Addressing Collective & Indivdual Sin:
A Roundtable on Teshuvah
Our sages viewed repentance as a powerful tool that would help us wrestle with our failures and
repair our wrongdoings. Resh Lakish wrote “Great is repentance; by it, intentional sins are made
like merits…” A few years ago in these pages of Sh’ma, the philosopher Robert Gibbs commented
on the talmudist’s writing: “Sins would become something held in my favor, something good….A
mended relation can be stronger and better precisely because each party has had to transform the
relation.” In this Roundtable, rabbis, a philosopher, and a therapist look again at teshuvah — focusing both on how individuals repent and how — as a collective — we address our communal sins.
Rabbi Sue Fendrick, ordained
at the Jewish Theological
Seminary in 1995, is a senior
research associate at the
Mandel Center for Studies in
Jewish Education at Brandeis
University, and a spiritual
director in the Boston area.
Dr. Michelle Friedman is a
psychiatrist and psychoanalyst
in private practice. She directs
the pastoral counseling
program at Yeshivat Chovevei
Torah Rabbinical School.
Jeff Helmreich, an
international lawyer who
specializes in philosophy and
ethics, is currently enrolled in a
postdoctoral program in legal
philosophy and ethics at UCLA.
Rabbi David Ingber was
ordained by Rabbi Zalman
Schachter-Shalomi and is the
founder of Romemu, a
synagogue/center in New York
City that engages people in a
more holistic approach to
Rabbi Or Rose, a member of
the Sh’ma Advisory
Committee, is an associate
dean at the Rabbinical School
of Hebrew College and co-directs CIRCLE, a center for
interfaith learning and
leadership that is shared by
Hebrew College and Andover
Newton Theological School.
Or Rose: Teshuvah, often translated into English
as repentance, is more accurately translated as
“return.” Would you reflect on the place of return in the teshuvah process?
Michelle Friedman: Is teshuvah the return to
something that had been broken, ruptured, or
strained? Perhaps teshuvah can refer to a person’s relationship with another person, or a
sense of internal integrity, or an individual’s relationship with a religious worldview. Return
goes hand-in-hand with repair, working out
what it was that went wrong, making restitution, asking forgiveness. But teshuvah can also
be an internal process.
Sue Fendrick: When we’re engaged in serious teshuvah, we push ourselves to grow, to go
to new places, or to go places in new ways so
that they feel like new places. At the same
time, we want to find ways to return to those
places — metaphorically speaking — that
serve as points of departure, but that we want
also to be “home,” places we want to live.
There is a tension between exploring new
ground and wanting to come back to the fundamentals — running and returning.
David Ingber: Sue, I understand your comment on running and returning as a dialectic —
a traveling back and forth between the new, the
newly discovered, and the newly recovered.
Teshuvah really is more like the spiral of return
than the circle of return. There’s progress, but
there’s familiarity at the same time.
Or Rose: Our rabbis tell us that, on the one
hand, the gates of teshuvah are open every day,
and yet we also set aside a holiday season for
return or spiraling, as David put it (ala Arthur
Waskow). How do you understand the relationship between these Days of Awe, the Yamim
Noraim, and the rest of the year?
Sue Fendrick: I think that each of the holi-
days and seasons in the Jewish year gives us a
chance to exercise a particular part of our
Jewish religious lives, a particular aspect of our
relationship with God. Some holidays — Yom
Kippur, for example — are more retreat-like
than others. There is an opportunity to exercise
certain muscles, to recognize how important
the work is — work that we need to be doing
all year. We need a time when we can focus
specifically on teshuvah; we have times to focus
on joy, on learning, on liberation, and on Torah,
but if we don’t have an intense opportunity to
engage with the dynamics of repair, we’ll never
get very good at it.