Teshuva (Repentance) is fundamentally an internal process, though it requires a formal external expression. An outsider, who cannot know another’s inner feelings, cannot judge the level of sincerity. Yet there are situations where it becomes necessary to make that judgment. When a community leader has acted inappropriately and wants to return to his position of authority on the basis of his having done teshuva, there are criteria to help evaluate whether it is wise to do so.
In the rabbinic world, an authentic baal teshuva (penitent) can regain his position. In the case of Rabbi Shmuel Tal, who heads a network of religious institutions, a rabbinical court ruled on serious accusations against the rabbi and — on the basis of his publicly doing teshuva — allowed him to continue to head his yeshiva and other institutions. His statement to his students appeared on Arutz Sheva (Hebrew).
Examining carefully what he said will give insight to how he understands his obligation to do teshuva publicly.
Tal admits that his claim to have “ruach hakodesh” (Holy Spirit) was a mistake, though he asserts that his intentions were pure. He implies that he still has סיעתא דשמיא (heavenly assistance). The difference is that his positions are no longer guaranteed to be correct.
The actual claim that he manipulated a woman, causing her to divorce her husband, and hurt both of them, was not mentioned, though in sins between person-and-person, reconciliation between the people is a necessary component of teshuva. The fact of expulsion from the community of those who were not loyal to him was also not mentioned.
After the Beit Din (court) ruling was announced, Tal and his yeshiva responded with ecstatic singing and dancing — though the ruling was not, in fact, a vindication. This was not seen as appropriate for one who is doing teshuva for what he had done. Tal explained that since there were accusations that had not been substantiated, they considered the judgement a victory and a vindication.
He ended his talk by putting his being a baal teshuva into context. Namely, that this is a difficult generation where there is no full tzaddik (totally righteous) person. We are all in the category of baalei teshuva. The conclusion is that his leadership continues with his authority intact.
As an outsider to the community, but as one who has been informed that Rabbi Tal’s authority in his community is absolute, a claim of teshuva that does not change the fact that the community’s internal dynamic is questionable.
Maimonides discusses at length the power of teshuva, but he also describes the paths associated with it. It involves serious changes, modifications in one’s style of life. The notion that admitting mistakes, but ignoring damage caused to others, declaring only positive motivations, and that making these mistakes is a reflection of the generation is not consistent with the description of Maimonides. To be fair, Rabbi Tal spoke about accepting responsibility and learning lessons, but he did not speak of sharing authority.
Judging the sincerity of others is neither fair nor wise. Yet when responding to questionable leadership with apparently absolute authority, there is no other option. If acknowledging that asserting ruach hakodesh was a mistake does not lead to a willingness to reduce the level of control over an entire community, then the risk is great. A true baal teshuva minimally has learned to modify his self-confidence in claiming total authority.