On Being with Krista Tippett

Louis Newman

The Refreshing Practice of Repentance

Last Updated

September 17, 2015

Original Air Date

September 17, 2014

The High Holy Days create an annual ritual of repentance, both individual and collective. Louis Newman, who has explored repentance as an ethicist and a person in recovery, opens this up as a refreshing practice for every life, even beyond the lifetime of those to whom we would make amends.

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Louis Newman is an Associate Dean of Carleton College and John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies. He is the author of several books on Jewish ethics and theology, including Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah.


September 17, 2015

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: The language of “repentance” comes up unexpectedly in conversations I have about work we have to do in public, like racial healing. As a teacher to college students and a person in recovery, Louis Newman explores repentance as a refreshing practice, the stuff of our ordinary lives — even beyond the lifetimes of those we may have wronged. The Jewish High Holy Days, which are now upon us — the new year of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — create an annual ritual of repentance, both individual and collective. The Hebrew word is teshuvah, and this is work that begins in oneself, but does not end there.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

LOUIS NEWMAN: We cannot literally go back in time and undo what we did. And yet, repentance is precisely that process by which we can — in the moral realm, if not in the physical realm — we can go back to the deed, we can find that part of ourselves that led to doing the transgression, and reform ourselves. I find that inspiring, to think that we are not in bondage to even our most grievous mistakes.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

MS. TIPPETT: Louis Newman is Associate Dean of Carleton College in Minnesota and a professor of religious studies there. He is the author of several books on Jewish ethics and theology, including Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah.

MS. TIPPETT: So I would like to start where I always start — how you would describe the spiritual background of your life, of your childhood?

DR. NEWMAN: Well, I would say that I grew up here in St. Paul in a family that was very deeply Jewish. My parents were both leaders in the Jewish community in a variety of ways. I grew up in a home in which Jewish affairs and issues of Jewish life were just kind of dinner table conversation all the time. So that was kind of in the air. And then they felt that it was important for me to get a strong Jewish education, which my mother had, but my father hadn’t. He’d grown up in a small town in Brainerd, in Northern Minnesota.


DR. NEWMAN: And so they sent me to a Jewish afternoon school. And unlike most kids who sort of drop out after their bar or bat mitzvah age, I continued because I actually enjoyed it, and I liked studying, and I found the material interesting. And after I got to the end of high school, I decided I wanted to keep studying in college. So I took Hebrew…


DR. NEWMAN: …more Hebrew in college and so on. And so it just sort of became a very important part of my educational life.

MS. TIPPETT: But you’re not a rabbi, are you?

DR. NEWMAN: I’m not a rabbi.

MS. TIPPETT: So you…


MS. TIPPETT: …so your interest was in delving into the theology as an academic rather than a spiritual leader.

DR. NEWMAN: That’s right. And then I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve kind of come around through my own development to sort of explore the personal relevance of this material to me. And my academic life and my personal life are more and more intertwined the older I get, I guess.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I just want to mention one other thing. When you — in your writing, you talk about, in your childhood, that you were kind of a model child and that everyone told you that. And it seems to me that that came with a certain spiritual pressure, almost kind of — it was a complicated thing that created some distortions for you. And I just wondered if you would even — to me that also kind of belonged to that background through which you’ve emerged.

DR. NEWMAN: Absolutely. And it was only later on, I suppose, through some years of therapy, that I came to realize that I was proud of myself when I was a kid that my parents always thought I was — I could sort of do no wrong.


DR. NEWMAN: And then I began to realize, as I got older, that was really a double-edged sword. And that the other side of that was I could never admit to myself that I’d done something wrong. I had to figure out some way to hide it, or run from it, or make it better immediately. And so I became more and more prone, I think, to wanting to claim only the best parts of myself. And that leads me, of course, into the subject of…

MS. TIPPETT: It does. It leads right…

DR. NEWMAN: …repentance. I became aware that, you know, there’s work to do here.


DR. NEWMAN: And there’s a kind of a wholeness that’s missing when you try to live your life always in that place of perfection or striving…


DR. NEWMAN: …for perfection.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And so you wrote this book on repentance a few years ago and it’s been sitting in my office all this time, and I don’t know, I can’t explain the mysterious ways by which we finally get to something. But I think repentance is such a — both the idea and the notion so important — but one of the things you point out is that repentance is connected to the language and the notion of sin. And it’s often used in conjunction with forgiveness, and often, as you say, kind of confused with forgiveness. And one of the things that you point out that feels important to me is you say in Christianity of course it’s a very complicated notion in theology and sacred texts. But it’s often connected in kind of a surface way with death and kind of with condemnation. So I wonder if you’d just talk a little bit about kind of separating out repentance from sin and forgiveness, the way these things get talked about culturally.

