Repentance Without Guilt

Unhealthy repentance

I was recently talking with a friend of mine who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and suffers from intrusive, guilty thoughts. He told me that he hates this time of year in the Jewish calendar because he has no need to create any more guilt for himself. His brain does a fine job on its own; thank you very much!


Indeed, the process of repenting for past mistakes can be unhealthy and psychologically difficult. As we move through the week of Asseres Yemei Teshuvah and our focus changes to rest exclusively on the concept of repentance, it is important to examine our approach from a religious as well as psychological standpoint.


Gult surrounding addiction

I work as an addiction psychiatrist and a common pitfall for those in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction is the negative psychological spiral when falling short of their goals. A failure to resist the urge to use or engage in an addictive behavior leads to self-beratement, starting a cycle of lower self-esteem and less strength to resist future temptation.


There is a danger in the process of repentance that the same pattern might emerge. It is assumed repentance required feelings of remorse and guilt, often equated with the Hebrew term “Charatah” or regret. Charatah is listed by Rabbenu Yonah as a required element of the Teshuvah process and the first step in this process.


The True Meaning of regret

But what is the true meaning of Charatah? There can be two possible considerations in this area. The first is an element of the relationship between people in general, the natural inclination is that one who wrongs another must suffer some punishment to even the score. Self-flagellation can take the place of this punishment. This approach could certainly lead to unhealthy psychological processes and assumes a logical falsity, that an individual’s guilt will somehow lessen the impact of a wrong.


This also is not consistent with Maimonides characterization of the repentance process. He defines atonement or “Kapparah” as separate from the repentance process and explains various things that may provide atonement, including suffering. He does not include feelings of guilt or self-flagellation.


What role does remorse play in repentance?

If the purpose of Charatah is not to provide some kind of tit for tat or punishment, what role does it play in repentance? Of course, in all behavioral change, there is a basic requirement that is self-evident that there is required some recognition that previous behavior was undesirable or the process would not begin. I would posit that it is this experience alone which drives the need for feeling Charatah or the desire for change. Regret in whatever magnitude is only required insofar as it leads to stronger commitment to change in the future, but has no value independently.


Maimonide’s position

This distinction becomes apparent in the words of the Rambam on Teshuvah:

1: Who has reached 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. For example, 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. This was implied by King Solomon in his statement [Ecclesiastes 12:1] “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, [before the bad days come and the years draw near when you will say: `I have no desire for them.'”…


2: 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 as [Isaiah 55:7] states “May the wicked abandon his ways….” Similarly, he must regret the past as [Jeremiah 31:18] states: “After I returned, I regretted.” [He must reach the level where] He who knows the hidden will testify concerning him that he will never return to this sin again as [Hoshea 14:4] states: “We will no longer say to the work of our hands: `You are our gods.'” He must verbally confess and state these matters which he resolved in his heart.


Maimonide’s explained

At first glance, the Rambam seems simple. First, he explains that full Teshuvah means a person presented with the same situation does not act in a sinful way. Then, he goes on to explain how he defines Teshuva. On closer reflection, however, a major question appears: why would the Rambam first describe what constitutes “full Teshuvah” and then in the next halacha as the question “What is Teshuva?” Would it not make sense to first describe what we are talking about and only then explain what the perfect version means?


I believe the explanation is Rambam is emphasizing that the definition of Teshuvah is not in its mechanics, i.e. that which he describes in the second halacha, but in its outcome, in changing the person to the extent that his future behavior would reflect this. For this reason, he begins the section with the example of perfect Teshuvah and only later describes the elements involved. In light of this, the requirement for Charatah, or regret, is necessary only as a tool to prevent future lapses, but not as an atonement for past forbidden pleasures or lapses.


This explanation also appears consistent with the Rambam’s ordering of the process of Teshuvah. Rabbenu Yonah in his Shaarei Teshuva writes the first step in repentance is Charatah and the second is leaving the sin. This order seems intuitive; when a person feels bad for what he has done, only then can he repent. Rambam, however, lists the leaving of the sin and determining in his heart not to return to it before listing the requirement of Charatah.

 The bottom line is that when it comes to changing behavior, guilt isn’t just unhelpful; it’s harmful.

The pitfalls of guilt

With this understanding of Charatah, we can decidedly say that guilt must remain separate from the Yom Kippur experience. Although a person feeling very guilty over what may appear to be a positive religious experience, we have learned in treatment that creating guilt actually has the opposite effect on behavior.


Historically, addiction treatment programs focused on a “tough love” approach and attempted to change behavior through confrontation and guilt. Over the past 30 years, the field has recognized that such an approach lowers the chances of success. One particularly striking example of this finding was in a study on the “victim impact panels” used by courts as an intervention to decrease drinking under the influence in individuals who were convicted of that offense. The intervention includes presentations on how drunk driving impacted the lives of family members of individuals who were killed by drunk drivers. Needless to say, participants reported feeling increased guilt and remorse about drinking and driving after such an intervention. Surprisingly, however, no difference was found between those who received this intervention and those who did not. In fact, in some groups, having heard this presentation actually increased the chances that the participants would drive drunk! On the level of talk therapy, treatment studies show that therapists who berate or guilt patients into changing behaviors actually increase the chances their clients will drink or use drugs.


The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that when it comes to changing behavior, guilt isn’t just unhelpful; it’s harmful. In the Rambam’s formulation of Teshuva, it would be the opposite of “complete Teshuva”. If this is the case, what is the benefit of the Rambam’s formulation of Charatah? Continuing the parallel with addiction treatment, the benefit is only in considering the negative impact of an action and connecting this impact with the behavior. For example, a person who smokes cannabis daily might consider the missed job interviews or school tests and the things they have missed out on. This is a reflection on a wrong not with guilt but with the ability to learn from missed opportunities.


I believe that this formulation allows us to rethink the time around Yom Kippur in a healthier and more productive way. The goal is not self-flagellation or guilt but rather a survey of past mistakes with a focus on self-improvement.


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1 Comment on “Repentance Without Guilt

  1. In the Vidui (Yom Kippur Confession) we ask God to forgive us for the sin of “standing in judgment.” The commentators have suggested that this is a confession appropriate for judges who erred or by laypeople who have harshly judged others. I would like to suggest another two possibilities. Perhaps, we are asking forgiveness for judging ourselves either too harshly or not harshly enough. In the latter case, we have failed to fully examine our actions and ferret out our transgressions. In the former case, we have judged ourselves so harshly−ironically, over the course of the Vidui, among other times−that we may have convinced ourselves that repentance is impossible. We may no longer be able to accept God’s loving gift. Self-judgment can be toxic, and if we ruminate overmuch on how awful we are, we may not be able to believe that God is really willing to forgive us.With this thought in mind, we can also consider adopting Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s following suggestion so that we can gladden our hearts: “just as there is great value to the confession of sins… there is also great value to the confession of mitzvot (our positive deeds), which gladdens the heart and strengthens the holy paths of life!’ (Ayn Aya, mMa’aser Sheni 7:10).”

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