I was raised in a secular environment and want to “do teshuva”. Maybe not all at once, but I want to start changing my ways and start observing Judaism more. However, I’ve heard that to be forgiven for my past I need to regret what I’ve done. But I find it really hard to regret what I did, since I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong at the time. So, can I still do teshuva without “regret”?
Great question. However, I think you are being too hard on yourself. The mere fact that you want to change your ways, and return to observe the pleasant ways of the Torah, shows that you regret your previous way of life. Your desire to be a different way now is a clear indication that you regret at least certain parts of your past.
I was taught this idea by Rabbi Moshe Shapira, who explained that a Jew who has abandoned his secular lifestyle and has accepted the Torah and mitzvot has shown a ‘de facto’ regret for his past transgressions. The very act of return to Judaism is a fulfillment of the requirement of “regret”.
Rabbi Shapira also explained that despite a person’s innocence with regard to transgression he should nevertheless regret his lost opportunities to fulfill the precepts of the Torah. A person who had a lottery ticket and lost it would certainly feel regret upon discovering that his ticket had the winning number, despite the fact that his loss was not necessarily the result of negligence. If the person however, was negligent, then merely regretting the loss without taking responsibility for his negligence would be insufficient.
Another approach is based on teachings of Rabbeinu Yonah (Gates of Repentance 1:19). He explains that if a person confesses to his sins before God it may be assumed that this confession also includes regret. He explains a verse in Proverbs (28:13) based on this idea. The verse reads, “He who admits and abandons sin will be shown mercy”. Rabbeinu Yonah asks, “Although there are three fundamentals of teshuva; regret, confession and abandonment of sin, why does the verse only mention only two fundamentals: confession and abandonment of sin?” He answers that, “Both regret and confession are contained in the expression “admits”, because one who confesses also regrets…”
A student once said to his Rabbi, “I am incapable of feeling regret for sins that I have transgressed in the past.” The Rabbi asked him, “Do you regret that you don’t feel regret?” The student responded, “Yes, I do feel bad about that.” The Rabbi replied, “You have fulfilled the requirement of ‘regret’” (Heard from Rabbi Yerucham Uziel Milevsky).
I have also heard from Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb that according to the Ari Zal, if a person “desires to desire” closeness to God, even up to thirteen levels of desire, this is accepted by God as sufficient to merit Divine assistance in reaching that final level of closeness to God.
So you see that there is not necessarily only one way to feel and show regret for past transgressions. I wish you much happiness and success in your new path — and may you have no more regrets!