DR. NEWMAN: Sure. This is obviously a very rich topic and…


DR. NEWMAN: …we could spend a long time on it. We could spend a long time on…

MS. TIPPETT: I know. And I’m…

DR. NEWMAN: ..sin, altogether…

MS. TIPPETT: So let’s not — we can’t stay here too long, but, let’s start there.

DR. NEWMAN: Of course.

MS. TIPPETT: Because it feels important to me.

DR. NEWMAN: Of course.


DR. NEWMAN: And this is a very loaded notion.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And it’s actually not very — it doesn’t ring very — it doesn’t work very well in modern ears, I think.

DR. NEWMAN: I think that’s right.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. NEWMAN: And that’s why I begin by saying that while there are obviously many different strains within every religious tradition. Much of what Judaism teaches about sin is that it’s a kind of — it’s more like an illness than it is like death. And of course sometimes illnesses can be life-threatening, but many times they’re not. And so you can be healed. There’s a lot of talk about forgiveness and repentance as a form of healing. And it’s a sense of there’s something wrong that needs attention, but it’s not something that’s necessarily my undoing. If only I bring my proper attention to it and turn away from the path that I’m on toward a different path.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. NEWMAN: A path of wholeness and integrity. And so in a certain way I think, it does seem to me that Christian writers very much more often talk about sin as a kind of — it’s innate in our nature.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. NEWMAN: And Jewish writers tend to talk about sin as though — though that notion is also present in Judaism —


DR. NEWMAN: They tend to talk about sin much more as missing the mark. It’s a mistake. It could be a very serious mistake, but it’s a mistake. And a mistake can be atoned for, and it can be undone.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I mean, here’s something you wrote that — I really like this. “Sin is about pretending that something is true when in fact it is not. Idolatry is pretending that something is divine and worthy of our devotion when in fact it is not.” And then you wrote “repentance is all about choosing truth over deception.”

DR. NEWMAN: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: I really like that.

DR. NEWMAN: Oh, thank you. Yeah. No, I think repentance really is about coming to terms with who we really are. And that’s true in a couple of a senses. It’s true both in terms of claiming our own mistakes, not running from them, not hiding them, but actually claiming them. Knowing that they’re true and owning them. And also owning the fact that deep down, our core essence is ultimately good.

God created us with a pure soul, our tradition teaches. And in that sense, doing repentance, doing teshuvah, is about returning to the purity and wholeness that’s kind of your original nature that you’ve strayed from. And in that sense, too, it’s about honesty and truthfulness. It’s about being true to who we really are, ultimately.

MS. TIPPETT: So, let’s talk about the word, because language and words and letters in Hebrew are so important.

DR. NEWMAN: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: And we can — they’re barely — this isn’t transparent to people reading the Bible who don’t know Hebrew and it’s very metaphorical and visual, and the exact translation of teshuvah would be turning, returning, responding. Talk about that word and the different metaphors that it suggests, and how those add up to a definition.

DR. NEWMAN: Right. No, I think it is very important. And in Hebrew, there are sort of root words, and the root word of teshuvah — or “chu-VA,” as people would typically say it…


DR. NEWMAN: …in Anglicized form — is that it is about turning. So turning away from the path you’ve been on, back toward a loftier goal, back toward our true selves, back toward God, back toward a righteous life. So it’s a kind of shifting orientation, so really turning your attention somewhere else. It’s also about returning. And in that sense, returning to one’s true nature. As I said a minute ago, that sense of coming back to who we really most deeply are and were meant to be. And turning, of course, to God. And finally, it has that sense of responding.

Teshuvah, in another sense, means a response, and an answer in modern Hebrew. And in that sense, it’s really about as if there’s a call coming out to us all the time, inviting us to repent. In fact, the tradition talks about this. There’s a voice always coming from Mount Sinai inviting us to return. And that sense of responding to an ongoing call that’s there, whether we’re listening to it or not, is very much a part of what we mean by repentance.

[music: “Today Is OK” by múm]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today exploring the meaning of repentance in ordinary time and across the span of our lives, with Jewish ethicist Louis Newman.

[music: “Today Is OK” by múm]

MS. TIPPETT: I remember when I studied the Hebrew Bible — and this was 20 years ago now — my professor talking about how visual the word is — and tell me if this is right, if I’m remembering this right.

DR. NEWMAN: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: That it was literally like — it had this image of literally stopping in your tracks and turning in another direction. That it was a very physical image.

DR. NEWMAN: I think that’s right. If you think about this in terms of a 360 degree circle, if you’re headed in one direction and you turn only one degree or two degrees to the right or to the left, over a long period of time — it may be a very slight turn, but over an extended period of time, if you now walk in that direction, you’ll end up in an utterly different place than if you extend that line outward infinitely. And that sense of turning even slightly…


DR. NEWMAN: …it doesn’t have to be a radical, all of a sudden transformation into a new life. It’s actually a very gradual process of recognizing, “you know, I need to pay attention to that particular failing a little bit more, and move in a little different direction.”

