Return and Renew­al: Reflec­tions on Teshu­va and Spir­i­tu­al Growth

Aharon Licht­en­stein

  • Review
By – December 10, 2018

This vol­ume demon­strates why Rab­bi Aharon Licht­en­stein was con­sid­ered not only a role mod­el of inte­grat­ed reli­gious and sec­u­lar thought, but also a sin­gu­lar reli­gious human­ist. It con­tains twelve dif­fer­ent pre­sen­ta­tions deliv­ered as the Hausman/​Stern Kin­nus Teshu­va lec­tures at the Gruss Insti­tute in Jerusalem from 1989 to 2008, as well as dis­cus­sions lead­ing up to the Days of Awe at Kehi­lath Jeshu­run in Man­hat­tan in 1992 and 1997.

In addi­tion to his deep knowl­edge on a wide array of top­ics in the Bible and Tal­mud, as well as Jew­ish law, thought, and con­tem­po­rary life, Rab­bi Licht­en­stein was also inti­mate­ly famil­iar with clas­si­cal and lit­er­ary moral thought. Through­out the talks tran­scribed in this book, he quotes lib­er­al­ly from such lumi­nar­ies as Socrates, Augus­tine, Eras­mus, Spenser, Shake­speare, Mil­ton, Byron, Wordsworth, James, and C. S. Lewis, using their writ­ings to artic­u­late and clar­i­fy the ideas encoun­tered in tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish sources.

While teshu­va (repen­tance) is not a com­mand­ment unique to Jew­ish reli­gious tra­di­tion, Rab­bi Licht­en­stein illus­trates the par­tic­u­lar­ly Jew­ish impli­ca­tions of this mitz­vah. How is repen­tance a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the quest for reli­gious truth? Must teshu­va be total, or can it be mean­ing­ful when only par­tial? What are the fac­tors that impel an indi­vid­ual to repent? Where the author’s approach is tru­ly unique, how­ev­er, is in his explo­ration of the emo­tion­al dynam­ics of repen­tance. Can teshu­va be achieved by some­one who is con­sid­ered mediocre”? How does repen­tance that comes about as the result of a cri­sis dif­fer from that occur­ring under nor­mal” con­di­tions? Can pride be chan­neled con­struc­tive­ly in order to achieve teshuva?

The most sur­pris­ing and mean­ing­ful pre­sen­ta­tion appears as the final chap­ter of the book, Teshu­va and Joy.” Rab­bi Licht­en­stein admits that most tra­di­tion­al sources depict the pen­i­tent in mourn­ful, suf­fer­ing terms — and because of this, it’s easy to believe that repen­tance should be informed by con­sid­er­able sad­ness and regret. But, employ­ing a num­ber of coun­terex­am­ples, the author con­cludes, Can there by any greater source of joy than your oppor­tu­ni­ty to be Choz­er BeTeshu­va, a pen­i­tent, as well as actu­al­ly being one? The sin­ner has access, an appoint­ment with God. With all the sense of depen­den­cy, defile­ment, and fail­ure, you are nev­er­the­less a pris­on­er free­ing him­self from prison.’ Shall we not rejoice at the priv­i­lege afford­ed us?” Rab­bi Licht­en­stein stress­es that while teshu­va has many unique aspects to it, it is also rep­re­sen­ta­tive of serv­ing God in gen­er­al. If teshu­va ought to be joy­ful, so too should the ful­fill­ment of any and all oth­er mitzvot.

This col­lec­tion gives unique insight into Rab­bi Lichtenstein’s method­ol­o­gy and thought process­es, as well as the ever-impor­tant top­ic of repentance.

Yaakov (Jack) Biel­er was the found­ing Rab­bi of the Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD until his retire­ment in 2015. He has been asso­ci­at­ed with Jew­ish day school edu­ca­tion for over thir­ty years. R. Biel­er served as a men­tor for the Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Look­stein Cen­ter Prin­ci­pals’ Sem­i­nar and he has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

Discussion Questions