Of the many wonderful people I met in recent years, one of my favorites is a sweet, wickedly clever and funny rabbi by the name of Michael Paley. In certain circles of liberal Judaism he is very well known, both in the USA and beyond. And it so happens that we frequent the same synagogue on Shabbat mornings.
Last Shabbat it was Paley’s 65th birthday, and he was given the honor of delivering the dvar torah, the commentary on the weekly portion. The talk was beautiful, moving, and at times funny; but one story he told was astounding.
During the lowest point of Bill Clinton’s presidency, when the impeachment proceedings were going on, he invited a number of clergy to meet with him in Cincinnati. Paley was one of the invitees. He told himself: “If I’m going to meet with the President, it’s not just going to be a feel-good photo-op; I’m going to deliver a message!” So he prepared himself thoroughly for that moment.
Clinton was going around and shaking hands with each of the individuals present. When it was Paley’s turn, he said to him what he came prepared to say: “Mr. President, you have to do t’shuvah! This is the time for t’shuvah!”
[For those who don’t know, t’shuvah is a fundamental Jewish concept that is often translated as “repentance,” although, like the Greek metanoia which is also translated that way, it means much more: it means a return—a return to purity or a return to one’s own nature. Repentance is one aspect of it.]
Clinton response to Paley was surprising: “When you say t’shuvah,” he responded, “do you mean it the way Rabbi Soloveitchik was teaching it, or do you mean it the way Rabbi Kook was teaching it?”
That was certainly not what Paley was expecting. For Clinton to even know the names of these two gigantic figures of 20th century Judaism (both were dead by that time) was surprising enough; that he also knew the subtle differences between how they understood t’shuva was another matter altogether. Clinton, at that point, demonstrated that he knew more about Judaism than most modern day Jews!
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Before continuing with the story, let me say a word about the two different approaches, to the extent that I understand them. Rabbi Soloveitchik belonged to a highly regarded dynasty of Lithuanian Jewish scholars, whose Judaism was based upon deep learning, the performance of the commandments, and purifying your middot, your moral attributes. Rabbi Kook, while also great in learning and orthodox in his observance of the commandments (he was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel), was also a mystic, and served as a Chassidic Rebbe (spiritual teacher) for a number of communities throughout Europe before World War 2.
For Soloveitchik, the essence of t’shuvah was that when you are tempted to repeat a transgression that you were in the habit of performing, you master your strength and resist that temptation. T’shuvah for his school of thought meant the constant effort to bettering oneself. For Kook, your essence was already pure, already free of blemishes, since it is a spark of the divine. For Kook, therefore, t’shuvah meant returning to your essential nature, to who you already are—pure, unblemished, a spark of the divine.
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Surprising as it was to hear the President of the United States ask such a fine theological question, Paley, being Paley, did not miss a beat and said: “Rav Kook’s version of t’shuvah, of course!”
“That’s interesting”, answered Clinton. “Most people I spoke to recommended the Soloveitchik approach. Let’s talk.” And when the meeting was over, Paley got to sit with Clinton for a private meeting for 15 minutes explaining to him why, in his eyes, Kook’s approach was more to his liking.
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This is a perfect story for our times. We are approaching Rosh Hashanah, the time of year devoted to t’shuvah. And the question is, which meaning of t’shuvah do we want to embrace in our lives? Is t’shuvah a Sisyphean, uphill battle with one’s evil inclinations? Or is it a return to one’s divine nature? As a meditator and a mystic, I’m inspired by the latter.
I am writing this as a way of wishing everyone a Happy New Year, Shanah Tovah, and that we would all return to finding our true nature: through prayer, through meditation, through creative endeavors—whatever works. Our world desperately needs more of us to engage in this pursuit.
Photo of Rabbi Paley with President Clinton and letter from President Clinton to Rabbi Paley courtesy of Rabbi Paley