MS. TIPPETT: So, what’s the connection again that is linguistic and metaphorical with the creative force of the universe? Was it that repentance was there before the creation?

DR. NEWMAN: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: Right? Somehow…


MS. TIPPETT: …that repentance preceded the creation of the world.

DR. NEWMAN: Right, right.

MS. TIPPETT: Is that something Talmudic?

DR. NEWMAN: It is Talmudic.


DR. NEWMAN: And it’s actually one of the most startling and puzzling of the things that the rabbis say — the ancient rabbis say about repentance. Of all the things that the rabbis list that were created before the world, why is repentance one of them?


DR. NEWMAN: And many interpreters in later eras have explored that theme. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who is most noted an Israeli scholar for his work on the Talmud, actually — but who’s also a very, very profound philosopher — wrote a wonderful essay in which he explored this idea that when we do something wrong, what’s done is done. We cannot literally go back in time and undo what we did. It’s impossible, right? We only move forward, in one direction in time, right?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Yeah.

DR. NEWMAN: So, we can’t actually go back and undo the wrong we did, and yet, repentance is precisely that process by which we can, as it were, morally, in the moral realm — if not in the physical realm, we can undo what we did, because we can go back to the deed, we can examine ourselves, we can make amends for it, we can apologize for it, we can find that part of ourselves that led to doing the transgression, and search inside ourselves and reform ourselves.

And to that extent, it’s as if repentance allows us to breach the laws of causality in a funny way. It has to be created before the physical world because once you’re in the physical world, the laws of causality and the laws of…

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, I see.

DR. NEWMAN: …time marching forward are set. I find that inspiring to think that actually there’s a way in which we are not chained to our past. We are not in bondage to even our most grievous mistakes. We can always find ways of repenting for them.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s something also, I think, that gets at a really core point in your thinking about this that, again, we’re talking about repentance as different from talking about moral obligation or moral condemnation, or moral reckoning, in the way we sometimes talk about sin. But that it is in fact about gaining freedom, gaining moral freedom, as you said. In fact, to create beyond whatever was damaged or flawed or harmful.

DR. NEWMAN: Right. It’s really interesting. It’s a really interesting idea, and one of the things that I came to realize is that in a certain sense when we don’t own our transgressions, when we run from them, which is, after all, the most natural thing to do. “I did something wrong, I cheated someone, I told a lie about something, I took credit for something I shouldn’t have” — whatever it was, however small or large, our immediate instinct, often, is to run away from it. Or to hide it. Or to lie about what we did wrong so that nobody will find out about it or something of that nature.


DR. NEWMAN: And in doing that, we essentially — we’re in bondage to the thing that we’ve done. We’re…


DR. NEWMAN: …we have now essentially let it dictate our next move and the move after that. To do repentance is to be free of that. And ironically, or maybe paradoxically really, it’s when we own — it’s when we run toward our transgressions, rather than away from them, that we actually become free of them. That we actually then can…


DR. NEWMAN: …by owning them and then claiming them and then distancing ourselves from what we have really taken full credit for — only then are we really free of it.

MS. TIPPETT: And you are in recovery.

DR. NEWMAN: I am. I joined a recovery group 14 years ago, and I’ve been going regularly ever since. And it’s a profound experience in a lot of ways, partly because it’s in the context of a very safe space of other people, who are coming to terms with their own failings and their own addictions of various kinds…


DR. NEWMAN: …that you actually have the freedom to say, “I did this. I drank to excess. I did these other things and lied about them. I did all of these things that I’m ashamed of.” And say that out loud, and know that the circle in which you’re sitting is a circle of people who will accept you and support you in your desire to own those things, and repent for them, and become a different kind of person.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. NEWMAN: And in that sense, I think the process of repentance as Judaism describes it is really quite close. The steps might have been in a slightly different order had…


DR. NEWMAN: …a Jewish person written them, but…


DR. NEWMAN: …but that’s a sort of a technicality, really. In fact, the 12-step program really is a program of repentance. It’s a program of spiritual development and moral accountability.

MS. TIPPETT: And you used the language of soul-reckoning as part of your understanding of repentance. So I’d like you to talk about that, but also just how, as you said, the 12 steps might have been in a different order and they might have been phrased somewhat differently if they were written by a rabbi.

DR. NEWMAN: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: But I’m also curious about how the language and the intelligence in the 12 steps has kind of flowed into your theology, your understanding — how that has nuanced and deepened, perhaps, your understanding of the nature of repentance and the kind of stages of repentance.

DR. NEWMAN: That’s interesting. The first step that someone gives in a 12-step group is often a step in which you recount the story of your own addiction and some of the things that you did — whether that’s drug abuse, or other kinds of addictive behaviors. And the ways in which it dragged you down and distorted your relationships, and distorted your sense of self, and filled you with a sense of guilt and shame.

