14th of Kislev: R. Kook on the Obligation to Repent

Varying Assumptions About Rambam’s View of Teshuvah

One of the first sefarim I read on my own, and which made a deep impression on me, was the translation of Al heTeshuvah, Pinchas Peli z”l’s presentation of five of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchick (the Rov) z”l’s lectures on repentance.  In Mishpat Kohen 128, written on 14th Kislev, 5680 (1919), R. Kook addresses one of those topics, and the gap between them is telling about their different perspectives on teshuvah.

The questioner proposed an answer to an issue originally raised by R. Chayyim Yosef David Azulai, the important 18th century rabbi.  Chida noted the concept of a lav ha-nitak le-aseh, a prohibition that the Torah attaches to a follow-up lav. One example is armed robbery, where the Torah requires the robber to return the item.  Because he has a sort of “out” from the prohibition, tradition understood those to be in some ways less stringent than ordinary ones. One prime expression of that is that those who transgress such prohibitions are not subject to malkot, flogging as a penalty for willful flouting.  Levels of stringency also affect how we go about repenting, as Rabbenu Yonah notes at the beginning of the 3rd section of Sha’arei Teshuvah; he spends most of the rest of that section categorizing mitzvot by stringency.

Teshuvah also brings us back to Chida’s question. Chida wondered why we don’t consider every prohibition a lav ha-nitak le-aseh, since the transgression brings with it the immediate obligation to repent.  R. Kook ratified Chida’s answer, that the obligation to repent is too general to be what the Talmud means by a lav ha-nitak le-aseh. To be considered connected in that way, the obligation that arises after the sin has to be directed at that particular sin, not a general need to serve God, etc.

Teshuvah: Minchat Chinuch’s Suggestion

Then R. Kook questions Chida’s premise, that teshuvah is an ‘aseh, a positive commandment.  He notes what the Rov did in Al haTeshuvah (and many before him), that Rambam is unclear about whether teshuvah is a mitzvah.  To appreciate my reaction to R. Kook’s view, I would like to briefly recall what the Rov said about the issue.  The problem arises with Rambam’s first words in the Laws of Repentance: [any sin a person commits] when the person repents of his sin, s/he is obligated to recite confess [or articulate] the sin.  As many noted, Rambam does not say the sinner is required to repent, only that once that sinner has repented, he or she has to recount the sin verbally.

That led some—I heard it first in the name of Minchat Chinuch, who lived in the first three quarters of the 18th century– to suggest that Rambam, indeed, did not envision a commandment to repent, only that recitation of the sin, vidui, be part of any repentance that occurs. We will come back to discuss that view further, but when I was growing up in Torah study, so to speak, it was generally dismissed.

The Rov: Kiyyum and Ma’aseh

Looking back, that might have been because of the influence of one of the drashot presented in Al haTeshuvah.  The Rov raised the same question about Rambam’s phrasing, and gave an answer he invoked in many areas of halachah. In the Rov’s reading, there are two parts to every mitzvah, the kiyyum hamitzvah, the true fulfillment of the commandment, and the ma’aseh hamitzvah, the action of the commandment.

In a mitzvah like eating matzah on Pesach, the two are the same.  The mitzvah is to eat the matzah, and if you eat it, you’re done. It might be preferable to have the most sophisticated possible awareness of the story behind the eating of matzah, but at a fundamental level, eating matzah with awareness that it is a mitzvah to do so fulfills God’s command.  That is less so, the Rov pointed out, with mitzvot that have a significant internal component.  Prayer and mourning, for example, have external expressions—saying certain words, sitting on the floor– but are more properly concerned with the internal experience of turning to God or mourning the departed.

Teshuvah, too, is such a mitzvah, and the Rov claimed that Rambam signaled that by differentiating the koteret, the heading, from the content of the laws themselves. In the koteret, he said the section would deal with one commandment, that the sinner repent his sin and then confess.  That was defining the kiyyum hamitzvah, the true fulfillment.  In the body of the laws, however, he told us the action-based rules of the mitzvah, and those focus on the act, the vidui.

Another source that seems to support the Rov’s reading is Sefer haChinuch, the 13th century description of the 613 commandments.  Sefer haChinuch starts by saying that we are commanded to articulate our sins before God at the time that we regret them.  That might be read as limiting the mitzvah to vidui.  At the end, though, he says that whoever neglects to recite his or her sins on Yom Kippur, which is the fixed day for forgiveness and absolution, has neglected this positive commandment. 

This is a Geonic idea, that there is a particular obligation to repent on Yom Kippur, but it certainly seems that Sefer haChinuch—who rigidly follows Rambam in his enumeration of mitzvot, even when he disagrees with him—accepted it.

Rav Kook and Two Models of the Kind of Heavenly Father We Have

Rav Kook does not refer to Minchat Chinuch, but casually accepts the conclusion that I always learned was roundly rejected, that Rambam did not count a commandment to repent. R. Kook notes that those who assume there is a mitzvah point to Rambam’s lead-in, as the Rov said, but R. Kook himself is confident that what Rambam wrote in the body of the text should count more than the header.  (Note the contrast: the Rov found a way to differentiate between them, to explain their separate areas, one in defining the kiyyum hamitzvah, the other defining the ma’aseh hamitzvah).

R. Kook has two other pieces of evidence, which bring the Rov’s conclusion, I think, into more serious question.  He points us to Rambam’s two other countings of mitzvot ,the Book of Commandments itself and the brief list of commandments that Rambam gives in opening the Mishneh Torah.  In both, Rambam seems to focus on vidui as the mitzvah, not repentance itself.

How Teshuvah Could Not Be a Mitzvah, and Two Models of Parenting

I note that even if Rav Kook were right, and Rambam held that teshuvah itself is not a specific obligation, that does not necessarily reflect the normative view.  As I mentioned, several authorities held there is a positive commandment to repent on Yom Kippur at least.  Still, the discussion is interesting to me for the different underlying perspectives of God’s relationship to us.

Rav Kook refers to it as עצת חבה מאת אבינו שבשמים, a counsel of love from our Father in Heaven. That phrasing offers a perfect parallel to think about the issue: if a child behaves wrongly toward a parent, seriously wrongly, there will be a distance created.  For most children, that distance itself is painful, and the child realizes the need and necessity for rectification of the relationship on his or her own.

What about the children who do not? Some parents will push those children into apologizing, while other might decide that the child needs to come to it on his or her own, and will allow the distance to linger until that happens (other parents will let the issue slide without insisting or verifying that the child has learned a lesson, but that’s just bad parenting, and we would never ascribe that to God).

Our debate seems parallel: for the Rov, Rambam saw Hashem as having taken the first tack, demanding that we repent when we act wrongly; for R. Kook, repentance was available (and who would be foolish enough not to take advantage?), but God wasn’t going to demand of us that we learn that lesson.

The Pitfalls of Overconfidence

R. Kook reports hearing, in his youth, an important rabbi who solved the divergence between the header and the body of the Laws of Repentance by emending the text of the header, changing it to read: When a sinner repents, he should articulate his sins.  Given that the Rov later offered a compelling reason to explain why it should read as is, we see how dangerous it can be to get too certain of your view: he was so sure Rambam only called vidui a mitzvah, he was willing, without the benefit of manuscript or other evidence, to change the text itself.

A caution to all of us, and caution is one of the prime ways to avoid sin, and minimize our need to get into the question of whether repentance is a commandment.

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