Teshuva: On Memory and Return

Anonymous British workshop, The Repentance of the Prodigal Son, early 17th century. Reverse side of silk and wool tapestry.

When I was born, my parent held me in their arms and remembered me. “I know him,” they said out loud. For a moment they even remembered by name — not the name I have now, neither in Hebrew or English, but a different name connected with their memory of me. So precise and vivid was this memory, so true this name, they were sure they would retain it. In the next instant, however, the name had vanished, and eight days later I was given “Jesse” as a substitute. But the instant of recognition, the fact of their having known me, having encountered me somewhere and sometime before, remains at the core of our relationship. We can scarcely bring it up to one another without weeping.

The story may be exceptional, I don’t know, but its message is not. I know as a reformed student of desire that love is predicated on a sense of recognition, understood by Lacan to be a kind of self-recognition or dependence on the other as one through whose desire in turn we might recognize ourselves. Here, however, I write idealistically (see: naively) about that type of human love that most approximates divine love; namely, the love of a parent for their child. This form of love in its ideal is so true, and so heavenly, precisely because it depends on a degree of self-nullification on the part of the parent. The parent thus alternatively retracts themselves from their world (tsimtsum) and empties themselves of their own will (kenosis) in order to make space for the will and life of their child; to love one’s child to this extent resembles an assimilation to the nature of divinity in the sense that Socrates described in Theaet. 176b: “to become like God, to the extent that this is possible.” The point is that this divine self-nullification serves as the prerequisite for being able to see the other (the child, the beloved; “my sister, my bride”) as they are, and that this recognition, this familiarity, is the nature of the most divine love possible outside of heaven. Even if we’ve never met in this life, if I truly love you, I know you. I recognize you. You are, in fact, unbearably familiar. If only I could remember your name.

“Teshuva,” תשובה‎, is an interesting word for a number of reasons. It is used in Hebrew to refer to the act of atoning for one’s sins. Especially around this time of year one will hear talk among religious Jews of “making teshuva,” a practice that looks on the face of it like one of asking for forgiveness but implies a much deeper process of inner metamorphosis whereby one resolves to correct one’s sins and refrain from committing the sin in question again. The word is translated as “repentance,” though it literally means “return,” which I’ve always assumed came specifically from the practice of making teshuva for an act of theft wherein would have to literally “return” the object to its rightful owner. The return in question, of course, is really a return to God; as it says in the book of Hosea: “Return (שובה, “shuva”), O Israel, to the Lord your God, For you have Fallen because of your sin” (Hosea 14.2, trans. JPS). To sin, then, is to have strayed onto the path of the world and to return, to make teshuva, is to return to the way of God (derech torah, the path of God’s will).

Perhaps this analogy of redirection helps us also to understand the second meaning of teshuva: “to turn.” The logic of teshuva recognizes in this sense that we are always facing in and headed toward a certain direction. In repenting, we seek to turn our backs to evil and to turn our attention instead toward heaven. The interesting feature of this alternate translation is that it implies a degree of stasis; rather than running back or forward when we atone we in fact remain grounded in the same place, and it is merely the object of our attention that changes.

To “turn” then, rather than to “return,” is to recognize that one is always-already with God and a recipient to his blessings. Rather than facing the burden of our evil urges (yetzer hara, the inclination toward evil) in making teshuva we choose instead to direct our attention toward God and seek His face (“In Your behalf my heart says: ‘Seek My face!’ / O Lord, I seek Your face,” Psalm 27, read in preparation for Rosh Hashanah). This gesture of turning follows in the tradition that the people of Israel have always remained, on a certain level, at Sinai, experiencing the theophany of receiving the Torah (cf. Benny Lévy, “une pensée du Retour. Retour au Sinaï. Là précisément où le juif est rivé.”). To “turn,” according to this belief, is to remember this sense of encounter — to remember that one is constantly experiencing revelation, that the voice of God and his angels are present all around us, and that it’s only a matter of listening, of “turning our attention toward — “. It’s only when this shift of attention is made that we remember where we stand, where we find the face of our Beloved.

There’s a sense of deep antiquity implied in the act of teshuva. The Gemara recounts in Nedarim 39b that teshuva, alongside Torah and the Garden of Eden, count among seven phenomena (דברים, which means both “words” and “things”) which were created before the creation of the world. To participate in repentance as a Jew thus has an air of primordiality about it, as teshuva (its possibility, its function) represents the primordial divine gift. Many forms of mystical experience, of which teshuva is one, tend to share this feeling of return to mythic antiquity, of an encounter with something quite old. The rabbis tend to use the metaphor of returning to the Garden of Eden to describe the extent of their ecstasy (see Tosefta Chagigah 2.2) for precisely this reason. This return is a return to origins, a kind of homecoming. The German philosopher-poet Novalis picks up this thread in his emphasis on the feeling of Heimweh, of homesickness: “Philosophy is properly homesickness; the wish to be everywhere at home.” The religious urge likewise is an urge to return to what is familiar, to return home, even as it implies an abandon of all comforts and a leap into what is properly unknown. A Hasidic analogy used to express this idea is that of the ember which leaps out of the fire and then immediately is drawn back into the heat. One might also think of the Neoplatonic doctrine of emanation and return, according to which the soul (being divine) yearns intrinsically to return “home” to its source, to God.

The paradox of such a dialectic, as I’ve written elsewhere, is that God is ontologically distinct from the whole of creation and thus is that which least resembles any created thing. Unlike all material phenomena God is uncreated and ineffable. In His very nature He resists comparison — all metaphor, all poetry falls short. And yet, despite every apophatic gesture of distance just listed, the act of returning to God, of making teshuva, is a feeling by all accounts of tremendous familiarity and homecoming. Indeed, for the mystic to insist that God is foreign or alien would be (despite His ontological distinction) a kind of heresy. The process of returning to God through atonement is instead a process of remembering, of coming home, of encountering again that presence which surprises us by how familiar it is.

The end of teshuva, then, is a statement of recognition: I remember you — Lord my God, my King, my Beloved — of course I remember you. We’ve met before, maybe when I was very young, maybe earlier. But I remember you, I know you, how could I forget you? How could I have forgotten you? I even remember your name.

A prayer: help me to never forget your name.

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J. N.

J. N.

Theology, Hermeneutics, Jewish Mysticism | Oberlin 2022