One of the people in my group consistently, time after time, would talk about how much he appreciated hearing this person’s story, because he could see the goodness in this person. And I was really sort of taken aback the first time I heard him do this. It was like, are you kidding? I just heard this person talking about being deceitful and stealing to support his habit, and whatever else he did.


DR. NEWMAN: And yet I realized after hearing him do that a few times that what he heard was the remorse, and the remorse really is the sign of the goodness showing through. It’s that point at which we both really acknowledge and claim and own what we did, and also step back from it and look at it from a bit of a distance and can say, I really don’t want to live that life. And that’s a sign of goodness. That’s a sign of the goodness reasserting itself over against your having fallen into a dysfunctional pattern of behavior. And that’s very much like what Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a famous Hasidic teacher, means when he says that we should always look for the good in others. And that in fact, even in a person who’s virtually completely sinful, he says you should find the very smallest bit of goodness in them. And on that account, you should judge them for their merits. And when you do that, he says — even for the person who’s most sinful — when you see their goodness, you help them repent.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s such a different impulse than we have culturally. I think you say somewhere that we bounce back and forth between a pervasive failure to hold people accountable and an equally powerful obsession with doing so.

DR. NEWMAN: That’s right. That’s right. I think that our culture has actually sort of — got this all wrong, mostly. In the sense that there’s this funny way in which I think repentance is exactly in the middle. It insists that you be held fully accountable and it insists simultaneously that there’s a way back.

[music: “Champagne Downtown” by Halloween, Alaska]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Louis Newman through our website, onbeing.org.

I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[music: “Champagne Downtown” by Halloween, Alaska]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today we’re exploring the refreshing practice of repentance. That’s a word often used in conjunction with sin or forgiveness, but it’s quite a distinct spiritual and practical move. Individual and collective repentance, or teshuvah, is at the heart of the Jewish High Holy Days of Yom Kippur. I’m speaking with Louis Newman, who has worked as a Jewish ethicist at Carleton College, and as a person in recovery, on what repentance means in ordinary lives in ordinary time.

MS. TIPPETT: You talk about it as a lost art. And I think the complexity of it is suggested by what you just said. Because we have a couple of different impulses, and they land on either side of that.

DR. NEWMAN: That’s right. That’s right.

MS. TIPPETT: So, Judaism does this incredible thing, right? The ancient Israelites set aside this day on the calendar.

DR. NEWMAN: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: Of expiation, of the sins of the people. I’ve been — I can be envious at times of these [laughs] — of this kind of ritual, which to me, also — Yom Kippur — like the word repentance, it has this bodily component.

DR. NEWMAN: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s not merely spiritual. Which really reflects an intelligence about the fullness of humanity, which — it’s remarkable that that was in the origins of this ritual 20 centuries ago.

DR. NEWMAN: Right. And from my perspective, I think it’s an acknowledgement that — I mean, in modern terms we might say hitting the reset button.


DR. NEWMAN: There’s a way in which every year we ought to have an opportunity to examine the past, to own what we did, to repent for it, and to start fresh. And of course, it’s closely associated with the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. It comes ten days later. It’s the beginning of the new year.

Now, in ancient times there was a whole ritual, and a goat was slaughtered, and all the rest of the ritual that involved putting the sins of the people onto a scapegoat and sending it off into the wilderness. And a lot of very, very powerful physical rituals that we, of course, no longer observe. But all of that has been turned into a process of public confession, and a process of personal introspection so that those days are really designed to clean us out and that’s…

MS. TIPPETT: Right, that language…

DR. NEWMAN: …that’s very much part of the tradition…

MS. TIPPETT: …of cleansing.

DR. NEWMAN: …of why you wear white on Yom Kippur. Because you want to outwardly try to manifest a sort of sense of purity and freshness and new beginning that you’re striving for internally and spiritually.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m also —I think it’s important that — so there’s also the day after Yom Kippur.

DR. NEWMAN: Yes. Of course.

MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, I think that the ritual of being washed clean is one thing. And then there’s the living it. You wrote something for The Jewish Forward, which is a really interesting magazine.


MS. TIPPETT: So what you’re describing is — yeah, it’s work, right? It’s work that is the work of a lifetime.

DR. NEWMAN: Mm. Indeed.

MS. TIPPETT: But in Judaism, also, there’s this promise that the rewards of repentance are commensurate with the difficulty. And I thought that was so interesting in this article in the Forward. They titled it — I don’t know if this is the title you gave it — “The Thrill of Repentance.” [laughs] Kind of pointing at what you gain.

DR. NEWMAN: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: What you gain…

DR. NEWMAN: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: …by this way of living.

DR. NEWMAN: Right. And it’s true. I think for anyone — and it doesn’t have to be through a 12-step program or any formal program at all, actually — but anyone who’s had that experience of really coming to terms with something that they did wrong, actually apologizing and expressing their remorse to the person that they hurt, and feeling free then of it — that process, which we’ve all experienced at one time or another, is thrilling. It’s cleansing. And it feels as though — sure, it’s hard. Nobody wants to step forward to the person that they’ve harmed and say, “I was really callous and mean and shortsighted when I said or did the thing that I did before.” But when you do it, you find that there’s a liberation in it.


