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Gabe Crane

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Real Teshuvah

Posted: 09/28/11 09:10 AM ET

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, the Jewish world prepares for the call, personified in the day's 100 blasts of the shofar, for teshuvah. Often translated as "repentance," teshuvah means more closely "return," sharing a Hebrew root, or shoresh, with shuv/return. It is a time for a return to the Godhead, a time for a reunion with the compassion of the mother's womb.

Yet, while this is the essential work enacted on Rosh Hashanah and carried to its fulfillment on Yom Kippur, it is not only unclear how to actually perform this task; it is a challenge to even grasp what teshuvah means.

Part of the problem is that the term teshuvah has been co-opted in our time. Its most immediate association, outside of the High Holidays, is with ba'al teshuvah, "master of return," a term used to describe an individual who has taken on a more religiously observant lifestyle. A ba'al teshuvah is said, in religious circles, to grow stronger as he takes upon himself halakhah (Jewish law), and in some instances the garb, customs and belief systems of some of Judaism's most conservative movements.

Fortunately, spiritual strength is not in truth so easily measured. True teshuvah may be, but is not necessarily, toward an increase in halakhic observance. Indeed, the implication that closeness to God is a direct derivative of following the religious rulebook is a falsehood the Jewish world needs to leave behind for good.

The ba'al teshuvah phenomenon reflects, among other things, a desire for clear answers in an ambiguous time. This desire is understandable, given that uncertainty and doubt are no longer the fringe interest of eccentrics and the insane but the defining features of the postmodern age. Our knowledge of existence is informed as much by what we don't know as what we do. We talk about repentance and never straying from the righteous path, yet at the same time stand able to perceive a history that has demonstrated not only the likelihood of further transgression, but the necessity of rebellion and exile to the process of growth and evolution. Even the basic premise of sin and atonement seems at times the precursor to a fundamentalist worldview.

Simply put, it is hard to atone for one's sins when one doesn't know what they are.

Yet while the ba'al teshuvah phenomenon is understandable, the truth is that we would do well to run toward such postmodern murkiness rather than away from it. While the threat of moral ambiguity, even amorality, is real, it is also clear that fundamentalism itself remains the essential evil of our time (talk about a postmodern conundrum!).

As the author Aviva Zornberg said in Jerusalem this week, the truest teshuvah is not toward the answers, but rather, toward an openness to the questions themselves. It is not simply toward knowing, but toward knowing that we don't know. Thus, teshuvah is about saying yes to the conversation. It is away from a final purification from sin, and toward an appreciation for both the exile and the return, toward the shofar blasts both broken and whole. Teshuvah, via a more honest and open relationship with ourselves and the guiding Spirit within, is toward a conscientious transcendence altogether of the dualist paradigm.

As for amorality, beneath this intellectualism a still small voice is speaking. It is speaking from the midst of the relativity of Jonah's boundless and stormy sea. It speaks not of philosophical theories or of strict adherence to halakhah; rather, it speaks of interpersonal understanding, cultural reconciliation and peaceful co-existence. It speaks of an ability to respond flexibly and meaningfully to an ever-evolving world -- an ability aligned with, not opposed to, the true spirit of the Jewish tradition.

Expressed from the heart rather than the intellect, this tiny voice speaks of Love and claims it as our essential constitution. If the danger of the postmodern paradigm is moral ambivalence, it is the very nature of our inner being that will allow us to be redeemed.

Real teshuvah -- teshuvah that works -- necessarily calls up a desire to be a better person; that is, it conjures a religious feeling. If this results in a more committed religious practice, the world is blessed. However, the nature of this practice should be, and should be encouraged to be, as diverse as people's personalities. The true ba'al teshuvah may halakhically tie his shoes, but it is just as likely that, by the very nature of the postmodern precepts, she won't. The best hope for a renewed Judaism is a Jewish people creatively engaged with its tradition from the depth and earnestness of its own experience.

The ba'al teshuvah to be encouraged and celebrated is the person who has looked within to connect with the divine umbilical cord reaching out from the back of her head. It is the person who walks in the ways of Hashem by responding with humor and grace to the infinitely complex needs of the moment. It is the person who knows the One True God because she knows herself. The world is increasingly on the verge of collapse. If we are to resolve the myriad challenges we face, this is the type of ba'al teshuvah that more of us must aspire to be, and become.

The blast of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah calls out to all of us: "Wake up! You have been sleeping!" The slumber is clear. The choice is ours. But to what is it that we awaken?