. Teshuvah, in keeping with this conviction, is characterized as the opportunity to re-catch the spark of goodness and purity with which one was initially endowed (29).

Newman elucidates at least two forms of self-knowledge in which atonement consists. First there is a communal self-knowledge that both sin and atonement are basic to human existence. We are hardwired to become “unclean” and therefore require a means of becoming alerted to the importance of purging ourselves in the setting of a congregation. Newman builds upon Paul Ricoeur’s insight from The Symbolism of Evil that a fear of contaminating created goodness always stands in the background of our psyches (29). Once we have become aware of such a threat, we will be prepared to address it. The second sort of self-knowledge pertains to an awareness of the specific senses in which we have wronged others (and ourselves), dispositions and deeds of which we can be made cognizant only because of the prior humility encouraged by the tradition that asserts that all of us are in need of atonement. The idea of Teshuvah makes possible our ability to say to ourselves the “It is I” that is necessary to assume responsibility for atonement (83). It is importantly ironic, argues Newman, that Teshuvah is the opposite of the avoidance of wrongdoing, for to know oneself as one who has shunned the good one must categorically embrace one’s culpability and only then address one’s specific transgressions (86). Remorse, in this sense, goes hand in hand with moral responsibility. Newman’s observation is refreshingly Augustinian and Aristotelian.

In contrast to other volumes on Jewish repentance, this one narrowly attends to the problem of reversing the irreversible (76). Newman argues that remorse, the idea that we are never fully worthy unto ourselves, furnishes us with the ability to know ourselves as beings in need of forgiveness (and in need of forgiving ourselves). Since sin is a natural condition, addressing sin by building into our psychological expectations that we are sinners must also become part of the moral life cycle. This is something that a religious tradition, like Judaism, can help us to do from the beginning of our moral consciousness in our adult lives. According to Newman, we should relinquish all efforts to see ourselves as free of wrongdoing lest we become “slaves to an image of perfection that is unattainable” (84). We are all, in varying degrees, in the process of forming wicked characters; yet, paradoxically, it is precisely seeing ourselves in this way that prevents against a resistant characterological plaque transforming into an irremovable tartar.

Newman does address the separately interesting cases of irredeemable sinners and divine grace in the context of forgiveness. However, again in the spirit of Aristotle, he interprets his tradition as encouraging the view that overcoming of sin and evil is reliant on the painstaking process...


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