Is Confession a Jewish Thing?
I distinctly remember when the idea first hit home. I was sitting at my dining-room table listening to a recording of a talk I had recently given. Boy, did I get self-conscious. For the first time in my life I was able to hear myself lecture. For once, I was hearing what the audience heard. It’s weird, observing oneself from the outside, and frankly, it can get downright disconcerting.
I found myself judging the speaker as I do any other speaker, even more severely. “Did I really say that?” I caught myself wondering. Somehow it had sounded different when I said it in my mind.
I went red a few times and even winced once. It turns out that listening to me tell a joke was not nearly as enjoyable as I’d always imagined it to be. When I found myself laughing at my quips to be polite, I knew it was time to turn me off.
Confession is as Jewish as the Bible is (i.e., very Jewish).
One thing that has always puzzled me about vidui (Jewish confession) is that this final step in the process of teshuvah—and a positive mitzvah unto itself!—seems meaningless.
What’s the point of vocalizing our thoughts of remorse to G‑d? Aren’t the thoughts and feelings deep within the recesses of our minds and hearts revealed before G‑d like an open book?
But what if the purpose of confession is not for G‑d’s sake, but for our own?
There are three ways to understand the function of Jewish confession.
The first is that it serves merely as a declaration of one’s feelings of repentance. We take our thoughts more seriously when they are spoken. At that point they have passed our internal security system—the filter that healthy humans put in place to screen words and sentences before they become sounds—and have been allowed entry into oral territory, where they are less retractable.
The second way to understand the function of vidui is that it serves not only to reveal or reinforce our inner thoughts, but to intensify them; for when spoken, human emotions run faster and thicker.
(It is this fact that underlies Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber of Lubavitch’srevolutionary tip for anger management: Keep silent, he advised. The spoken word adds fuels to the fire of feeling, negative or positive. Venting to a friend in the heat of anger exacerbates, rather than eliminates, negative feelings. Out of sound is out of heart.)
So in this view, a verbal confession functions not just to transport thoughts of remorse from within to without, but also to deepen those thoughts.
The third perspective is most intriguing.
Close analysis of a passage in the Sefer HaChinuch (authored by an anonymous 13th-century scholar) reveals that, in his view, vidui doesn’t just serve to express or intensify existent thoughts, but it is also a means ofcreating feelings of remorse when they are sadly nonexistent.
In his words: “Furthermore, through mentioning the sin specifically, he will feel remorseful about it.”
But how does that work?
If introspection didn’t yield remorse, how will paying lip service help?
And here’s where attending my own lecture comes in. Upon reflection, it was then that I got the concept of vidui loud and clear. It struck me that no matter how critical or “objective” we try to be of ourselves, we are blinded by self-love which, according to King Solomon, “prevents us from seeing our shortcomings.”
In other words, we go about life viewing ourselves from the inside. Through speaking out our shortcomings in vidui, however, we step into the mind (and ears) of an outsider, and only then does the severity and foolishness of our deeds hit us like a ton of bricks.
“Did I really think/say/do that?” we may wonder. “How could I have fallen so low?”
It’s like looking back at a hurtful text we sent someone a week earlier in the heat of an angry exchange. It doesn’t make sense anymore. It was harsh, petty and pointless. It’s like viewing a video of ourselves acting distastefully, or reviewing our dropdown history on the computer after wandering too far. Those are all virtual viduis.
And that’s the point of Jewish confession. It’s not spoken for G‑d to hear, and it’s not spoken to the next person for him to absolve; it is, rather, an acknowledgement to ourselves about ourselves—that sadly we lost our way, slipped into a blind spot with our judgment clouded over by a passing “spirit of folly.” But luckily, with G‑d’s help, we merited a moment of clarity just in time.
However, vidui is not a process of leaving our true and subjective selves by donning an outsider’s objective perspective; it’s the process of leaving the subjective outsider that managed to get inside us and donning the objective perspective of our true inner selves.
In sum, the power and beauty of vidui is not that we shame ourselves before others, but that we shame the migrant “other” (evil inclination) before our true selves.
P.S. On the topic of creating feelings through speech: this doesn’t only apply to feelings of remorse. It happens that we refrain from saying nice or loving things to others because we “don’t feel it,” and heaven forbid us from saying “in vain” things that make others feel good or loved. So if you suffer from this ailment of repressed feelings or misplaced sentiments of piety, try the following exercise: Just say it! Say those nice things that you would love to be feeling, and in time, you will find yourself feeling them.
Inspired by Likkutei Sichos, vol. 27, p. 207.