Saturday 30 April 2022

380) Appropriating penitence?



This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Talya Fishman,[1] explores the origins of the extreme teshuvah, or penitential practices of the Chassidei Ashkenaz (also known as the German=Ashkenaz Pietists). This intensely ascetic, pietist and mystical movement was founded by R. Yehuda HeChassid and flourished in Germany and France during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Were some of their self-punishing penitential practices appropriated from the surrounding Christian culture or were they purely of Jewish origin - or somewhere in between?

Origins of the extreme forms of German pietism

The question regarding the origins of some of the extreme forms of repentance practices has been the subject of much scholarly debate. Yitzhak Baer (1888–1980) and Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) have maintained that these practices were absorbed from similar practices within the Christian communities, including German folk traditions – while, more recently, most other scholars have argued that they stemmed from penitential traditions within Judaism itself.

Fishman’s research, however, tends to be more inclined towards the older views that some influence from Christianity is evident in the penitential practices of Chassidei Ashkenaz.

Arguments for and against the Jewish origins of strict pietist practices

One does not need to go far to find extreme pietist penitential practices within Judaism. Tannaic sources (from the Mishna period 10-210 CE) frequently deal with ascetism involving strict abstinence and self-punishment.

Fishman explains two different tannaic motivations for such teshuvah practices:

some [were] motivated by the impulse to atone and others by the desire to prophylactically stave off future calamity (1999:202).

In other words, one motivational impulse was genuinely concerned with repentance for a misdeed, while the other was to mystically prevent, or protect from, some further ramification resulting from the misdeed, arising again sometime in the future.

Ephraim Urbach[2] (apparently in support of Baer) argues that we should not regard these earlier mishnaic penitence practices as being particularly Jewish in origin because they were more in natural response to historical events such as the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE and the persecutions that followed. On this view, these practices cannot be regarded as Jewish “vestiges of ancient ascetic teachings”. Furthermore, there was a rabbinic attempt to curb some of the more extreme of these practices.

A radical example of some of the practices of Chassidei Ashkenaz was to drag the dead bodies through the streets before burial believing they were saving the souls from punishment in the afterlife.

Sefer Chassidim claims its ancient roots in earlier traditions

A key work of Chassidei Ashkenaz was their Sefer Chassidim. In this work are examples and tales designed to guide the penitent through the process of teshuvah. Fishman points out that it goes to great effort to show the ancient Jewish origins of its recommended practices of self-mortification. Baer shows how Chassidei Ashkenaz moulded itself on the Chassidim Rishonim (early pietists), which earlier rabbinic sources often referred to. The Chassidei Ashkenaz, therefore, were very conscious of creating this link with the past to show the authenticity and provenance of their pietist teachings.

So, for example, Sefer Chassidim ties to link its notion of “voluntary exile” - where the penitent leaves his home and family and wanders the world alone – to the biblical source of the wanderings of Cain. It also links to some rabbinic stories concerning the atonement of Judah and speaks about the atonement of the Talmudic sage, Nachum Gamzu. The latter, once delayed giving food and drink to a poor man by a short time while he first unloaded his waggon. In the interim the poor man died. The Talmud records Nachum’s words:

I went and fell upon his face and said: May my eyes, which had no compassion on your eyes, be blinded; may my hands, which had no compassion on your hands, be amputated; may my legs, which had no compassion on your legs, be amputated. And my mind did not rest until I said: May my whole body be covered in boils. [Naḥum of Gam Zu prayed that his suffering might atone for his failure.] (b. Ta’anit 21a).

Sefer Chassidim also links to certain rabbinic traditions concerning the penance of Adam who suffered for 130 years by standing in the river Gihon with the waters up to his neck.

These and other rabbinic sources lead many scholars to conclude (contra Baer and Scholem) that Sefer Chassidim was indeed based on earlier Jewish traditions and did not derive from Christian pietist practices.

One interesting attempt at a scholarly compromise is Reuven Bonfil[3] who suggests that some of the ancient rabbinic ascetic practices were preserved by Christian monks, so even if the Chassidei Ashkenaz were influenced by such practices, they still had their origins in Judaism.

Fishman, however, is not happy with this compromise or “bridge hypothesis” because it does not explain why, specifically at that juncture in history (during the 12th and 13th centuries), these severe penitence practices suddenly re-emerged in the writings of Chassidei Ashkenaz. Fishman (1999:204) asks:

Why did these penitential practices assume such popularity in this time and place? ...why were these strands plucked from the richly-woven rabbinic archive suddenly endowed with such prominence and authority?

Fishman continues:

I will argue…for a reopening of the currently unfashionable hypothesis of Christian influence.

Christian influence

While Fishman (1999:205) opts for the hypothesis of Christian influence against the overwhelming opinions that posit an ancient rabbinic provenance, it must be borne in mind that she does not suggest a direct influence but rather a:

dynamic, two-directional, often unwitting interplay of cultural influences in medieval Jewish and Christian societies.

