Same Woman, Same Desire

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

We are now in the midst of the ten days of Teshuvah — loosely, though inaccurately, translated as “repentance.” This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Teshuvah or Shabbat Shuva — partially so named after the first word of the Haftorah (“Shuva Yisroel”), but also because it is the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, of course, provides atonement for all those who do Teshuvah.

So the theme of these days is definitely Teshuvah.

But what is this amorphous “Teshuvah”?

If you are at all like me, Teshuvah is a word, a religious obligation, that has been so over-utilized and over-discussed, that it has had any significance philosophized right out of it. So when I hear that I have to do Teshuvah, my instinctive reaction is: “Oh crap, now what do I do?”

If we go back to the basics, however, and separate the various meanings that Teshuvah has on various strata, perhaps we can restore the link between our consciousness and the theme of the period in which we now find ourselves.

At its core, Teshuvah is really very simple. As Maimonides says: “What constitutes Teshuvah? That a sinner should abandon his sins and remove them from his thoughts, resolving in his heart, never to commit them again . . . He must verbally confess and state these matters which he resolved in his heart.”[1]

Remember I said Teshuvah was simple — not easy! It’s certainly not easy to leave behind sin once we have tasted its delights, and for such a resolution to be sincere requires a certain strength of character, self-awareness, and an advance mental exercise of that self-control that we have been discussing over the past weeks. But once we verbalize our sins, and make a sincere commitment to leave them behind — we have done Teshuvah.

Indeed, Teshuvah is so simple and instantly attainable that it gives rise to the following Jewish law: “If a man tells a woman: “Behold, you are consecrated (betrothed) to me on condition that I am a righteous man,” then even if the person is known to be thoroughly wicked, the woman is considered to be betrothed out of doubt — for it is possible that he had thoughts of repentance in his heart at that time [which would have erased all of his sin, and rendered him a righteous man].”[2]

Consider! This famously wicked man may have, in a single instant, turned into a righteous man, because of the thoughts of repentance — i.e. his commitment to abandon sin — in his heart. That’s how simple a process it is.

Of course, as valid as that Teshuvah may be, it does not receive the Good Housekeeping Seal until the person’s sincerity is put to the test. After all, I know that I make the same commitments and resolutions year after year; and yet I somehow end up regretting and confessing to the same sins the next Yom Kippur. So how do we know when we have truly taken that huge step, and actually welded that resolution to our heart?

This is what Maimonides refers to as “complete” Teshuvah. “What is complete Teshuvah? A person who confronts the same situation in which he sinned when he has the potential to commit the sin again, and, nevertheless, abstains and does not commit it because of his Teshuvah alone and not because of fear or a lack of strength.”

And Maimonides helps us by giving an example that is near and dear to our hearts here at Jewrotica.

A person engaged in illicit sexual relations with a woman. Afterwards, they met in privacy, in the same country, while his love for her and physical power still persisted, and nevertheless, he abstained and did not transgress. This is a complete Baal-Teshuvah.[3]

Think about that. He has been involved in a forbidden sexual relationship. But his Teshuvah does not require that he write off his illicit lover, or break their emotional connection. It does not require that he reform his character, so that he is no longer kinky, or so that he no longer enjoys the things that he used to enjoy. In fact, the test of the sincerity of his Teshuvah requires that he have the same opportunityalone-time with her, and enduring love and desire for her — yet he resists solely because of the resolution that he made.

Of course, we may distrust — perhaps with good reason — the strength of our commitment to master our impulses, and thus seek to avoid opportunities for us to succumb to temptation. Doing so may rescue us from sin, however, but also deprives us of the opportunity to test the sincerity of our Teshuvah. I am, of course, not suggesting that we deliberately put ourselves in danger of sinning if there is a risk that we may actually fail in our resolve; but testing our commitment does require that we reemerge from the safety of our cocoon, and face temptation once again.

Indeed, Maimonides continues to state that “if he does not repent until his old age, at a time when he is incapable of doing what he did before, even though this is not a high level of repentance, he is a Baal-Teshuvah. And even if he transgressed throughout his entire life and repented on the day of his death and died in repentance, all his sins are forgiven.”

So, even if a person performs Teshuvah for sexual sins after experiencing a complete loss of libido — so really involving no great feat on his/her part — the Teshuvah is nonetheless valid, albeit no real indication of personal moral achievement.

That is Teshuvah in its simplest form.

Mystically (and etymologically), however, Teshuvah comes from the Hebrew word “return.” We are not encouraged to repent — as though to change our natural state — but rather to return. The very word “Teshuvah” is an acknowledgment that a state of sin is not our natural habitat. We come from a much higher place; and we are inherently much more than what our impulses would have us believe. Teshuvah is G-d’s call to us to return, to come home, to embrace our true, unsullied selves, which have merely been hidden, but not lost.

May we each have an inspiring Shabbat Shuva, and an inspiring and meaningful Yom Kippur, in which we reconnect with our Creator and with our true selves.

Works Cited

[1] Maimonides, Hilchot Teshuvah, 2:2.

[2] Maimonides, Hilchot Ishut, 7:5.
[3] Maimonides, Hilchot Teshuvah, 2:1.