Boy Do We Need Teshuvah Now!

When I was a small boy — 6 or 7 — I became acutely aware that being a Jew made me a member of a tiny minority. I asked my mother why there were so few of us, and her answer was quick: “Judaism’s a hard religion, with lots of rules. When you’re Jewish, it’s not enough to believe, you have to actually do the right thing. Most people don’t want to work that hard.”

As I grew older, I discovered another reason for a scant Jewish presence in the world: persecution. Demographers have estimated that without the carnage inflicted by the Crusades and the Holocaust and centuries of pogroms, there’d be about 100 million of us.

But when it comes to one major cause of a diminished Jewish presence, assimilation, I do believe my mother was right. Being authentically Jewish is tough. It’s also part of what makes Judaism vibrant and meaningful.

I was reminded of this several years ago, when my youngest daughter brought home a study packet from school centered around the month of Elul and the concept of teshuvah — repentance, or literally, return. This fourth-grade material listed the elements of self-improvement elegantly and succinctly:

1 — Feel bad about what you did.

2 — Stop doing it.

3 — Admit you did it out loud.

4 — Decide not to do it again.

The quartet pertains only to sins committed against God. When one transgresses against another human being, a fifth stage is added: Beg forgiveness from your victim and, if not met with immediate assent, persist at least three times.

Repentance the Jewish way is tough love at its finest, a perfect road map for self-improvement grounded in a profound understanding of psychology. Yes, it involves guilt and much has been made of “Jewish guilt.” But that’s just one more bad rap against our religion perpetrated by self-hating individuals who’ve tried to reduce 3,000 years of proud, Jewish legacy to a loathsome whine.

“I’ve been crippled by Jewish guilt,” goes the chant, “therefore I can’t move forward.”

But the old joke — “How many shrinks does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one, but the bulb has to want to change” — is true. And healthy guilt — honest, heartfelt regret over doing the wrong thing coupled with the courage to effect behavioral change — can be a wonderful, empowering emotion.

Back when I worked as a child psychologist, I was clear about distinguishing my role from that of other doctors when I met new patients. “They do stuff to you,” I explained. “I work with you.”

My patients appreciated that, none more than the seriously ill kids I treated at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles. These were youngsters with cancer and diabetes and birth defects and cystic fibrosis who’d been poked and probed and cut open and irradiated for much of their young lives, and craved a sense of control over their destinies.

Years later, as a cancer patient myself, I appreciated this on a whole new level. But even my physically well patients grasped the notion of being respected as volitional beings, and they reveled in confronting their maladaptive habits and learning new ways to cope. One of the many joys of my years as a psychologist was establishing partnerships with thousands of kids, guiding them toward insight and helping them help themselves.

Yes, the bulb has to want to change, but when it does, it shines brighter than ever.

Teshuvah is tough, but boy, do we need it now. Because repentance in the short attention-span, sound-bite-driven zeitgeist of the 21st century has devolved to smarmy, self-serving, spin.

And pseudorepentance — talk show repentance, public relations repentance, politician’s repentance — is worse than no repentance at all, because it consoles the wrongdoer, teaches him he’s gotten away with it and fuels further bad behavior.

Teshuvah raises the probability of improvement. Spin-doctored recitations virtually guarantee the repetition of sin.

In a teshuvah-driven world, Austria would stop trying to convince the world that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler was German, and France would shudder at offering moral lessons to anyone.

In a teshuvah-driven world, countries like Switzerland and Sweden who maintained a noxious neutrality during World War II, and profited from it to the tune of billions of dollars, would be scrambling among themselves to return the filthy lucre to its rightful owners and would cast aside their postures of staggering self-righteousness.

A healthy dose of teshuvah would cause self-styled “progressives” to remember the transgressions of their philosophical forbears, when the left refused to condemn Hitler as long as the Nazi leader aligned himself with Stalin, only to relent when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. The same goes for the spawn of those religious leaders who turned a blind eye to the extermination of millions, while inveighing against the establishment of the State of Israel.

Today, the philosophical spawn of both groups have chosen to forsake the only democracy in the Middle East and to align themselves with corrupt, thuggish Arab dictators, obsessing upon Israeli misdeeds, while maintaining a good German silence when Jewish babies are shredded to death in Jerusalem pizza parlors.

The failure to do teshuvah leads to the horrible confirmation of Santayana’s warning, quoted so often that it’s become a cliche, but no less valid for that: Forget the past and you’re condemned to repeat it.

Teshuvah is hard. Being Jewish is hard. But what holds true for muscle, applies to the human spirit: no gain without pain.

So perhaps there’ll never be a lot of us, and maybe that’s good — quality over quantity.

We Jews must adopt a dual approach: Never forget what has been done to us, never allow the world to forget and never cease to defend ourselves with power and vigilance. At the same time, we need to look deep within our own souls, taking a no-excuses approach to our own shortcomings, and working harder at self-improvement.

Teshuvah’s good stuff. We Jews need more of it.

So does the world.

Jonathan Kellerman is the author of 24 novels, five nonfiction books and numerous essays and scientific articles. He is clinical professor of pediatrics and psychology at USC School of Medicine. His current novel is “Twisted” (Ballantine.) His novel, “Gone”, will be published in April.