The inherent contradiction in the Rambam’s concept of Teshuva

Does Teshuva create a new state of consciousness where the desire for sin has been eliminated? Or is the state of Teshuva one of constant struggle?

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Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz,

Rabbi Schertz
Rabbi Schertz
INN: J. Fogel

In the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam describes his understanding of what he calls complete repentence or Teshuva Gemura in the following manner. 
What is complete repentance?  It is a circumstance where a situation occurs to a person who previously in his life transgressed a sin and it is now possible for him to repeat it.  He, however, refrained from doing so and this was because he had repented from the sin and not through fear or lack of ability to do it.  (Hilchot Teshuva, 2:1)

The classic example of this situation has to do with sexual transgression.

. . . One who transgressed sexually with a forbidden woman and after a while found himself secluded with her and still retained his love (or desire) for her and retained his physical ability and was in the same environment where he initially transgressed, but refrained and did not sin, has demonstrated complete repentance. Ibid.

The Rambam then enumerated the specific components necessary for Teshuva.

1. The sinner must abandon the sin,

2. He must totally remove it from his mind or thought pattern,

3. He must resolve that he will never repeat it again, and 4. He must repent or regret that he ever committed the sin in the first place.  (See Hilchot Teshuva, 2:2.)

The Rambam states that u)ltimately, God who knows the innermost thoughts of man would be able to testify that the sinner had truly repented and will never repeat the sin again. (Ibid). 

As we analyze these principles, what first comes to mind is that there is a profound and inherent contradiction between the first and second law of this chapter.  The whole point of the first law in the definition of complete Teshuva is that the sinner must possess the same love or desire for the woman with whom he initially transgressed.  That aspect is the most important part of all the other conditions that are necessary for the ultimate Teshuva.  It is at least as important as his ability or the location of the act.  The focal point of this halakha is that despite the overwhelming desire that the person still has, it is because of his understanding of the nature of Teshuva that he is able to override it. 

The second law, expresses the opposite demand or requirement.  We do not want the sinner to retain any desire for the sin.  Teshuva is not accomplished by confronting or overcoming the desire, but by eliminating any desire for the sin.  This contradiction requires us to analyze philosophically the very nature of Teshuva. 

Does Teshuva create a new state of consciousness where the desire for sin has been eliminated? Or is the state of Teshuva one of constant struggle?  One is always keenly aware of his frailty and his subjection to sinful temptation. He must thus always retain his consciousness of Teshuva and the constant role that it plays in his life. It is only his consciousness of Teshuva that is able to protect him against temptation.  Thus, Teshuva becomes the most crucial of human sensitivities. It enables the intellectual component of the human mind to reign over all other aspects of human behavior, which include passion, emotion and imagination.    

It is this analysis of the interaction of the human struggle between temptation and Teshuva which allows us to explain a difficult passage found later in the laws of Teshuva. 

A person who is in a state of Teshuva should not imagine that he is far removed from the level of the righteous (Tzadikim) due to the sins and transgressions which he had committed.  The matter is not so.  Rather, he is beloved and adored before the creator as though he had never sinned at all.  Not only that, but his reward is great precisely because he tasted the taste of sin and separated himself from it and was able to overpower his desire. Thus, the wise men said, ‘the place upon which repentant people stand even the totally righteous cannot stand.’  That is to say, that their stature is greater than the stature of the others, i.e. those who have never sinned.  That is because they overcame their desires more so than the ones who never sinned.  (Hilchot Teshuva, 7:4, see also Berachot 94b.)

There is only one way to understand this statement.  In the dichotomy between perfect behavior and the struggle between desire and the life of Teshuva, the life of struggle is greater to the Rambam than a life of pure obedience or acquiescence. By definition, the essence of human life must be one of struggle by the various components which define that life. Man is an aggregate of intellect, emotion, passion and desire.  The process of Teshuva directs both his mind and will towards God as the ultimate Good and Truth.  

To reach that Goodness and Truth, one must possess the ability to choose.  Thus, ultimately, it is the act of free choice which defines the humanity of man’s actions.  In the absence of choice, human behavior is either robotic or instinctual.  He becomes either a machine or a beast.  Freedom of choice requires the possibility of opposition between desire and or truth i.e. the life of Teshuva.  Thus, the sinner who repents understands these alternatives and the choice that he has selected to a far greater degree than one who has never faced that choice. In that sense, the act of Teshuva is ultimately the most profound of any human act.