By Alex Green
I recently was invited as a scholar-in-residence to speak before the selichot service at Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto. As we prepared to say the prayers that request divine forgiveness, I reflected on the nature of repentance in today’s world, suggesting that we are living in a kind of renaissance of repentance on a communal and societal level. Repentance is not merely a possibility today, but it is an ideal that we strive for. Over the last few years, our contemporary society has reexamined our institutions, our leaders, our traditions and put them under the microscope. We seek absolution in the reparations and apologies offered for the inequities and injustices of the past.
However, with the success of our communal repentance, there is a danger that we may be losing touch with the other side of repentance, which I would call individual repentance. This model of repentance is about individuals who make mistakes, who sin, and who may harm others around them in the process. Individuals may suffer for the harm they have done to others, but they also need to be offered a way to recognize their mistakes and correct their path, if they so choose the path of repentance.
How do we offer society the opportunity to correct its past sins without denying individuals the agency to make mistakes and repent on their own terms? Can we repent for the sins committed throughout history as groups without denying individuals the freedom to choose their own path?
One way to answer this challenge from a Jewish perspective is by examining Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. Maimonides was the first to codify the laws dealing with repentance in his Laws of Repentance (Hilchot Teshuvah). However, repentance also appears in another section in his code, in his Laws of Fasts (Hilchot Taaniyot). Why the difference? The first deals with individual repentance, while the latter deals with communal repentance. Maimonides interestingly keeps these discussions and methods quite separate. The individual described in Laws of Repentance knows they committed a sin and is given clear prescriptions for how to improve. By contrast the community discussed in Laws of Fasts, which has suffered a great tragedy, must fast and blow trumpets in order to awaken the people to the fact that they may be the cause of the suffering with the aim that this will stimulate introspection. The community is often not aware what harm it may be causing in the first place and is reticent to reexamine its past.
Maimonides appears to be suggesting that communities and societies have a constant temptation to ignore their failings. It is easy in a large group for everyone to blame others and for no one to take responsibility. Consequently, communities are ultimately dependent on individuals who through their own quest for self-improvement, character development and striving for betterment, serve as the fundamental starting point for fixing the world around them.
Alex Green is the Community Educator and Visiting Associate Professor at SUNY Buffalo in the Department of Jewish Thought.