Penitence theology of Chassidei Ashkenaz

a) Teshuvah haBa’ah (also known as Teshuvat haCharata)

One of four methods of teshuvah or penitence, recommended in Sefer Chassidim is Teshuvah baBa’ah.[4] According to the Talmud, penitence is achieved for a sin, if in another set of circumstances, one is confronted by the same temptations – yet one withstands the temptation. In the words of the Talmud, when one is:

with the same woman, at the same time, in the same place.[5]

According to another Talmudic text,[6] R. Chanina and R. Yochanan were walking along the road, and when they came to a fork, they were forced to decide which path to take. One led through a place of idolatry, while the other led through a place of immorality. One sage suggested they take the route through the place of idolatry because the appetite for idolatry had been removed from the world.[7] The other sage (whose opinion is regarded as being the correct one) chose to pass through the site of immorality so as to "defy our inclination and have our reward."

In the Christian world, Robert of Arbrissel (d. 1117), a wandering preacher who worked with both men and women, encouraged a practice called "martyrium," where he would sleep chastely among the women whom he had converted from a life of sin. He wanted to atone for the sins of his youth and established a monastery at Fontevrault.

b) Teshuvat haMishkal and confession

Another unusual form of penitence was that known as Teshuvat haMishkal (repentance equal in measure), and that was to have the most sway on future Jewish attitudes towards repentance. In this method, the penitent was to endure suffering that was equal in degree and duration to the pleasure of the sin. This sometimes called for an arbitrator of sorts to determine the correct and appropriate penance. This position was filled by a chacham (wise man) and later a moreh (advisor). This authority figure required a confession so that he could determine the corresponding ‘tariff’ that was mandated. The parallels between this and the well-known Christian concept of confession is clearly apparent.

Sefer Chassidim advises the moreh to go slowly and gradually through the process, revealing just a few penitential details at a time, lest he overwhelm the penitent. Interestingly, Robert of Flamborough advices the Christian priest to engage in "progressive bargaining" with the penitent for the same reason. Sometimes fasting and charity in place of self-mortification could serve as a ‘tariff’ for the sin.

Contrition over self-mortification

Over time, both within Christianity and Judaism, some of the more painful methods of repentance fell into disuse in favour of a more contemplative approach which only demanded reflection, contrition and regret.

Fishman (1999:211) explains:

While teshuva ha-ba'ah [going back to the same circumstances of the sin][8] may at one point have been regarded as the quintessential penance, it had fallen into official disuse by the early thirteenth century, leaving only the Jewish folk tradition to perpetuate its logic and spirit.

R. Eleazar of Worms, also known as haRokeach (1176-1238) was the last of the leaders of Chassidei Ashkenaz. Already in his time, he discouraged some of these intense penitential practices, particularly teshuva ha ba’ah.[9]

Shame and confession

Gradually other practices, including confession, fell away, and as Fishman (1999:212-3) explains:

Once contrition had come to be recognized as the essence of repentance in both the Christian and the Jewish penitential traditions, it was only natural for the practice of confession to be called into question.

Eventually, it was only Judaism that abandoned confession. This took place within a relatively short period of time because R. Yehuda heChassid had high regard for confession to a chacham, yet his student, R. Eleazar of Worms disbanded this practice, saying:

every man whose heart elevates him to do complete penitence ... might find penance and expiation ... and need not shame himself in coming before a hakham.

Fishman (1999:213) shows that:

[w]ithin the Christian penitential system, shame was seen, technically, as a form of "satisfaction"…

In fact, in 1215, just two years before R. Yehuda heChassid passed away, the Christian body known as the Fourth Lateran Council demanded yearly confession before a priest with the penalty of excommunication if it was not upheld. Fishman continues to show a Jewish contemporary parallel:

[O]ne passage in Sefer Hasidim claims that the very essence of pietism is the experience of shame. Positing an etymological link between the terms "hasid" and "hasida," the text likens the pietist to the white stork, for the hasid's experience of ubiquitous humiliation leaves him perpetually blanching [i.e. pale].

Later Jewish tradition spoke of R. Yehuda heChassid as engaging in theological discussions with bishops (Fishman 1999:215).

Who holds the moral high ground?

Fishman points out to another parallel development within the Christian world at that time:

The flourishing of ascetic Jewish tendencies at this particular time may well be related to the growth and prominence of monasticism in medieval Europe and to the challenge which the monastic religious ideal posed to the Jewish image of moral superiority.