DR. NEWMAN: It’s the joy that comes from feeling as though you’ve overcome the past instead of being enslaved to it.

MS. TIPPETT: You mention briefly in your writing that you once conducted some ethnographic studies of the ethics of professionals.

DR. NEWMAN: I did, through a project I did…

MS. TIPPETT: And I wonder how does that…

DR. NEWMAN: …at University.

MS. TIPPETT: What did you learn? How did that illuminate this reflection you’ve done on repentance and how humanly possible it is, and how it might work in different parts of our lives?

DR. NEWMAN: Right. It’s fascinating. It was a very interesting project through the Poynter Center at Indiana University. I was — this was now quite a number of years ago. I was actually involved in two different phases of that project. And two articles came out of that. One involved looking at the ethics of — it was all about looking at the ethics of professionals…


DR. NEWMAN: …of different kinds. And each person in the group chose a different group of professionals to work with. And once I did this with pediatricians and pediatric specialists. And once I did it with trial court judges. And in both cases, interestingly, I discovered one thing that was quite similar. There is, in the context of professional practice for physicians, the opportunity to acknowledge — again among themselves and in safe spaces — I really made a serious medical mistake here.


DR. NEWMAN: And some patient got worse, or maybe even died as a result. And I need to recognize that and own that, because in order to avoid making that same mistake again, I need to know what I did wrong. And I need to have a safe place in which to do that. And to talk about that. And the trial court judges that I talked to talked about how the power that they wield over the people who appear before them in court is sort of awesome, and that they need to be aware of their own vulnerabilities, prejudices, failings.

They need to know their own blind spots to know that — as one judge put it to me, a very attractive young woman comes before him and he might give her a more lenient sentence than somebody who looks kind of mean and bedraggled, and somebody that he wouldn’t want to associate with. And to know that is to know that you have that vulnerability and to work against it. To be blind to that is precisely to avoid the kind of level of ethics that we expect of professionals and that they expect of themselves. And so that, to me, tied in very closely with this notion of soul-reckoning. That we have to actually know ourselves deeply, that each transgression is an opportunity to go now why did I do that? Why did I speak ill of that person behind their back? Or why did I snap at my spouse? Or scream at my kids, or whatever I might have done on a given day. What was it going on for me that made me do something that I’m now regretting? And to know that about myself is to know where the growing edge of my moral life is. And to be able to then move beyond the behavior of the past. And so, what I learned in talking to these professionals, really, is that they are — whether they call it repentance or not, they are engaged regularly in their own process…


DR. NEWMAN: …of coming to terms with what their own vulnerabilities are. And recognizing that if they don’t do that, they risk some very serious mistakes.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, so clearly, again, this is work. But it’s the work of being alive, being fully alive, maybe. Here’s something you wrote that I want to read. It’s a little bit long, but I think it’s really lovely. You say, “the costs of ignoring the work of repentance” — which I think we do in our public life — “are not easily quantifiable, but the evidence is all around us. We see it in the lives of public figures, politicians, and corporate executives who get caught in some deceitful or fraudulent behavior, and deny it. We see it on daytime television shows where people confess their transgressions before a live audience for their entertainment. Most of all we know it in those quiet moments in our own lives when we recognize that we are not living up to our own moral standards, yet don’t know how to restore our own sense of wholeness and integrity.”

And then you say “the ultimate benefit of doing teshuvah is that it offers us a way to overcome our past precisely because we have confronted and taken full responsibility for it. It enables us to escape the sense of guilt, in some cases even despair with which many of us live. In its place, we come to live with self-acceptance and hope, because we know that moral renewal is always a possibility.”

DR. NEWMAN: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s very beautiful.

DR. NEWMAN: Thank you. It’s striking, as I did this exploration of repentance I was always struck every time I would read something in the paper or watch something on the evening news, but you know, the person…

MS. TIPPETT: There it is.

DR. NEWMAN: …standing in front of the courthouse…


DR. NEWMAN: …and “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it.” This sort of, almost charade that gets played. Because we have this notion that if we put up a good enough front, the world doesn’t have to know what we really did wrong.


DR. NEWMAN: And we’d rather they didn’t know. We’d rather let that remain a secret. And so that’s part of, I think, what makes the work of repentance so incredibly arduous — is you have to be willing to live transparently. At least in the context of a small, say, recovery group, or in the context of your most intimate relationships. You have to let people know you fully and to do that is to make yourself extraordinarily vulnerable.

MS. TIPPETT: So you pose a few hard questions, I think — puzzles, really — that have been much considered, but still remain hard, open questions. And one of them — I’d love to know how you think this through — is, are there transgressions for which repentance is impossible? And if so, why?

