In a magazine article that I happened to read recently, a Jewish actor spoke of how he envied his Christian friends for their convenient methods of obtaining forgiveness for their sins. A formal confession to the priest, the recitation of a specified number of "Hail Mary"s-- and the penitents can leave church with the assurance that the burden has been lifted from their shoulders. Jews lack such an automatic absolution process, and hence (according to the author of the quote) spend more of their times wrestling with unresolved guilt.
While this stereotypical generalization does not do justice to the nuances of either faith, and displays an abysmal ignorance of the atonement mechanisms associated with the Jewish High Holy Day season, I feel that it does point to an intriguing anomaly: In most areas of religious life it is Judaism that distinguishes itself, for better or for worse, by its concern for minute ritual detail, while the Christian tendency is towards sweeping generalization. However, when it comes the process of repentance, Jewish tradition takes a straightforward, pragmatic approach that focuses on identifying our shortcomings, renouncing them, and resolving not to repeat them in the future. On the other hand, classical Christian practice (as exemplified most strongly in the Roman Catholic church) has evolved elaborate rituals to absolve the penitents of their guilt.
In reality, Judaism has not been completely immune to the kinds of penitential rituals that we normally associate with Catholicism. Several ethical and halakhic works make reference to a Hebrew term known as "teshuvat ha-miskhkal," which is best translated as "balance- penance." The basic premise of this concept is that transgressors should be required to undergo specific acts of punishment or suffering that are equivalent to the amounts of pleasure or profit that they enjoyed through their indiscretions.
Although such penitential regimens are mentioned occasionally in Talmudic literature, they are treated as extraordinary practices by saintly individuals, and not as norms to be followed by ordinary people. Their widespread adoption does not occur until the Middle Ages, in central Europe.
Ascetic practices were strongly encouraged by the Hasidei Ashkenaz, the pietistic sect that achieved far-reaching influence among the Jewish communities of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Germany. The Book of the Pious, the most important manifesto of the movement's ideals, commends a life of fasting and asceticism. Typical of its spiritual outlook is the story it recounts about a certain saint who was wont to spend the hottest days of summer lying among ants, and the winter days with his feet frozen into buckets of ice. When asked why such a righteous individual needed to resort to extreme acts of penance, he acknowledged that he was not personally guilty of such grave wrongdoing; however, he wished to alleviate the sufferings of the Messiah. The tale concludes with the assurance that the saint eventually was assigned the most distinguished place in Paradise.
This account of radical self-abnegation, coupled with its concern for the pains of a suffering Messiah, seems more appropriate to a Christian author than to one of the most distinguished Jewish teachers. Indeed, historians have observed that the penitential doctrines that prevailed among the Ashkenazic Jewish pietists were deeply imbued with the values of the surrounding Christian society. The notion that a penance should be commensurate to the sin is one that had been introduced around that time by the Frankish; and detailed manuals were composed in order to guide the priests in assigning appropriate penances to their flocks.
A Jewish version of those penitential manuals was composed by Rabbi Eleazar Rokeah of Worms. Rabbi Eleazar had learned these disciplines from his teachers in the Hasidei Ashkenaz movement, but he insisted that they derived from an unbroken oral tradition going back to Moses at Sinai. It was in the Rokeah's classic formulation that the idea of "balance- penance" be came the standard for subsequent Jewish writers. It was based on the assumption that each sin produces a spiritual imbalance that must be rectified.
Another class of penances was designed to ward off divine punishment in the next world by imposing a penalty that resembled the one that would have been inflicted by Torah law.
The catalogue of recommended torments included the aforementioned subjection to ice or insects, as well as the venerable practices of fasting, charity and flagellation. Some sins call for abstinence from meat or wine, sleeping on boards, going unwashed for long periods of time, and the like.
The extremes to which people asked to be punished bordered on the pathological. Thus, for instance, the Book of the Pious dealt with the case of a person who asked his fellow to strike him to death. The rabbi ruled that it was permissible to strike him, but not to kill him.
A survey of the crimes for which penances had to be prescribed provides us with an index of the weaknesses to which our revered ancestors were prone. High on the list were sexual crimes, including adultery and affairs with Christian women and maidservants. The sources also discuss penances for murder and manslaughter. In such extreme cases, the criminal was ordered to forsake his home and assume the life of a wanderer. In each community that he visited he must confess his sin, submit himself to iron shackles, and allow himself to be trodden by passers-by on the synagogue doorstep.
The halakhic status of these penances underwent some interesting evolutions over the years. It appears they were originally intended to be administered by the pietist teachers whose role it was to hear the confessions and guide the sinners through their absolution. However the communities were not comfortable with assigning such priest-like authority to Jewish sages, and instead accepted the regimens only on an individual basis, with the confessions being directed to the Almighty as part of the daily prayers, rather than to human intermediaries. This approach was adopted by Rabbi Eleazar Rokeah in his penitential manual. Nevertheless, we find that by the fifteenth century some Jewish towns were incorporating the penances into their communal regulations, using them as punishments for violations of public morals.
These extreme practices never caught on among Sefaradic Jews, whose typical attitude was more in keeping with Maimonides' derisive condemnation of people "who are not satisfied with what was forbidden by the Torah, but heap upon themselves additional prohibitions, including continual fasting that does them no good."
Even among the Ashkenazic authorities, there were several rabbis who expressed their reservations concerning the value of penitential practices. A particularly instructive example is contained in a responsum of Rabbi Ezekiel Landau (the Noda' BiYhudah). Upon being asked by his correspondent to recommend a regimen for a serious transgression (the individual in question had married the daughter of a woman with whom he had previously conducted a lengthy adulterous affair), the rabbi replied that he was unaccustomed to dealing with such matters since they have no basis in Talmudic law. He insisted that he normally avoided the kinds of moralistic tracks that recommend penitential regimens, and knew about them only from vague childhood memories.
In the end, Rabbi Landau acquiesced to prescribe a mild penance of fasting and charitable giving, but made it clear that such practices must always be seen as means towards contrition, and have no atoning power in themselves.
Rabbi Landau, like other several other distinguished teachers (including Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, Rabbi Moses Sofer, and more), was concerned that ascetic practices would come to be perceived as a quick substitute for the sincere and complete moral transformation that constitutes authentic Jewish repentance.
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