On this view, Judaism took on some very stringent practices at certain points in its history and it did so when the general world had adopted stricter religious and moral practices. We see this occasionally taking place in Babylonia during Talmudic times, where Babylonian women took on certain purity stringencies which were emulated by Jewish women.[10]

Fishman (1999:220) fascinatingly explains other similar instances in history where Jews were also influenced by Christian piety:

[T]he testimonies of two Provencal scholars, R. Jacob Anatoli and R. Menahem HaMeiri, provide ample evidence that some Jews of the thirteenth century found the Christian approach to penance attractive and sought to emulate it. HaMeiri (after conversing with a priest!) explicitly acknowledged that Jewish culture offered inadequate guidance in this aspect of religious life.

In the case of R. Jacob Anatoli, he acknowledges that Jews adopted penitential practices which he clearly labels as being of Christian origin.

The need to root these ideas with the ancient Jewish tradition

It is for reasons such as these that Fishman (1999:221) boldly suggests that Chassidei Ashkenaz made a concerted effort in its literature to root some of their teaching firmly within the Jewish tradition. They had to do this because they were:

far less inclined than their Provencal counterparts to acknowledge Christian influences (let alone to portray them in a positive light as HaMeiri, in effect, did). Hasidei Ashkenaz would have sought to dispel the anxiety of novelty by tracing practices that had surfaced only recently to literary precedents lying dormant in the archive of Jewish traditions.

Recalling Jewish teachings that had been dormant for centuries

Fishman (1999:222) continues relentlessly by informing us of certain ancient Aggadot from Palestine which:

depict the binding of Isaac as having culminated in a consummated sacrifice [!][11]

These had been ignored for centuries until R. Ephraim of Bonn resurrected and “re-appropriated” them at a particular juncture in Jewish history where it was deemed an appropriate and “psychologically and polemically crucial”.[12]

Fishman (1999:222-3) concludes:

In the course of their overarching pursuit of the absolute, Hasidei Ashkenaz unconsciously appropriated the demanding penitential practices, which had gained new visibility in the medieval Rhineland, of their Christian neighbors…they claimed for these practices a hallowed Jewish pedigree and even fused disparate elements from the ancient rabbinic corpus to meet this need.

Impact of Chassidei Ashkenaz

According to Fishman (1999:201):

The greatest impact of Hasidut Ashkenaz on Jewish culture at large has arguably been in the realm of penitential theory and practice.

This powerful “penitential theory” of approaches to teshuvah, has left a legacy which has impacted subsequent generations of Jews, not just in the Ashkenazi but also the Sefaradi communities and persists to some degree to this day.


Fishman has introduced a number of fascinating questions and challenges to the institution of severe penitential practices of Chassidei Ashkenaz, vestiges of which still remained at least in within the psyche of some in more modern times. R. Nachman of Breslov speaks of confessing one’s sins to the Tzadik. We give tzedakah on certain occasions, perhaps not so much out of concern for the poor but sometimes as a spiritual “tariff”.

Of course, there are Jewish roots to these and the other ideas we have discussed, but the question is which of them have fallen into disuse over time. Which rabbis today, for example, would encourage their students to go the route through places of immorality rather than idolatry as per Talmudic times?

In dealing with the question of whether Chassidei Ashkenaz took their severe penitential practices inadvertently or otherwise from the popular Christian culture of their time we have seen some interesting ideas:

If they indeed did take from the surrounding culture, there is the view that some Christian monks may have preserved some of the strict old rabbinic penitential practices – so they were technically still Jewish practices.

On the other hand, there is another view that early mishnaic penitential practices may have simply been natural human responses to the overwhelming calamity of the destruction of the second Temple – and not necessarily Jewish responses (indeed there was rabbinic opposition to some of the more severe practices).

Another approach is the view of Fishman that these practices had been discouraged for later generations, and had fallen into disuse, but with the adoption of monastic penitential practices by the prevailing Christian society, Chassidei Ashkenaz may have appropriated them, and in an attempt at authenticating them, they resurrected many of the older rabbinic practices that had been dormant for centuries. 

The question remains: were the extreme forms of penitence as espoused by Chassidei Ashkenaz, old Jewish practices, new Jewish practices, appropriated Christian practices, or something in between?

[1] Fishman, T., 1999, ‘The Penitential System of Hasidei Ashkenaz and the Problem of Cultural Boundaries’, The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, vol. 8, 201-229.

[2] E. Urbach, E., 1961, ‘Eskesis vi-Yisurim bi-Torat Hazal,’ Sefer Yovel li-Yitzhak Baer, Jerusalem.

[3] R. Bonfil, R., 1987, ‘Beyn Eretz Yisrael li-Bavel,’ Shalem 5.

[4] This is probably a form of teshuva al averah she-ba'ah li-yado, or repentance for a sin that has come up again (at a later time).

[5] b. Yom. 86b and see Sefer Chassidim 43.

[6] b. Avodah Zara 17b.

[7] b. Sanhedrin 64b.

[8] Parenthesis is mine.

[9] Sefer haRokeach, Hilchot Teshuva 1.

[11] Emphasis is mine.

[12] Spiegel, S., 1963, The Last Trial, New York.

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