DR. NEWMAN: Right. Well, of course, this question invariably comes up when I speak about this…


DR. NEWMAN: …in synagogues and other places where I’ve been invited to talk. And immediately, for many modern Jews, it’s the Holocaust…

MS. TIPPETT: It’s the Holocaust.

DR. NEWMAN: …that’s the first thing…


DR. NEWMAN: …that comes to mind. How can you —


DR. NEWMAN: How can a Nazi repent for the extraordinarily…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, how could that mean anything?

DR. NEWMAN: Right, exactly. And would we even consider such a thing.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. NEWMAN: So, within the tradition you find a couple of different points of view about this. Of course, you find this extraordinary passage in Exodus in the context of talking about Pharaoh, and God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. And what does all that mean? And at some points the rabbis talk about the notion that the person who says, “I’ll sin and repent, I’ll sin and repent” — as if to say, “Eh, this is no big deal. I’ll sin and I can just go on. Yom Kippur comes around all of us…”


DR. NEWMAN: …“I can get a…


DR. NEWMAN: …free ticket.”


DR. NEWMAN: It’s like a get out of jail free card. That person, they say — it’s not possible for that person to repent. And they may mean by that that it’s psychologically impossible for that person to ever really acknowledge, deeply acknowledge and do the work of repentance. They haven’t taken themselves seriously enough yet to actually do this work. And it may be the case that there are people who have sort of become so habituated to sinful behavior and egregious behavior that they really can’t find their way back.

MS. TIPPETT: I think we’ve all known people who’ve integrated harmful behavior towards themselves or others into their sense of self, even into their sense of power. Right?

DR. NEWMAN: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: And we’ve all done that at some point. But you — I certainly think I’ve known people who you feel like they’ve gone past the point of no return.

DR. NEWMAN: I do think that that’s a possibility. And at the same time, I want to add, the tradition also wants to say that even though — well, to take the common example — You’ve got to apologize and make restitution to the people you’ve harmed in order to do full repentance. Suppose that person can’t be found? It was somebody that you stumbled across in some situation and you don’t even know their name. You couldn’t even find them if you wanted to. Or suppose it’s a person who has now passed away, and you literally can’t…

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, or…

DR. NEWMAN: …apologize to them.

MS. TIPPETT: Or let’s name that hardest of examples. I mean, what if it’s a Nazi who can’t speak to the six million Jews who died? Or the…

DR. NEWMAN: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: …other millions of people who died.

DR. NEWMAN: Right. Exactly. And interestingly there are these fascinating passages — one from Maimonides in which he’s sort of giving us this whole catalogue of sins for which you can’t achieve full repentance. Supposedly. Because of one of these things there’s a barrier of one sort or another to doing one of the steps of repentance that’s required. And at the very end of the list, paradoxically, he says all of these are impediments to repentance, but if you truly want to repent, the gates of repentance are always open and you can.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

DR. NEWMAN: So, he sort of wants to have it both ways in a funny sense.


DR. NEWMAN: And I think the tradition wants to walk a fine line because on the one hand, it wants to acknowledge the depths of evil to which humanity is capable of falling. And it wants to say but hope is always there if you genuinely want it. So let’s take the example of the Nazi or of the mass murderer.


DR. NEWMAN: You know, obviously the killings recently in Charleston come to mind.


DR. NEWMAN: It’s just a small example.


DR. NEWMAN: But nonetheless, an extraordinary…

MS. TIPPETT: That young man.

DR. NEWMAN: Right, the young man who walked into the church and killed all those innocent people. And you want to say what could a person possibly do? Well, so imagine for a moment if that person were willing to move into the African American community and devote the rest of his life — and he might have a very long life ahead of him — to working on behalf of the issues that mattered to African Americans. And supporting the church whose lives he destroyed that day, that Sunday.

And if he were genuinely remorseful and spent the rest of his life devoted to undoing the wrong he did as best he could, would we not want to say, well he can’t undo the past — but remember the point is not undoing the past. The point is growing from the past and turning yourself around and demonstrating that you’re genuinely a new person.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. NEWMAN: And I think we could acknowledge that that is a possibility.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, and in the case of Charleston, there’s also this remarkable witness in front of us of the family members of the people who he killed who, that day, decreed — declared that he was still worthy of love.

DR. NEWMAN: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: They actually created an opening.

DR. NEWMAN: That’s right. And that message is — many Jews again think of that all-forgiving God as a kind of a Christian notion and…


DR. NEWMAN: …the God of the Hebrew Bible is the God that wants to hold us accountable.


DR. NEWMAN: But the truth is God both wants to hold us accountable and wants to forgive us.


DR. NEWMAN: And that’s one more of the paradoxes of this work of repentance. If you’re not fully accountable, then you don’t have to do repentance. If you have no way back, then there’s no point to doing repentance. It’s exactly at the point at which you both are fully accountable and fully free to choose a different path that repentance sits. And that’s the balancing act. You have to believe both that you are accountable and that you’re free in order to repent.

