During the High Holidays, in the process of teshuvah, we repent for past sins. I understand that in our (Jewish) view, repentance means that we are sorry for the sins that we have committed, we try to repair the injuries we have caused, we ask forgiveness from God and man, and we resolve to do better in the future. Christianity appears to have a very different idea of what it means to repent and atone for a sin, and how a sin is forgiven. Can you try to explain this difference, please (I understand that I am asking Jewish rabbis, and not Christians to speak to these differences)?
What a wonderful question! I hesitate to answer, especially for 'all' Christianity, even more so than I refrain from speaking 'for' all of Judaism or "Jewish Tradition". Just as there are a myriad faces to Torah and every person in every stream of Judaism is going to encounter the tradition differently (and therefore interpret it differently), likewise each Christian is going to come to their sense of Faith based on their own experiences, family traditions, and the 'flavor' of Christianity they practice. The fact that many denominations of Christianity are doctrine based increases their theological diversity, even moreso than each Jewish 'branch'. A Unitarian Universalist or Quaker is going to see the world and encounter God in radically different ways from, say, a Baptist, or a Catholic, or Seventh Day Adventist (indeed, some folks from these various communities might question whether they or each other are 'Christian' at all! And that is a conversation I'm DEFINITELY not qualified to engage in!).
Having said all that; since high school I've studied C.S. Lewis. Like many children I was drawn to his books, but later studied his theological works as well, and I've always found him to be an engaging spokesman for a particular kind of theological encounter. So this is what Lewis says in Mere Christianity
...fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement; he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arm, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realizing that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor--that is the only way out of our 'hole'. This process of surrender--this movement full speed astern--is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years...
Though not of our tradition, may we discover and understand the Torah that is within these words as we prepare for our own repentance.
In approaching this question, it should first be recognized that, while most people may think of Judaism and Christianity as large monoliths, the reality is that they are not. There are, in fact, many significant distinctions between the various branches of each religion. As such, it is actually most difficult, because of the broad assumptions that need to be made, to answer such a general question in a complete manner within the constraints of this venue. In that you are asking this question to rabbis from different groupings within Judaism, though, you actually will be by-passing one side of this problem in that each of the ones responding to your question will be answering through the lens of his/her specific formulation of Judaism. (One of the most important values of the Jewish Values Online website is, in fact, the opportunity readers have to see the existent different views within the broader parameters of this monolithic Judaism – something which is, not only, not often seen but often almost intentionally ignored.) As to the presentation of Christianity, however – and in this regard I can really only speak for myself – we are left with the broadest of strokes. It is only with this caveat that I can continue.
In addition, it must also be recognized that I am not an expert on Christianity. I answer with a recognition of my limited study of this faith. It is, as such, only with my limited and broad, general understanding of that faith that I, indeed, can continue. At the same time, though, living within Western society with a culture founded on Christian, religious perspectives, I do believe that I still have somewhat of a general perspective on this faith and its distinctions from Judaism. I also asked my close friend, Rabbi Michael Skobac (Director of Education for Jews for Judaism in Canada) to review my answer specifically in regard to my assumptions about Christianity. This final answer, though, is, of course, still my own and my sole responsibility.
A possible starting point for our investigation could be the simple recognition that human beings sin – that is, do not act as God commands them or wishes them to act. This is clearly a serious matter and both Judaism and Christianity look upon sin most negatively. The greater question, however, is: how are we to look upon this reality, that human beings do sin? How are we to look upon this inherent imperfection in our being that even allows us to sin?
This is where the two part ways. Christianity believes that this imperfection within human beings that enables them to continually sin, that makes sin part of their inherent nature, was a product of the Fall of Adam and Eve. There was nothing positive about this event; the only consequence being the inherent imperfection of humanity as marked by their continuous involvement in sin. The further belief is that there is also no possible human way to correct this problem and so human beings need Divine Grace to save humanity from the consequences of its imperfection, its now evil nature. To repent within Christianity, as such, is to ask God to bestow this forgiveness on His totally unworthy creation.
