Does Teshuvah Work for Everyone?

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by R. Gil Student

I. Teshuvah and Nineveh

Conventional wisdom has it that the book of Yonah is about the power of teshuvah, repentance. But if that is the case, why is teshuvah barely mentioned? Of the book’s four chapters, the first two discuss Yonah’s attempt to avoid his mission. In the third chapter, seven of the ten verses discuss Nineveh’s teshuvah. Then the final chapter is about Yonah’s reaction. Of the book’s 48 verses, seven address teshuvah. Maybe the book has a different theme.

Additionally, and this is quite surprising, the Minchas Chinukh (364:34) quotes an opinion that teshuvah does not work for gentiles. What about Nineveh’s teshuvah? He says he discusses it in his Shabbos Shuvah derashah, which to my knowledge was never published. Even if only a minority opinion, how can we understand the idea that teshuvah works only for Jews?

Rav Menachem Azariah (Rama) of Fano adopts the view that gentiles cannot do teshuvah (Asarah Ma’amaros, Chikur Ha-Din 2:11). He explains that teshuvah is a mitzvah and therefore only applies to Jews who are obligated in the commandments. He continues that the people of Nineveh merited salvation for any of three reasons:
1) There were many innocent people and animals in the city who would have suffered if the guilty were punished.
2) The sinners of Nineveh returned what they stole, thereby undoing the sin to some degree.
3) Their repentance did not clear their sins but merely delayed their punishment.

II. How Does Teshuvah Work?

This last point helps us better understand the nature of teshuvah. There is a debate whether teshuvah represents God’s mercy or judgment. Is it a function of chesed or emes? The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Teshuvah 2:4) says that among the ways of teshuvah is you change your name (or nickname) as if to say, “I am someone else, not the person who did those actions.” To the Rambam, part of the teshuvah process is changing yourself so that your new personality is disassociated from the sins. You have grown and no longer deserve punishment for past actions. In this accounting, teshuvah is emes, justice.

In contrast, Rav Yosef Albo (Sefer Ha-Ikkarim 4:25) argues that teshuvah has no place in justice. You committed the sins and deserve punishment for them. It is only through divine kindness, chesed, that we can erase our past misdeeds. The prophet Hoshea describes it as “erpa meshuvasam, I will heal their repented deeds” (14:5). Teshuvah consists of divine healing of our past that otherwise would require punishment.

If teshuvah is part of divine justice, then that justice should apply equally to all people. God is just and righteous. He would not deny gentiles their fair opportunity to repent. However, if teshuvah is due to divine chesed, then God can apply that kindness unequally. Perhaps that chesed is part of the unique divine relationship with the Jewish people.1

Put into practical terms, if teshuvah is emes, then true teshuvah will always erase past sins. On the other hand, if teshuvah is chesed, then God may respond differently to it. For Jews, with whom there is a covenant that includes teshuvah, God will erase past sins. For others, teshuvah will be treated as an attempt to reach out to God, which can achieve different kinds of responses. For us, teshuvah guarantees atonement. For others, teshuvah might achieve atonement for past sins, great reward for the action itself or something in between.

III. Yonah on Yom Kippur

If the book of Yonah is not about Nineveh’s teshuvah, then why do we read it on Yom Kippur? Perhaps we read it because of Yonah’s teshuvah. He began by running away from his prophetic mission but eventually fulfilled it. Or maybe we read Yonah because it is a story of a man learning that he cannot escape his divine mission, the commandments of God, despite his attempts to flee and undermine it.2 We read Yonah right after we read from the Torah the passage of forbidden relationships (Lev. 18). Even if two people on that list love each other, they must abandon that desire to marry. Love and desire cannot conquer all. Yonah’s message is that our job in this world is to follow our divine mission, no matter how challenging we may find it.

 


  1. The Rama Mi-Fano takes this approach also. See Asarah Ma’amaros, ibid. 1:12,14. 

  2. See Mishnah Berurah 622:8 and Sha’ar Ha-Tziyun 6

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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