[music: “Instrumental 2” by Wes Swing]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today exploring the refreshing practice of repentance — work that begins in oneself but does not end there. Louis Newman has explored this as a Jewish ethicist and as a person in recovery.

[music: “Instrumental 2” by Wes Swing]

MS. TIPPETT: So this also comes close to another very mysterious notion that’s in your writing about repentance — that there is a notion of repenting to the dead.


MS. TIPPETT: Would you talk about that?

DR. NEWMAN: Well, again, the rabbis have this extraordinary idea that if you need to repent to a person who’s died, you’re supposed to go to the grave of that person, and bring with you ten members of the community. And ten members is significant because that’s the minimum quorum for communal prayer…


DR. NEWMAN: …in Jewish tradition. And in the hearing and the witness of those ten people, you apologize to the deceased. And thereby you do repentance. You do teshuvah. And it’s interesting. What I wrote in the book — I’ve never known anybody who’s actually done this — and it sounds remarkable.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Yeah.

DR. NEWMAN: And then one day, in the context of talking to somebody in a synagogue in Palo Alto, they told me the story of somebody who did exactly that — of a woman who had a younger sibling who had been disabled, and then died. And this older sibling felt that she had always been mean and not properly respectful of the needs of her younger sibling. And she felt terribly guilty after her sister died. And she went to the grave with her parents and repented to her now-deceased sibling. And you can imagine the power that that would have.


DR. NEWMAN: To actually know that there’s even then a possibility of trying to make right what you did wrong.

MS. TIPPETT: And I think as you described that you talk about the implications of it. What it implies is that when we harm another person, or when we fail to rise to the occasion, that we somehow damage the community as a whole. That the consequences of our action kind of transcends space and time. I mean, just as our bodies and our psyches hold a lot that transcends space and time.


MS. TIPPETT: You don’t have to talk about it in a mystical way.

DR. NEWMAN: Our sins live on after us, right?


DR. NEWMAN: There’s some sense in which what we did wrong continues to have impact and ripple effects long after we’re not even here to see them any longer.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, you said that “Jews have long-believed that our transgressions against one another have cosmic consequences.” But then there’s also the flip side of that, which is Martin Buber saying, “The wounds of the order of being can be healed in infinitely many other places than those at which they were inflicted.” Which is such a wonderful thing to think about.

DR. NEWMAN: When I came across that passage in Buber’s writing, I was struck by the power of that notion.


DR. NEWMAN: That — so I can’t go back and find the person that I actually harmed, but suppose I could find some other person in like situation and make it up to them. If I can now be more loving and compassionate toward others in ways that I wasn’t on a given occasion with someone else, I can rebalance the scales of justice, so to speak, in the universe by bringing more love and compassion into the world in one place where I took it away in some other.

MS. TIPPETT: And that is a very Jewish notion also, that one — even one good deed starts to tilt the scales. Starts to tilt the scales, starts to tilt those larger scales.

DR. NEWMAN: That’s right. And they talk in the Talmud about — power of repentance is that it brings redemption to the world.


DR. NEWMAN: That each good deed we do, each time we repent, we actually push the world a little closer toward goodness. And a little farther from evil. And in that sense, every act has cosmic significance. It’s like the Arc of the Moral Universe is long but it bends towards justice.


DR. NEWMAN: There’s a sense in which it’s a very long arc, but every little bit that every one of us does moves it a little farther in the right direction — bringing the world closer to the place that God wants it to be.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. And you know, you acknowledge that miracles are out of fashion…


MS. TIPPETT: …but this is what we’re talking about here. There’s mystery to it. There’s an alchemy to it. So as you quote Rabbi Soloveitchik — Rabbi Soloveitchik said, “Repentance cannot be comprehended rationally. It does not really make sense. Even the angels do not understand what repentance is.”

DR. NEWMAN: Right. It’s such a wonderful thing to think — even if you don’t believe in angels, the notion that angels wouldn’t even understand — even angels wouldn’t understand this.


DR. NEWMAN: I end the book there because it strikes me that there is something mysterious in the human spirit. That gets touched in this process of repentance. That is to say, I’ve watched this happen in the lives of other addicts, and recovering people in the circle that I’ve been a part of for these years. And I’ve seen it outside of that circle in others…


DR. NEWMAN: …that a person who may have been habitually one way, at a certain point really does turn their lives around and become a different kind of person. How did that happen? How did they manage to do that? What was it that enabled them to make the changes all of a sudden, or maybe even gradually, at one point in their lives, that they were incapable of making at an earlier point in their lives? It is a kind of a mystery and the notion that I can take my faults and turn them into merits is — makes no sense rationally.