While Judaism also acknowledges that Creation went through a massive upheaval (see, for example, the description in Ramchal, Da’at Tevunot) after Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, its understanding of what occurred is very different. (For a further investigation of this event from a Jewish perspective, I would direct you to my Tree of Knowledge, Nishma Journal VII, VIII and IX – the last part being available online at http://www.nishma.org/articles/journal/tree3.htm.) The fact is that, in the very reality that Adam and Eve could have had even the ability to not follow the Word of God, human beings must have been inherently created imperfect, i.e. with the ability to sin. This actually is a fundamental principle within Jewish thought, that human beings were created imperfect as God wished to create a being that could perfect itself – or, at least, move in that direction. Simply, in order to give humanity the ability to grow, God had to create it with the need to grow – with a consequence of possible sin which reflects this weakness. Repentance, as such, within Judaism is this basic energy and process of growth with a focus on the individual improving oneself as well as forging a better relationship with God through this process. To illustrate, it is said of Rabbeinu Sa’adiah Gaon that as an act of chastisement in his daily teshuva process, he would roll in the snow (obviously during this time of the year). When asked why he did this, he responded that he was doing teshuva for not being the person yesterday that he was today.
To further illustrate this idea, allow me to reference Rambam, Perush Hamishnayot, Makkot 3:16. This is the famous mishna that states that God wished to benefit the Jewish People and so He gave them many mitzvot. The classic question on this statement is: why is this inherently beneficial? With many more mitzvot, there is also the possibility of more sins? Rambam explains that with many more mitzvot, there is a greater possibility of a person finding that one mitzvah that can be done in the most superlative way, that way that ensures full entry into the Future World. What Rambam seems to be saying is that it’s not about getting everything right but, rather, getting something right – and that what God bestowed upon the Jewish People was many more possible ways of getting that one thing right.
Human beings are imperfect and can never – especially on their own -- achieve perfection (after all, if they were perfect, they would be God). They, though, can make movements of growth. The Torah idea of teshuva is a recognition of this, not only as a truth but as the very essence of the Divine Purpose of Creation.
In 1976, Simon Wiesenthal published a remarkable book entitled “The Sunflower.” The book is divided into two parts: First, Mr. Wiesenthal shares a true story from his time as a prisoner in Auschwitz. He tells about being summoned to the bedside of a dying Nazi officer who wished to confess his crimes and gain forgiveness before he dies. In the second half, the author invites responses from faith leaders of many different religious denominations, asking them to reflect on forgiveness in general and his tale in specific. What emerges is a symposium between figures as diverse as Rabbi Harold Kushner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama on the nature and limitations of forgiveness.
One of the clearest themes to emerge from among the responses is a stark contrast between the Christian and the Jewish thinkers on this subject. Almost without exception, the Christian theologians—from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds—argue that we have a moral duty to offer forgiveness in all circumstances. As Father Theodore Hesburgh, former President of the University of Notre Dame wrote: “Of course the sin here is monumental. But, it is still finite and God’s mercy is infinite” (Wiesenthal, 169). And, also almost without exception, the Jewish thinkers argue that one cannot offer full forgiveness to a murderer, since the travesty he perpetrated cannot ever be undone, the victims cannot be restored to life.
This division reflects a basic gulf between most Christian and Jewish thought on the subject. For Christians, God is the sole author of forgiveness and as God’s grace is limitless so too is the possibly of repentance. However, in Jewish teaching, true teshuvah must include a good faith attempt to repair any harm that was done before one can seek divine pardon. This leads to an important caveat-- when such someone is unable or unwilling to take these steps, there is no possibility of complete healing. This basic concept is put succinctly in the Mishnah, the first code of rabbinic law, in which we learn: “Yom Kippur atones for transgressions between oneself and God; however, for transgressions that affect other human beings, Yom Kippur does not atone until one has first reached out their fellow” (Mishnah, Yoma 8:9).
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