New year's wishes
The birthday of the world / pregnant with possibility

Rambam and Jessica Rabbit

1:1 If you transgressed any commandment of the Torah, whether a positive or a negative commandment, whether deliberately or accidentally, then, when you repent, you must confess verbally to God...

That's the first line of Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance) by Rambam (Maimonides). We study it in my shul every year during our Torah study after services on the Shabbat immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah. Notice how he begins with insisting on verbal confession. Surely God hears what's in our hearts -- so why does Rambam make a point of saying that confession has to happen aloud? Not because God needs it, but because we do.

From my Jewish Renewal four worlds perspective, it's clear that teshuvah ("repentance" or turning toward God) needs to happen in all four worlds. We need to experience teshuvah in assiyah, the world of action and physicality: that means saying the words aloud with our mouths, and hearing ourselves say them.That's what Rambam's talking about here.

And, I would add, we need to experience teshuvah in yetzirah, the world of emotions: to feel remorse, forgiveness, connection. We need to experience teshuvah in briyah, the world of intellect: to think hard about who we've been and who we want to be. And we need to experience teshuvah in atzilut, the world of essence and integration. With me so far?

2:2 What exactly is repentance? 1) Repentance involves forsaking sins and removing such thoughts from your way of thinking and resolving firmly never to do it again, as it is written, "Let the wicked forsake their ways, and the unrighteous their thoughts, and let them return to Adonai (Isaiah 55:7.) 2) You should also be remorseful over what you have done, as it is written, "For after I had returned I regretted " (Jeremiah 31:18.) 3) You also must testify to God that you will never return to that sin, as it is written, "...nor shall we say any more to the work of our hands" (Hosea 14:4.) All of these three declarations have to be made out loud.

Rambam outlines three steps that make up repentance in his understanding: resolving never to commit a given misdeed again, feeling remorse for the misdeed, and speaking your intentions of change aloud. Does anything strike you as strange about Rambam's three steps? Because I'll tell you what jumps out at me: he places "resolving" before "feeling remorse." This is not, I think, the way we approach most things in modern life. We're big on feelings. Someone who does something without feeling it, in today's world, is liable to be charged with hypocrisy.

But in Judaism, doing often comes before feeling. In teshuvah, as in most things, the idea is to do the right thing and trust that the emotional underpinnings of the act will come with time. This is a tack we take toward most mitzvot. Take, for instance, lighting Shabbat candles: in the traditional understanding, one doesn't wait until one feels called to the act of lighting candles. One lights the candles each week, and over time, feelings arise because of the practice. If we waited until we felt "ready" (to do anything: whether it's a practical act like lighting Shabbat candles or an emotional act like asking someone's forgiveness), we might never act at all.

5:2 Do not even consider... that the Holy Blessed One decrees upon all people at the time of their births whether they will be good or bad. This is not so -- every person has the potential to be as righteous as Moses our Teacher, or as wicked as Jeroboam; clever or stupid, merciful or cruel, miserable or noble, or indeed to possess any of the other temperaments. Nobody can force you, decree upon you, or lead you into one of the ways, but you should choose a way out of your own free will... Since it is in your own free will to do evil, it is fitting for you to return in repentance and to leave your evils, for this is also in your free will.

Toying with the idea that maybe your misdeeds aren't your fault because this is how God made you? (Or -- maybe a more contemporary framing -- that the places where you've missed the mark aren't your fault because of your social or financial circumstances, or because you didn't have the opportunities that someone else had?) Don't even think about it, Rambam says: you don't get off the hook that easily.

Okay, here's where I wanted to point to Jessica Rabbit saying "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way." I was all set to argue that she can say that, but we can't, because we're "drawn" with the fundamental ability to make choices, in every moment, about who we are and who we intend to be.

Except, having re-watched the clip, I think what she's really saying is that she isn't bad, she just looks like it. (In other words, she's making an argument about the difference between inside and outside: "don't judge a book by its cover.") Bummer: I'd misremembered the context of the line! Well: it's been a while since 1988, I guess I can be forgiven for that. I'm still amused by the juxtaposition of Maimonides and cartoon rabbits, though, so I'm leaving the clip in the post. If you can articulate other ways in which Jessica Rabbit either recapitulates Maimonides, or stands in distinction to his teachings, be my guest.

The point is, Rambam says we're created with the ability to make our own choices -- and we're also created with the ability to course-correct. Important stuff to keep in mind as we approach the Ten Days of Teshuvah.

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