DR. NEWMAN: As I say, it’s like having an accountant tell you that a debit is a credit or something. It doesn’t compute. And yet, in another sense, on a spiritual level, it’s entirely possible that we could take our failings and use them to move our lives forward toward more wholeness and toward more goodness. And when we see that happening, it’s sort of wondrous and mysterious.

MS. TIPPETT: And then, because I like just continuing to assert the paradox — then there’s the mystery of that, of the turn and the return, but there’s something in me that takes delight in this paradox: that redemption then is real, but it also doesn’t mean perfection or moral blamelessness. So there’s an end which is also a beginning. And that life goes on in all its fullness and messiness, though it may be changed.

DR. NEWMAN: That’s right. Because the purpose of this is sort of a burning away of the dross of the human spirit, right? And it’s never done, and yet each time you do it, you know that you have come a little closer to the kind of life that you were meant to live.

MS. TIPPETT: One of the other hard questions that you pose is — it’s not as hard as is there no transgression which cannot be — for which repentance is impossible, but here’s the question: “What is the experience of teshuvah for those who engage in repentance continually throughout their lives?” So, I do want to turn that question at you — and this is something that you’ve been not just practicing in your life as a Jew, but also reflecting on as a scholar in your spiritual life, and as a person in recovery. And as a person who has this ritual of Yom Kippur year in, year out.

So I just wonder, as you’ve moved through your life with all of that, what have you learned that continues to nuance it, and also what have you learned about how to make it more real and more effective?

DR. NEWMAN: Hm. That’s a wonderful question. I’ve learned that it’s hard. It’s never easy. I mean, the path is laid out. The tradition is very clear about how one goes about doing this work. And even if one practices it regularly, it’s still hard. It’s still hard to live in that self-reflective way of knowing always that there’s an opportunity here to grow, and to learn, and to do better. And so I’ve learned that without the support of a network of people around me in my recovery circle, it would be very difficult to do this.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. NEWMAN: It’d be very difficult without that support and simultaneously, without the support of my own religious community, the synagogue that I attend regularly and am very active in. The larger circle of friends with whom I share deeply the things that are happening in my life.

MS. TIPPETT: I want to underline that, because I think that we’ve talked about how hard it is to talk about something like repentance in American culture, and I think something that works against it is that we tend to think of everything being an individual effort. And so one of the things you’re saying is that you sink more deeply into this sacred realization that we aren’t supposed to be alone with this stuff. Anyway, keep going.

DR. NEWMAN: That’s absolutely right.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Yeah.

DR. NEWMAN: I think it is — the work is our own as I said earlier. But the process, the context, is…


DR. NEWMAN: …is a communal one. And, I guess the other thing I’ve learned is that — “the thrill of repentance,” to use that expression…


DR. NEWMAN: …the sense of joy, or you might say in sort of 12-step terminology, in the terminology of the serenity prayer, the sense of serenity that one finds — that I have found when I have felt that I’ve actually done something wrong and then really, truly repented for it. That sense of serenity and calm and peacefulness is among the most wonderful feelings I know. And that’s part of what maybe propels me to keep wanting to do it.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Right.

DR. NEWMAN: Despite how arduous and hard it is, right?

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

DR. NEWMAN: Because there really is a payoff.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. NEWMAN: The payoff really is that I feel cleaner morally. And that’s what makes this work worthwhile. Is that it enables us to repair what’s broken. One of the great things that, again, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said was “if you believe you have the power to ruin it, believe you have the power to fix it.” And I think there’s a proportionality here that the work is really hard, but the benefit is really remarkable. And I think those are the two things I’ve learned from both my personal work and my scholarly work. And even the work that I’ve done in the context of my own Jewish community where in various leadership roles I’ve had opportunities to work with a lot of people and watch all sorts of relationships go bad, and then work with people to help try to make up for what got off track. And doing that and watching that happen, there is a kind of miraculous quality to it.


DR. NEWMAN: And you feel like you’re witnessing something really extraordinary when that happens.

[music: “Your Panopticon” by Codes in the Clouds]

MS. TIPPETT: Louis Newman is Associate Dean of Carleton College and the John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies. He is the author of several books on Jewish ethics and theology, including Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah.

[music: “Your Panopticon” by Codes in the Clouds]

MS. TIPPETT: At onbeing.org, you can sign up for a weekly email from us, a Letter from Loring Park. In your inbox every Saturday morning – a curated list of the best of what we are reading and publishing, including writings by our weekly columnists: Parker Palmer, Omid Safi, Sharon Salzberg, and Courtney Martin. This week, read Courtney’s column on “The Art of Daily Ritual.” Find the blog and sign up for your Letter from Loring Park on any page at onbeing.org.”

[music: “Three Sides of a Coin” by El Ten Eleven]

MS. TIPPETT: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Nicki Oster, Michelle Keeley, Maia Tarrell, Annie Parsons, Tony Birleffi, Marie Sambilay, and Hannah Rehak.

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