By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
Although this is somewhat embarrassing, I have a confession to make. I’m well aware of the Catholic notion of confession; but although I am Jewish, I’m not sure how we Jews do confession over our sins. I’ve never heard of a Jew going to a rabbi to do a confessional, but I’ve also never heard of a Jew doing a confessional without a rabbi. I was thinking about this with Yom Kippur coming up soon. Is there an official process by which Jews repent?
— Robert P.
Did you hear the one about the Jew who married the Catholic? When their child grew up, he would go to confession accompanied by his attorney!
Indeed, we Jews do participate in confession. The Torah tells us that when a person realizes he or she has performed a wrongdoing and wishes to repent, they need to confess the wrongdoing; not to a rabbi, but directly to God.
This doesn’t negate the possibility — or at times the advisability — of discussing a wrongdoing with a rabbi to obtain the Jewish wisdom how to make amends for the misdeed. Especially when a negative act was perpetrated against another person and caused that person monetary, emotional or bodily harm, one needs to make sure proper amends are made in a way that satisfies the Torah’s requirements. In addition, one needs to deliver a heartfelt apology and receive the other person’s forgiveness before seeking amends with the Al-mighty for having transgressed His will. Often one needs the counsel and advice of a rabbi to perform this process properly and sufficiently.
At times a person needs to discuss a wrongdoing with a rabbi in order to “come clean” emotionally and receive the support they need on the path of recovery from that act; then they can develop the inner reservoirs of strength to stay the path and continue to do the right thing. That support doesn’t have to be provided by clergy, but it can come easily when one has developed a good relationship with a rabbi.
All of the above, however, is still not “confession.” In Judaism we only confess our misdeeds directly to God, with no intermediaries.
The Jewish process of repentance, from the Hebrew tshuvah or “return,” is three-fold:
The person recognizes that they have performed a wrongdoing or misdeed, and they feel bad about it because it means the person has betrayed the trust God placed in him or her as a Jew, and has transgressed God’s will. This feeling has many possible levels, depending on the spiritual state one is in. It ranges from simple remorse all the way to deep and profound levels of embarrassment and shame before the Al-mighty. (That doesn’t mean walking around depressed; rather, it’s the feeling one has when dealing with this issue. Otherwise one needs to always be in a state of joy!)
The person resolves and accepts upon themselves not to return to this path or repeat the misdeed. This includes thinking through the precautions or fences one erects to ensure this resolve is taken with true integrity. It also includes making amends to the other party if the misdeed was a wrongdoing toward another human being, as we mentioned above.
The person then turns to God, confesses the wrongdoing and prays for forgiveness and for God’s help in not returning to such actions.
Although this process applies year-round, it is a special mitzvah to perform during the period leading up to, and especially on, the day of Yom Kippur. On that day God is closer to us than any day of the year and is reaching out — awaiting our return, our tshuvah — and ready to embrace us.
May we all return to and receive that loving embrace. Shanah Tovah to you, Robert, and to all the readers!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.