A few weeks ago I was asked on the (Star) Trek Jews list what the Jewish concept of t’shuva means… here is what I wrote for someone who might know very little about Jewish thought and philosophy. I think I would have liked it to have more quotes from sources, TaNaKh, Talmud, and other scholars, and in that way not only be a decent explanation but also more of a model of the kind of scholarship I would prefer to read and follow up on as a beginner. I’m looking for feedback on how to be a better communicator of these concepts, as I understand them.
Literally t’shuva means turning, as in re-turning to a forest path after one accidentally loses sight of it, covered in leaves.
T’shuva is something of a cosmically significant concept within Jewish thought. Cosmically, because the concept of t’shuva is used to answer BIG problems. Classically, t’shuva is a response to the problem of how the world remains despite the presence of evil. Said differently, t’shuva helps explain how we can keep our sanity despite the presence of so much suffering caused by intentional wickedness and callous disregard.
For example, imagine a potter creating a pot at a potter’s wheel. What if the form of the pot began to deviate from the vision of the potter. Well, the potter could just as easily smush the pot and start over again.
Now imagine that the pot is imbued with magical powers. Not only can it hold water, but it can ask for water and pour its own water into other pots — even make new pots! New creatures can grow from the water inside the pot too and also be imbued with some of its power. Now what if the some of these creatures come to abuse their power by withholding water from their fellow creatures, or by sullying it, or by mythologizing that they themselves are the source of and reason for all water being. Well, then the potter can still crush the pot and start over again.
Alternately, there could be some sort of safeguard that can protect this pot and its emergent potlings from being so easily destroyed. The answer is t’shuva — a kind of a safeguard for all relationships, protecting creations from their creators, children from their parents, or lovers from indiscretions. Transgressing beyond healthy boundaries invites danger — t’shuva is a way of returning back to the place of safety by healing relationships. Faith in the fact of t’shuva’s existence as woven into the fabric of creation becomes both a guarantee that relationships can be healed and a sign that our relationships are founded on an understanding of loving-kindness (ḥesed in Hebrew) rather than the simply the manifestation of “rules” (or in Hebrew, din).
We can try to lead our lives with consideration for others, expressing our empathy beyond ourselves, beyond our kin and ken, even beyond this world into imaginary realms, but when we fail — when we hurt — all is not lost. The dream of my ancestors was a fragile world balanced on the head of a pin, its continued existence depending on our intentions and actions to suffuse the world with loving-kindness. Without t’shuva the world descends into unmitigated anger, despair, and doom.
Given the history of the Jewish people, perhaps it’s already apparent why this concept could be so important in Jewish teachings… both in the mystical and non-mystical school of Judaism, which assumes the world is continually sustained by a Creative Consciousness but also greatly in need of a tikkun or repair/healing. In the non-mystical schools, t’shuva might only describe an ethical responsibility one has in their relationships to be conscious of their transgressions and humble in submitting their ego in a process of repentance towards aggrieved or possibly aggrieved parties, to heal them. In the mystical schools, t’shuva helps to explain how the world can continue to exist despite an apparent fracture between the transcendent unknowable aspect of creation, and the manifest revealed aspect. The consequence of this fracture is itself reflected in the difficulty we experience in always respecting the beauty of creation and our fellow creatures in our actions. (The meaning of each of our lives is thus in the potential for us to take part in this cosmic healing, by being living, compassionate, aware, and creative bridges between these two aspects.)
Practically then, T’shuva becomes an everyday awareness practice: to be conscious of when a relationship might be transgressed or a fellow creature injured callously or by negligence. As a community, Jews are enjoined to do an intense group t’shuva on Yom Kippur, and in traditional Jewish practice begin preparing for that day more than a month in advance by apologizing to their friends, neighbors and through soul searching. As a mythic ritual, Yom Kippur plays out the concept of t’shuva helping to preserve the world despite the vast lack of awareness which radiates suffering across the myriad relationships that take place between all of its manifest creatures.
Any number of classic Ḥasidic texts can provide additional insight although I’m partial to Raphael Patai’s Hebrew Goddess for a more historical account of the evolving narrative of broken relationships in Jewish cosmology. For those already familiar with t’shuva, I would specifically recommend Philip K. Dick’s novel, The Galactic Pot Healer.
“We must move forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.” — “Kang for President” (The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VII)
“On Potters and Potlings (or On turning forward with one’s head turned backwards)” is shared by Aharon N. Varady with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International copyleft license.