Peli, Pinchas H. “On Repentance: The Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik”, Maggid reissue, 2017.
Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik was the unchallenged leader of modern Orthodox Judaism in the United States for over 50 years (He died in 1993). It was his understanding of both traditional Judaism and secular philosophy shaped two generations of rabbinic students at Yeshiva University, and provided a new course for American Orthodox Jews. His language of choice was Yiddish and his teachings on repentance have yet to be equaled but because of the language they were only accessible to Yiddish speakers. They were never published because the rabbi refused to do so. These teachings are from Soloveitchik’s annual series of lectures on repentance and were presented on the anniversary of his father’s death. For many Jews, these lectures were the major academic and intellectual event of the year but those who did not follow the rabbi were deprived of his genius. Now, however, we are able to share what he had to say.
Pinchas Peli has captured the thought of Joseph Soloveitchik and in writing this book, gives us one of the great modern classics of Jewish thought. While Rabbi Soloveitchik’s views on repentance are interesting, we must remember that they contain mystic elements and were designed to teach the rabbi’s view of proper behavior that is the total surrender to God. We know that teshuva (repentance) is a practical endeavor and it does not absolve the sins of mankind. Rather we are reminded that to correct sins, it is necessary to use practical measures to correct our mistakes. Repentance is “when a person decides to abandon his or her past misdeeds, resolves not to do them again, thinks how to correct them, and develops habits to assure they are not repeated”.
The term teshuva and the concept of repentance are not in the Torah. The ancients, Israelites and non-Israelites, believed that what one said, especially vows, or what one did could not be erased and that punishment is the only remedy for misdeeds. Scholars, however, suppose that the current idea that people can nullify misdeeds by doing teshuva developed in the year 722 BCE in three stages. It was then that Assyrians conquered Israel and exiled most Israelites from their land. The Judeans who saw the catastrophe were convinced that this was the result of the misdeeds of the northern tribes, especially that many abandoned God and worshiped idols. They searched for a way to save themselves, to nullify their wrongs without punishment. It was then that teshuva began to develop as an idea that repentance can erase prior misdeeds. Then in 586 BCE when Judea was destroyed by the Babylonians and many Judeans were exiled to Babylon, the idea picked up more steam and then the final stage began in 70 CE when the second temple was destroyed by Rome and Jews once again felt that their misdeeds caused this destruction and rabbis developed practices which they hoped would eliminate those wrongs.
Rabbi Soloveitchik is an important thinker and offers good teachings, but even he had a difficult time with finding a rational explanation on what is sin, why one should correct behavior, and how it should be done. He gives us a lot to think about thus enabling us to find our own way of repentance.